God of the Temple, of the World, of the Earth (a sermon on Psalm 65)

When I was a teenager and first getting to know God, I developed a rather serious pollen allergy. This meant that being outdoors in the summer was often not a very pleasant experience for me. Also, I was a shy and introverted kind of kid and didn’t find big crowds easy to handle. All this meant that the most natural way for me to meet God was to do what Jesus suggests in Matthew 6: Go to your room, lock the door, and pray to your Father in secret!

Several decades later, with my pollen allergy much less of an issue, I started to enjoy the outdoors more. We started visiting Jasper National Park, we made a point of walking more in the river valley trail system, and I began to develop more of an awareness of the presence of God in nature. I still love my private prayer times, but they’re no longer enough for me. I find I need to get out into the grandeur and beauty of God’s creation as a way of encountering the God who made all these things.

I suspect we’ve all got our favourite ways of meeting God. For some it might be the Sunday worship and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. For others it might be the smell of good coffee and the laughter of conversation with friends. For some it might be holding hands with a spouse and praying together at the end of the day. For others it might be working together on a project to make the world a better place. People meet God in all kinds of ways and all kinds of situations. And I’m absolutely sure that God is always inviting us to expand our horizons and find new ways of connecting with him.

Why am I making these observations this morning? Because as I read through our psalm today it struck me that God is seen here in at least three different ways. In verses 1-4 God is the God of the Temple. In verses 5-8 God is the God of the world. Finally, in verses 9-13 God is the God of the Earth. Let’s take a closer look.

First, God of the Temple.

‘Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.’ (vv.1-4)

Here we have the people of Israel gathered together in Zion, in Jerusalem, worshipping God at the Temple. There was a general sense in Israel and Judah that this place, this Temple, was where God had ‘put his name to dwell’, as they would have said it. They knew as well as we do that God is present everywhere on earth, but still they made pilgrimages to Jerusalem because they believed God had made a special promise to meet them there.

Note that this was a community occasion. We do have stories in the Old Testament of individual encounters with God in the Temple, but most of the time prayer is something the community does together. People in Bible times were much more communal than we are, and they tended to see prayer together as the most basic and most important kind of prayer. They were God’s household, God’s family, and worship was a family gathering.

What happens in the Temple? The author mentions making vows to God, which is something that was common at the time: ‘To you shall vows be performed’ (v.1). Perhaps God had blessed you in a special way, and in thanksgiving you made a vow to perform some special service for him. That vow would usually be ratified in a place of prayer like the Temple, probably with the offering of a sacrifice.

The author mentions answered prayer: ‘To you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you shall all flesh come!’ (vv.1b-2a). We are a needy people, and so we come together to make our requests to God. By ourselves our prayers can often feel rather feeble, but when we ask for the prayers of the community, we can join our little voices to theirs; many people find that a real strengthening experience for their faith.

The author also mentions forgiveness. ‘When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgiven our transgressions’ (v.3). Again, this was usually accomplished by offering an animal sacrifice. The people’s sins would be confessed, the animal would be sacrificed and the blood sprinkled as a sign of God’s forgiveness being extended to the people.

The author goes so far as to mention living in God’s house. ‘Happy are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts’ (v.4). He’s probably referring to priests and Levites; how lucky they are, he says, because they get to live here all the time! It’s not the beauty of the building so much as the beauty of the presence of God.

How does this apply to us as Christians? Let’s remember that for the first three Christian centuries worshipping in a church building was not the norm; most churches were little house churches that met in people’s homes. And in the writings of Paul it’s not the physical building so much as the people of God: he tells us we’re like a spiritual temple, a place where God lives. When we gather together, whether it’s in a special building or not, there’s a special presence of the Holy Spirit with us.

So we gather to offer our prayers for the world and each other. We ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist as signs of God’s forgiveness being extended to us. We make vows—baptism and confirmation promises, for instance—and we pray for strength to fulfil them. And as we worship, our sense of God’s presence grows. Even though we don’t live here, we know God’s presence goes with us when we leave this place, so that day by day we’re living in fellowship with God.

So God is God of the Temple. Secondly, God is God of the world.

‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5-8).

I don’t want to be too dogmatic about my divisions here. I’m tempted to overstate my case and says that this middle section of the psalm is about God as God of the world, in the sense of the whole of humanity, whereas the last section is about God as God of the earth—that is, the non-human creation. In fact, of course, the  non-human creation is mentioned in this middle section too—the mountains, the roaring of the seas and so on.

But there’s a slight suggestion that the roaring of the seas might be a metaphor; did you catch that? ‘You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples’ (v.7). Israelites weren’t natural sailors and they were a bit nervous about the sea. It was an unpredictable place, full of sea monsters, and it was likely full of demons as well! So it wasn’t hard for them to see a storm as a symbol of the violent acts of mobs of people opposed to God and God’s purposes. It was reassuring to remember that God was perfectly capable of silencing them if he wanted to!

But what exactly is the relationship of those faraway people to the God of Israel? Is he their god too, or do they belong to their own gods, and is Israel’s god really only in charge within the borders of Israel? In ancient times everyone believed in tribal gods, so when you crossed the border into Moab it was wise to know a bit about Chemosh! After all, you were on his ground, and it was wise to know what he liked and what he didn’t like, so you didn’t accidentally offend him!

But this psalmist takes a different view. He’s well aware that Israel has been chosen to come into the courts of the Lord, but he’s also quite unapologetic in claiming that Yahweh the God of Israel is in fact God of the whole earth too.

‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas…
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5, 8).

I love this line: ‘You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas’ (v.5). I’ve no idea which people the Israelites would consider as living ‘at the ends of the earth’, but we can be sure that the world was a lot bigger than they had ever imagined! And in this verse the psalmist proclaims his faith that God the Creator is their God too, no less than Israel’s. The people of Israel knew it was their privilege to call on God in time of need, and to expect God’s answers. Now the psalmist says the people at the ends of the earth can do the same thing.

I think this is an invitation for us today to lift up our eyes, look out beyond the borders of our churches, out into the streets and coffee shops and bars and places of business in our cities and towns. We don’t need to take God there; God is already there! God understands politics and economics and science, and I expect if he put his hand to it God could cook a great meal and brew a wonderful cup of coffee! And God is already at work in the lives of men and women, sometimes in surprising ways.

But sometimes those men and women don’t know that they can call on God for help as well. So it’s our job to tell them they can. We can even offer to pray for them if they’d like us to! We can share with them how we experience the love of God in our lives, and sometimes they’ll surprise us with stories of their own. We can point to Jesus and do what we can to recommend him to people. And we can do this confidently, knowing that God is already at work, way ahead of us.

Speaking for myself, I want to say that this is one way I really enjoy meeting God. I spend a lot of time in non-Christian circles and have some great friendships there. Over the years I’ve been amazed to see how God is at work in people’s lives, whether they know it or not. I’ve met God at open stages and song circles just as much as in Eucharists and Bible study groups. He’s not just the God of the Temple; he’s the God of the world as well.

Finally, God is also God of the Earth. Look at the last part of the psalm:

‘You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.’ (vv.9-13).

This is the God who meets us in nature, in the cycle of the seasons; the God who ‘sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain. the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain’, as the old hymn says. This is the God who has set the earth up in such a way that it can provide for the needs of all its inhabitants, if we use it wisely and share generously. This is the God who paints the sunset using colours artists would never dare to combine on one canvas! This is the God who has decided to create some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet and then have them swim so deep in the ocean that human beings can never see them except with expensive diving equipment! This is the God who has apparently decided that the earth needs several million species of beetles!

It’s important for us to learn to meet this God. If we spend all our time praying in small rooms, we can too easily fall into the habit of thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. We need to lift our eyes to the night sky and think about what our Eucharistic Prayer calls ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. This God is far too big to fit into a small room—and yet, miraculously, he made himself small enough to grow within the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation becomes even more miraculous when we remind ourselves of who was being incarnated!

So God is seen in this psalm as the God of the Temple, but also the God of the whole inhabited world and all its peoples, and also the God of the whole created earth. We all probably have a favourite of these three, but we can all grow too, and learn to experience God’s presence in other settings.

Let me close by pointing out to you how the earth and its people respond to God’s presence. In verse 4, at the end of the first section, we read, ‘We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.’ Verse 8 tells us that ‘Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.’ And verse 13 sounds the note of joy again: ‘The valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’

Awe, satisfaction, joy: these are what we experience in God’s presence. The God we meet in temple and world and earth is so great and glorious that we can only feel a sense of awe in his presence, like the sense we feel when we first see a huge mountain like Mount Robson. But as we get to know God better, we also experience satisfaction, in the sense of people being satisfied after a nourishing meal. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’, the Bible says; to know him and live in his presence is the most satisfying experience we can ever enjoy. And we do enjoy it: joy is the third thing we experience as we meet with this living God.

So let me end by asking you these questions. First, when you think of God as the God of the Temple or church, of the world and all its peoples, and of the earth in the sense of the natural creation, which one do you feel the most affinity for? Which one works best for you right now, as a place of encounter with God? And second, which one seems less real for you, but could be one that God is inviting you to explore? And how might you begin to explore it, so that you can enter even more fully into the awe and satisfaction and joy of living every moment in the presence of God?

On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity (a sermon for Thanksgiving on Deuteronomy 8.7-18)

I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.

It might come as a surprise to you to hear that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message our politicians want us to hear; they’re committed to the position that prosperity is a pure and unadulterated ‘good thing’ and must be cultivated at all costs. Marketers don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage us to be discontented with our current level of prosperity, so they can sell us more things.

Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me as if he’s talking about radioactive materials: they can do a lot of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned. And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them, the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

Let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They’re now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Their leader Moses is an old man about to die, and he’s gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws and encourages the people to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

I’m sure this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift from God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

Today as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.

When I was a little boy, going out to a movie was a big thing. We weren’t very well off financially and it wasn’t something we did very often; I remember going to see ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, but that’s about it. We also didn’t have a TV in my home, but my grandparents did, so part of the fun of going across the road to visit them was being able to watch Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds on my grandparents’ TV (in black and white, of course)! But nowadays, being able to watch TV shows or movies on demand on the Internet is taken for granted, and people feel deprived if they can’t do it. Also, when I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, GPS, smart phones, smart watches, ‘Alexa’ – all these very new things have become an integral part of many people’s lives.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty-five years ago the average CEO of a large American corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

Our Old Testament reading for today points out this danger to us, and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly twenty years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and “Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much humbler than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times.

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations who hadn’t been there could enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who’ve visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in a hundred years ago! I think Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It’s a privilege, and it should lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to do that; our society has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Instead we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says,“You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals, although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It’s preserved for us in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a wholeshould prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention isn’t to suggest we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, I want to remind you that God’s law has never been just about personal morality; it also asks us to work toward the creation of a just society, where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible—both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over forty-one years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others alsoenjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for World Vision’s ‘Raw Hope’ initiative.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we need to handle it carefully. We need to remember where we’ve come from; we need to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we need to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we need to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

‘A Time to Mend’ is out in paperback!

I’m pleased to announce that my new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available in paperback timchesterton_A5from Amazon.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Here are links to some of the places you can get it:

Canada

USA

UK

For other countries, please search on your local Amazon website using ‘Tim Chesterton A Time to Mend’; it should be one of the first few to come up.

I hope you enjoy it!

‘Faith Enough to Forgive’ (a sermon on Luke 17.1-10)

The subject of forgiveness is a hugely painful one for many Christians. Pastors and priests are confronted with it all the time. People come to us with stories of horrible things others have done to them, and then they look at us angrily and say, “And I suppose you’re going to tell me I should forgive him!” Or, alternatively, they look at us with tears in their eyes and say, “I know I should forgive him, and I’ve really tried, but I just can’t.” 

One of the most famous modern stories of Christian forgiveness took place thirteen years ago in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Here’s a story from three years ago from the Washington Post:

A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sunroom. It says “Forgiven.” The word—and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred—is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.

The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of. But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Roberts’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.

Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.

I wonder what you would have said or done in the position of those Amish families? I wonder what would have done?

Our Gospel for today contains straight talk on the subject of forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that when our brother or sister sins against us—the original language says ‘brother’, not ‘another disciple’ as the NRSV has it—when our brother or sister sins against us, we are to rebuke them, and if they repent, we are to forgive them. At that point his disciples might have thought “Wow—that’s a tough one! We’ll need to be a lot further along on the road of faith to be able to do that!” So they ask in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” In the rest of the passage Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of what’s necessary for them to be able to forgive.

As we read between the lines a bit in this story, we come to understand that the disciples were mistaken on two counts: they had a wrong view of forgiveness and a wrong view of faith. Let’s look a little more closely at this together. 

First of all, the disciples had a wrong view of forgiveness.My guess is that they made the same mistake on this subject as many do today: they were confusing forgiveness with excusing or with the healing of the hurt. 

What’s the difference? Well, excusing says “What you did was no big deal, so I’m not going to make an issue out of it”. But forgiveness says “What you’ve done was sinful and wrong, but I’m not going to exact vengeance on you. Instead, I’m going to continue to act in a loving way toward you”. But acting in love to someone doesn’t necessarily mean letting them get away with evil. Those of us who are parents know this very well: forgiving our kids and acting in love toward them doesn’t mean we let them get away with wrongdoing without trying to stop them and help them change. What it does mean is that we do what’s best for them, rather than what feels good to us.

In our Gospel, Jesus is clearly not talking about excusing. He says in verse 3 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them” (NIV 2011). The command to rebuke is as plain and clear as the command to forgive. And it is important for the other person, too. If someone sins against me and causes me harm, it is clearly spiritually harmful for them as well. I am commanded by Jesus to point that out to them and to call for repentance.

I wonder if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this sort of thing? Some years ago I had said something unkind about someone to a third party, and the person I’d been talking about had heard about my remarks. She was a lot younger than me, but nonetheless she very bravely confronted me with it, quite tearfully in fact, and told me how hurt she had been. I blustered a bit, but the plain fact was that she was right and I was wrong. Eventually I stopped blustering, admitted she was right, and asked her forgiveness. She dealt faithfully with me according to Jesus’ teaching here, but then she freely forgave me when I repented and apologized. I was not excused, but I was forgiven.

So forgiveness is not the same as excusing. Neither is it the same as experiencing healing of the hurt we have received. I think that when many people say, “I can’t forgive him!” what they really mean is “I can’t get over the pain he caused me”. And of course that makes a great deal of sense; the healing of pain, especially emotional pain, often takes a very long time. If we wait for the pain to go away before we forgive someone, it’s likely we’ll never reach the forgiveness stage.

Now I hear you thinking, “Well, if forgiveness is not excusing and it’s not making the pain go away, what exactly is it?” Forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice I make, a choice to continue to actin a loving way toward those who have hurt me, whether I feel like it or not. It’s a choice to accept the injury and to return for it love and not vengeance. I say again, it’s not about feelings but about actions. It’s well described for us by Paul in these verses from Romans:

‘No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on their heads”. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:20-21).

Forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice to love another person, not matter how we feel. Why is it so important to Jesus? Because to refuse to forgive is to bind ourselves to the past and to refuse to move forward and grow in love. Clinging to bitterness, anger and the thought of vengeance is not growth; only love is growth. So Jesus gives us this command for our own sake, because he loves us and wants to lead us from slavery into freedom.

We’ve said that the disciples probably had a wrong view of forgiveness. Secondly, they also probably had a wrong view of faith.

The disciples were obviously overawed by Jesus’ command to rebuke and forgive. “This is far beyond us! We’re going to need a lot of supernatural help to put this into practice! Increase our faith!” They obviously expected that Jesus would somehow do this miraculously, as in his healings and his exorcisms. But the truth is that Jesus usually answers a prayer for more faith by allowing us to get into situations where we have to exerciseour faith, so that our ‘faith-muscles’ can grow.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s often been observed that most stories of God’s miraculous healings in the world today come from countries where there are no expensive clinics or cheap drug plans. The people have nowhere else to turn but to God, so their faith-muscles get a lot of use. They grow in faith by exercising their faith on a daily basis.

How might God answer a prayer like “Increase our faith”? I’d suggest that if we as a congregation prayed this prayer, one way God might answer it would be to allow one of our members who makes a major contribution to our budget to move to another city. The prospect of a budget shortfall might have the effect of forcing us to rely on God more and pray constantly for God’s help! So—be careful what you pray for!

This leads us to verses 6-10. After the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, here’s what happened:

The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

These verses make more sense when we take them in the context of what has gone before. Jesus is saying to his disciples “You’re asking for more faith so that you can forgive as I’ve told you. You think the problem is your lack of faith, but in fact it’s not. You already have all the faith you need. You are a servant; you’ve been commanded to forgive—not to feelforgiveness, but to forgive in action. What you need is not more faith; what you need is a little bit of simple obedience 

A few years ago I read this story in Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Unconditional’: 

During the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the Armenian Genocide comes a famous story of a Turkish army officer who led a raid on the house of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soldiers. The officer kept the youngest daughter for himself. Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of the lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing, he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave – exceptional care.

As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead”. The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Have we met?” “Yes”, she replied. After a long silence the officer asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?” The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘love your enemies’”.

This young woman didn’t wait until she felt forgiveness, or until she felt more faith. She apparently didn’t consult her feelings at all. She simply acted in obedience and offered the practical care that her enemy, the man who had injured her, needed in order to survive. And God honoured her obedience; her story is still being told today as an example of the forgiveness and love for enemies that Jesus commands of us.

No one is pretending this is easy. But it is vital, for two reasons. Firstly for our own spiritual and emotional health. To refuse to forgive is to bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. To refuse to forgive is to decide that the future will look exactly like the past: you hit me, I hit you harder, and so on, and so on. Only forgiveness has the power to change the future. 

Secondly, it’s vital for the future of the Christian church—including our own church. These days there’s all sorts of hand wringing in Christian circles about shrinking church attendance and proving we’re still relevant and so on. But those aren’t the most important issues facing the Christian church. The most important issue facing the Christian church is this: will we look like Jesus? Will we live in such a way that people learn about what Jesus said and did just by watching our lives? Nothing else is as important as that. And of course, forgiving and being forgiven is right at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus. 

So today, let’s not pray as the disciples did, “Increase our faith”. Let’s recognize that we’ve already been given enough faith to do as we’re told. Let’s simply resolve that when we will leave here today, we will do our best to put Jesus’ words into practice:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent’, you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4 NIV 2011).