Sermon: 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd October 2016, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 2nd October 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver


(Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10)

How did you enjoy our Psalm this morning? The sadness of those first few verses is touching, but did you feel uncomfortable with those closing verses? Can a Christian feel OK saying: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones?”

Actually, I would be concerned about anyone who could say those words with any sort of meaning, and not feel uncomfortable. They don’t sound very Christian. They don’t sound very healthy. So why did we say them? And what are they doing in the scriptures?

Let’s cast our minds back to that opening reading from the Book of Lamentations. It is a reflection on the destruction of Jerusalem by the conquering armies of Babylon, nearly 600 years before Christ. The great city of Jerusalem, the city of God, sits in ruins, her people in exile – a widow. Those who are left are in shock, confused, bereaved. All her majesty has departed.

The writer of Lamentations asks “Why?” And he sees that it was inevitable.

God had warned the people that if they did not turn back to him, if they were determined not to live as his people, he would treat them appropriately. He would remove his protection from the city, and they would be conquered. “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”, says the writer. Sorrow and nostalgia are there, but so is the acknowledgement of sin.

The Psalmist meanwhile sits in exile – stranded in a foreign land, far from his beloved Jerusalem: his Jerusalem which has been torn down by the invading Babylonians, those invaders egged on by the people of Edom, neighbours of Judah, fellow descendants of Abraham.

Like hyenas tearing at a carcass, the Edomites were ready to take advantage of the Babylonians’ destructive acts, and they joined in looting the city. The psalmist felt a particular disgust towards them. And now in exile, the Psalmist has been taunted by his captors: “Come on, you’re a singer! Sing us a song about Jerusalem. Come on!” But they could only hang up their harps. What can they sing about here? It would be an insult to Jerusalem. They would choke on their words. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

The Middle East has been a place of violence for millennia. We think now of those images posted by ISIS of their captives, mocked and taunted, forced to speak words they do not believe for fear of further pain or even death. Here, the Psalmist responds to the taunts of the Babylonians with these words that speak of grief and tragedy, but also of determination and frustration and anger.

And we think today of so many people in different parts of the world who are victims of terrorism and violence. We might feel uncomfortable with the Psalmist’s words – but there are thousands, millions I suspect, who might well voice similar ideas with passion and conviction.

And of course, tragically, there are people who not only think such things, and not only speak such things, but actually seek to do such things. And surely that is an even greater tragedy, as these people get involved in a never-ending cycle of revenge and violence.

Why are such difficult things in the Bible? Because the scriptures deal not only with God, but with humanity. Because the Bible speaks not only of God’s great deeds and his wonderful purposes, but about the reality of who we are and what we’re like.

However, these are not the only difficult words we heard in today’s readings. For Jesus’ words in the Gospel also seem strange and uncomfortable. He seems to say that it is OK for a master to be tough and unyielding to his slaves. Here is a slave who has been labouring hard all day in the fields. And now the master expects him to prepare dinner and serve the meal before he even thinks of having a rest or perhaps of getting something to eat. “Why should the master thank him?” asks Jesus. “Why shouldn’t the slave just admit that he is an unprofitable servant who has done no more than he ought?”

What is Jesus getting at? Firstly we need to get rid of an unfortunate translation in the New RSV, which we use for our readings. It is theoretically possible to use the word “worthless” as a translation: “We are only worthless slaves”. But this misses the point. Of course the slaves are not worthless: and they haven’t been worthless to their owner. No human being is worthless, and the scriptures do not suggest it.

What the slave is saying is that he is “unprofitable”: in other words, he is doing no more than he should. He is doing no more than his master expects of him. He is only doing his duty. In this sense the master is not in his debt. He can’t say to his master: “You owe me!”

And that is Jesus’ point to his listeners – and to us today. We can never work so hard, we can never act so virtuously, that we can say to God: “You owe me. I’ve done more than you can expect of me.”

We will never be so good that we can say “I’ve arrived” spiritually. We can never work so hard that we can earn a place in God’s kingdom. We fall short. In other words, we need God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness. Hence Paul’s words to Timothy that God “saved us”. We needed God to save us.

And hence Paul’s words that God called us “not according to our works”: our works, our actions, our lives all fall short. In fact, if we’re honest, we haven’t always “done our duty” as far as God is concerned. God called us “according to his own purpose and grace”: that is the basis of our relationship with God. We are accepted by God not because we are such wonderful people, such faithful churchgoers, such moral paragons: we are accepted because of God’s love and kindness and mercy towards us in Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness is what we need from God. Forgiveness is at the heart of our relationship with him, and of our hope for eternity. And because forgiveness is the basis of our acceptance by God, it must be expressed in our relationship with others.

If our Gospel reading had commenced a couple of verses earlier, we would have heard Jesus’ challenging words that we must always be ready to forgive people, time after time if necessary. Just keep forgiving, Jesus said.

It’s interesting that the disciples in response don’t ask Jesus to increase their love, which is what I would have expected. They ask him to increase their faith. Why? I think they realize that they will need God’s help to keep on forgiving like that! And we too need to keep asking God to help us become more truly forgiving people, just as he is a God who forgives our sins.

Which brings us back to Psalm 137. For forgiveness is hard work. Oh, it’s easy to forgive the little things: the mistakes, the misunderstandings, some of those things said in the heat of the moment. But if you were members of Curtis Cheng’s family, could you forgive – as they have encouraged people to let go of the hatred for his murderer? If your loved one was a victim of a terrorist, could you forgive? Would it be hard to forgive? Perhaps we don’t really know, but we do know that it would be very hard to deal with the hurt. It would surely be natural to cry out: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a stone.”

When people commit horrific acts of violence, we want justice. And often we see the anger of family members who feel that the person who has acted violently towards them has been let off lightly. We can’t undo what has been done. And it might well be natural to want to get back at the person who has attacked our loved one or ruined our lives.

Forgiveness is not a matter of saying that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Forgiveness never trivializes evil. If evil was trivial, the cross would never have been necessary. And God never trivializes the evil done by the human race.

God weeps at the evil done on planet earth. He feels it far more deeply than we can begin to imagine. He could remove the freedom we have to make our own decisions, including the decision to do evil. But that would be to take away our humanity. Instead he gives us the promise of a perfect new creation in his good time. And he still forgives – forgives at infinite cost. And that gracious forgiveness includes us!

Psalm 137 cries out for justice, and one day perfect justice will prevail. The Psalm expresses the reality of pain and anger and frustration. And when we feel such pain and anger and frustration this Psalm is for us. For it says it all, doesn’t it? Because there are times when we need to express our pain and anger and frustration.

The Psalm gives us permission to express these feelings: not to pretend, not to trivialize, not to hold them in where they will eat away at us.

We do have to deal with evil when we experience it. Angry Psalms assure  us that we can express our anger to God: we can tell him how it really is, we can express our desire to get back at the one who has hurt us. It is not such a terrible thing: expressing our anger to God can be a healthy thing to do. And it can be a stage on the way to forgiving.

God can cope with such words. He will not be shocked or offended. And when forgiveness is hard, we can tell him how hard it is. Share the burden with him. He understands. And of course, talk these things through with an understanding person, who can give you space to do it safely.

Forgiveness. We need it, and we receive it through Christ. We need to show it, and Christ has shown us the way. But it will not always be easy, for that is the way things are in this world of tears. We will need to keep asking God to increase our faith, as we walk with our pains and hurts. He understands us, and he will walk with us in love, even in the midst of those pains and hurts. Amen.

Paul Weaver