Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 17 September 2017.
On Friday night we did not sleep too well owing to a party in the close. At one stage, we opened the front door to observe people leaving the party rather noisily and we treated the revellers to a decibel-assisted observation that it was 5 o’clock in the morning. Neither of us felt very gruntled for the rest of the day, especially as we were then engaged with the Choral Society’s Come and Sing event, rehearsing and performing Brahms’ Deutsche Requiem here in All Saints.
This is pretty trivial and eventually my poor opinion of my fellow human beings wore off. More serious in the stakes of resentment are perhaps the relations between Jew and Arab in the Middle East or possibly more critically the burning desire of N. Korea to obtain the means of destroying all its neighbours – possibly including any within some 10,000 miles. And that incidentally includes us in Glasgow (as well as London).
In the Old Testament, we read of the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea by a pure act of God. Moses may have initiated it but it was God who performed it. The event has been part of the psalmody of Israel ever since, again with a memory of wrongs avenged.
But in the gospel Jesus commands a clear obedience in the area of forgiveness, and tells a story to illustrate the point. The servant with a wholly unrepayable debt was forgiven the debt, and yet was sufficiently mean, callous and selfish to imprison a fellow servant with a trivial and entirely repayable debt.
He did not benefit from mercy a second time. And we are solemnly instructed forgive those who trespass against us with the same urgency with which we hope to be forgiven our own trespasses.
There are some points to be made about forgiveness and especially of forgiving others.
One is that if we are liable to fault in ourselves then we must extend the same courtesy of forgiveness to others that we hope for ourselves – otherwise social life would wholly break down. We would end up not with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a life for an eye and a life for a tooth.
There are societies where it is considered a matter of honour to maintain a grudge against perceived insults, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette explores this theme.
But then it gets far worse when whole lives, families, communities and nations define themselves in terms of their sense of grievance, always expecting that others should recompense them.
To be so twisted with resentment and hatred is to be blinded not only to the good that, even when tainted, is still in other people.
It is to put oneself beyond any benefit or blessing that could come from a healed and honest relationship, and this applies personally, and between communities and nations.
For we do not have to be defined and even crippled by a sense of injustice, no matter how well justified it is. There are stories of incredible reconciliations and for one I would recommend any and all to see the film or read the book of The Train Man. But there are other such stories.
Yet there is something else. Even when the sense of hurt is real and continues to bite: we need to ask whether the perpetrator intended that hurt to be inflicted on us.
If it was intended, then the longer we nurse the grievance then the longer we empower that person – or community or nation – over us. And we do not have to do it.
And if the hurt was not meant – then why do we still torment and torture ourselves with the memory?
This brings me to an even more tortuous area. We all long for justice and peace.
But then we find ourselves defining the hurt that demands justice and then defining the expected remedy. But this is no longer justice and has become revenge.
We are subjecting the issue to trial by our own emotions and impulses, stressing the rightness of our own case but denying the identified culprit the right to state their own case and to make their own arguments.
It is no longer a matter of justice but of trial in the court of public opinion where image and emotion outweigh reasoned argument, the presentation and weighing of argument and evidence, the setting out of agreed standards by which the case may be judged.
When common terms and language do not suit our case then we redefine them to mean what suits our case and all attempt at objectivity is lost. Even language itself is undermined.
You may choose your own area of public debate to study and there are plenty of options available.
So we come back to the area of forgiveness, and my question is not so much what difficulties obstruct our willingness to forgive – and these may be real enough.
Rather it is the cost in this life and certainly in the final judgment of our failure to do so. And that could indeed be far beyond our contemplation or imagination.
May the Lord bless our noise neighbours.