Your donation helps keep the Cathedral open to God, open to all

No, I'd prefer to donate another time


Sermon: Choral Evensong 5th July 2015

Dianna Gwilliams
Sunday 5th July 2015
Choral Evensong
Jeremiah 20:1-11a
Romans 14:1-17
Download Recording (MP3, 15.2M) Download

This week marks the 10th anniversary since the London bombings known as 7/7 and less than a month ago was the latest act of terror on American soil, the shooting of ten black people, nine of whom died, by a whjite man.  On Friday we were encouraged to keep a minutes silence in memory of those Britains killed in Tunisia.

By contrast to what we have heard from those bereaved by the deaths in Tunisia, the majority of those bereaved in Charleston have said publically that they forgive the gunman.  Some agree with the death penalty, some acknowledge deep and burning anger, but have expressed their forgiveness out of their understanding of their Christian responsibility and that withholding forgiveness does more harm than good in the hard, hard journey of moving forward. 

As I listened to them on the radio I thought also about 7/7 and about a mother bereaved by those events.  On BBC 1 tonight the television adaptation of the book, ‘a Song for Jenny’ is going to be shown.  The book was written by Jenny Nicholson’s mother, Julie, who is an Anglican priest.  Julie Nicholson could not, and has not forgiven the man who set off the bomb in tube train on 7/7 – the bomb which killed her only daughter, her first-born.

Julie Nicholson, and the relatives of those killed in Charleston, are all Christians.  So which of their responses is the right response?  I leave this as a question, for I can only say, ‘there for the grace of God go I’- and am thankful that I have never had to face the dilemma.  And because of that I dare not make any judgment, dare not make any distinction, about the right way to show forgiveness.

What I do know is that forgiveness is always costly, it is never easy, and I cannot and must not seek to forgive a wrong done to another.  I can and must only consider forgiveness of a wrong done to me.

Forgiveness is just one aspect of the events and anniversaries of these few weeks.  Another is the legacy – what will remain, and what will be different. Following the shooting in Charleston, commentators recognise the horrible legacy of decades of racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States. Even among those who call for this to be more publically debated, there is absence of the appetite for debate about the ownership of guns or about the imperialist foundation to much of American psyche and outlook. 

And the third is how do we remember? We in Britain gathered at noon on Friday to remember those killed in Tunisia.  

No one has a monopoly on ‘doing the right thing’.  In the first lesson, we entered the story just after Jeremiah has been arrested for saying things which made those in power uncomfortable – very uncomfortable. 

The head of the Temple security force beat him up and put him into the stocks.  Jeremiah was a very reluctant prophet – they all were really.  He tried to get out of the commission, he tried to just keep his mouth shut and turn a blind eye to the injustices of his people. He tried, he really did.  He said to himself, 2If I say to myself, ‘I won’t mention God, or speak in his name anymore’, then there is something within me like a burning fire in my bones; I’m exhausted trying to keep it in, and just can’t do it anymore’” His friends didn’t understand why he kept on saying the uncomfortable things – they got fed up with him – all his close friends were just waiting for him to stumble – so that could have revenge for the things he had, as it turned out quite rightly, said about them.  All they had would be plundered and they would all be carted off to exile in Babylon.  No one would listen – because they didn’t want to hear.

Jeremiah’s message was similar to what we might hear from a political commentator or pundit today – looking at the signs of the times and deducing the likely outcome. If the people didn’t change their ways they were going to lose everything.  Jeremiah knew that God would forgive if they repented and knew that he could not coerce this.  His responsibility was to tell things as he saw them; to point the people towards a solution, but not to take them there.  They would have to do this themselves.

 In the second lesson, St Paul was writing to the Roman Christians about some issues they were having which didn’t need spelling out – and so he doesn’t, but he does use two examples of similar issues which they had worked out already.  One was food, and the other was the keeping of the Sabbath. These were not the issues.  For Paul, the issue was one of what to do when there are a variety of views about what is the ‘right thing to do’? 

The early Christians were getting past the issue of circumcision, getting past the eating of meat sacrificed to idols.  They had come to a place where they could accommodate differing views and live together in unity.  ‘Let each person be persuaded in their own mind’ and this extremely helpful reminder – ‘don’t just allow views other than your own in order to have a quarrel about it’.  Allow the views of others because this is a part of the shared community,  Each of us, reminds St Paul, is accountable to God – and he went even further, and ‘let’s not put any stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another’.

So then, for Christians, what is the right way of forgiveness? Are our sisters and brothers in Charleston on the right track – in declaring publicly and so quickly, their forgiveness for the man who killed their loved one?  Or is the Revd Julie Nicholson closer to the right path as she says that she cannot forgive the man who carried and then detonated the bomb which killed her daughter.

I will not enter into either of those discussions unless invited.  The discussions, the internal discussions take place on holy ground.  They take place where the human and divine meet; they take place where the presence of God is so acutely felt that words are insufficient.

But what I will dare to enter, by God’s grace, is into the discussions of the events of the past weeks and the anniversary we will mark this week.

After 7/7 the nation stood in silence for all those affected; we stood in silence on Friday.  I believe it was right to do so.  And I wonder why we don’t do this all the time? Every time one of our brothers or sisters die tragically; or alone; or in despair. The answers will be multi textured.

When we stand in silent memory and respect, when we offer or sadly have to withhold our forgiveness we feel it in our guts first, then in our minds as we try to make some sense of what we are doing. 

If Jeremiah was alive today what might God say through him about the terrorism we see all around us?  What might God say about the injustice?  What might God say about the judgmental attitudes which can lead eventually to hatred and then destruction of those who are ‘different’?

On Friday as I led prayers and silence for those killed in Tunisia, I know that I was also standing for those who are victims of terror every day, so common it is that they don’t make the news. 

Most of us will not be personally affected by the events of 7/7 or in Tunisia, but we all will know that visceral, gut-wrenching cry which is ‘this isn’t right’.  It isn’t right Jeremiah said, ‘for people to treat each other so badly and to disregard God’s laws’.  It isn’t right, wrote St Paul, that difference is a divider; it isn’t right when peace is shattered and hearts broken.  It isn’t right.  St Paul reminded the Roman Christians, and so us, that ‘the kingdom of God is righteousness and peace.  May we be people of peace – the only influence we have is our own situations – but little by little peace will come.

Let us pray

God of love,

we thank you that those who have died this last week

are in your gentle and loving hands,

far from cruelty, violence and pain of our world.

When the trouble was near,

we could not understand how you seemed to remain far away.

And yet it is to you we turn;

for in life and death it is you alone whom we can trust,

and yours alone is the love that holds us fast.

We find it hard to forgive the deed

that has brought us so much grief.

But we know that, if life is soured by bitterness,

an unforgiving spirit brings no peace.

Lord, save us and help us.

Strengthen in us the faith and hope that we can be

freed from the past with all its hurt,

and rest for ever in the calm security of your love,

in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen