Sermon in Ankara for Trinity XIV (13th September 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Certain events are etched in the national consciousness. Sometimes it is the year that we remember. For Britons 1940 has such a resonance, as should 1066 and 1314 for English and Scots respectively. In Ireland 1916 has such resonance, though what is remembered (the Easter Rising or the Somme) will depend on who it is to whom you are talking. Most countries have such years in their collective memory. There is one event, however, that seems destined to be remembered by its date and not its year. 9/11 has become one of the most famous dates in history. That it took place in 2001 is perhaps less well-remembered. Most of us over a certain age can remember exactly what we were doing when we heard the news of the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and it is now conventional to see the date as a dividing line in modern history. Nineteen years on it remains vividly inscribed in our collective memory. Clearly the compilers of our lectionary could not have anticipated 9/11, but the readings do indeed give us appropriate food for thought.
In the first reading we heard the familiar story of the crossing of the Red Sea. The story of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, celebrated in the Passover festival, is a story of God leading his people to new life, away from oppression and fear to a new life of freedom. This escape from Egypt can inspire us too as we long for our own escape from peril and fear and warfare, so that we may enjoy the fruits of freedom and peace. This is a worldwide longing, and we are only too aware how much suffering and uncertainty there is in our world. Yet we may draw encouragement from the continuation of the Exodus story. We tend to think of the sudden dramatic escape from Egypt, but tradition tells us of forty years in the desert, when the Israelites quarrelled with Moses and each other and disobeyed God, yet God remained faithful to them and eventually they did reach the Promised Land. God continues to care for the people whom he has created, and longs to steer us through our difficulties to peace and freedom, but he knows as well as we do how complex are the issues and mixed the motives that affect our journey. There were many times in the desert when the Israelites wondered whether their dream would come true, and many doubted and lost faith in their future, but God did not lose faith with them.
In the story of the escape from Egypt it is possible to be so caught up in the drama of the Crossing of the Red Sea that we forget the pillar of cloud. That would be a pity. In our reading there was a beautiful description of how the pillar of cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night. The presence of God brought light into the darkness. That night must have been very dark for the Israelites as they fearfully thought of the Egyptian army pursuing them, yet God’s presence brought them hope. In many ways 9/11 was an event of darkness, an event of unimaginable horror, symbolised not least by the gigantic clouds that spread out from the stricken towers into the surrounding streets, yet even on this day of darkness there and in the aftermath God was present, and his presence brought light and hope.
"Where?" you might ask. God works through people, and his presence was made visible through the heroic work of so many members of the emergency services who gave their lives without hesitation. I recall the Fire Department Chaplain who knew that his place was with his men at work and died with them. There are many such stories from that day of selfless bravery in the face of unexpected and unpredictable catastrophe. The particular circumstances of that day ensured that there were many people facing certain death who were still equipped with means of communication. They made it plain that what really mattered to them were their loved ones, their families and friends. In the face of certain death it was of them they thought, it was to them they spoke. Selfless courage from would-be rescuers and genuine outpourings of love from those awaiting death are two remarkable features of 9/11, and deserve to be celebrated. They stand as beacons of light in the darkness of the horror and should make us proud to be human. These demonstrations of courage and love were common to those of all religious traditions and of none, but men and women of faith would see in them God-given grace, a light indeed shining in the darkness.
The crossing of the Red Sea was a great triumph for the people of Israel, and has been rightly and naturally celebrated as such. Yet the Jewish rabbinic tradition reminds us that God is the God of all. He had indeed brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and along the way the Egyptians had suffered terrible plagues and now military disaster as a result of their resistance to the Israelites’ demand to escape. Yet since at least the 3rd century A.D. the rabbis have made this telling comment, which has come down to us in the form of a prayer. “O Lord our God and God of our fathers, we pray that, in this moment of victory, we may remember the legend handed down to us by our Doctors: that when, after the crossing of the Red Sea, Miriam raised her voice in exultation, and the angels at the throne of your glory began to take up the refrain, you rebuked them, saying: “What! My children are drowning, and you would sing?”
This reminder of God's compassion for all his creation brings us to the topic of forgiveness, as described in today's Gospel reading. Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Our translation "another member of the church" which replaces "brother" is a rather irritating example of paraphrase in place of translation. Peter probably thought that he was being rather generous. After all, people sometimes ask for a second chance. A seventh chance would be rather unusual. Jesus however replies seventy-seven times or seventy times seven (the Greek is ambiguous). In other words he is saying "stop counting and forgive". Jesus illustrates his point by telling the Parable of the unforgiving servant.
As often in his parables Jesus uses hyperbole. A servant owes the king 10,000 talents. This amount is approximately 60 million denarii, when one denarius was a day's wage for a labourer. In other words it is an unimaginably large amount of money. The second servant owes 100 denarii, approximately three months' wages, a large but not astonishing amount. The lesson that we might take from the parable is that God has forgiven us, however much forgiveness was needed, and he expects us in turn to forgive our fellows. Sometimes that forgiveness will not be easy, and it is also true to say that forgiveness does not require forgetfulness, and that full forgiveness is only possible when there is repentance or remorse on the other side. Nevertheless forgiveness is proclaimed as a divine attribute that God hopes that we will emulate.
The parable is an interesting inversion of one of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The Church of Scotland preserves Matthew's text for the prayer; "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors", which makes the connection clearer. The parable has reversed this order, teaching us that we have first been forgiven and encouraging us to forgive in turn. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and of our love for one another. We receive forgiveness from God our King, who expects us to show the same in our dealings with one another.
It is ironic that Peter is the one who suggests to Jesus a cap on the number of times one should forgive, as he is a man who will repeatedly need forgiveness from Jesus. Matthew presents Peter as a leader of the Apostles who promises to remain loyal to Jesus whatever happens, yet he will deny knowing Jesus three times and unlike Mary and John will not be a witness of the crucifixion. That even the leading Apostle requires forgiveness may remind us that each of us does too, and that this petition in the Lord's Prayer that we say so often is one that we should take to heart.