St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, February 24, 2019
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
First Lesson: Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the evening hours of November 14, 1940, Nazi Germany sent over 500 bombers to raid the English city of Coventry. The Coventry Blitz, as it’s often called, lasted over ten hours, leaving more than 500 dead, 2,300 homes destroyed, and the town’s Gothic cathedral in ruins.
During the raid, many people in the town worked hard to try and save the cathedral from being totally lost in the flames, but they were unsuccessful. In the end, the only parts of the building still standing were the tower, the spire, and the outer wall. Everything else burned.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Provost of Coventry Cathedral, the Very Reverend Richard Howard, had two words inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building. “Father, forgive.” Notice that the inscription wasn’t “Father, forgive them.” Just “Father, forgive.” The Provost realized in that moment that the only way to break the endless cycle of violence and retribution was to choose love over hate. He realized that the only path toward peace and reconciliation is to acknowledge the fact that all of us are in need of forgiveness. All of us, no matter who we are or where we come from, need to be forgiven.
Coventry Cathedral was eventually rebuilt, but the ruins of the old, Gothic structure still remain to this day. Behind the altar lies a cross that was made out of two, burned wooden beams from fallen building and on the wall, directly behind the cross, are the words, “Father, forgive” etched in stone.
In the years that have passed since the end of World War II, the cathedral has become an international symbol of reconciliation. The words, “Father, forgive” are now used as the response in a Litany of Reconciliation that is prayed every weekday at noon at the cathedral. The litany serves as a reminder to all of us that when we pray for the needs and concerns of the world around us, we also need to confess that we’ve fallen short of our own call to love and serve others. That includes those who have hurt us and caused us pain.
I honestly can’t think of a more difficult passage from Scripture than the one we heard just a few moments ago from the Gospel of Luke. This is one that we don’t like to hear too often and certainly one that preachers would love to avoid, if possible. It’s perhaps Jesus’ most challenging and thought-provoking lesson to his disciples and to us.
In a continuation of our Gospel lesson from last week, Jesus says to the crowd, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
I don’t know about you, but every time I hear this reading, I ask myself, “What in the world was Jesus thinking?” He assumes way too much if he thinks we have the capacity to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. How could he ask so much of us when our first reaction is to seek vengeance and strike back when someone offends us or hurts us? How could Jesus ask us to love those who wish to do us harm? What about our feelings?
I wouldn’t be as forthcoming as I should if I didn’t tell you that there’ve been moments in my life when I prayed to God for an exception to this one commandment. There’ve been moments when I’ve asked God for permission to hate those who’ve hurt me. It pains me to admit it, but it’s absolutely true. And, I think it’s something that all of us struggle with from time to time.
Our natural response to those who hurt us is to hurt them right back. We want them to suffer just as much as we’ve suffered. We want them to pay for the harm they’ve inflicted upon us. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
But, Jesus teaches us another way. Jesus teaches us to choose love over hate, which is really life over death. The words of the collect that we prayed at the beginning of our service this morning seem especially appropriate in light of our Gospel lesson. Listen to the words again: O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Without love, whatever we do is worthless. Love is the greatest gift, and without it, we are counted among the dead. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, not only for their sake, but for ours also. In his wisdom, he has taught us that love is the only way to achieve the abundant life that God so desires for us. Love is the only way to true freedom and peace.
So, how do we begin to love those who hate us? Where do we start? I think Provost Howard at Coventry Cathedral was on to something all those years ago. We begin to love those who hate us by offering forgiveness. We begin by offering mercy to the merciless. In one of the last moments of his life, Jesus forgave those who mocked him and persecuted him while hanging on the cross, setting for us an example of perfect love and prefect trust in God. It’s only by God’s grace that we’re capable of offering forgiveness to those who’ve sinned against us. Of course, being able to forgive others often takes more time than we would we like, and that’s okay. We should never feel shame or guilt about taking the time we need to offer forgiveness. In God’s time and by God’s grace, we can all learn to forgive and, in the process, learn what it means to love more like Jesus.
I’d like for us to say together the Litany of Reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral. While we pray the litany, I invite you to think about the people in your lives who need to be forgiven. I also invite you to consider the ways in which you need to be forgiven. I’ll say each line of the litany, and in response, we’ll say together, “Father forgive.”
Let us pray.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.