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Sermon - 7 Epiphany

In the Name...

Faster than a speeding bullet; able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; is it a bird; is it a plane? - These familiar words from comic books, radio, TV and movies have been, for eighty years, the introduction to that paragon of truth, justice, and the American way - Superman. And yet, there is no mythical deed of valour accomplished by this super-hero that can compare with the actions which Jesus asked his followers to perform in this morning's Gospel, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you."

Given a choice between swimming across a river teeming with alligators and forgiving someone who has done us harm, real or imagined, most of us would probably forgive. But, that's not how the choice is usually presented to us in real life and that's why it is a far greater and more heroic thing to forgive one's enemies than it is to leap tall buildings with a single bound. Much more heroic and, for a lot of people, just as difficult because it's not natural to do that.

It was reflection on the aspects of Christ's teaching which run counter to our natural inclinations, and our struggle with practicing them, which led the author George Bernard Shaw to quip that Christianity was such a good idea that somebody ought to try it.

Well, to be sure, from the way a lot of us act at times, and that "us" includes me, he had a point.

Take, for example, the simple injunction not to judge. In one sense, this is just plain impossible because life is composed of millions of judgments. Indeed, the act of judging is one of the proper functions of a human being since this is one of the ways we reflect being made in the likeness of God who is the Supreme Judge. To what then, does this prohibition extend?

After all, if I see someone commit a crime or tell an outright lie, I cannot refrain from thinking ill of that person. Fortunately, this kind of judging is not prohibited. That's why we have trial by jury.

There is a kind of judging which is condemned, however, and that is any judgment which is contrary to the facts and the law of Love. For example, if we ascribe evil motives to a person's actions when there is no proof beyond our prejudice, that is the kind of judgment which is condemned. We don't like someone, so when they do something which is really a good deed we say, oh, they just did that for the publicity, or, if it's at work, to curry favour with the boss, or, if it's a politician, to get votes. If we had done the same good deed it would have been altruistic, but, because they did it, it was part of a sinister plot.

An example of this was actually in the case of a politician in an area where I lived who was not loved and adored by a lot of people, myself included. But, one of his children had a terminal disease and he was an exemplary father throughout that child's illness and eventual death. There were people, though, who disliked him so much that they claimed he was just playing for sympathy and you couldn't shake their opinion. That is false judgment.

Over the years, I have met many people who have dropped out of churches because their habit of falsely judging others was so strong that they couldn't bear to be in the same room with those they condemned and when that room was a church, the pressure became unbearable. They couldn't deal with the idea that they might be wrong about someone and rather than face that possibility, they quit.

On the other hand, there are people who behave exactly the opposite way. They don't feel the pressure; they apply it. Far from an excess of shame or guilt, they take pride in pointing fingers. They make a habit of returning evil for good, curses for blessings, and hatred for goodwill. And these are the hardest people to show Christian love towards because they are so annoying, and we've probably all known a few of these.

So, how do we deal with them? As we should deal with anyone who troubles us - heroically.

The first thing we have to do is change our language. Change our language. The first step to forgiveness is to stop using words which foster judgment. Instead of saying, so-and-so bothers me, say so-and-so sanctifies me. That is, so-and-so gives me an opportunity to do something heroic and contrary to my natural inclinations.

I want you to do that right now. Just think for a moment of someone who really gets on your nerves, take a breath, and say to yourself, Fr. Frank, I mean, fill-in-the-blank sanctifies me. (pause)

It's not an easy concept and it doesn't come naturally, but, with a bit of practice you'd be surprised what it does for your blood pressure.

Actually, when you're starting out with this, please be careful. The story is told of one of the monastic saints whose besetting sin was that he was extremely quick tempered. One day, he spent several hours in prayer seeking the strength to overcome this fault of his. He prayed and prayed as hard as could and as soon as he went out into the cloister, he met a monk with whom he had a big issue and he lost it completely. He tore the brother up one side and down the other and then, realizing what he had done, went back into the church and angrily asked God why God hadn't answered his prayer for strength. As the story goes, a voice then came to him and said, "Well, you prayed so hard I thought you wanted a hard test."

So-and-so sanctifies me. So-and-so gives me an opportunity to show Christian love and be less judgmental. Now, you don't have to suddenly start liking a person who sanctifies you. That might be asking too much. But, at least you have to be able to form those words and put their name in that sentence. And once you've done that you can move on to the second part of your prayer for that person which is that he or she or they will change - that they will give you less opportunity for sanctification. That they will conform their wills and hearts to the will and heart of Christ and show more love and charity in their dealings.

False judgment is born of anger; forgiveness of love. Sometimes it may be hard to show that love openly, but, as long as, privately, we can offer sincere prayer, we can work towards helping ourselves and the persons for whom we pray.

That is how we can be greater than Superman. We can be saints.

In the Name...

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