Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 14th September 2014
14 September 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
Last Thursday was the anniversary of 9/11 when, in 2001, a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks targeted New York City and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Three thousand people died.
As a result of that atrocity, two women formed a powerful friendship: Phyllis Rodriguez, a secular Jew living in the US, and Aicha el-Wafi, a Moroccan Muslim woman living in France. Rodriguez' son was killed in the World Trade Center attacks; el-Wafi's son Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted of his part in those attacks and is serving a life sentence.
Rodriquez spoke of forgiveness in these terms: 'When Greg was killed I thought, I will never forgive the people who murdered my son, but I have come to see forgiveness as more than a word; it's a context, a process. I don't forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way they have is part of the process of forgiving. Forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible.'
Now to a different time and a different place: the 7 July 2005 London bombings, often referred to as 7/7, were a series of coordinated suicide attacks in central London, which targeted civilians using public transport during the morning rush hour. As well as the four bombers, 52 other people were killed and over 700 more were injured in the attacks.
Twenty-four year old Jenny Nicholson was on the eastbound Circle line when she died. Her mother, Julie Nicholson, made the headlines when she resigned as vicar of St Aidan with St George's in Bristol. She was the vicar who couldn't forgive: the minister who lost her faith.
In a newspaper interview, Nicholson was adamant. She did not want to be defined by forgiveness or non-forgiveness, and went on to add that while the world cannot function without forgiveness, whether within relationships or communities, forgiveness is a greedy word covering everything from playground squabbles to genocide. There are so many layers of meaning that perhaps for her the important meaning is simply the absence of hatred. Could that be Nicholson's greatest achievement: the absence of hate? Maybe asking more of her would be inappropriate. 'I really think,' she says, 'that it is not a mother's place to forgive the killer of her child.'
Yet, is it not a central tenet of our faith that you and I, as Christians, have a duty to forgive?
Or is there a line to be drawn somewhere? That's the essence of Peter's case in this morning's gospel reading, that a line has to be drawn somewhere.
Rabbinic tradition held that you were obligated to forgive a person three times and then the line was drawn. Peter is prepared to go that extra mile and extend forgiveness seven times. Jesus, however, is unimpressed and, in answer to Peter's question, 'how often should I forgive?' points away from all lines and limits, the remembering and the score-keeping. Jesus raises the stakes with a story and effectively moves the goal posts.
A king calls in a debt from a slave who owes him ten thousand talents: an immense sum of money. The slave craves the king's indulgence and undertakes to pay the debt in full: an absurdly unrealistic promise born out of desperation. Yet the King is sufficiently moved by the slave's appeal that he forgives the debt in its entirety. Then comes an astonishing turnabout for that same slave, on leaving the king, comes across a fellow slave who owes him a trifling, paltry sum and the scene is repeated but with a very different outcome. The forgiven slave refuses to exercise that same act of forgiveness which only moments before he had received from the king. Instead, he commits his fellow-slave to prison until the debt is repaid in full.
The message is unequivocal. We are to act towards others as God has acted towards us: an act which involves forgiveness, repentance and love. My question this morning is this: are you and I the sole arbitrators of forgiveness?
When we forgive someone we cancel their debt; we wipe the slate clean; we say the other person owes us nothing. In forgiving, we drop any claim against the wrong-doer.
Jesus taught the importance of forgiveness, but forgiveness has a context and that context includes repentance: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him (Luke 17:3).
Repentance is important both for the victim and the wrong-doer. More crucially, it is a matter for God. God is absolute goodness so those who violate goodness violate God. The relationship between the wrong-doer and God is ruptured and needs healing. The victim cannot heal it by compelling repentance. Healing the relationship can occur only when the wrong-doer becomes aware of the meaning of what has happened and becomes inwardly transformed through genuine sorrow. That is a matter between the wrong-doer and God.
Repentance completes forgiveness.
Unfortunately, the waters become muddied when we confuse forgiveness with Christian love.
Christian love is expressed when I demonstrate my awareness of your individuality, that essence or core of who you are, which makes you unique. For me to be aware of who you are, in such a profound sense, requires me to climb into your skin, to see you as God sees you, to know you as God knows you, and, while on my part it will be an imperfect knowing for I see as through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), it is an awareness which can kindle compassion and fuel Christian love.
So sometimes, when we speak of forgiveness we really mean love: forgiveness as the expression of love toward someone who has wronged us. There is nothing wrong with speaking of forgiveness in this way as long as we recognize that, yes, it does have limits for we cannot compel repentance. While love does not have limits, forgiveness does, for it is provisional, requiring the wrong-doer to repent, to seek a healing of that relationship not only with the one who has been wronged, but with God; to be reconciled with God, perhaps through the sacrament of that name, the sacrament of reconciliation offered here in this Abbey Church.
Remember the words that Jesus spoke from the cross: 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23:34)? Jesus knew the limits of forgiveness. He knew that even he could not free his killers from the consequences of their actions. They had violated goodness and for that they were accountable. Jesus, the man, could not forgive them; only God could do that. To love the unrepentant person means to desire their forgiveness.
As we recall the events of 9/11 and 7/7, let us recognise that while forgiveness does have its limits, Christian love does not: that love which desires the forgiveness of those who have failed us, hurt us, betrayed and abandoned us: yes, and those who terrorise us. All of which begs a question: what about those you and I have failed, hurt, betrayed, abandoned and, if not terrorised, emotionally blackmailed or bullied? What do you and I need to heal in our relationship with God?