Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 17 September 2023.
• First Reading: Exodus 14: 19-31 (Pharoah’s chariots overthrown, waters returned over Egyptian army)
• Epistle: Romans 14: 1-12 (Do not judge your weaker brethren. Judgment belongs to God)
• Gospel: Matthew 18: 21-35 (Parable of the unforgiving servant. This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart)
There is something profoundly satisfying in seeing open and malicious wrongdoing confronted and its perpetrators being brought to justice.
Our many police and crime dramas deal with exactly this issue and so, in a more direct manner, do our action dramas. Apart from feeding a sense of nostalgia, maybe our war dramas do the same.
Perhaps it is the proper use of intelligent thought, combined with lawful force, that brings a kind of moral relief and satisfaction in a world awash with the more creepy sort of hackers and fraudsters.
Perhaps it is that sense of right and wrong, recognized and applied while our more nuanced public moral environment makes these things more difficult in practice. When political representatives seem more interested in their own agendas, above and beyond a general sense of morality.
This is a rather belaboured approach the account of the crossing of the Red Sea by the fleeing Israelites and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army. I am not sure how much this is recorded in the ancient Egyptian records – maybe it is rather glossed over, but it is definitely noted and celebrated in the Bible: both the Exodus and the Psalms.
And part of the story is that for all their military prowess, their cavalry and chariots, their arms and armour, their military formations and ability to concentrate their forces at the point of need, they were still overthrown by One whose actions they could never have predicted.
There was no military modelling for such an intervention and yet our account is clear that they were met in the midst of their prowess and at the height of their might. And it was here that they were overthrown.
‘Vengeance is Mine’, says the Lord. ‘I will repay.’
It is easy for us to say ‘Oh, yes,’ and then to carry on with our own plans and strategies. To acknowledge the Lord in our words but not to give Him the time and space to act.
It is one thing to pray and then to trust that the Lord will move for us, but another to pray and then to carry on with our own plans anyway.
The wise will definitely pray – and then having prayed to make their plans knowing that these may themselves be interrupted or redirected by events.
But then there is something else when looking at what Paul says to the church in Rome.
He writes about relationships and attitudes within the church. There was a great variety of members of the church, some from Jewish backgrounds and well versed in the Laws of Israel, others definitely not so.
Yet they all had to come to a view on eating meat, probably sold at a discount, but which had been sacrificed to idols. For some, this was deeply offensive, as if they were taking part, even at some remove, in pagan rituals.
For others, well, the Roman deities were of no significance since they did not exist anyway so what did it matter? Eat up while the going is good.
Today the position is almost the reverse, as some regard vegetarian and vegan diets as morally superior to others and so despise those who eat any kind of meat.
What Paul was saying was that those with the strength of faith to overrule any hesitation in eating meat sacrificed to idols, that they should not flaunt themselves if this was going to undermine the faith of their more scrupulous brethren.
It was a matter of exercising their love for one another as they exercised their faith in daily living. The ‘I’m all right, Jack’ attitude was not going to work.
And loving one another must surely mean avoiding giving – and taking – offence when something not central to the gospel was involved.
Then we get to Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. He had already stressed it when teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Now it was coming up again, with even greater stress. The pointed parable of the unforgiving servant, who having been remitted a lifetime’s debt still held it over a fellow servant for a relatively trifling amount, makes the point.
All of us are sinners and in need of the forgiveness of God and yet we can put ourselves beyond it by nursing grudges.
If untended, these can cripple our memories and relationships, and so Jesus requires that we forgive from the heart. This may not be easy, and perhaps we need forms of ministry to one another to help us to reach this place of forgiving.
But then look at it another way. We have all been hurt by the church at one time or another. But we still come to worship God.
Imagine one who was hurt at school – and then abandoned education altogether. Or one hurt by a doctor – and who then refused all medical treatment thereafter. It sounds absurd – yet there can be some who have been hurt by or in the church who have abandoned it and their own faith and salvation: when they did not have to.
This is deeply tragic. We also need to be able to forgive – in the heart and not just in our words – and to be able to help others in the same situation.
If it was easy, then it would not be an issue.