Preached at St Aethelheard's Orthodox Church, Louth Cemetery Chapel, Divine Liturgy,
Sunday September 3, 2000. 11th Sunday after Pentecost
by Peter Sizer
READINGS: 1 Cor. 9.2-12; Matt. 18.23-35. (Edited version of extempore sermon).
This is rather long, but it's such a gem of its kind I couldn't resist quoting it in full:
The Lamentable Death of Wicked Polly. (An old Southern hymn. That is, the USA Deep South).
Young people who delight in sin, I'll tell you what has lately been:
A woman who was young and fair, Who died in sin and sad despair.
She'd go to frolics, dance and play, In spite of all her friends could say;
"I'll turn to God when I get old, And He will then receive my soul."
One Friday morning she took sick, Her stubborn heart began to break;
"Alas! alas! my days are spent Too late! too late for to repent."
She called her mother to her bed — Her eyes were rolling in her head —
"When I am dead remember well, Your wicked Polly screams in Hell.
"The tears are lost you shed for me, My soul is lost, I plainly see;
Oh! Mother, Mother, fare you well — My soul will soon be dragged to Hell.
"My earthly father, fare you well, My soul is lost and doomed to Hell;
The flaming wrath begins to roll, I am a lost and ruined soul."
She gnawed her tongue before she died, She rolled and groaned and screamed and cried,
"Oh, must I burn for ever more, When thousand thousand years are o'er?"
At last the monster Death prevailed, Her nails turned blue, her language failed;
She closed her eyes and left the world, Poor Polly down to Hell was hurled.
It almost broke her mother's heart To see her child to Hell depart;
"My Polly, O my Polly's dead, Her soul is gone, her spirit's fled."
Alas — how did her parents mourn To think their child was dead and gone.
"Oh! is my Polly gone to hell, My grief's so great no tongue can tell."
Young people, lest this be your case, Return to God and seek His face.
Upon your knees for mercy cry, Lest you in sin like Polly die.
Oh! sinners, take the warning fair And for your dying bed prepare,
Return to Jesus Christ and live, And He will life and pardon give.
Remember well your dying day, And seek salvation while you may;
Forsake your sin and follies, too, Or they will prove your overthrow.
All the poor girl did was frolic! I got this hymn from the Internet. Where else! The Pentecostal Online Hymnal. I am told this hymn was popular among children in the American Deep South in the mid-19th century (corresponding to our Victorian period). I can believe it. Children always did like the gory details. I particularly like "Her nails turned blue".
The children would have been perfectly assured they were not going to hell, of course. They went to Sunday school. The people who went to hell were the unbelievers who didn't go to Sunday school, and (perhaps even more likely) the ones who went to the wicked Roman Catholic Sunday school down the street.
It's more than a bit over the top! Yet we Orthodox Christians have something in common with the kind of Christians who wrote hymns like that. Like them, we take hell seriously. We may not speculate on what the state of permanent separation from our Creator may be like; like a fire, or like a prison or whatever. But we do take the prospect of hell seriously.
In the Western denominations nowadays hell is hardly ever mentioned. Many of the leaders don't believe in it. We Orthodox most certainly do. It is a very serious matter to disobey God, persistently, breaking oneself off from him completely.
But you don't go to hell for frolicking, or for going to the wrong church, or for singing wrong notes in the liturgy. Not even for not paying the clergy, a topic referred to in today's apostle reading. Well, bishops have been known to excommunicate whole congregations for not paying their pastors, or not paying them enough.
Today's Gospel reading tells us what kind of people go to hell. It is the kind of people who are unforgiving; people who refuse to obey Jesus' command to forgive those who offend against us "seventy times seven times". We are to forgive one another because God has forgiven us - and our offences against God far exceed anything anyone has committed against us.
Jesus' parable makes this clear. The king forgives the servant who owes him ten thousand talents. This must represent, in contemporary British money, many millions of pounds. It was far more than the man could ever hope to repay in a lifetime.
The same apples to what we owe God. It is not just a matter of our personal sins. We are participators in the enormous volume of sin accumulated by the whole of humanity through many centuries - what in the West is called Original Sin, but which Orthodox theologians prefer to call Ancestral Sin. God has forgiven us all that, and our personal sins besides, if we repent. Just as the king in the parable forgave his servant all that enormous debt.
But after the king had written off his debt, the servant in the parable encountered a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. Well, the d of the old £ s d stood for denarius. So 100 denarii was less than 100 pence in decimal currency. When his fellow servant could not pay, the servant whose debt had been written off would not forgive him, but had him thrown into prison, and (according to some translations, anyway) into the hands of torturers, until he should pay what he owed. The king was so angry that he had the servant he had forgiven put into prison until he should repay all his debt (which means for ever, since he never could repay such an enormous sum).
Likewise, God, who has forgiven us so many sins, will punish us if we do not forgive those who sin against us. The unforgiving person, if he or she does not repent and forgive as God forgives, is the person bound for hell.
Remember, it was the scribes and Pharisees Jesus condemned in his public preaching; that is, the hypocrites, the people who were certain of their own salvation and cared nothing for anyone else. In fact they condemned the ordinary people as sinners beyond redemption. Jesus never condemned the ordinary Jewish people. He criticised the things they did wrong, but he never condemned them.
It is the unforgiving people who do not repent and change their attitude who are bound for hell. It is a wrong attitude more than wrong actions that will condemn us (wrong attitudes, anyway, lead to wrong actions). It is a terrible thing to be permanently cut off from our heavenly Father, because we refuse to obey his Son, and reject the Holy Spirit who was sent to guide us. So let us make sure we are not unforgiving people bound for hell. Let us pray that we may always be forgiving people bound for heaven.