Sermon: Holne 17 September, 2017

Genesis 50: 15 – 21
Matthew 18: 21 – 35

To forgive someone is to set that person free and enable them to start their lives again. It sounds simple, it’s certainly desirable, but how do we do it?

When we look back at history we see so many examples of acts of atrocity that have been unresolved and continue to fester generations later. Just look at Northern Ireland, at South Africa, at Israel and Palestine. Look at what is going on in Burma at the present moment. The Ruhingya Muslims have been thrown out of their country, Burma, and many have been killed. The immediate justification is that they have harboured terrorists amongst them, but history shows that the Burmese have always borne a grudge against them and are using this opportunity to get rid of them altogether. Continuing burning hatred against black people in the USA has re-emerged in recent weeks in Charlottesville when a woman was mown down by a white supremacist at a right wing rally in which the marchers declared: ‘You will not replace us’.

In the face of all this iron determination not to change, how can the world ever be at peace? Fortunately there are examples of a different kind of human behaviour than the ones I have given. 23 years ago in Rwanda there was a terrible genocide with fighting between the Tutsis and the Hutus. A young man called Stephen Gahigi lost 52 members of his family and he had to flee to neighbouring Burundi. When he returned he had no family and no home. Eventually he moved past his anger and he entered a Christian seminary. In 1999, after ordination, he began visiting Rihima prison in Bugesera, which was home to thousands of men responsible for the genocide, the men who had wielded the machetes. He met the band of 15 who had killed his sister. He was treated initially with great suspicion. They thought he was a government spy sent to investigate their crimes. Even when they were satisfied he was not a spy they were sceptical about his motives. Why would he come to their prison to preach when he knew what they had done? But one of Gahigi’s messages got through to them. It was possible for perpetrators to be forgiven. In the end he became pastor of the 15 killers. No one would pretend the story ends there, but it would have been the start of a journey back to the light.

How is it possible to find the resources within oneself to forgive?

Nelson Mandela was a remarkable man. Locked up for thirty years on Robben Island for terrorist crimes against the apartheid state of South Africa. When he was eventually released we would be ready to forgive or at least understand if he was embittered towards white people. However, what we found was a statesman of great vision who was able to embrace the need for integration between black and white. In the last chapter of his book, ‘The Long Walk To Freedom’, he writes: ‘It was during the long and lonely years (of my imprisonment) that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed… I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.’

The theme that links our two readings today is forgiveness. In the book of Genesis we have the familiar story of Joseph and his brothers, even if you’ve only seen ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’. If Joseph had vented his spleen and anger and revenge on his mouldy old brothers who had sold him into slavery we would say: ‘Just desserts’. But, like Mandela Joseph had a broader vision. He could see that all he had gone through was in the providence of God. The Lord had preserved Joseph and raised him up to be Pharaoh’s second in command so that he could save his family.

This is not just a human story about the preservation of a group of people, it is God’s story, because the story begins with Joseph’s prophetic dream given by God and fulfilled here. Joseph forgives his brothers because God has already forgiven them. As a commentator has put it: ‘God has included the guilt, the brothers’ evil, in his saving activity; he has preserved for them ‘the great remnant’ and has thus justified them’.

In our very secular world it is easy to forget God, even for Christians, but without God do we not lose that capacity to forgive without which we all remain stuck in the mess we are in? I fell into that trap myself when I was reading the parable of the unmerciful servant. My attention was drawn more to the attitude of the pitiless official who refused to forgive the puny debt he was owed, whilst almost forgetting the amount the king had written off. In typical fashion Jesus makes the amount of debt owed to the king astronomical. In today’s money it would be about a billion pounds, whereas the servant was owed what would have been about a fiver. The debt that is written off for us is found in the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s Son, on the cross. Here Jesus paid the price of our sins. As it says in the book of Isaiah: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.’

The central phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of the Christian, is, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. What activates the prayer is our willingness to forgive others. If we will not do that then you can forget about all the other petitions – they simply won’t work. But as Pope Benedict in his book on Jesus of Nazareth wrote: ‘Forgiveness exacts a price – first of all from the person who forgives’. The forgiver must burn away the evil done to him or her. In turn the forgiven is also involved in the process of transformation and what this brings us to is the mystery of Christ’s Cross. Whether we are the one who forgives or the one who is forgiven we come to share in the suffering of Christ.

It all sounds so terribly hard and something we rather shrink from so let me end with an illustration from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When he taught at Emory College in Atlanta he told his students he only had one sermon to preach. At the end of his time there they presented him with a plaque – ‘This is the Noble (not Nobel) prize for preaching, even if it is only preaching one sermon, because in fact the one sermon that each one of us needs to know is that God loves you’.

You see, if we realise that God loves us we will know that we ought to love one another and that includes all God’s children. As we used to sing as a children’s chorus at Sunday School: ‘Red and yellow, black and white all are precious in his sight’ . It’s an easy step then to forgiving one another.

But the first step is to accept the free gift, the billion pounds that have been written off, and to know, in the words of Paul, ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death’. Thus set free we are released to share God’s forgiveness with others.

Canon Leslie Harman

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