September 13, 2020

Is there a doctor in the house – 14th Sunday after Trinity – Revd Sally Bedborough

Sometimes, it’s really, really hard to be a priest. One of the reasons that it is especially hard is when there is a call to preach on forgiveness. I’m only too aware that the theme of forgiveness is not crystal clear in my own life. So I speak to you today as one who struggles with forgiveness, not one who has it all sewn up.

Of course, I know the command to forgive. I’m familiar with the unremitting grace of God to cancel my debts, transgressions, and sins. But how often do I find myself cast in this role of the unforgiving servant as I struggle to forgive, and especially as I struggle to forget? All too often, I’m sorry to say…

So with the challenge of forgiveness before us today, I turned to my books. I scoured the theological ones. A book on the parables of Jesus again reminded me that this story that Jesus tells is all about dying to one way of life – that is the ‘book-keeping’ style; and being alive to the other way of life – which is to imitate the grace, mercy and forgiveness of the king, and to become a channel of peace and love myself.

Well, so much for the theory; we all know it. We all know that to harbour unforgiveness is to harm ourselves; we all know that life in the kingdom of God requires peace, reconciliation, and loving relationships. And do we not each day, pray: ‘and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’?

However, it’s not always that easy in practice is it?

Another book that I plucked off my shelf helped me enormously. The book was by Brother Ramon and he attempts to offer spiritual advice to many who are asking thorny questions. One such question being along the lines of: ‘How can I forgive someone who has hurt me?’

And what Brother Ramon notices in the more fulsome letter behind the question, is the deep sense of hurt and woundedness that is experienced. All he says, which I think is so profound, is that where there is an open wound, a broken heart, a fragile psyche – we have images of vulnerability, weakness and suffering. And considering all this pain and hurt, we need a physician, a doctor, rather than a judge.

That simple statement helped me rather a lot. And I’ve taken that thought a little further myself and brought some diseases of unforgiveness to the doctors’ surgery.

First, the acute condition. This is the severe pain or condition that has a sudden onset. Physically this might be a broken arm or a sore throat. There is usually treatment for this - medication that might treat and relieve the symptoms. As far as an acute spiritual condition involving the need for forgiveness goes, this might be a wound we have experienced through misunderstandings, words spoken in haste, inadvertent distress caused. If we are quick and do not let the situation fester, the hurt can be avoided and good health and good relationships can be restored. But we all know what happens if conditions of this sort are left to fester. They can become toxic.

Second, the chronic condition. A chronic condition is one we have to learn to live with. It is persistent in its effects and may develop over time. Physical conditions of this kind are things like diabetes and  asthma. There may be treatment that alleviates the condition somewhat, but a condition of this kind usually involves adjustment and accommodation; a sufferer will need to do life differently. Treatments may have unpleasant side effects.

I’d put this kind of spiritual condition in the bracket of how we can aim to live with those who continue to wound us; or with whom we just can’t get on, and yet from whom it is not possible to distance ourselves. Or a hurt that has done us so much damage that we continue to remember it regularly. This is when we need support and care to help us reach a place of peace and reconciliation; whether that is within ourselves, between ourselves or between God and ourselves.

Finally, the condition that is palliative; where cure is not likely; but where treatment aims to bring about comfort & alleviation of symptoms. The hurt and pain from this spiritual wound is not curable, but it is treatable. For those who have been the victims of abuse or random acts of violence, for innocent victims of war and terrorism, complete forgiveness may not be achievable; indeed, an element of unforgiveness may even bring about justice. Where  evil abounds, forgiveness may not be possible or even appropriate. However, the condition can be supported by care and ‘cloaking’ – which is what the word palliative means. So the treatment for such conditions of unforgiveness would be an intent to leave the perpetrators of such crimes in the hands of our judicial system & our God of all justice, & personally, to pursue treatments of spiritual care that support the process of holding, healing & spiritual pain relief.

Bearing in mind that we have a loving doctor as our healer, what kind of treatment might this invite? Primarily, understanding: God is a sensitive listener and we can pour out our pain to him. And then, unpleasant medicine might be prescribed – taking the tablet that calls us to try again with that relationship, or to work hard to understand what motivates the other party who regularly wounds us. Also, prayer; esp the Lord’s Prayer as mentioned earlier; acknowledging that forgiveness is a process and not an instant fix that wipes the slate clean.

Finally, in these times of Covid restrictions, let us take all the wealth of experience that we have in avoiding disease and apply it to our efforts to forgive. Remembering for instance: Hands, Face, Space…

Washing our hands = confessing our hardness of heart; admitting our selfish absorption with maintaining the high ground; offering understanding to another’s point of view as well as our own.

Wearing the mask of protecting our own hearts from further hurt. We can avoid unhelpful confrontation if we know what pushes our buttons, and how our behaviour pushes the buttons of others; so self-awareness is key.

Keeping our distance – yes, acknowledging that people who have hurt us in the past are in the past and today is a new day, and tomorrow is a chance to begin again. Meeting outside – keeping always within the boundaries of God’s love and mercy; the fresh air of the Spirit of God who aids us in keeping short accounts and who blows away our pettiness & pride.

Thank God that we have a king who used to be a bookkeeper but who chose another profession. Casting aside all record of our misdeeds, mis-thoughts & misspeaking; we are baptised into the grace that is woven from the fabric of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Focussing on this understanding of God we can draw in turn on an understanding of our need for a wise & gentle doctor as we bring all our woundedness before him. Thankfully, God offers not just a phone consultation, but a thorough medical. God brings sensitivity and understanding of our various conditions to our appointment. What safer and more trustworthy hands could we possibly be in? As we travel with these thoughts, how much more honest and open can we be about the woundedness that rises from our unforgiveness of others and our desire to become those channels of God’s love and grace? With that in mind, let us now turn to our prayers of penitence……