The Freedom of Forgiveness

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

Jeremy Richards

For Brie and my first vacation as a married couple, we went to Yosemite national park. We woke up early on the morning of May 18th, 2012. How do I remember the exact date, you ask? Because, May 18th is also Brie’s birthday, and May 18th, 2012, was Brie’s first birthday as a married woman. I, inexperienced, partner that I was, thought, “Hey, we’re getting up at 5 in the morning, I already got her a birthday present, obviously she won’t expect anything…anything…like, not even a card.” Ooooooh, I was wrong.

My attempt to make up for it by taking her to an Applebees outside Sacramento after 10 hours in the car didn’t make it any better, nor did the card I bought her somewhere along the way.

To top the night off, once we got to our campsite and set up the tent, we attempted to play cribbage on the cribbage board Brie’s mom had gotten her for her birthday. Her mom was, like me, under the impression that Brie liked cribbage. Something Brie later informed me was not the case. But she gave it the old college try on her birthday on May 18th, 2012. I won, she started to cry, then told me she would never play cribbage again, rolled over, and went to sleep.

Happy birthday.

Fast-forward 5 years or so. We’re in Amsterdam on August 23rd, 2017. Guess whose birthday it is this time? That’s right, mine. And guess who failed to get me a card or a present or anything? Brie. I played it off like it was no big deal, because it wasn’t. But a few days after we got back to the States, I said to Brie calmly, “Now, I’m not mad or anything, but I’m just wondering if you remember your first birthday when I didn’t get you anything because we were going on vacation and you got really mad at me? Well, you know, this time you didn’t get me anything for my birthday because we were on vacation, so you see how that can happen?”

In essence, I was saying, “We’re even now!” I didn’t want Brie to feel bad, I just wanted to be free of my guilt.

As much as we try not to, we often add a kind of transactional element to our relationships. If someone gets you a present that costs x amount of money, you feel obligated to get them an equally valuable gift. If someone helps you move, you feel extra obligated to help them move. And if someone forgives you for something you did, you feel obligated to forgive them in the future should they offend you in a similar way.

In Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving servant, there appears, at first glance, to be a similar, transactional kind of understanding of forgiveness, except it’s more of a pay-it-forward set up than a pay-it-back set up. It appears that, since the servant can never pay the king back, he should at least forgive his fellow servant.

But I think there’s more to it than that. I think the king is doing more than forgiving a debt. At the very beginning of the parable, it seems like the king is playing by the expected rules of the world, the rules of capitalism, where money and profit are more important than people. If he can’t have the money that’s owed him, he’ll sell the servant and his family to recoup the lost money. But then the unexpected happens. The servant begs for more time to pay off this impossible number, and the master says, “You know what? Forget it. You don’t have to pay.”

In this action the master is not simply forgiving a debt (other people are gonna find out about this, no one will respect him. How can he forgive one person and not everyone?), he’s dismantling the whole system. He’s saying money is not more important than people. Those who have (the master) should give freely to those to those who don’t have (the servant), without expecting anything in return. In the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:8, “freely you have received; freely give.”

What happens between the king and the servant is not a simple transaction, but an earth-shaking event. We know this because we know the Gospel. We know about grace. We know that God operates not out of an economy of scarcity, but one of abundance. The whole system has been flipped on its head. No longer is the system based on debts and transactions, but on love and grace and forgiveness. What the master expects the servant to understand is that the old has gone and the new has come. And more than understanding in an intellectual sense, the master wants the servant to be transformed from the inside out. The passage ends with the command to forgive from the heart. Real forgiveness can come from nowhere else.

But the servant, unfortunately, doesn’t get it. He still thinks life is, fundamentally, transactional, it’s just that he got lucky (blessed?) and had his debt wiped clean. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s debt is clean, though. Does this sound familiar? Does that sound like some people we might know or see on TV who say their debts were forgiven because they said the right words or prayed the right prayer, but others’ debts are not forgiven?

So when this servant sees someone who owes him, he doesn’t see the connection between his forgiveness and theirs. In his mind, the system is still the same old one that’s always been there. So when he sees this other servant who owes him money, he operates in the old way. Debts must be repaid. Wrongs must be avenged. He has the other servant thrown into prison because that’s just how the world works…or, how it used to work.

The problem isn’t simply that he hasn’t forgiven, it’s that he hasn’t understood the nature of the king, and the nature of the kingdom, and had failed to be transformed by the grace that he has received. He’s chosen the old over the new.

When the master finds out, he must have been angry, yes, but also heartbroken. How did the servant not understand the new world the master was creating? And so, the master says, if you want to live in the old world, where debts must be paid, then see where this transactional way of living leads you, to a place of isolation and pain, a place of prison of your own making. Keep ruminating on your hate or your anger, hold a grudge, and watch it consume you.

Forgiveness is for others, yes, but it’s also for us. Anne Lamott says “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1] Not forgiving means holding on to the pain, the anger, the hate. It means waiting for a chance to get even, to get revenge. But when we hang on to the wrongs done to us in such a way, we give them a power they should never have. We let them define us. They become a prison, like the prison the ungrateful servant is thrown into. While in the parable it’s the master who throws the servant into prison, I think it’s really just the natural consequence of holding on to our hate and anger. God doesn’t need, or even want us there. We put ourselves in that prison.

The point of this parable is that God has freed us from sin, both our own sin and sin done to us, so that we might live a full and abundant life. No longer do those sins – ours or other people’s – define us. And through Jesus, God didn’t simply forgive a debt while keeping the system the same. No, God inaugurated a new way, what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are not transactional but grace-filled. Despite what some pastors and theologians may say, Jesus didn’t come to simply pay a debt, but to abolish a system, a theology, a worldview, that enslaved people, using “sin” as an excuse to legitimize violence and exclusion.

That is not the way of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, in God’s kingdom, “all is grace” to quote St. Theresa of Lisieux. In this kingdom people are more than their debts, their sins, their wrongs.

The movie Hacksaw Ridge tells the story Desmond Doss, who, because of his religious convictions, refuses to fight in WWII but wants to join the army in order to be a medic. At one point in the movie, because he won’t touch a gun, he’s in danger of being court-marshalled. When he has a chance to defend himself, he says, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

Forgiveness is the first step in putting the world back together, in a world hell-bent on tearing itself a part – a world that repays evil with evil, and usually not equally, but for every offense a greater offense it returned. Payback always comes with interest.

It’s this very pattern of escalating revenge that Jesus is challenging when he says we are to forgive “77 times.” Jesus didn’t just pull this number out of thin air, but it’s a reference to an obscure passage in Genesis 4:24, in which Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson says, “If Cain is avenged 7 times, then Lamech 77 times,” meaning, “Whatever someone does to me, I’ll repay them 77 times worse.” This is the way it’s been since Genesis 4, and it’s still the way most of the world operates. But that’s not the way we’re supposed to be as followers of Jesus. Jesus gives us a new way, one that’s defined by forgiveness, not revenge.

There’s no room for revenge in the kingdom of God.

However, there is room for justice. While revenge and forgiveness don’t go together, justice and forgiveness do.

We often read this passage with an assumption that forgiveness means pretending the wrong-doing never happened – pushing all our pain and hurt deep down because God forgave us, so we better forgive others. After all, the last part of this passage is frightening! The servant is condemned to torture for the rest of his life, because there’s no way he’s going to be able to pay back that debt. We don’t want that, so we can almost feel coerced by this passage into quickly forgiving people, and forgiveness, we think, means living in denial, as if the wounds caused by others aren’t there, even though they continue to hurt us, refusing to heal.

That is not what forgiveness is – it’s NOT turning a blind eye to wrong doing. Interpreting forgiveness in this way has done so much damage. The most obvious examples being the countless people, usually women and children, who have experience domestic violence, who finally get the courage to tell their pastor or another church member what is happening, and are told by the pastor or church member that they need to forgive the abuser because God forgave them, citing this very passage.

There are other, similar examples, when people have been deeply, deeply hurt by other people, and their pain and trauma are ignored by those close to them. They are told to simply “forgive” by Christian brothers and sisters who are too busy or too scared to take their pain seriously. Forgiveness becomes, in these cases, a free pass for those who have hurt others.

That is not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the wrong done to us never happened. This parable makes it clear that forgiveness still involves naming the wrong, and repentance on the part of the offender.

In neither case does the one who is owed pretend there never was a debt to begin with.

The master says outright that the first servant owes him money. At the beginning of the parable he has the servant brought to him and demands that he pays back what he owes. The servant doesn’t deny the debt, but begs the master to give him more time. In a similar way, the first servant, after he has been forgiven his debt, finds another servant who owes him money, and, once again, names the debt that is owed. And, once again, the second servant doesn’t pretend he doesn’t owe any money, but instead begs, as the first servant begged the master, for more time.

What I’m trying to say is that just as the servants who owe a debt always admit that debt, and never try to hide it, so those who have done wrong must admit that they have done wrong, and should not try to hide it. Sin must be confronted, when it can be, and those who have done wrong must be held accountable, even when they are forgiven.

I hate confrontation, so it’s easy for me to pretend I haven’t been hurt when I have. But then I ended up holding on to the offense. It’s taken practice, but I’m learning to tell people when I get offended, not to make them feel bad, but to restore our friendship.   

But what about when we can’t confront the one who has wronged us, either because they’re unwilling to talk, or we don’t know them anymore, or we are too traumatized, or any other number of reasons? What do we do when we can’t name the sin and confront the one who hurt us?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about genuine love, and in the time for response Mitch said something I think we can all relate to. He said he didn’t know what love for an enemy looked like, especially one you never see face to face. How do we love our enemies? And Brie gave her two cents, and said she didn’t know either, but it must start with seeing them as human, and loving them, and then going from there.

In short, I think Brie was saying that there isn’t a blueprint for what love looks like in every situation, it’s more like a posture we take towards our enemies. That’s why we rely on the Holy Spirit to show us what love looks like when unique situations arise. We start with love, and we let the Spirit show us what that love looks like in action.

In a similar way, I think forgiveness is about a certain posture we take. We can’t say what it will look like in every context. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek justice for the oppressed and the abused – which includes ourselves when we are the ones who are wronged – but it means that we won’t hang on to our anger and hate forever. We might hang on to them for a bit, because forgiveness always takes time, it’s a process to be worked through, but we won’t be consumed by our anger and hate. We won’t follow the way of Lamech, we’ll follow the way of Jesus. We won’t be imprisoned by the wrongs done to us, but we’ll walk in the freedom of the God who created us, who called us, who adopted us – freedom from hate and revenge and debts owed, the freedom that comes from forgiving and being forgiven – because freedom is what we were made for.

Amen.

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/39817-not-forgiving-is-like-drinking-rat-poison-and-then-waiting

Let Love Be Genuine

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45b | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:1-28

Jeremy Richards

We recently finished up a series on Philippians a few weeks ago. During that series, one of the themes that came out the strongest was the idea that Salvation isn’t a one-time event but a journey, one we take together. While we explored that idea quite a bit, it remained fairly abstract. There were metaphors about boats and shores and waves. The Trinity, of course, made an appearance, as well. But there weren’t as many tangible instructions about how we live out a life of salvation.

Which is kind of odd because Paul, the author of Philippians, is known to make long lists in his letters – lists of things you should do and lists of things you shouldn’t do, but in Philippians he didn’t really give us one of those lists. But here, in another one of Paul’s letters, he gives us the list, and it’s a good one. In Romans 12, Paul articulates what a life characterized by Salvation, a life drawn into the life of God, looks like. He says (in the NRSV):

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There’s so much in here! You probably zoned out for a minute or two as I read it, didn’t you? It’s hard – impossible! – to dig into it all in one sermon. I think the place to start, though, is where Paul starts in this passage: “Let love be genuine.” This is what makes the whole rest of the list possible. You can’t do the other stuff, if you don’t have genuine love.

We often know what we should do. Since we were kids we’ve had rules, do’s and don’ts, that tell us how to behave in society. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t hit. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Be kind. Share.

As adults, we continue (hopefully!) to abide by similar rules in our homes and workplaces. As a church, we believe that we should add standing up for justice to that list. We are called not only to behave properly in interpersonal relationships, but also to confront systems and ideologies that marginalize and oppress people.

But I think starting with the task – be it fighting overwhelming systems of injustice, or just resisting the urge to flip someone off on the freeway – is maybe the wrong place to start. It’s hard to do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing. It’s hard to follow all the rules – the dos and don’ts.

It’s just hard to stay motivated. Most of us, if not all of us, are busier than we’d like to be, we feel stretched thin from work and family responsibilities and social obligations, so we see the ways we could be better, maybe go the extra mile – maybe we shouldn’t have snapped at our family member, maybe we should have shown up for that town hall meeting or that protest – but we’re just too tired.

We often know, in our heads, what we should do, but our hearts aren’t always in it.

That’s why Paul starts with love, and more specifically genuine love. Don’t fake love. Really love. Really love God and really love people.

This week we learned that the Church in America has a ways to go when it comes to genuine love. In the midst of the Hurricane Harvey, the largest church in Houston, with a capacity for nearly 17,000 people, initially refused to take in evacuees, but eventually opened its doors after an onslaught of internet backlash.

Then, once again in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a group of Christian leaders gathered in Nashville, not to address Hurricane Harvey or how to build bridges between a country and a Church that continues to be polarized, but to further cause division. They met in Nashville to draft a document clarifying their belief that LGBTQ lifestyles are contrary to the will of God, and to say that churches like ours, who fully welcome, affirm, and celebrate our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks “constitute an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” These pastors claim it’s out of “love” that they made this statement, but that isn’t genuine love.

Let’s remind ourselves what love is, from another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Church in America needs genuine love.    

If we don’t love God and people, but only try to do what’s right out of obligation or a sense of duty we’ll end up burnt out. But if we are filled with love, our sense of obligation will be replaced by a genuine desire to treat people well, to help when we can, to confront evil for the sake of the good. We’ll be so busy holding on to what is good, that we won’t have to think twice about hating what is evil – that’s just the natural response.

And instead of losing steam, we won’t, in the words of Paul in v. 11, “lag in zeal,” but we will “be ardent in Spirit” as we “serve the Lord.”

If we have a genuine love for people, a love that can really only come from God, who first loved us, who is love, then we will “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.”

We will “contribute to the needs of the saints” and “extend hospitality to the stranger.”

We will “Bless those who persecute us” and won’t curse them.

We will “Rejoice with those who rejoice” because we love them and we will “weep with those who weep” because we love them.

We will, to the best of our ability, “Live in harmony with one another” and “if it is possible, live peaceably with all.”

We won’t “be haughty,” but will “associate with the lowly.”

We won’t “claim to be wiser than we are,” because we won’t feel the need to appear superior to anyone else, because we’ll love them.

We won’t “repay evil for evil.”

We won’t “avenge ourselves,” but will trust God to take care of that, since God is the only one who is just, the only one who is without sin.

We will find ourselves feeding our enemies and giving them water, because while we hate the evil they do we will see them for what they are: children of God. Broken, but still children of God. We will not dehumanize them, even if they dehumanize us and others, but will seek out the image of God in them. And in so doing we will not be overcome by the evil that has come to characterize the lives of some, but will overcome the evil in them and in ourselves by the goodness of God, which is the grace of God, which has been poured out on us, who while we were still sinners, Christ died for.

That’s some list, huh? And without love we can’t accomplish all of it. More specifically, without the love of Christ in us we can’t accomplish all of it. We need supernatural love – love that never runs dry, love that transforms us as if flows through us. We need a genuine love.

This past week, in a seemingly everyday interaction, I was confronted by my own need for a more genuine love. I went to New Seasons, and on the way in and out I passed two different people asking for money. I acted busy and walked right past them. Then I walked to a little market nearby, and there was another person sitting outside with a sign, asking for money. Despite my best efforts, I made eye contact with him, but I quickly looked away and proceeded into the store. On the way out, I had to walk past him again, and once again, I avoided making eye contact, but as I walked away, I heard him say, “Have a good day.”

And I felt this crushing in my chest. I had viewed this person not as a child of God, but as an inconvenience to be ignored. I, the pastor of this church, someone who preaches all the time about how we need to uphold the dignity of all people, did everything I could to ignore the humanity of this person. I’m reminded of what Alison said a few months ago about how we can make all kind of grand gestures to show people how accepting and inclusive we are, but if we can’t love the people right next to us we’re hypocrites.

I may be able to say all the right things up here (just kidding, we all know I don’t say all the right things, but maybe, sometimes, a say a couple of the right things), but Paul tells us at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” I walked away feeling like a resounding gong.

Knowing what to say and living a life of love are two different things, and this week I was confronted with my own need to grow my capacity for love, the need for Christ to grow my capacity for love.

Just to be clear, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t give him money. I didn’t have any cash, and most of us can’t afford to give money to every person who asks us. The problem was my attitude. I didn’t have genuine love for this person. I saw him as a nuisance, an interruption. I couldn’t give him money, but I could have given him a smile. I could have said hello. I could have, at the very least, acknowledged him.

One person in our congregation who’s love inspires me is Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn has called or texted me multiple times because her heart breaks when she sees people suffering. When she sees a houseless family or when she finds out that a friend of hers needs help, her first reaction, I think, is to call me, because she understands that we, as a church, should be helping people.

I think Kaitlyn, and many of you, are far ahead of me when it comes to having a genuine love – the kind of love that Paul tells the Romans about. Increasingly, since I got here, people have told me in one-on-one conversations, that they feel like we need to be out in our community doing ministry.

Earlier this week, Kim and I sat down and dreamed of different ways we could serve our community. One that really stood out to me was exploring if there’s a way for us to minister to kids at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center not far from here. Another was helping provide breakfasts to local elementary schools who’ve had their free breakfast program taken away due to lack of funds. There’s a growing desire in our church to put our faith into action, to put our love into action.

I feel it bubbling under the surface of our church. I feel genuine love growing in us, pushing against the walls of our church, seeking an exit point where it can break out and flow into the streets of Portland. Where it can bring the love of God, the same love that spoke to Moses out of a burning bush thousands of years ago, to the broken and hurting in our city. A love that isn’t just a feeling, but is the very presence of God, who is love – the God who said to Moses, “I will be with you,” the God who says to us, “I will be with you,” and, indeed, “I am with you.”

Will you please pray with me.

“Lord Jesus, give us a genuine love. Amen.”

In Response to the Racism and Violence of the alt-right in Charlottesville, VA.

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10: 5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33

Jeremy Richards

I want to begin by saying I’m feeling a lot of emotions this morning. What happened in Charlottesville this weekend has shocked and appalled me, and it must be addressed in our sermon this morning. I had a different sermon written 48 hours ago, before I knew about alt-right marches, hate speech, swastikas, homophobic chants, and violence on the other side of our country in Charlottesville, VA. Before a car smashed into protestors, killing at least one person, before driving away.

For the Hearts Still Beating

Philippians 3

Jeremy Richards

The apostle Paul writes to a Philippian church that has come so far, and yet is struggling. It’s losing heart. But he reminds them that they have hearts that are still beating. Throughout this letter Paul keeps saying in so many words, “You’ve come so far. Don’t give up now. Keep fighting. ‘Keep breathing. Keep living. Keep searching. Keep pushing on. Keep bleeding. Keep healing. Keep fading. Keep shining on.”

A Ship Called "Salvation"

Philippians 2:12-30

Jeremy Richards

“You believe in being saved?” Howard asked me on the way to the Durham VA. I had just started interning at a transitional housing development for veterans where Howard was a resident. Before I could say anything, Jimmy, the staff member who was driving said passionately, “Sure I do!”

“Not you, the pastor,” Howard said, and looked at me.

Lenticular Printing, Kenosis, Leo Tolstoy, and Other Pretentious Sounding Stuff

Philippians 2:1-11

Jeremy Richards

There are some passages that are so rich, so foundational to our faith, that to preach on them seems to be an exercise in futility. One simply can’t say all there is to say. This passage is just such a passage. We could spend weeks on vv. 6-11 alone, which is called the “Christ hymn” because scholars believe it was actually a hymn that was sung by the early church before Paul wrote this letter. Which is cool, it shows the connection between art and worship, art and theology. It teaches us that sometimes the best way to know something is to sing it.

What Happened to You?

Philippians 1:12-30

Mitch Chilcott

As Jeremy pointed out last week, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an intimate one. It’s a letter between friends—partners in ministry—people who are trying their hardest to figure out what it means to live out the gospel in the world. One of the things I like most about Paul’s letters, and particularly the letter of Philippians, is that it shows us a little bit about how people talked to each other back then. In preparation for this sermon, I got interested in certain kinds of phrases that have gone in and out of vogue; phrases that we use to ask each other questions about our lives—to see how things are going.