HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 51:1-12
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4
Guest speaker - Art Spalding, NKPC Elder
When I was 20 years old, I interviewed for my first full time job. They gave me several tests before I was offered a position. On a personality/psychological test, they asked me whether preferred raw carrots or cooked carrots. At that time, I really didn’t care for either one, but I was perplexed by the question and what the answer said about me. I remain perplexed by the question and hope before I die that someone can explain what that employer found out about me.
There were also word association tests that were administered to me when I was young. Eventually, we even had a television show that used the same format. So I will try it out on you. Close your eyes. Please don’t go to sleep, however. I will say a word and I want you to contemplate what first comes to your mind. Everyone ready? Grace. You may open your eyes. Because I am the speaker today, I have the flexibility to expand the rules. I have four thoughts that immediately come to my mind when I hear the word Grace. First, is my mother’s Aunt Grace. I only saw her once when I was about 11 years old. Aunt Grace had suffered a major stroke and I remember her lying in a bed in the living room. She had snow white hair and light blue eyes that were wide open. But she didn’t move or speak. I don’t know if she understood anything that was happening about her but she seemed perfectly peaceful, even if she could not communicate. In my late teens, I dated a young lady named Grace. She is the only date that I remember having asked permission to kiss.
As an aside, it was only a short time into my first date with Jo-Ann that I realized that permission would not be required. After Jo and I arrived in Grand Rapids I learned of an organization that used the acronym G.R.A.C.E., or the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. I have always thought it refreshing that an organization would be based on the idea that it should be composed of Methodists, Episcopalians, Christian Reformeds, Catholics and even Presbyterians and others. But shouldn’t that be the foundation of Christianity? The last words that come to my mind are John Newton. Many of you probably know that John Newton wrote Amazing Grace. Who can ever forget the words: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” If you don’t know the story of John Newton, do yourself a favor and go the library and get his biography.
We understand God’s grace to be the forgiveness of our sins, both those we commit and also our many failures to act. Yet, we understand that we are human and no matter how well we know our obligation in exchange for God’s grace, many times we forget. How then does God repeatedly confront our personal failures and still extend his Grace? How come he doesn’t just blow his top and wipe us off the face of the earth? Grace is freely given by God without any expectation of anything in return but with the hope for penitence and redemption for the forgiven.
In Psalm 51, David expresses himself to God after his relationship with Bathsheba. David is asking for God’s grace when he begs God to “blot out my transgressions”. He longs for the peace that will come from penitence and redemption. David says: create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me”. This is the essence of the response we each hope to achieve from God’s grace.
Even if we begin to understand the concept of grace, what do we do with the concept of personal forgiveness? How do we forgive others for what we perceive as unforgiveable acts against us? How do I forgive someone who lied about me to my boss? How do I forgive someone who broke into my home and stole precious memories from my childhood? How does a man forgive a spouse who left him with 4 hungry children and a crop in the field? How do we forgive someone who took the life of a family member? These and many other traumatic events leave us in a state of rage which sometimes never goes away.
The New Testament lesson from Luke 6, verse 37 tells us not to condemn, lest we be condemned and to forgive so that we may be forgiven. I found this text perplexing, in a way. Even though we understand God’s grace is freely given with no strings attached, this verse seems to suggest that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. Even more troubling is Luke 17, verses 3 and 4. There, we seem to be obligated to forgive if the offender repents. Or, does it suggest that the offender need to be forgiven only if the offender repents? Of course, we each seem to define forgiveness by what we perceive to be our own sense of right and wrong. Clearly, God does not intend our understanding of Grace to be twisted into different shapes when we are confronted with the need to forgive. But are we always expected to consider forgiveness, even if there is no repentance?
The test for me always seems to come back to the question asked of Jesus: what is the most important commandment? And he answered: first, love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and, second, love your neighbor as yourself. If we study these words and understand their full impact on our lives, then we know that we must forgive when a sinner repents. With more difficulty, we also know that forgiveness is more like God’s grace even if there has been no repentance.
How do we truly forgive? Sometimes there is a repeated reminder that we have been offended. Are we to do as Luke suggests and forgive 7 times in a day? And if we say that we have forgiven, does that mean we have forgotten? It is perfectly clear to me that “forgotten” is a word that is in very few vocabularies, at least until dementia takes hold. Have the Protestant Irish forgotten the conflict with the Catholic Irish that occurred more than 400 hundred years ago? Have the Muslims forgotten the conflict over the succession to Mohammad that occurred almost 1400 years ago? Have Christians forgotten the crucifixion that occurred 2000 years ago? No, forgetting is not something that happens easily.
What we must take from Luke, however, is that forgiveness is the only remedy for our personal and collective inability to forget. So, how do we know that we have truly forgiven someone? Is forgiveness an emotion like love and hate that we can recognize almost immediately when it occurs? I have often wondered, even though I can’t forget: have I really forgiven the person who offended me?
I think forgiveness is something like a negative emotion. It is the absence of hate. It is the absence of rage. It is the absence of feeling abused. It is the absence of a sense of needing retribution. What do all those absences add up to? Well, I think they signify “peace”. Peace is what describes the actuality of forgiveness. Several months ago a woman described her thoughts after an adult friend negligently killed her son. She observed: “when you can’t change things, you have two choices. You can hate or you can love. I choose love.”
Several years ago, I wrote down the words of our resident philosopher, Jess Knipp. Jess said: “forgiveness is a small price to pay for peace.” We are all confronted in our lives, in our homes and in our church with people have done something which is wrong and which is offensive to us, people who have angered us, and people who have sinned against us. What are we to do? Remember that we are to love our neighbor as ourself, that we are to forgive when the offender repents and that we are to forgive if we want to find our own inner peace that defines God’s grace. Amen