Forgetfulness of God
“They forgot God.”
The scriptures use this short phrase to tell the story of humanity.
Psalm 106 describes the Israelites in this way, along their odyssey from Egypt to Jerusalem. They were born in captivity, as slaves and fodder to a racist world. God liberation them from that life, through marvelous miracles and constant patience, and gave them freedom. Yet, despite everything, the Israelites turned back to the idols. They forgot God.
The Gospel doesn’t make any sense at all if you take one word out of the picture: Forgetfulness.
This was the sin when Adam and Eve bit into the fruit. By the time of Noah, the whole world had become forgetful. The Old Testament takes us through the history of God’s people, and the same theme, forgetfulness, is woven throughout. We can look at the crimes done by men and women and just called it wicked. But it’s even more then that. Behind every crime, in the heart of men, is plain and simple forgetfulness. We forget God.
Today, we see it everywhere. Just take up a newspaper and you’ll see what happens to a culture that’s forgotten God. You can see it in the chaos of the Middle East or the chaos in the hearts of young men like the shooter in Southerland Springs, Texas. Devin Kelley was his name. Our instinct is to be outraged. But that’s not enough. We have to open our eyes. Kelly was no anomaly. He was like so many in our times who have gotten sucked up into the forgetfulness, the malaise, of our world. We’ve fallen asleep. We want Christian morality but we don’t want Christ. We want the benefits of a country founded on the bible, but we don’t want the bible. We want the peace of the Holy Spirit but without the Holy Spirit. If we can’t see that then we’re blind. The tragedy this week was merely a symptom of a much larger and much more gruesome reality in our lives: we have forgotten God.
In his second epistle, St. Peter writes:
“I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right…to stir you up by reminding you,” and as though he hasn’t made his point he goes on and says, “Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease”(2 Peter 1:12-15). What’s he getting at? He’s telling us Christians to remember.
But what do we forget?
That’s what we read about in our Gospel this morning:
Christ told us, “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt” (Matt 18:21-35).
It’s easy to judge this fellow. He was forgiven everything, and such an enormous debt, and yet he wouldn’t forgive the tiny debt of his co-worker. I find myself thinking, ‘What a punk! Didn’t he see the hypocrisy in his actions?’ And I dwelt on this throughout the week until one morning it dawned on me. Am I so different?
The man didn’t take his master’s forgiveness to heart. The words, “I forgive you,” went in one ear and out the other. He went about his life as though nothing had happened. He was forgetful, and so am I. I am that unforgiving servant.
God forgives our sins, all of our sins, no matter how great or selfish or cruel. He sent His only son to us. We killed Him, but were then forgiven and offered eternity in paradise. We’ve done nothing to deserve this. It’s a gift. And yet, every time I get angry with someone because I feel disrespected, haven’t I become that same servant in the parable? Every time I hold a grudge against someone, aren’t I in the same boat? I’ll catch myself grumbling because so and so said this, or she looked at me the wrong way, or he should have known better…and at that instant, I’ve fallen in the same trap. I’m that guy.
"He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption," (Colossians 1:13-14). “You are a chosen people a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
We’ve all heard this before…but we forget. We forget the real implications of the Gospel. We forget what it means to be a Christian, and how critical is the way we use the time we’ve been given. Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant is reminder not to forget what we’ve been given and what we’ve been called to.
But where do we go from here. We are forgetful. What can we do?
St. Peter answers that further on in is epistle, "Add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love… he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (I Peter 1:5-9).
This verse is about the Church. It’s about the lifestyle we’re called to as Christians. It’s about the stuff that we have to do as Christians. We have to pursue holiness. It’s not an option, or just some nice appendix to our faith. It’s the crux of everything. We must strive after godliness because, if we don’t, we very quickly fall asleep, we become blind…we forget God. As we said last week, faith in God is not an intellectual matter. Everyone believes in God in their heart. Faith is merely the fruit of pursuing God in your lifestyle. Paul urges, “kindle the gift of God which is in you” (2 Timothy 1:6). That’s what all this stuff is about, kindling the coals in our hearts to get the fire going.
Church isn’t about Church. The liturgy isn’t about the liturgy. The icons aren’t about the icons. Religion isn’t about religion. We can’t forget that. Our liturgies and the Orthodox life, which have been maintained for 2,000 years and passed on from culture to culture, exist to help kindle our affections for God.
Why do we have icons on the wall?
They aren’t just there because they’re pretty. Since the first centuries, Christians have painted icons of Christ and His Saints because they remind us. Here in the sanctuary, we have a visible reminder of what is happening. We aren’t individuals or a mere body of 30 or 40 gathering to praise God. Christ is with us and all the heavenly hosts and saints. We are in the Kingdom of Heaven, but after a long week in the secular world, it’s easy to forget that. The icons remind us.
The Orthodox life is shaped around the Church calendar, from Advent to Christmas, to Lent and Pascha, and so forth. Why? In one week we find a hundred distractions from God. The calendar calls us back. The more we schedule our lives around it’s feast days, the more we wake up and remember this Christian journey is all about. We too must walk in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior. We’re saved and shaped IN Christ.
The Church requires us to go to confession. Why? That we might remember our sins and bring them to God. The scriptures are clear. They never mention confessing privately. You won’t find it there. Confession is always in a community, with another person, because it takes the accountability of another person and the responsibility of declaring your sin out loud in order for you to really get the full effect of your sin. And it isn’t until you understand how deeply a sinner you are before you can really appreciate how profound and awesome is God’s Grace.
This is why the scriptures are so adamant about being a part of a body of believers. You can’t be a Christian alone. Alone, you forget.
The minute you throw out the visible parts of the Church, the unity which, in Orthodoxy, we’ve maintained unbroken, without reformations, and without change for 2,000 years, the sacraments, the calendar, the icons…you’ve lost these tools for remembering, for kindling, your relationship with God.
The Life of the Church exists for this sole purpose: to wake us up…to remind us…
Religion as an end in itself is worthless. But as a means to the end, it is vital. The more we plug our lives into the church, with the intent to draw closer to God, the more our hearts will wake up and remember.
God is here. God is with us. We must strive to remember and reach out to taste and see that He is good (Psalm 34:8).