Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What's in a word? On debts, sins and trespasses

Words matter. Human life is lived very largely through language. It's perhaps the single most important thing that distinguishes us from the apes. Dennis Potter once remarked that "the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in".

Now if you're a spiritually-minded person, a key part of any interaction with the Divine, the Transcendent, is prayer: a conversation, a meeting between the individual and God. Some people have experienced this in silence or through wordless interaction: mystics, Quakers, Sufis. But for very many people, their prayer life happens through words. We are told at the start of John's gospel that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Over the past year, a church I value (but have never visited), Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been preaching through a series of 12 words which sum up 12 seasons of the spiritual life. The series is based on a book by Brian Maclaren, "Naked Spirituality". I've heard most of the sermons through the year. A constant theme has been the interplay between words and the place beyond words, of a deliberate statement of what we mean by God and how we talk to God, and the total inability of human beings to do that explicitly. It's been a very worthwhile and inspiring series of sermons.

I recently heard the final sermon, and it ended with a single prayer - THE prayer, the one Jesus taught his disciples when asked "how do we pray", and which has since become known as the Lord's Prayer. It's an interesting end-point for an examination of the spiritual life, because it's a set of words which contains all the key themes of any prayer: calling God holy, thanksgiving, asking for things we need, saying sorry and asking forgiveness, seeking protection, and looking towards action in the world. I'm not convinced Jesus necessarily meant it to be spoken word-for-word in every church service (as is the case in very many Christian traditions), but it does serve as a great summary.

There's a word in it (or a pair of words) which I've wrestled with for many years, for cultural reasons as much as theological ones. I learnt them as "debts" and "debtors", and that's how they appear in many Bible translations, including both the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).

The word in Greek for "debts" is "opheilemata", literally "that which is owed". In the Latin version, prayed in so many Western churches for so many centuries, it's "debita" (the same root as the word "debit" in banking). In the Church of Scotland I learnt the Lord's Prayer as "debts" and "debtors", it remains the standard Scottish use and also that of Presbyterian churches in North America. To the modern ear, it has a slightly financial air, a little too close to the English stereotype about Scots and their over-emphasis on money perhaps, but understandable enough.

But of course in the English tradition, the word is most often said as "trespasses". (This word appears in the King James Version, in a brief commentary Jesus gives on the prayer after it, in Matthew 6:14.) To me it's long seemed an alien word, not part of my tradition. And I still don't find it very meaningful. If the 'Scottish' version is a bit over-financial, this seems to suggest land-rights, going into places where you shouldn't be - not really a metaphor for wrong-doing.

Although I've now lived in England for 25 years, I spent a big part of that time as a Quaker and not using the Lord's Prayer, so it wasn't a big issue. Every now and then when I was in another church and the Lord's Prayer was used, I either mumbled the word or used "debtors". In the United Reformed Church where I'm now a member, we most often use the modern version that renders the word simply as sin ("forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us") and that suits me fine. The Iona Community uses the same version in its daily worship, and I like it there too. Some older people prefer to use the older version, complete with trespasses, and that's their right. But I think 'sins' suits the meaning well, and fits our modern understanding of the words.

However: while on placement last year in my training as a lay preacher, I was in a church that used the "trespasses" version. And as I was leading worship from the front, I couldn't avoid it. So I taught myself to say "trespasses". There was no thunder from the sky, I didn't collapse. It's just a word. I continue to find the word a bit alien, and it was a relief to return to my own church and say "sins" again at that point. Except on a recent Sunday, when we had a visiting preacher who invited us to say the Lord's Prayer in the 'traditional version', so I followed my own tradition, and said "debts"... (It was a few days before the Scottish independence referendum, so I was feeling mildly patriotic or perhaps sentimental.)

There's something to be said for everyone using the same words at the same time - it has a powerful bonding effect. But for me the meaning trumps that. On occasions my wife and I have used the 'modern' version of the Lord's Prayer with its 'sins' standing next to each other while others around us said the version with 'trespasses', and that separated us from others around but was a moment of bonding for us. Our daughter can happily say the modern version from memory but gets little from the old one.

And perhaps for me the key thing is the concentration on the words - that by questioning what words we use in prayer, they become active and aware rather than passive and recitation by rote. So I continue to wonder, continue to examine the question, continue to ask myself each time "will it be debts, or sins, or trespasses"?

So what's in a word, when we come before the Divine presence in prayer? Nothing much, but also everything.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Unbreakable Vow: on Death Eaters and political promises

One of the great things about being the parent of an almost nine year old is that you get to read (or re-read) children's classics along with them rather than to them. My daughter is reading the Harry Potter series for the first time, and I'm re-reading them in turn after she finishes each volume, so we have something to talk about. She's reading the last one just now, so I've been reading the sixth, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Which contains an interesting commentary on current political events...

Early in the book, the evil sisters Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange (say what you like about Rowling's ability to write dialogue, but she has a great way with names) visit Severus Snape to enlist his help in assist the former's son, Draco Malfoy, in the task that Voldemort has set him. (We later find out that this is to kill Professor Dumbledore.)  Snape swears a mighty vow, magically sealed to be an Unbreakable Vow, and with Bellatrix as the 'Binder' (magical guarantor) that he will protect Draco and if needed carry out the deed himself. I've not seen the movie from this book but clips are available of the vow-casting online - they make for a chilling scene.

The point about an unbreakable vow is that it's (doh) unbreakable. If you break it, you die. It's a big undertaking. Not to be taken lightly. Not to be used as a bargaining chip in an argument you're afraid you might be losing.

And so to politics. A vow was solemnly made this week by three political parties leaders, sealed not by a magical spell but by their own reputations, and guaranteed not by a wizard but by a former Prime Minister of the UK. But they did promise faithfully that "all three main parties will deliver change for Scotland".

Such a vow is not unbreakable in quite the same way as Snape's vow. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will not die if they renege on this vow but their reputations will be in tatters if they do. Moreover, the whole basis on which they finally turned around the referendum, persuaded the Scottish people that voting No wasn't just a resumption of the status quo, would be in tatters. Moreover, it would fuel the cynical belief across the whole UK that You Can't Trust Politicians. And fuelling that belief doesn't just threaten the Scotland-England relationship, it risks letting in the anti-politicians, the populists like Nigel Farage and worse ones further right than him, who currently are just a nuisance but given a measure of power could be extremely dangerous.

So in a way this vow is just as unbreakable as Snape's vow. Except that if they break this, what they risk destroying isn't just their own reputations - it's the future of the United Kingdom as a viable polity, and even of democracy itself within these isles.

The vow must be kept.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Conflict in our midst & Christ among us

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 7th September 2014. Text: Matthew 18:15-22


I hate you!
If he tells that story again, I shall hit him, I swear it.
If she says one more thing about my flowers, I’ll tell her what I think of her.




Conflict. It’s a part of any human community. John doesn’t like what Rosemary said, and he’s in a huff about it. John’s friend Bill gets drawn in, and Bill’s wife Jane, except that Rosemary’s sister Judith is already in an argument with Jane. And ten years later, the arguments remain, the hurts stay. The community is diminished, but nobody can quite address it.

And in churches, conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. That was in a town far from here, but I know of similar stories of churches in this area, where splits haven’t healed after years, or where people carry on together in the same church community but are unreconciled to each other.

If conflict isn’t addressed, it can get worse and worse. I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree”. The first verse is quite well known. It runs:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

However, the poem gets darker and darker. The unquenched anger becomes something real and tangible. Eventually the poet kills his foe.

So what do we do about this kind of conflict? That’s the subject of the reading from Matthew today. It’s not a cheery topic, not one many of us would like to think about, but really important. I need to say something directly before I continue. As someone who’s not been to this church before, let alone preached in it, I want to emphasise that what I have to say today is not loaded, it’s not based on particular conflicts between people here. I’m sure there are some, but I don’t know about them. So rest assured that any anecdotes aren’t aimed at specific people here – though that does mean I might unintentionally hit on a raw nerve or two.

And Jesus presents us with a solution of sorts, though it’s an odd kind of solution. The process Jesus outlines can sound incredibly harsh, like a recipe for a disciplinary committee of the sort practised by our Reformed forebears in places like Geneva and Edinburgh in the days when these were far from cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. In fact it’s such a difficult passage, and so oddly out of joint with Jesus’ style (not to mention its use of the term ‘church’ when no such thing existed) that the great Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay argued that it couldn’t possibly be the authentic words of Jesus. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the pagans or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very welcoming towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this? Well (deep breath), I do believe it’s a passage that sits alongside Jesus’ other teaching, if you look at where he’s saying it.

First of all, the immediately preceding passage is Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And then the passage is followed with two verses which aren’t linked with this passage in the lectionary, but I thought were so helpful that we needed to hear them today: Jesus’ statement to Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times. That’s a lot of forgiveness. And it chimes in with a saying of Jesus in the Sermon on Mount, that:
“if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV)

So to me the passage needs to be seen in the context of forgiveness, and of St Paul’s statement in our reading from Romans, saying “to love is to obey the whole Law”.

If someone does wrong to you, you don’t kick back, you don’t nurse a grudge. First thing, you go and talk to them. You need to say straight out “you’ve hurt me, you’ve done me wrong”. That’s a shockingly difficult thing in itself to do. Very often I don’t have the courage to do it myself if someone has done me wrong. But it’s a necessary first step. And it acknowledges the other person’s humanity, that they too are a child of God whatever wrong they’ve done you. So there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in being willing to do that. And it may be sufficient by itself.

But it may not be enough, and in that case we’re presented with a couple of further steps: to bring along a couple of others to talk it through with the wrong-doer, and then to take it to the whole community. That last step is incredibly difficult – to tell everyone what has happened. And this isn’t about gossiping, it’s about openly stating the issue. Imagine raising a long-standing personal dispute as an item at the next church meeting. It’s would be tough, unpleasant. But if it was done in the right way, in a spirit of openness and loving forgiveness, and if the other person could hear it in that spirit, and if the church could support you both through the process – that could be the sort of thing that really heals wounds that fester over decades within a community.

And if it still doesn’t work, Jesus advises, we are best to openly acknowledge that the community is broken, to be public about it. It has to be done in love and care. Religious communities have treated transgressors really badly in the past, calling them excommunicated or expelled. But if we can openly acknowledge that the person who has done wrong is looking in a different direction from the rest of the community, perhaps with fault on all sides, then that’s perhaps another way towards eventual healing. And it’s a way to avoid blaming the victim, which I’ve not mentioned but can be a real risk in some cases – where wrong is done to someone, but the community closes ranks to support the wrongdoer and it’s the victim who is driven out of the community. That’s happened far too often to women who have been raped, it’s happened far too often to children who have been abused by people they trusted. What Jesus is talking about is a way to love everyone and forgive everything, but to trust the victim of wrong rather than blaming them.

Now I’m going to pass over the bits about permitting and prohibiting in heaven and on earth, which
are a whole different sermon, because I want to talk about this wonderful statement, that “where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them”.  There’s such a lot of richness in that statement. Does he mean us? This group of people gathered today in Jesus’ name? Yes he does. And he means every church everywhere worshipping today, wherever in the world in whatever ways. He promises us that he is there with us, holding our community together. And that brings me to discernment.

What the sequence of steps that Jesus describes reminds me of, is the process of discernment. I was a Quaker for fifteen years, and Quakers have long talked about an individual having a ‘concern’ – a matter that presses deeply on their heart. Often that’s the way that real change begins, from one individual’s concern. Among Quakers, it’s how the campaign against slavery began, how many peace-making efforts began, and how their current witness for same-sex marriage equality began. If such a concern is really strong, you might believe that it’s God telling you to do something. But how do you know it’s from God? You pray about it individually, deeply, at length. Then you bring together a small group to pray together and to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit on the topic. If that group believes that this is something coming from God, you take it to the whole church to seek their discernment. You might even go to another level within the denomination to seek further discernment – in the URC that would be synods and the general assembly. And what Jesus is saying here is a similar thing, but about handling conflict.

If we want to restore community, if we want to restore wholeness to our broken relationships, we have to seek the will of God together, in wider and wider groups. We have to listen prayerfully to the still small voice of the Spirit, and we have to be prepared to forgive each other and to rejoice in the return of the lost one to our community.

We live in a world where the word community has become grossly over-used. We hear talk of online communities, of communities based around identity, communities based around lifestyle, even communities based around what kind of gadgets you buy (the iPhone community or the Android community). Yet we’re also in a world where community feels quite a long way from many people’s lives. And we’re in a world where conflict and separation are everywhere. Tensions may have reduced slightly in Ukraine, but they could start up again any time. Syria is a constant sea of conflict and division, likewise Israel and Palestine. So many of these sores are to do with ancient hatreds that never healed, because nobody put in the work to make them heal. What Jesus offers us here is a way of doing that, which if we practice it in our own local hurts and conflicts just might offer a beacon of hope to a world that is suffering so much from conflict.

One example of this working out in practice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which practiced forgiveness on a daily basis as it sought to bring out into the open the many terrible acts committed during the apartheid years. Desmond Tutu, who chaired the commission, says that “forgiving is not forgetting; it's actually remembering and not using your right to hit back”. I heard his daughter Mpho Tutu, herself an Episcopal priest in South Africa, speak last month at Greenbelt. She spoke very powerfully about forgiveness. There is no one, she said, who cannot be forgiven – nobody is beyond forgiveness. Moreover, it is possible to forgive someone even if they show no remorse, and indeed by not forgiving someone you allow the one who injured you to dictate who you are. This fits so well with the compassionate as well as the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ teaching.

Sticking with the wisdom found through injustice in southern Africa as we come to an end, there’s a song from Zimbabwe, brought to this country by the Iona Community, which is based on today’s passage. It runs:
If you believe and I believe
And we together pray
the Holy Spirit shall come down
and set God’s people free.
And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free,
The Holy Spirit shall come down and set God’s people free.

If we gather authentically in the name of Jesus, if we are able to forgive one another, if we can rebuild relationships that are bruised and battered – then the Holy Spirit will move among us, and God’s people will be set free. Amen.