Sermon: On Forgiveness
Preached on 15th November 2009
(Prison Awareness Sunday)
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
‘Look, what large stones and what large buildings.' (Mark 13.1)
There are few views in Durham which do not get this sort of response. The magnificence of this cathedral dominates the skyline. But if you look from the top of Claypath or Gilesgate another large building catches your eye. It is the prison which is just a few hundred yards to our east and which is much on our minds as once again we come to Prisons Week. A few days ago I was concerned that the wonderful Lumiere festival might ironically eclipse this important week for us, but if you look at the exhibits in the College to the south of the Cathedral you can see various installations which shed a little light on what the prisoners in HMP Durham have on their minds.
As we know there is crisis in our prisons today. They are over-crowded, the educational levels of prisoners are terribly low, so too are levels of self-esteem and mental health. Many prisoner s reoffend and return to custody, some deliberately offend in order to return, and drug abuse is common. Put this alongside current budgetary cuts and the prospects both for prisons and for prisoners seem dark and gloomy. We need to have some Christian light thrown on this subject. We need to find how to connect the good news of Jesus to the bad news of prison.
One way of trying to do this is by exploring a concept and realities which lies at the heart of Christianity, forgiveness. This week we are hosting the famous ‘F-word: Images of Forgiveness' exhibition here. I want to encourage you to spend some time engaging with it this week if you can. The exhibition has been here in Durham since the beginning of the month. It was first at St Nicholas' Church for a week. Then it went to the chapel at Durham Prison and on Friday it came here. Last Wednesday, I spent the morning there with a group of prisoners reflecting on what we felt about some of the issues the exhibition raised.
You might expect a group of prisoners to be primarily interested in whether or how they could be forgiven for their crimes. But this conversation we soon began to focus on how difficult it is to forgive others. Someone referred to the panel in the exhibition about a holocaust survivor. ‘How can you forgive that?' Good question.
There are some great stories of forgiveness that get into the headlines and then into Christian folklore. Preachers love telling them. Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen whose daughter was killed in the Remembrance Day bomb in 1987; Gee Walker, the mother of Anthony who was murdered in Liverpool in 2005, the Amish Community of Nickel Mines after the horrific shooting of ten little schoolgirls in 2006 and at the level of state the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. These are great stories and there are some wonderful people involved in them and we should of course try to follow their example. But I am often concerned that by the time their story gets told from the pulpit many of the gritty details which show what a struggle it has been for people to come to the point of forgiveness are airbrushed out. This was certainly my feeling when I studied the South African TRC.
Most of our forgiveness issues are closer to home than these big stories suggest. In the prison seminar I spoke about how difficult it is to forgive people when they let you down, especially if you had thought them to be a trustworthy friend. There was a lot of nodding. This was clearly a common experience. . (See Psalm 41:9). Maybe it is one which tests all of use sooner or later. And it tests us very profoundly. The big thing is not so much what they actually did but that we feel betrayed, disappointed, let down.
The problem of forgiveness, at this level, is one of what to do with all the feelings that come upon us when we are emotionally hurt. What are we to do when someone exercises power over us in a way which really hurts? The Bible says we must forgive seventy times seven. (Matthew 18) That does not mean 490 but ‘a lot'. And maybe we do forgive a lot. But if I am not mistaken it is not the lot that matters. It is the one thing which we find it hard to forgive that matters more than all the 489 others. That's the one that accuses us and enrages us. That's the one that makes us flinch or hold our breath or cross our fingers when we get to the middle of the Lord's Prayer. For we know that we are in for a tough time come judgement day if God is not more forgiving than we are.
One thing I am very clear about is that forgiveness is not possible when people find excuses for their own or other people's behaviour. It is not right to say that to understand all is to forgive all. But it is right to say that we will never forgive anyone unless we take some interest in them as a person. We will never forgive someone unless we recognise that here is a neighbour to love on the far side of the action that hurt us so much; and if not a neighbour to love then an enemy to love.
The challenge of forgiveness is one what hits us in the depths. You cannot analyse your way out of a forgiveness issue. You have to live your way through it, facing the sticking points with candour and honesty. Often these are not obvious to us and we are all vulnerable to waking up in the night realising that we really do have a grudge against such and such a person.
The way of forgiveness is not easy. But neither it is possible to edit forgiveness out of Christianity. It's at the heart of the teaching, the praying, the sacraments, and the creed. God requires us to be forgiving, to learn forgiveness. It is our number one Christian priority. And yet we give it so little time. Why is that? I think its because we all know deep down that we are not as good at it as we should be and we'd rather not go there thank you very much. For if we think about it too much we will realise that we are in spiritual trouble here; that we have not yet sorted the forgiveness thing out in our hearts.
However this week we are challenged to go there. So put on a warm coat and go to the Galilee Chapel and commune with the forgiveness stories told there. You will not find many of them easy stories. There is gritty truth wrapped up in them; the kind of truth that will help you feel that it is okay to find this difficult. Indeed you might even come away from the exhibition thinking that forgiveness is impossible.
But that thought, while scary, should not put you off. For that is a good part of the point. Jesus demands that we forgive others are meant to stretch us to and beyond our ordinary emotional and intellectual abilities. For when it does so, we begin to realise that we can only do forgiveness when we allow the grace of God to work in and though us.
This is why forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel and the Lord's Prayer. It is not so much that it is a grand ethical challenge but that it is a profound spiritual crisis. Faced with it we will either clam us spiritually or open our hearts of the love and grace of God that will both forgive us and give us the courage and kindness to forgive others. For Christian people this is not an option, it is The Way. Sadly if people know nothing of God's grace they only have their own anger and aggression to rely on when they are hurt or injured or violated and withy no where to go that will soon become bitter. This means that there is a special responsibility for Christian people in sharing the good news of a different way. We need to be prepared to be bold in witnessing to the transforming power of God's grace in story and sermon. But there is a deeper challenge than that. We have to get on with the distasteful business of forgiving the people we find it most difficult to forgive. Everything depends on our willingness to learn how to forgive. That willingness is challenged every time we are really and deeply hurt by friend or stranger. When that happens we need to draw a deep spiritual breath and find a way forward. Or rather find ‘The Way' forward, the Way that blends justice and mercy and leaves our hearts calm and our relationships renewed.
This is our serious evangelical project. It is one thing to talk about forgiveness. It is another to become profoundly forgiving people, sharing God's love with those who hurt us. But Jesus was clear about this. Forgiveness is right there on the top of the Christian ‘to do list'. And as he and many subsequent martyrs have shown us, it remains there until our dying breath. ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.'