Sermon Pentecost 16A (20th September 2020)

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Phil 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When I worked in the University of Glasgow, every year it was up to each of us to decide whether or not to apply for promotion or an extra increment or whatever we thought we deserved. In short, in order to get on, you had to blow your own trumpet loudly and often.

Applications were filtered by the head of department, who wrote a supportive (or otherwise) statement before passing it on to the relevant committee who ranked them and made awards within the cash limits they had.

I had a colleague who did this every year and was generally successful in getting something – until the head of department changed. Under the new management he didn’t get anything and he wasn’t a happy bunny. You see the new head of department didn’t think that the system was fair – especially for those who worked hard and achieved good results but when required to ‘puff up’ what they’d done, just couldn’t do it. The new boss coached them in ‘selling’ their contribution and insisted they submit an application from time to time.

Well after being knocked back a couple of times, my colleague declared that what was happening was grossly unfair, resigned and took up a job at another University at a lower salary.

I was also knocked back under the new regime and since I wasn’t in the habit of applying, I was rather cross and went to see the head of department and she said (yes in case you hadn’t guessed the old HoD was a man and the new one a woman) “I can see why you’re angry, I would be too, so go on have a good yell at me”. I said “no you tell me why and I’ll decide whether or not to yell”. So she told me that from her perspective, three other people had been deserving of promotion for some time, but not applied and once they’d been dealt with it would be my turn.

I’ll let you figure out whether I yelled or not.

Fairness isn’t an absolute, it depends on both the situation and a person’s perspective. The colleague who left had a very different perspective from the new head of department, those who didn’t apply for promotion and from me – lots of different perspectives.

Today’s readings are all about fairness and perspective. First we have Jonah. Jonah is a prophet and God’s told him that he is going to smite Nineveh and its people unless they mend their ways. Jonah takes great delight in proclaiming this and quite contrary to expectation, they do exactly what they’re told, mend their ways and go around in sackcloth and ashes.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah isn’t happy that they’ve listened to what he’s said and mended their ways, he’s worried that he’s going to look a right idiot, because he’s forecast destruction and it hasn’t happened. From his perspective, he’d rather God sent judgement than mercy, even if it calls into question his skills as a prophet.

In our Gospel, we meet an employer who takes on workers and offers them a fair wage. Three times he decides that he needs more workers and offers them a fair wage too. The first set start at the beginning of the day and the last ones just an hour before evening. The employer pays them all the same wage, starting with those who’ve only worked an hour. The other groups then expect to get more, more than they agreed when they were hired, since after all, they’ve done more work.

Those who started early aren’t complaining that they didn’t get what they were promised and what they agreed to, but that they didn’t get extra because they worked longer, than those taken on later. They’re not happy for those who finally got work later on, but grumpy that these folk get the same wage.

Was is the fault of those who spent most of the day without work? The short answer is we don’t know, but when I hear politicians say that the unemployed are all lazy scroungers, I do become a little uneasy. There may be some that are, but there’ll be many who aren’t and whose lack of work causes them and their families much pain, anxiety and stress.

One thing that the present pandemic has thrown into sharp relief is the many inequalities and unfairnesses in our society.

The Book of Jonah is wonderful in that it tries to get us to understand how God tries to work with us in spite of our resistance! God even provides a shady bush so that Jonah can have a grandstand view of this wonderful transformation of Nineveh, but he just can’t take pleasure from it. Jonah’s in a massive sulk! It’s easy to blame Jonah for being so petty, none of us do that sort of thing do we, not even my ex-colleague? But it’s about putting aside our own concerns, just long enough to see the things that God’s doing, right in front of our noses.

When God tries to reason with Jonah, comparing his suffering to the much worse suffering of many thousands of others, Jonah simply doesn’t want to hear. He’s locked in the perspective of his own misery and self-pity. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s perspective is not our perspective.

Both the parable in the Gospel and the story of Jonah make the same point: they show us our tendency to see the world through the lens of our own self-centredness. We are generally moved by the fate of starving millions or those caught up in hurricanes or earthquakes, or those killed in horrific accidents or terrorist outrages, but if something relatively trivial happens in our own lives, our suffering can eclipse all of theirs.

Our faith urges us to try to love others at least as deeply as we love ourselves, to feel their pain at least as acutely as we feel our own. And it can be done – some of the most truly inspirational (and coincidently happy) people I’ve ever met were people who could escape from their own perspective and empathise with the situation that others have found themselves in.

It’s worth remembering that whatever new restrictions come in over the next week or two, some people will be affected in perhaps life-changing ways, whilst others will be merely irritated – an important distinction for us all to recognise.

Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15A (13th September 2020)

Sermon Matthew 18.21-35

A certain ‘High Church’ parish priest had recently welcomed her new curate and he was spending his first week observing her activities in the parish. On Wednesdays it was the practice of the priest to offer confession to her parishioners and, with the permission of those coming to confess their sins, the curate sat in silence listening to the conversation.

“Mother, forgive me, for I have sinned.” said the first penitent. The priest asked, “What did you do my child?” The man confessed, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers”. The priest asked, “How many times?” and the man replied, “Three”. The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more.”

A few minutes later a woman entered the confessional. She said, “Mother forgive me, for I have sinned.” “What did you do?” asked the priest. “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?”… “Three times”… The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more”.

Now just after that the priest was called away to an emergency, but the curate was sure that he had got the hang of it, and said he would be happy to carry on offering confession.

A few minutes later another woman entered the confessional. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” In his most solemn voice the young curate responded, “What did you do?” The woman replied, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?” asked the curate…. “Once” replied the woman. Thinking carefully about how he had heard the priest respond earlier, the curate said, “Go and do it two more times, we’ve got a special on this week – three for £10!”

My apologies for opening with a rather corny story this week, but it does make you think, doesn’t it? What is confessing sin and forgiveness of those sins all about? Are all sins to be forgiven? Should we keep forgiving sins, even if they are repeated?

“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

For Jesus, forgiveness is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. And if we are to follow Christ then it must become our way as well. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

I suspect that everyone, is in favour of forgiveness, at least in principle.

I love this quote from CS Lewis “Everyone, says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive”.

What do we do then? What do we do when there is something really serious to forgive?

Do we have to forgive the drunk driver? The ‘misleading’ politician?  The racist? The bully? The abusive parent? The greedy corporation? And this weekend, as we recall the atrocious events 19 years ago – even the terrorists of 9/11?

Today we stand at a difficult, seemingly impossible, place. We stand in between the 19th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy just two days ago and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The memories, the images, the anger, the fear, the pain and losses – with all of these things in our hearts, we hear Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true.

The deeper truth is that we would still be standing in the same place even if September 11 had never occurred. We stand at that place every day of our lives.

Reflect on the history of the world, the history of humanity and we see the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, racial discrimination, the slave trade, economic oppression, more recent wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Reflecting on our own lives, we find broken promises, hurt feelings, betrayals, harsh words, physical and emotional wounds. I am sure that every one of us could tell stories of being hurt or victimized by another. Beneath the pain, the wounds, the losses, and the memories lies the question of forgiveness.

Some, quite understandably, will succumb to the natural reaction to strike back – seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the darkness paralyse them.

We don’t say that out of criticism or judgment of anyone, but out of our own experience. I suspect many of us have done them all. We know how hard forgiveness can be. Most of us struggle with it and often avoid it. But we also know that none of those answers are the way of Christ. All of them leave us stuck in the past, tied to the negative effect of the actions of another, and bereft of the future God wants to give us.

Forgiveness is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It does not mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or injustice. It means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life.

God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are intertwined with one another. That is more than apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents was about 3000 years of work at the ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man, this debtor, was forgiven. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how our God is. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. And too often that’s what our world is like. And sometimes it is how each of us can be. In that refusal the forgiven slave loses his own forgiveness.

So how do we begin to forgive?

Well there is no easy road to forgiveness and please don’t let anyone tell you, “Just surrender it to God. Forgive and forget.” Simplistic trite answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound.

Forgiving another takes time and work. It is something we must practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of the crucified one. Hanging between two thieves he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we are to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, and in our church.

Forgiveness does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It was not about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received. Then we choose again, and then again, and then yet again. For most of us forgiveness is a process that we live into.

Sometimes, however, we just can’t. The pain is too much, the wound too raw, the memories too real. On those days we choose to want to forgive. Some days we choose to want to want to forgive. But we choose because that’s the choice Christ made.

How many times must we choose to forgive? Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times you must choose to forgive. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness.

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Amen

May God Bless you and all those you love this coming week.

Fr Simon