A Homily for Holy Communion on
Friday, 9th of September, 2011, 9 a.m.
Motes, Beams, and Unconditional Forgiveness
Notes from a brief ex tempore sermon to the
Sisters of the Love of God,
at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Friday, 9th September, 2011
Gospel: Luke 6:39-42
When I was younger, this reading always puzzled me. I didn't have a churchy childhood, so I'm not really sure how I heard of it. Motes seemed to me quite easy - aren't they the flecks of dust that float in the air when a shard of sunlight catches them, and your Mum has not been paying attention to the housework? But beams were different. A "beaming" person was someone happy, with a nice smile. What was wrong with having a beam in your eye? I was too young to think then "Ooh, that's a bit saucy". But, thanks be to God for the New English Bible, which translated these words as "a speck" and "a plank". Here was a little sliver of the comedy of Jesus which somehow made its way into our Gospel, a comic image which is timeless. A silly fellow with a great big plank of wood over his face, telling everyone else how to do things. Some of you may remember Eric Sykes's classic slapstick silent film "The Plank", in which just about everything that can go wrong when an idiot is walking about with a plank, does. Jesus was a funny guy. I think he would have liked Mr Sykes.
Eric Sykes is not a satirist. He is a gentle comedian. But I am drawn to satire in all its forms. I like the Flanders and Swan definition: “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion, and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” Tom Lehrer took a slightly different line – he resigned from writing satirical songs in the 1970s when Henry Kissenger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He claimed he couldn’t compete with the Nobel Committee.
But Jesus has a hard message for us too. I imagine in a convent not a lot of wallspace is given over to mirrors. I'm not a great fan either. A kind friend says this explains the state of my hair. But how are we to see this plank in our own eye? Where is our mirror? With a great big lump of wood slapped across our face, how are we to see anything at all? Maybe that is Jesus's point. Maybe he means us not to judge others, nor to judge ourselves. The ascetical tradition speaks of finding a "soul friend", or a confessor, to talk to about the things that make us anxious and guilty. At its best, the hope is that we will find someone who will at least like us, listen to us, and stop us from being too hard on ourselves, from turning that plank into a lean-to, which is the well-trodden path of Christian masochism, and sometimes appalling architecture.
Our consolation must be that the throne of the heavenly grace is occupied by the most generous and forgiving judge we can any of us imagine.
For our motes and beams, our specks and planks, Lord Have mercy.