10.30 am Holy Communion & 6.00 pm Evensong Woodchurch
Genesis 50:15-21,Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus. Amen.
It was just before 2 o’clock in the afternoon on an ordinary Tuesday in September. I was working in the City and was sitting at my desk in my office near St Paul’s. I must have eaten lunch at my desk and I had the BBC news website open on my computer. I was looking forward to the following week when I was booked to go off on a two week sailing adventure. And then, in the midst of this ordinary day, a disturbing headline appeared on the BBC website – it said something like: “Plane reported to have hit World Trade Centre in New York”. At first it seemed like a terrible accident but then, only a few minutes later, the second plane hit and the world seemed to go mad for a while. My colleagues had also seen the story so we put the TV on in a meeting room and we watched the Twin Towers burning while reports came in that a plane had hit the pentagon, that another one had been forced down elsewhere, there were rumours on the internet that dozens of planes may have been hijacked. And then, of course, we saw the towers collapse, knowing that there were still hundreds, if not thousands of people inside. It is an image that has been replayed on our screens so many times over the last 10 years that it has become almost commonplace but seeing it live for the first time created an unimaginable sense of horror.
I think it was shortly after the towers collapsed that the metropolitan police advised firms in the City to close because no one knew whether the same thing might happen in London and so we were told that everyone should make their way home.
I commuted from Liverpool Street at the time and walking there from St Pauls took me right past the base of the old Nat West tower, now called Tower 42. Although it was less than half the size of the towers in New York this was then one of the biggest towers in London and was obviously a prime target because it had been evacuated much earlier. Whilst walking past this eerily quiet building it I could not help imagining a plane hitting that building and it collapsing in the middle of London and it brought home just how terrible the events of that day were.
The 11 September 2001 is a day which changed the course of history and which has cast a long and evil shadow over the last ten years. Not only did 3000 people die horribly that day but it led directly to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which many hundreds of thousands have died and out of which certain corporations have earned billions from taxpayers and continue to do so. Relationships with muslim countries and communities have suffered hugely, civil liberties curtailed constantly in the name of security, our own government implicated not only in starting wars on dodgy grounds but also directly in extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, in allowing foreign intelligence services to carry out torture on our behalf and in so much more.
The events of 9/11 were terrible and I mourn for all those who lost their life that day and in the subsequent conflicts. But it seems to me that when certain elements in the West used the horror of that day to declare war on parts of the muslim world and to carry it out with extreme prejudice and without regard to the law that we lost a great deal of the moral high ground. This is not the second world war in which the good guys fight the bad guys in the name of liberty – the world has changed and morality seems to be blurred almost beyond recognition in the name of revenge and power and oil.
As citizens of this country it is too easy for us to accept unthinkingly the promptings of our politicians and media and to accept the lie that the events of 9/11 and the attack in London on 7 July 2005 have made us into the perpetual victim entitled to take whatever action we like in revenge. But we should never forget that as Christians we are also citizens of the kingdom of God and that our King, the king of kings, may be prompting us to apply a different standard of behaviour. So, the question for us is whether the Christian faith that we profess has anything to say to the cycle of attack and revenge and attack that has dominated the last decade.
Last week we reflected on the fact that, properly understood, our call to become a real community of love not only for each other but also for all those around us has the potential not only to transform the way the world looks at us but also, frankly, to transform the world itself. Love is stronger than death and a world seemingly in thrall to the logic and machinery of death is ripe to be set free by the example of sacrificial love which we see in Jesus and which Jesus calls us to live out in our own lives.
And if we really have love for each other in our hearts then should not be able to help also having forgiveness for the failings of our fellow human beings. In the reading from Genesis we have an excerpt from the story of Joseph and his brothers – and I have to say that it is now impossible for me to think of Joseph without thinking of Bertie and the production we had in July – hardly a day goes by without Annabelle singing a song from the show, so thanks to Bertie for that.
Anyway, as you know, Joseph’s brothers had been intensely jealous of the way their father treated him as the favourite and they sold him into slavery in Egypt whilst pretending to their father that he had been killed. In chapter 50 of Genesis, which is many years later and after the family has been reunited the brothers are worried that following the death of their father Joseph will now take his revenge on them:
“What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
The brothers seem to invite a story to try and persuade Joseph that it was his father’s wish that he should forgive his brothers and they beg for forgiveness for the wrongs they did to him. And Joseph cries, and they cry, and Joseph says:
‘“So have no fear, I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them speaking kindly to them’
It really is like a Hollywood happy ending with everyone crying and hugging and it flows not from Joseph getting his just revenge on his brothers, who undoubtedly did him wrong, but in Joseph forgiving those wrongs and drawing a veil over the past in the interests of love.
And in the gospel story from Matthew Jesus sets the bar of forgiveness even higher. Peter asked Jesus this question:
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
It is worth pausing there for a moment and thinking about that. Although I know it is highly improbable just suppose for a moment that a fellow member of this congregation sinned against you – now Peter doesn’t specify what sort of sin he is talking about so for best results you will need to think of a way in which someone could sin against you in the most annoying way possible – it could be calling you a rude name, it might be by sitting in your pew, it might be by stealing from your bag – I don’t often say this, but for these purposes please feel free to make up your own sin.
So, someone sins against you really badly and the immediate, instinctive, response is to get your revenge in some way, perhaps by being horrible in return or perhaps by slapping them or even by calling the police. And yet we know that the Christian imperitive is to forgive and so, quite rightly, you do. Good on you. And then the person sins against you again. Well, even on the basis of Peter’s question there would be seven rounds of sin and forgiveness. I suspect that most of us would be waiting for our Certificate of Saintliness to arrive in the post if we managed to forgive the same person for the same sin seven times over. But what does Jesus say?
‘Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Some translations say not seventy seven times, but seventy times seven times, which is 490 times. Now of course in saying it in this way Jesus does not mean that when we get to the 78th time, or indeed the 491st time, that we can withhold forgiveness but he seems, to be at least, to be implying that our forgiveness should be infinite. And Jesus then illustrates this further with a parable of the forgiven servant who was forgiven all his debts by his master but who then failed to forgive someone who owed him a tiny amount of money. Jesus is saying loud and clear that God forgives us infinitely whenever we say sorry for our sins and, in return, we should be a people who forgive each other infinitely – “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
So we are called to be a people of love and forgiveness, because we are a people who are loved and forgiven, and it is by that measure that we are known as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
What does this say to us today, on this anniversary of 9/11? Whilst not actually suggesting for a moment that we should simply have forgiven the attackers of the world trade centre and done nothing else to defend ourselves one cannot help but wonder, given the events of the last decade, whether the world might not be a better place, and if much evil could not have been avoided, if Jesus’ command to forgive took a higher priority than the world’s desire to take revenge.