A SERMON FOR THE 21st SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Today, we stand on the threshold of the future. That’s nothing new of course, and we do the same thing every day. Today’s no different from yesterday or last week, or New Year’s Eve. The future will begin in a moment, but for now we live in the present. And what is the present? In one sense, it is a fleeting second, which snatches us out of the past and just as quickly launches us forward into the future, and into which we nonetheless manage to cram every single thought, word and deed of our entire lives, one after another. In another sense, it’s a never-ending stream of movement that is motionless. It’s like looking at a river from a distance. We see the river, and it doesn’t change. And yet, if we look closely, we observe that it is made up of millions of tiny drops of water, each of which rushes past us on its way to the ocean. Our lives are like that river, and the present moment is just one such drop of water.
These drops of water are precious. They are gifts from God, sent by him for us to use wisely. Each little drop, as it passes through our fingers, is an opportunity. We cannot hang on to these moments of opportunity any more than we can hold drops of water in our fingers. They fall through, and are gone. Once they have passed through our fingers, each moment joins what we call the Past. And there’s literally nothing we can do to change the past. It’s done, finished, gone. We either used our moment well, or we squandered it. Each moment, an opportunity to use for good or evil, or to squander by doing nothing at all.
No matter how many years old we are, our life so far has been years and years of acquired experience, followed by this present moment, now! Surely, all that past experience should give us a good idea how we should treat the present? Surely, we must have learned from our successes and mistakes which of those millions of drops of water that have passed through our fingers we should now cherish, and which we would rather forget. This is as it should be. The good deeds of our past comfort and encourage us to enter the future. The mistakes and misdemeanors of our past fill us with regret, remorse, and repentance, and give us the resolution necessary to do better in the future.
All except one, that is. There is one particular drop of liquid that is poisonous above all others. We should be filled with horror when we see its dark polluting sludge in our hands, staining our fingers, and working its way into the bitter recesses of our heart. We should drop it as though it were scalding hot. And yet it sticks to our skin and we can’t shake it off…. But that’s okay, because we don’t really want to let it go. In fact, we hang on to this toxic waste as though our very life depended on it. We can’t seem to let it go, we won’t let it go, and if ever it does fall from our fingers we consciously reach out into the pool of hatred that it came from, and with all deliberation fill our fingers anew, time and again replenishing these lethal drops and never, ever letting go.
The name of this filthy liquid is not sludge, but “grudge.” It’s one of the curses of our fallen human nature to want to bear grudges. We don’t forgive others easily. It seems as though we can never let go of the resentment we feel towards someone who has done something we don’t like. Perhaps an act of unkindness, or condescension, or betrayal. Sometimes it’s something really serious that they did, something that mortally hurt us or those we love. So we bare our teeth like an angry dog, and vow that we will never forgive them, we wish evil upon them, we rejoice in their misfortunes, and there is nothing, ever, that will appease our wrath. What lovely people we are. In passing, I would point to a man we all love, who was betrayed, flogged and spat upon, and who was in the process of dragging a heavy wooden cross up the steep hill of Calvary to be crrucified, when he cried out these incredible words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” But “we have none of this man’s weaknesses, we are stronger than him. We won’t forgive them their trespasses no matter if they were to grovel in the dirt and beg for absolution”. Is this how we think? Then I tell you now, we are on our way to the fires of hell.
“But no,” I can hear you say. “I’m not that bad!” So how bad are we? If something bad happens to someone we don’t like, how does it make us feel? We’re too polite, of course, to chuckle openly. In moments of anger we might say we would dance on someone’s grave, but of course, when the time comes, we never do. But what does go through our head? Alas, it’s usually a confused mix of feelings, brought about by a clash between our intellect and our emotions. We know with our intellect we should forgive, and so we try outwardly to appear sympathetic. Meanwhile, a whole avalanche of emotions crash down over our outward displays of fake compassion, covering them with the heavy slush of harbored resentment. And so what do we do? Rather than rejoice outwardly in their suffering, we criticize them for things unconnectedto their present difficulties. We bring up all kinds of ideas why such and such a thing has happened to them—their daily imperfections, their flaws of character, their negligence, even the wrath of God that they so “rightfully deserve”. We behave, in other words, like Job’s comforters, eagerly laying the blame for people’s problems on their own shoulders. And then, to make things even worse, we manage to congratulate ourselves at how compassionate we’ve been.
We’re quite different, of course, when bad things happen to us. Then we feel sorry for ourselves, and expect the sympathy of all those around us, as though we were entitled to it. Even people we’ve hurt in the past, now that we’ve had a heart attack, or lost our mother to cancer, or whatever, surely now they’ll come weeping and consoling...? And if they don’t, our feelings of being offended are now twice as bad as before, and their lack of compassion, which we believe is rightfully ours, is now added to the pile of resentment that we have nurtured over the years.
This is some of the ugliest stuff that goes on in our little world. Resentment is the only sin that never goes away, to which we remain totally and deliberately attached, which we insist on committing on a continual basis. It’s the drop of dirty water that never leaves our fingertips.
Our Lord tells us that love covers a multitude of sins. Today though, he warns us that resentment covers a multitude of prayers and good deeds. Look at the Gospel: a servant owes the king ten thousand talents. He’s on the verge of being sold, with his wife and children, so that the king may recoup some of his money. And yet the servant begs pardon of the King and is forgiven. Likewise, we, who have committed many sins, and owe God so much, manage to escape hell by going to Confession and being forgiven.
But when someone sins against us, when we take umbrage at some trivial wrong committed against us by our neighbor, do we forgive them as God forgave us? Or do we follow the example of the wicked servant, who ignores the entreaties of the man who owes him money, and grabs him by the throat and demands to be paid. And when we don’t receive an abject apology from our own naughty neighbor, what happens then? That’s when it begins, and we start collecting those drops of deadly water in our fingers, the waters of resentment forming into noxious pools at our feet, pools that will eventually swallow us up.
God’s message is crystal clear. Forgive them that trespass against us. If we don’t forgive them, we cannot and must not expect the eternal Judge to forgive us our trespasses when we kneel before him on Judgment Day. No matter how complacently we might be expecting that forgiveness, we will instead be shocked to hear those words, “Depart from me, ye accursed, into the everlasting fire.” These aren’t the words we want to hear. So to avoid them, let’s do what we have to do now! Let’s let go of that bitterness in our hearts against our neighbor, so that we may truly be forgiven, as freely as we have forgiven others.
Don’t harbor resentment towards the evildoers in our life. Every single moment of bitterness and rancor is another tiny drop of that river of life, flowing inexorably towards a vast ocean of eternal despair. The past is over and done with. Let’s stop dwelling on it, let’s shake off those bitter drops from our fingers once and for all. Let’s make that firm resolution, here and now in the present, that our future may be free of all that resentment and animosity, thereby assuring us of our eternal future in that beautiful land in which offences have no place.