Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity: “Forgiveness” preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 17 September 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson (Romans Ch 14: v 1 – 12; St. Matthew Ch 18: 21 – 35)

The Abbey porch has a slab commemorating the visit of Queen Elizabeth II & the Duke of Edinburgh to the Abbey, a reminder that various kings and queens have come to Sherborne over the years. An 11th century royal visitor was Cnut, the Danish king of this country who was a precursor of William the Conqueror as an invader from abroad. On occasion he visited Sherborne with his wife, Queen Emma. The early deaths of family members meant that his lineage did not survive and in due course Edward the Confessor came to the throne, restoring the Anglo-Saxon line. In Denmark he is known as Cnut the Great but in this country he is principally known for commanding the waves to keep their distance. This was not to show how powerful he was, as some have said, but to show that kingly power is as nothing compared to the will of Almighty God.

Cnut visited Sherborne in 1035 according to the Life of St. Wulfsige, but the records are rather thin for this period. Historians gain some information from the issue of Charters and Canute issued one that year granting land to the monks of Sherborne at Corscombe in Dorset about a dozen miles southwest of us. Cnut expressed the wish that the gift of transitory earthly riches might secure eternal rewards in heaven, the redemption of his soul and absolution from his crimes. The monks were always to offer prayers to Almighty God and daily to beseech God by singing psalms and celebrating masses for his sins so that, after his death, through God’s mercy and their holy intercession he will come to the heavenly kingdom. It looks as though Cnut was already mortally ill when he made this grant, for his eternal destiny clearly weighed heavily on his mind and indeed he died later that year on 12 November at Shaftesbury.

Seeking forgiveness is an enduring theme in the Old and New Testaments. In the OT the children of Israel found that they did things which they believed were offensive to God and the only way to restore the previous harmonious relationship was to make some sort of reparation. The way that they came up with some 3000 years ago was to give to God life possibly even a human life. The very idea may seem abhorrent to us and yet we speak of the sacrifice that people made during WWII and remember on this day, Battle of Britain Sunday, the loss of life of brave pilots who fought to save this country from invasion – the 83rd such anniversary.

In the OT though an animal was substituted for a person’s life. You will remember the story of Abraham and Isaac and how Abraham was prepared to show his devotion to God by sacrificing Isaac but was spared this horrendous task by substituting the ram caught in a thicket. That story made clear a change in understanding what God required but it was still perceived that the pouring out of life was the way in which atonement was made even if it was animal life rather than human. In this way God could be induced to overlook the faults of the worshipper and restore the relationship between God and humanity.

Well, in due course it came to be seen that it was quite easy to take a few animals to the Temple, especially if you were quite wealthy and had plenty of stock but that it might easily have no effect on your relationship with God. So we find the OT prophets insisting that no sacrifice of any sort was of the slightest use unless there went with it good and humanitarian conduct and obedience to the law.

So we come to the gospel reading set for today and to the story of the Unmerciful Servant. It looks as though the first servant who owed so much could have been an official who was in charge of the revenue from an entire province. The talent is the largest unit of currency used and 10,000 the highest number so Jesus was clearly suggesting a size of debt almost beyond conception. A billion pounds or more could be a suitable translation. In contrast, the second servant owed the first 100 pence. It is this disparity between the two debts that is meant to strike us. For what Jesus is drawing our attention to is that there are two sides to forgiveness just as there are two sides to love. On the one hand we receive, on the other we give. The first servant received forgiveness on a fantastic scale; he was then called upon to show forgiveness of a trifling sum and in this he signally failed.

Our motive for forgiving, for showing Christian love to people is that God first loved us and has first forgiven us. It as though we are under guarantee. A garage from which you buy a car will give you a guarantee. They don’t say that your car won’t go wrong, but they say that if it does, they will put it right. So with us. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes. But God says that he will forgive us, that he will wipe out the things that separate us from him and restore our relationship with him. The whole of the New Testament shouts out that God does not demand the first step from us as though we could put things right. God himself takes the initiative. He sets about restoring us to true relationship with him. God’s love and forgiveness for us all depend not on our thoughts nor our actions; they depend upon his own unconditional love. We do not deserve it; we cannot earn it; all we have to do is to accept it and praise God for such a wonderful gift. Human beings do not here make a bargain with God like a treaty between nations where each side has something to offer and something to demand. Our relationship with God is of a new and very different kind created by God for every individual, a relationship which is unmerited and unearned.

When we have grasped this stupendous fact, that God wipes out all those things which diminish our relationship with him, then we find that we cannot but forgive other people when they offend us. For we are all weak and make mistakes which hurt other people. We may unwittingly offend or even deliberately set out to hurt someone. There is of course friction between members of a Christian community, just as with any group of people. But the difference with a Christian community is (or should be) in our forgiveness of one another which should be as natural a response to God’s forgiveness of us as the growth of a plant in response to the light of the Sun.

For Christian love means an insistent goodwill which doesn’t moan about the faults of others but forgives. It won’t have escaped your notice that our parable has a rather nasty sting in its tail. For those who do not forgive, the parable of the unmerciful servant carries an awful warning. In view of his failure to forgive a trifling debt when he had been forgiven such an enormous one, the King was furious and delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay the debt. “So likewise,” says Jesus “shall my heavenly Father do also to you if you from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses.”

We are reminded of this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer for this succinctly links our receiving of forgiveness with our giving it to others. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”, we pray. It is almost as though the parable of the unmerciful servant is a comment on and an expansion of this sentence in the Lord’s Prayer. It is all too easy to rattle off the Lord’s Prayer without giving it a great deal of thought. This morning’s gospel encourages us to think a bit more carefully about what we say so readily, to praise God because he forgives us and to resolve to be truly forgiving to those who give offense to us.