SERMON: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’

SERMON: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 27 March 2022.

We’ve reached that point in our series on the Lord’s

Prayer when we’re looking at what is perhaps the most difficult phrase of all:

   ‘Forgive us our sins

   as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Forgiveness is not easy. And the two stories from the Bible that we’ve heard read this morning / evening, both in different ways acknowledge this. Hurts and betrayals can go very deep. Shame and rage can overwhelm us. And the destructive power of these emotions makes forgiveness both important but also hugely difficult.

The book of Genesis from which our first reading came is full of the struggles and tensions that happen in families. From chapter 37 onwards, the book is concerned with Jacob’s family and in particular the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.

It’s a family where there’s rivalry and jealousy; where people cheat each other and then cover up by lying; it’s a family where passions run very deep, so deep that people resort to violence.

We know that it’s often in families, with those who are closest to us, that hurts run deepest and forgiveness is most difficult. Jacob’s family was no exception.

Joseph has a lot to forgive his brothers for. Remember how his dreams and the fact that in many ways he was his father’s favourite son, drove his brothers to distraction – so much so that they couldn’t stand any more. At an opportune moment they strip him of his robe and throw him down a well, arguing about whether to leave him there to die, or sell him into slavery to some passing traders.

They decide to sell him, but covering his robe in goat’s blood, they take it back to their father with the made-up story that Joseph had been savaged by a wild beast.

We heard the bit that comes right at the end of this family saga. Jacob their father has died. The brothers are worried, fearing that perhaps Joseph’s reconciliation with them has been just to keep a united front while their father was still alive. With their father dead, would Joseph now take his revenge?

   ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us

   back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’

we heard them ask themselves.

So they concoct another lie just as they’d done before. This time it’s to say that before he died, their father Jacob had instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers:

   ‘Now therefore,’ they conclude, ‘please forgive the crime

   of the servants of the God of your father.’

They don’t come out of this story well. But a reconciliation of sorts comes about based on their lie.

It’s a very messy, human story. It not only illustrates the difficulties around forgiveness but also that forgiveness is a journey – sometimes a long one – that we’re invited to go on towards being forgiving people.

I recently did a funeral for a father who’d abused his children and his wife in every conceivable way. After spending some time in prison he turned his life round as a result of a newly found Christian faith. But even after forty years the family was not reconciled – some of his children were at the funeral, some were not – knowing what their grandfather had done to one of their parents, some of his grandchildren were there, others were not.

Forgiveness can’t be hurried and at times all that we can do is ask for help to forgive, ask to want to forgive, because in our own hearts and in our own strength we can’t.

Today’s Gospel illustrates that both the forgiveness of God and our own willingness to forgive, are linked. In the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, when we ask for forgiveness from God, Jesus makes clear that we must at the same time be willing to pass on this forgiveness to others.

So we heard in the parable how a slave appears before the king in debt 10,000 talents – a staggeringly large sum. 10,000 was the largest number possible and a talent was the largest unit of currency. Throwing himself wholly on the king’s mercy, the king is wholly merciful to his slave.

But what does the slave then do? Squeeze the last denarii out of a slave indebted to him for just a tiny amount. Does the king let this go? No. Having been forgiven, the slave has to share it, pass it on, make it real for others – because to keep forgiveness to ourselves is to misuse the gift of it and the giver of it.

So forgiveness is often a long journey. It works at a level deeper than the rights and wrongs, the hurts and hatreds. Without it we’re locked into the past and we struggle to move towards the future.

Think of the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Think of what a long journey lies ahead for the people of Ukraine after all the pain and destruction that’s been inflicted on them.

   ‘Lord, how often should I forgive?’ we heard Peter ask

   Jesus, ‘As many as seven times?’ To which Jesus replied:

   ‘Not seven times, but seventy seven.’

Jesus invites us to inhabit our tit-for-tat world differently. He takes us beyond the realm of calculation – adding up scores and settling wrongs – to that place where the human heart and the heart of God meet.

That’s why Jesus invites us to pray day by day, week by week, month in, month out:

   ‘Forgive us our sins

   as we forgive those who sin against us.’