Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

17th Sep 2017

Sermon for The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A


Peter went up to Jesus and said “How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” Matthew 18.21



The question Peter puts to Jesus concerning forgiveness is a piercing one; it startles. Peter knows that there is a whole lot of difference between token forgiveness and the kind of forgiveness which comes from the heart : the forgiveness which transforms and renews our humanity. He will one day be in need of such forgiveness  from Jesus Himself. Peter makes mention of ‘seven times’ and ‘seventy times seven’ and of how many times we must forgive… The very mention of these numbers, the latter signalling an infinite amount of forgivenesses, presses in upon the mind, and invites us to consider the kind of active forgiveness which is presented to us in the sacrificial life of Christ. We need to think long and carefully on these things. We might think that there seems to be two ways only we can follow, both in opposite directions. One is the way of stubborn self-justification and the other living that part of The Lord’s Prayer which asks that God forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. One turns inward - the heart and mind pickled in aspic, and the other responds to the hope of new life, the mark of the influence of Christ, and demands moral bravery.


Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a book ‘Written in the Dust’ about his own experiences of evacuating a dust filled building in Manhattan amid the terror of 9/11. This book carries with it a plea for “language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness,” language — or maybe silence — that creates (and the author knew from being on the scene how paradoxical was this chosen image) a “breathing space.” And this is the place where understanding and forgiveness can emerge. Understanding always begets forgiveness. It exists as a breathing space… Peter’s recall to the forgiveness to the mark of  ‘seventy times seven’ opens up such a breathing space because it recalls the infinite love of God with a human willingness to understand only God can bring together that which has been separated and alienated.


Into the breach of these thoughts for me come the figures of two priests. The first was a 68 year old  Franciscan Priest and Chaplain on 9/11 to The New York Fire Brigade. He died from falling masonry and dust inhalation. He was labelled ‘victim 001’. His name was Fr Michal Judge. A photograph was taken of New York firemen carrying his body away from the scene of death  in an improvised stretcher rather like a hammock. It is a powerful image because it reminds the Christian so much of the deposition from the Cross. But the photograph is also an icon for the priest on duty, the one who was doing only what he was meant to do, the one who died doing what a priest in such a situation would do: anointing the dead. He had written in his journals his many inner struggles; not least as not being able to express his fuller humanity in the course of his duties. The presence of Fr Michal in this terrible scene, and among so many other helpers, points us to the place of ordinary, deep humanity which brings hope even while the terrible fall-out is suffered. It is this kind of deep humanity which is being demanded of us as God’s Church. It is the action which challenges the world to be a better place in the manner and the meaning of its truer existence. It is the action of the forgiveness seventy times seven in the re-making and re-instatement of the good.


We have in this church over the past eighteen months been praying for another priest, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from Kerala, India, who was captured by ISIS terrorists and has this week been released. Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped on March 4, 2016 from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Four of those Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack. Father Uzhunnalil was rescued last week by Omani authorities “in coordination with the Yemeni parties. Recalling his time in captivity, Fr Tom told Pope Francis last week that although he was unable to celebrate Mass, “every day, I would repeat to myself, in my heart, all the words of the celebration. Father Uzhunnalil said he continues to pray for all those who have been spiritually close to him, particularly for the four nuns and 12 people murdered when he was abducted.


In all the bewilderment that this priest must have felt, the powerlessness and the deprivation and uncertainly, his faith proved to be a reconciling one, one which was not wasted in negativity, but always keeping to that which he was taught, The Christian faith. He was able to offer his condition in prayer for the life of the Church and in thankfulness and solidarity with his fellow workers, many of them already dead. This is the triumph of God’s grace over despair and the true response to the forgiveness seventy times seven. God’s power being made perfect in the powerless state, the one which, beyond all calculation and self-regard, of blame and resentment, determines to be an agent of God’s transforming grace. Let us be determined to show that we can, in our own way and by remaining faithful to our Christian calling, be agents of that same grace, too…