I greatly underestimated the amount of research it would take to do justice to the topic of modernism and fundamentalism being both sides of the same enlightenment coin, and realized that there are whole books written about the subject. I will attempt to summarize, but that will probably be the work of months not weeks. In addition to that I just finished the process of discerning with Clackamas Park Friends Church the call to become their pastor. Below is the sermon I gave entitled Learning Forgiveness the Hard Way. I will begin my released ministry there on Oct 1.
Learning Forgiveness the Hard Way
Good morning Friends, it is a joy to share in corporate worship with you. Today’s message comes from a scripture that I often wonder whether it might have been written directly to me. Just like the unforgiving servant Jesus speaks of in today’s parable, occasionally I forget just how much forgiveness and mercy has been poured into my life. Right before Jesus gave this parable the disciples asked Jesus who would be the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus responded by pulling a child onto his lap saying that they must become like the child to be great. Jesus saw that the disciples were still hung up on power politics, so he told the parable of the lost sheep to realign their priorities. When he saw some glimmers of understanding Jesus gave the disciples the process of first going to someone one-on-one for conflict resolution in equal relationships. Jesus then tells the disciples that when two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name he will be present and that whatever is done to forgive, condemn, bind, or free in that gathering will be likewise done in heaven. Now, can you imagine Jesus’ frustration when Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” After telling them “no, seventy times seven,” Jesus, with an amazing amount of patience, told a parable.
Matthew 18:23-35 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I am very blessed. I don’t remember a time before I knew Christ. Through God’s mercy and protection I was able to avoid many of the snares that others of my generation fell into. Of course that isn’t the end of the story, because I fell into the trap of being the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. It is all too easy to judge people who made other decisions and reaped negative consequences. God would not let me stay there, and took the time to teach me exactly how broken I really am and then let me experience the infinite mercy and forgiveness found in Jesus. I would like to say that my experience of God’s mercy opened up a well of mercy within me that flooded out over everyone I came in contact with, but if I did I would be lying. The habits of years are not changed in moments, and not through our own power. Sometimes God has to get drastic. I grew up in a ministry house in NYC that took in anyone who needed a place to stay. One day the police brought a guy to our house who was suffering from a traumatic brain injury that caused complete short-term memory loss whenever he went to sleep and was released from the hospital. His name was Denny and he stayed with us until he got better and left our home to return to his life. Occasionally he would stop by and give us some food or furniture and once, a television. On these visits we began to hear who Denny was and what he did that got him injured. You see, Denny was a “Collection Specialist” for a “Family Organization” that loaned money to people the banks didn’t. One day Denny was bragging about an arms deal that he was involved in. When my father founded the ministry house, he found out which bar the local police and firefighters went to, and invested in buying drinks for them on a fairly regular basis. After my father heard Denny’s bragging he told a couple of the detectives he spent time with what he had found out. There were some uninvited guests to the arms deal which resulted in many arrests and the confiscation of the weapons. A few weeks later someone set fire to our house at 11:30 at night and one of the detectives told us that a contract had been put out on our family. We stayed in hiding for the next few days, and then learned that the contract had been lifted. I was only 13 and it took a while for the nightmares to go away. I spent the next couple of years being a bit paranoid and, even now, sometimes find myself uncomfortable sitting with my back to a door or window. After a few years we moved away and while I was in high school I heard an amazing thing. Denny had accepted Jesus and became a Christian. I’ll have to say that I put on an outward show of gladness, but I was suspicious of this news and wasn’t buying it. I was wondering who Denny thought he was kidding. After leaving school, I got a job in NYC and began attending the same church I had grown up in. One Sunday, I noticed that Denny was there, sitting in the back. I was pretty terrified and avoided him. A few weeks later I wasn’t paying close attention and Denny approached me and asked me to go to lunch with him after church. I hesitantly said OK and eventually climbed into the passenger side of his ’68 Plymouth Fury III. Now I know no one here ever saw the mob movie Goodfellas, but there is a diner that was central to where the actions in that movie happened. Denny took me to the diner all that stuff really happened at. I was thinking that at least my last meal would be delicious. After we ate, Denny looked over the table at me and said, “Gil, I can’t stand to see you so scared, can you find it in your heart to forgive me?” Saying that I was shocked would be like saying Genghis Khan dabbled in real estate. I was at a complete, utter and total loss, and God laid bare the depth of sin in my heart. I had doubted that God could change someone’s heart, doubted that God forgave Denny, and had permitted my sense of being owed something to outweigh the mercy I had received.
It took me a while to be able to speak, and the first words out of my mouth were “Oh God, I am so, so sorry.” In that moment God gave me the willingness to forgive and I began to see the real Denny and not the knuckle-dragging knee-capper I had stereotyped him as. We forgave each other that afternoon and I learned two things. The first is that there is no person so far gone that God cannot redeem them. I had known this on an intellectual level, but until I sat across the table from a redeemed Denny I didn’t really believe that God’s grace applied to everybody. I knew that God redeemed all sorts of people, but I was confronted with the fact that there were people who I didn’t want God to redeem. I wanted to call in what they owed and see them pay. Just like the unforgiving servant I wanted to be forgiven but still collect what was owed to me. The second thing that I learned was that I was exactly like everyone else Jesus talked with that just didn’t get it. I had read about how important it is to forgive, and that my being forgiven was contingent on me forgiving others, but I obviously didn’t get it. It is comforting to me when I read the bible and hear of the hordes of people that God loves and calls to be his followers that also don’t get it. In a very real way I felt God telling me to get used to not getting it. Until I no longer, as Paul says in 1 Cor 13:12, see through the glass darkly, there is always going to be something that I am not getting. This is why faith is so important to us, we are fundamentally incapable of “getting” God, but the God who shaped us in the womb understands us better than we do ourselves, and so calls us to simply be faithful to what we do get until we see God face-to-face. Part of that faithfulness is to acknowledge that even the parts we do understand are still not understood in their fullness. We must always be submitting our understanding to God, asking that we come to complete alignment with God’s purposes and vision for creation.
There are some days that I despair of ever being fully aligned with God, and others in which I catch that glimpse of heaven. When I sat across the table from Denny and saw the redeeming work of God and accepted God’s work of redemption I caught a glimpse of heaven. Through forgiveness, a right relationship was created that mirrors the right relationship God offers each one of us. I live for those moments in which I finally see clearly. But those moments come at a cost, Jesus paid the ultimate cost, but we also must release the debts we are entitled to collect and accept that Jesus payment not only covers the debt we owe to God, but covers the debts others owe us.
Take a moment to reflect on the mercy you have received from God and ask that God would fill each of us with his abundant mercy that it cannot help but overflow into all of our relationships. Reflect on whether there might be a “Denny” in your life. Maybe you are the “Denny” in this story. Is there someone you are being led to reach out to with God’s help? After a few minutes of prayer we will sing our closing hymn “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus”. Let us come before the throne of grace together.