Sermon preached at Parwich Methodist Chapel Anniversary Service,
17th April 2005
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May I thank you for your warm welcome - I am delighted to be here today to give the address at your Chapel Anniversary Service. In a small village like this it is natural that Chapel and Church should work together where we can, and continue to build on the good relations which exist between our congregations.
I'd like to speak today about an ordinary person. Over the past week or so the newspapers in this country have devoted much space to the Pope; to Prince Charles and Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall; and of course to the very well-known figures who lead our political parties. So it was all the more uplifting to read, in last Thursday's newspaper, about a remarkable instance of Christian witness by a woman about whom very few people will have heard. Her name is Lesley Oake. In January 2003, Mrs Oake's life was shattered when her husband, Stephen, was stabbed to death. Stephen was a Special Branch constable for Manchester Police, and was investigating a man who was thought to be a terrorist, called Kamel Bourgass. This is the man who, last week, was convicted of plotting to produce poisons which could possibly be used against members of the public.
Much of the press coverage of Bourgass' conviction was about the different poisons which he is said to have been preparing. But at the bottom of an inside page of the newspaper was a remarkable headline, which read "We are not seeking revenge for Steve - we pray for his killer every day". This made me pause as I was about to skip over the details of yet another terrorist suspect whose activities have caused disproportionate fear to the present government. It emerged, from reading the article, that Lesley Oake and her three children were members of a church in Poynton, Cheshire, and that it was their faith which had not just sustained them in their grief but which had led them to forgive Stephen Oake's murderer.
So often today you read, when someone is convicted, that their victim or their victim's family say, with a sense of satisfaction, that justice has been done. Stephen Oake's family, by contrast, according to the newspaper article, pray for Kamel Bourgass every day, and forgave him a long time ago. Lesley Oake said that when Bourgass stood trial for murder at the Old Bailey, she could feel only pity: "I just felt quite sad in a sense that things had gone so wrong for this person. That is my motherly instinct, I suppose". Forgiving her husband's murderer did not mean that she did not grieve for him: the family was extremely close-knit, which meant that they missed him all the more. She said, "I am a human being and I have experienced a real roller coaster of emotions". But she added that she and the children had helped one another in their sadness, and that it was important to look to the future.
Quite a lot of people, if you ask them what being a Christian means, will say that it is about being kind and caring, loving God and our neighbour, and trying to do good. But if you look closely at Jesus' teachings, it goes quite a lot further than that. It's all too easy to forget that Jesus told us to go beyond loving our neighbour - he was quite clear that we should aim to love our enemy as well.
Sometimes we may feel that that is a rather meaningless command - at least if we don't have enemies. And if we do, there's not much we can do by way of loving them. And it may seem unrealistic - can we really ever love someone who has done great harm to us or our families, for example? The command of Jesus, which we probably learned in Sunday School, not to seek an eye for an eye but to turn the other cheek, never seems to get any easier. But Lesley Oake showed that there is a way to love one's enemy - and that is to forgive, and not to seek revenge. There are other Christians who have also shown that it is possible - such as Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed by the IRA bomb at Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in November 1987.
Also Jo Berry - daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, the MP who was killed in the Brighton bomb some years ago, when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Jo Berry had actually sought out a way of meeting the man who had killed her father. This helped her first to understand why he had done it, and then to forgive him. Forgiving him didn't make him any less of a murderer; but it was a way of trying to make some good come out of terrible evil. You can read more stories of forgiveness at the Forgiveness Project website.
Christians through the ages have drawn inspiration from the example of Jesus, who forgave those who crucified him; "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". He did not resist or oppose those who arrested, tortured and killed him; and he finally even forgave them.
But this is all very well in principle, you may say. But what about forgiving those who are close to us - our friends and family? Is it not in fact sometimes more difficult to forgive those who are close to us? I wonder if Jesus had this in mind when he told Peter that he should forgive his brother not just seven times, but seventy times seven times. What an astonishing command - in other words, you should keep forgiving people, without limit. Jesus knew that no purpose is served by harbouring resentment, plotting revenge, letting the sins of the past dominate the present and the future.
And maybe, when Jesus told Peter about the need to keep on forgiving, he was talking prophetically. Peter, of course, went on to deny Jesus three times, when he had been arrested. He must have been full of remorse when he realised what he had done to his master and leader. But notice what happened in the end: Jesus didn't hold it against him. No - after Jesus had risen from the dead, he still was able to believe in Peter and entrust the leadership of the Church to him - telling him three times to feed his lambs, feed his sheep - once for each of the times that Peter had denied Jesus. He saw the good in him - Peter learned from his mistakes.
As we think today, then, about the history of Parwich Methodist Chapel, let us also remember the values which bring us together in faith - the values which unite us as Christians, who should be working together to share those values with others. Forgiveness is one of those values, and is a value that lies at the core of our faith - but it is something which it is so easy to forget, as we slip unknowingly into the 'eye for an eye' mentality of so much of the world today.
May I wish you every blessing on your ministry here in the Chapel, today and in the years to come.
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