27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C, 3 October 2010)

Singing forgiveness songs


Reading:
Psalm 137

The Bible pronounces ‘blessedness’, or happiness, upon a number of people. The Bible says,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…
Blessed are the meek…

Such wonderful and lofty thoughts! But the Bible also says:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Blessed are the meek…Blessed are they who dash your little ones against the rock.

That the Scriptures call ‘happy’ those who kill babies in such a barbaric way is a horrifying thought. And today we said, ‘The word of the Lord—Thanks be to God’. So we need to look at it carefully. What was happening there? How is it the word of the Lord to us?

This psalm was written either during or shortly after the time of the Jewish Exile in Babylon.

There were two or three deportations of people from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon, beginning in 597 BC. They were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538 BC.

So this psalm was written sometime in the 500s BC, the sixth century BC, by someone who had suffered terribly—more than just about anyone here ever has or hopefully ever will.

Can we empathise with this person? Can we appreciate how hard it would be to recover from an experience in which your city and country were laid waste, you were forcibly removed, and you saw children ruthlessly killed and women brutally raped?

It may well be that the psalmist’s own child was bashed to death against the walls of Jerusalem. Listen again to the last verse of the psalm:

Happy shall they be
who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

It may be that the psalmist is looking for ‘an eye for an eye’ to apply here. The psalmist may be saying, ‘My children’s brains were beaten out of them; let yours be treated the same way!’

‘An eye for an eye’ is not our approach; it only serves to keep conflict going—but according the light that the psalmist had, it was the way that resulted in an equal amount of suffering to both sides.

How would I respond in a situation like this? How would you respond? If I had gone through such suffering, I can’t guarantee how I’d react. Part of me would certainly want the people who did it to suffer for what they’d done. Part of me might feel that ‘an eye for an eye’ was looking pretty attractive.

I can’t guarantee that I’d be of a forgiving turn of mind; it’s not always easy to forgive. Two sisters named Mabel and Muriel needed to forgive each other. They shared a house, but they hadn’t spoken in sixty years. Mabel remembered something Muriel had done to hurt her when they were young. Muriel remembered something Mabel had done to hurt her when they were young.

Neither would forgive the other.

Until the time came when Muriel was very ill. The doctor said she may not have long for this world. So she called for Mabel to come to her bedside. Mabel came, cautious and curious.

Muriel said to her sister: ‘Mabel, if I die, I want you to know that everything is forgiven. But Mabel, if I live—then nothing has changed!’

Sometimes, whole groups of people won’t forgive one another for generation after generation. We’re familiar with this in the Middle East. But it happens a little closer to home, too.

There were two villages on the east coast of England, both getting smaller and smaller as people left for the towns and cities. The bishop wanted to amalgamate the two Church of England congregations. But one of the churches flatly refused to even speak to the other.

One day, the bishop found himself at a seminar with the warden of the church that wouldn’t negotiate, so he asked: ‘Tell me the truth—why won’t you talk to the people in the other church?’

The warden looked down to the ground. ‘Well, your Grace, it’s like this. They never told us when the Vikings came!’

How do we forgive when it’s hard? When we’ve suffered unfairly? When someone has harmed us? When that person isn’t even apologetic?

I mentioned a fortnight ago that some years ago, I had great difficulty forgiving a certain person who had done me harm. I can say that I have forgiven him; but it took some considerable time.

Is it just time? Does time heal all wounds? No, it doesn’t. We need to do something with that time.

Psalm 137 gives us a clue: First of all, we need to be as honest as we can about our feelings—honest with God, and honest with ourselves.

We have feelings. The psalmist had feelings: there is grief, anger, the desire for revenge. The psalmist expressed those feelings to God. That is so important. God can take it!

I can think of two difficulties that we can have here.

The first difficulty: we’re too nice. We want to be polite when we talk to God. Friends, God wants us, warts and all. God doesn’t want us to hold back, because God wants our hearts. Read the Psalms!—there are many examples where the psalmist just blurts it all out. If we give our hearts to God, we give everything that is in there. Some of it isn’t pretty. Don’t worry—God loves you anyway. There’s no need to play nice with God. If we do play nice, we’re holding out on God.

The second difficulty particularly applies to some of us: those of us who are male. Men, sometimes we find it hard to name our feelings. We may not have a clue what we’re feeling, it just feels awful. Or dead inside. It may help to sit down with someone supportive who can assist you to name your feelings. That could be someone within the church community, or outside. But men: God knows what you’re feeling, even if you don’t. So whatever else you do, be as honest with God as you know how. You may just want to say to God that you feel like your life’s a mess. God will receive that prayer.

So, that’s the first thing: honesty about our feelings.

The second thing is this: ask yourself, Do I really want to forgive this person? Again, be honest. If you don’t want to forgive this person, can you ask God to give you that desire?

And if you want to forgive the person but can’t, can you ask God to increase your capacity to understand where that person is coming from?

If you’d love to forgive but still can’t, ask God to forgive that person for you. And then ask that God will work in your heart to help you to catch up with him. To help you one day to forgive.

When you forgive someone, do you have to be friends?

Let me take you back to that person whom I had great difficulty forgiving. I can say that I have forgiven him; but I can’t imagine ever having a relationship with him. I wish him no harm; I hope he makes a success of his life. That’s how I know I’ve forgiven him. But I don’t want to be friends; and I suspect the feeling is mutual!

The third thing is this: give yourself time. Forgiving someone may be a process, not a one-off event. You may think you’ve forgiven them, and then it all comes back. Be kind to yourself.

The fourth thing is: remember. Remember that Jesus died for all people, the people we don’t like as well as the people we do. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, and so does God’s mercy. Ask that you may share God’s heart.

So, there are four things:

  • Be honest about your feelings
  • Ask: do I want to forgive this person? Ask God to help you to forgive; or even ask God to forgive for you, and help you to catch up
  • Give yourself time
  • Remember God’s mercy is for all

This doesn’t cover the whole field. In particular, I haven’t spoken about reconciling with a person who has hurt you. That’s because I’ve wanted to limit this sermon to forgiving others. Being reconciled with the other person is a further process; it requires mutual forgiveness and willingness to move forward together. But we can forgive even when there is no chance of reconciliation.

If you find it hard to forgive someone, and I haven’t addressed the problem you have, let’s have a chat about it.

Recall how Psalm 137 ends?

Happy shall they be
who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock…

I don’t think so. But we can understand why the psalmist thought this way. Some of us can perhaps identify with him. But truly happy are those who can go beyond the desire for payback to a place of forgiveness. Happy are they who journey with the Spirit of God to get to that place. Blessed are the forgivers. Amen.

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1 Comment

Filed under church year, RCL, sermon

One response to “27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C, 3 October 2010)

  1. Alan Jones

    Thanks for this sermon Paul, I found it very helpful and practical. It resolved some questions in my mind.

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