Forgiveness

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(I preached this sermon last Sunday at the chapel in our community here in the hills of Southeastern Ohio.  The message is personal, confessional, and focused on the impossibility of our being peacemakers unless we know the deep within of ourselves [some call it the shadow self].  For Christians, this includes asking God to search out our hidden sin and asking others to hold us accountable, to give us honest feedback.  And, to be candid, I was clearly speaking to our community, and everyone, because conflict and division need to be resolved if we are to live in peace, hope and love. (KCW)

Hideaway Hills Chapel
August 8, 2021
Ken Whitt

Let us pray.
Good God.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Forgive me my trespasses according to the extent that I forgive others.
Amen.

Did that prayer sound familiar?
When you say it, do you really mean it? 
Do you and I really desire God’s forgiveness only to the degree that we are forgiving?
Thank God.

Thank God that God does not follow the instructions of our prayer regarding forgiveness.
We pray the Lord’s Prayer in what is called the imperative voice. 
We are telling God what we want God to do.
Throughout our lives, we command God, in the Lord’s prayer, to judge us according to the way we judge others.  To forgive us as we forgive others.
God in God’s infinite mercy does not obey our instructions.
For God’s mercy, though not mine, not yours, is endless. 
Thank God.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thought
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. 

Psalm 139:23-24

As I share the message this morning, please keep in mind two quandaries related to forgiveness. 

The first I have just spoken of—the gap between the forgiveness we pray for and the forgiveness we desperately need.  We, often so very unforgiving, are all in need of forgiveness that transcends our own.

The second quandary is the problem identified in Psalm 19:12—”But who can discern their own errors?”  The Psalmist then asks God to, “Forgive my hidden faults.”  We need God to search our hearts and reveal to us the deep within, hidden sin, that controls our behavior in the world.  When there is conflict, we all have our unique ways of contributing to the trouble that divides and destroys.  We all will behave in ways that require forgiveness.  Too often, however, we do not know ourselves.

“Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

We all see—and Jesus knows this about us—we all see the speck in another’s eye for it looks to us as is it is a log.  And the log in our own eyes does not seem to be even a speck.  Self-deception and denial keep us blind to our need for forgiveness.  Thus, it is that we become staggeringly judgmental and unforgiving.  Judgement and unforgiveness destroy relationships and community.  How can we as individuals and we as members of a community become peacemakers if we can not see and tell the truth about how we contribute to division and hostility?

Back in the Spring I was asked to preach in this chapel on three consecutive Sundays at the beginning of June.  For different reasons, that changed, and here I am in the chapel on this first Sunday of August with one opportunity to share what the Spirit has told me the community needs to hear. 

The problem was that I awoke on Wednesday morning of this week with three sermons dancing in my head.

I began the day by sitting on our front porch, as is my daily practice, with the humming birds humming, the feral cats waiting, the deer wandering and the vultures soaring. This is my quiet time and space.  God and me alone.  I read my devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest, and a text from the Gospel of Mark.  I listened.  I waited.  Soon it became very clear that, regarding those three sermons, the Spirit had a preference.  Not my preference.  The Spirit’s preference would require of me that I become vulnerable and painfully honest concerning the demons of judgement and unforgiveness in my life. If I were to defer to the Holy Spirit, I would have to talk with you about my character flaws when it comes to forgiveness.  Maybe you resemble me.

I immediately said yes to God, but make no mistake, it is not always that quickly and unmistakably easy to say yes to God.  In times of deep prayer when God is as close to me as my breath, it is easy.  But, had I waited until later in the day…I don’t know what would have happened.  So, I immediately sent an email to Teresa Jordan informing her of my sermon title.  Forgiveness.  My fate was sealed.

Most of the rest of this message will be a story:

Last Sunday Kathy and I spent the day traveling back from Captiva Island, Florida where we had spent a phenomenally holy and hot four days.  I performed a wedding on the beach on Saturday.  All in all, the wedding was an over the top emotional and spiritual mountain top experience.  But that has little to do with this message.

Except, that we were exhausted and upon arrival at the Cleveland airport.  We were extremely anxious to find our shuttle to the lot where we had parked our car.  We were anxious because, at the airport in Ft. Myers, we had read and reread the documents from the parking lot and had realized they contained not a word about how to find our shuttle, and a call to their phone number repeatedly yielded only the words, “not available.”  Not available?

However, once inside the Cleveland airport we saw a plethora of signs guiding us to, “parting lot shuttles.”  We obediently followed these signs to the other end of the airport, through a tunnel, up an escalator, down the corridor, down the escalator, and outside where all kinds of shuttle busses were waiting to take passengers to their cars.

Except, no shuttle in sight for our parking lot. 

Please understand—Kathy and I were stressed and exhausted and my response to that anxiety was an adrenalin rush.  I became hyper-alert, determined and aggressive.  I questioned every group of passengers standing around.  I approached a couple of drivers and pursued my quest with ever sharper intensity, finally learning that no one had ever heard of our parking lot.  One driver, after I pushed harder, finally suggested that some fly by night shuttle services sometimes picked up their clients on the airport level designated for passenger checking in for flights. 

Driven forward by adrenalin, I led the way back down the hall, up the escalator, through the tunnel, down the escalator, across the airport, up another escalator to the departure level, finding doors 1-6 where a shuttle might miraculously appear to take us to our car.

I could not stop my frighteningly focused pursuit, barely noticing Kathy, who by now had begun thinking that we were going to have to rent a car and drive home and return the next day. 

But at the exact moment I was about to surrender to the inevitable, this man appeared.  I did not seek him.  He just showed up and after considerable explanations on my part was wise enough and calm enough to figure everything out.  Instead of calling our parking lot, he texted them.  Fifteen minutes later our shuttle arrived.  Entering the van I told the driver–exhaustion and frustration reverberating in every word I spoke–how we had spent the last hour.

It was only about ten minutes to the parking lot.  Exiting the van, I was determined to tell the driver how to fix their broken system.  I was still on my adrenalin high.  I was anything but calm.

Ditto for the driver.  He had no interest in my suggestions.

Here I must reveal a character flaw.  Do you remember the prayer of St. Francis which includes the lines:

O Divine master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand.
To be loved,f as to love
For it’s in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned

When I am in a tense situation thinking that I must be heard, my default setting is always, “I want to be understood.”  I want to be heard, to be respected, and the more I am misunderstood the more intense and driven and angry I become. 

The shuttle driver appeared to be my alter-ego.  He also got louder and angrier.

Oh, and did I tell you what Kathy was doing.  She was trying to calm her savage beast.  You can guess how well that worked.

Kathy has seen this beast she is married to more often than I care to admit.  But I don’t think she had ever witnessed this side of me in a public setting.

Look, I’m going to stop telling this part of this story.  You get the point….  Good communication and healthy relationships and supportive community were dead in that parking lot.  Ever gracious, Kathy offered the driver a tip.  He refused, can you believe that?  What a stubborn cuss!

Kathy drove us home in silence. 

It was hard to get to sleep that night.  The adrenalin was out of my system but I could not stop myself from rehearsing all the ways I had been wronged and misunderstood.  I was not ready for anything that resembled either forgiveness towards the driver nor awareness of my need for forgiveness.  Monday became a blur filled with low-grade anxiety and hostility towards that miserable parking lot company.  I was nothing short of possessed.

It took me until Tuesday morning before I was willing to, as the hymn says it so simply, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”  I was back on the front porch with my devotional book, the Bible and the Lord and it did not take long to realize that I needed to acknowledger my character flaw, repent, and apologize. 

As that song says it, “It’s a me, it’s a me, it’s a me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

(An exchange of emails followed between me and the owner of the parking, who was also     the driver that evening.  I apologized.  He apologized.  He asked me to forward my ideas for better service.  I did.  He thanked me.  We moved on, without the burden of that conflict.)

One more part of the story.  On Tuesday, later in the morning, Kathy told me that we needed to talk.  She told me that she expected me to write an apology letter to the parking lot company and offer to forward a much larger tip than the one the driver had refused.

If you were married to Kathy, or someone else who told you must repent and confess, how would you respond to her?

More important—who in your life have you charged with the responsibility to give you honest feedback after your character flaws, your demons, when they have been allowed to run wildly in the world for awhile–causing who knows what kind of destruction?  To whom, as an imperfect follower of Jesus, have you made yourself accountable to for correction, admonishment, honest feedback?  It could be your spouse or a pastoral counselor or a spiritual friend.  It could be a small group where all the members take turns being honest before one another and before God.

If you are a Christian and you have such a group or individual then you will be able to be of good use to the Spirit and to the community whenever conflicts emerge.  The reverse is also true.  We all require others to keep us honest.  That is an essential part of being a Christian community—any kind of community. 

Remembering the great hymn…

Search me, O God, and know my heart today.
Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray. 
See if there be some wicked way in me.
Cleanse me from every sin, and set me free.

If not the hymn, maybe you recall the Psalm where the Psalmist gives God the permission—it is again a command form–to:

Search me, God, and know my heart
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Those of us who would participate as peacemakers in the world must, there is no alternative, live this prayer and continually give God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, permission, even a command, to search out, as with a penetrating searchlight, the darkness, the shadow, the wounds, the fears, the character flaws that impede our efforts to bring reconciliation to individuals and communities. 

If, instead, you have chosen and continue to choose and refuse to be honest about yourself before God and the community—you will contribute nothing but noise and furry and destruction to the inevitable conflicts that threated to divide us.

What I have said is always the truth.  It has always been the truth.  The Bible is full to overflowing with instruction to peacemakers. 

However, the need for peacemakers in our world has never been greater.  Fear is overwhelming us.  Even when they are trying to deny it, people know that the earth community is in deep trouble.  Floods are flooding.  Fires are burning.  People are hating.  Communities are divided.  The weather is chaotic.  Pandemic is not allowing us to return to normal.  Around the world, hundreds of millions more people are starving.  Climate refugees are traveling, but to where?  People are anxious and angry.  As air temperatures rise, so do fear temperatures.  With fear comes irritation, anxiety, impatience, judgement and condemnation.  Blaming.  Someone must be responsible for this suffering and I am not going to let them get away with it. People shift into attack mode.  

Yet, the Bible continues to instruct each one of us on how to live well in such a world.  In particular, I love:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of      everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with       everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

How in the creation is evil to be overcome with good? 

With love.  With honesty about how I contribute to conflict.  With forgiveness.

You and I have absolutely no chance of living with such peace, and building a community of peace, if we have not allowed God and others to examine our lives and reveal to us the shadow and sin that is within. 

For example, when Kathy and I got married way back when and when an inevitable argument followed, it could take days or weeks for each of us to acknowledge our contribution to the conflict.  First came blaming and a lot of noise.

Blame and noise still erupt.  But as love and trust have grown, as each of us has allowed the Spirit to search our hearts and reveal the truth.  The time between disturbance and calm has diminished to the point that sometimes what took days takes only minutes or even seconds.  The reconciliation always includes an acknowledgment of responsibility, a sharing of vulnerability and error, and apology. 

Do you want there to be peace in your home, in the hills and in the world?  Begin by knowing and telling the truth, first about yourself, and then only much later about the others. 

Kathy as a small block of wood that she looks at every day.  She created it to help her to remember  hat Christianity must be practiced every day in all ways:

Every moment can become an opportunity to become…

…more loving
…more aware
…more just
…more gracious
…more forgiving
…less judgmental
…less anxious
…more at peace

Let there be peace on earth, in these hills, and let it begin with me.

By the way, should the Christians in these here hills, everyone who lets the love we find in Christ live through them,  ever decide to unite as a peacemaking presence in our community…what do you think would happen?

May it be so.  Amen. 

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