Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
How many times? (Cynthia Brown) 14.9.2008
Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12
Hamas Leader`s son renounces Islam.
Did you see that headline in the paper a couple of weeks ago? Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of one of the founders of Hamas, arrived in the United States 18 months ago and converted to Christianity. He said that his decision to abandon his Muslim faith and denounce his father`s organisation had exposed his family to persecution in his home town of Ramallah and endangered his life.
`They are definitely suffering because of what I`ve done,` he said.
His father, who has spent more than a decade in Israeli jails for his involvement with Hamas, had been in prison when he `got the worst news in his life` – that his son had become a Christian and left Ramallah. `But at the same time,` Mr Yousef said, `he sent me a message of love.`
A chance encounter with a British missionary nine years ago prompted his exploration of Christianity and Jesus` words, `Love your enemies` had greatly impressed him in the context of the conflict within Palestine and with Israel.
Several things in this report set me thinking. One is the effect of the words Love your enemies on someone, who, unlike us, is hearing them for the first time. We are so familiar with these words and it is only when we stop and think about them that we realise how subversive and counter-cultural they are. (But as an aside, Christians over the centuries haven`t been very good at putting this precept into practice!) The other thing that so impressed me is the great love of the father who, despite his huge sense of loss, still managed to send a `message of love` to his son. (Shades of the parable.) When you consider the enormity of his son`s decision, and the hurt it is still having on the whole family, you cannot help but be amazed at his loving and generous forgiveness.
It seems that the natural human reaction to hurt, loss, cruelty or betrayal is one of seeking vengeance. Eye for an eye, and all that. Think of the Old Testament passages read last week! So, in our Gospel reading, when Peter asks Jesus, `How many times should I forgive a wrong doer? Seven times?` he thinks he`s being extremely generous. But Jesus` answer is, `Not seven times, but seventy times seven.` In other words, keep forgiving forever! The message is clear – start using a new way of looking at life. Forgiveness is costly, and may be ongoing.
Jesus continues to use exaggeration to make his point by telling the story of the unforgiving servant who is released from an astronomical debt of ten thousand talents and who then refuses to forgive the debt of a hundred denarii. A denarius would have been a day`s living wage and it would take 6000 of them to make one talent. Clearly, Jesus uses this seemingly ridiculous comparison so that his hearers don`t get bogged down by the literal story, seeing instead the messages behind it –
that forgiveness must come from the heart;
that the absence of forgiveness is a destructive force in our lives;
and that there is no limit to God`s forgiveness.
To quote Jim from last week – How can you sing praise to the God of love with a two-edged sword in your hand and vengeance and punishment on your mind?
Forgiveness has three applications: political, social and personal.
Neville has often spoken of the political implications of the lack of forgiveness and mentioned only recently the inscription on the newly rebuilt Friendship Bridge in Bosnia – Remember `93. This to Neville was reminiscent of Milosevich`s injunction `Remember Kosovo`, referring to the battle in which the Turks beat the Serbians – in 1448 and he observed us that the vengeful attitude is just as apparent today. Five hundred years of hatred and getting even. In Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne had the same kind of effect. And the same could be said for many other communities.
In the context of our society, here in WA, Letters to the Editor will regularly call for more prisons, tougher laws, zero tolerance, heavier sentences . . . not infrequently citing Singapore as a model to be emulated in terms of physical punishment. More effective ways of changing behaviour are needed.
Restorative justice, a basic component of which is forgiveness, counters ideas of revenge and retribution – yet it does include the necessity for the wrong doer to face up to his/her actions. True, forgiveness is costly to the one who forgives because it entails letting go of control of the situation, but it is costly also to the one forgiven because it means facing up to the facts, acknowledging wrongdoing and possibly making some form of restitution. The wrong doer may in fact reject the offer of forgiveness. There is also an assumption – often not realised – that some of kind of change will follow.
This applies in our personal lives, as well. Forgiveness, says Bruce Prewer, must always stem from the strength of true love, not from syrupy, sentimental, indulgent kindness.
It is also tough. It demands that at least one party faces the truth – and learns something from it. It does not exclude saying `no` to a manipulative person for instance. It doesn`t mean pretending that things are fine as they are. It means facing the truth, dealing with it and moving on.
We think of people in abusive relationships. Often, we hear, after a violent outburst, the perpetrator is full of remorse and promises to change. What then is the position of the person being abused? To forgive – seventy times seven –while allowing the abuse to continue? I imagine that none of us would agree that this is the right course of action.
How does `tough love` deal with this kind of situation? Is it in the best interests of the one inflicting abuse to be allowed to continue in that way? No. What about the abused person? Is this an acceptable situation? Certainly not. This is not the loving way – either for the perpetrator or the victim. The truth must be faced by all those concerned.
We should remember that Jesus was never afraid to challenge and confront people. In the same way, we should not be afraid to say: If this behaviour does not stop, I can`t stay here any more.
And what then? Dwelling upon past hurts and injustice can only be destructive – as Jesus told us 2000 years ago!
The precept of forgiveness is possibly Christianity`s greatest gift to the world. In the last 150 or so years, with the study of the human psyche through psychology and psychiatry, the role of forgiveness in enhancing mental health has been well recognised. Many writers have written at length about its positive effects, often going into detail about actually how to forgive.
Is forgiveness easy? In her book, `Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, Stephanie Dowrick quotes Jungian analyst and writer, James Hillman, who asserts that `forgiveness is no easy matter. If the ego has been wronged, the ego cannot forgive just because it `should`. Even when one wants to forgive, one sometimes finds that one simply can`t, because forgiveness does not come from the ego. . . I cannot directly forgive. I can only ask, or pray, that these sins are forgiven. Wanting forgiveness to come and waiting for it may be all that one can do.`
Haven`t we all had times when we`ve been hurt by someone, feeling that their behaviour is unforgivable? Yet, given the passing of time, we often see such matters in a different light and are able to let go of any resentment we have felt at the time and are able truly to forgive.
Forgiveness is a graced moment. One day, the grace comes to be reconciled. As the mystic said: Let go, and let God.
Dowrick also quotes writer Lindel Barker-Revell as saying the forgiveness must not be `muddled up with judgement – who`s wrong and who`s right. That separates us from the healing power of love.` I guess Paul had this in mind when he spoke to the Romans about settling disputes within the church. `Stay away from judging others,` he said. `Show tolerance and compassion.` This concept is equally valid today in our personal lives, in our churches and in our society.
Offering our forgiveness is a decision we have the power to make. And that includes offering forgiveness to ourselves when we have been the cause of hurt. Continuing to blame ourselves, sometimes needlessly, can only be self-destructive.
Accepting forgiveness, from God, from ourselves or from others, sets us free from the burden of guilt and regret and gives us space to make changes in our lives. Forgiveness gives us the freedom to let go, to put the past behind us and to live fully in the present moment.
If we truly believe that we are forgiven for our faults and failings, we must live accordingly. As the song says: How can we keep from singing?


130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands