A History Nerd Looks at Judgment, Forgiveness and Knocking Down Barriers

October 13, 2016

chuck-williamsonIt seems that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1800s.

First, I’m in a book group that just finished reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (on which the hit Broadway musical is based). And second, out of curiosity, I’ve been rummaging through our church’s archives, reading Miss Madeline Orr’s history of FPC, as well as our Session minutes from the 1850s.

Yes, I’m a history nerd.

Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies in the end. Here’s how Chernow describes Hamilton’s last hours. He says that Hamilton, who late in life found faith in God, was “preoccupied with spiritual matters.” From his death bed, he asked that someone call the Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church, to bring communion. When Rev. Moore arrived, he refused to comply with the request because Hamilton “had not been a regular churchgoer.” In desperation, Hamilton then turned to a friend, John Mason, who was a Presbyterian pastor, and made the same request. Rev. Mason also refused because “private communion” was against Presbyterian polity.

Something about this scene makes me very sad. Here was a man seeking comfort and an experience of God’s grace in his dying hours, and pastors refused because Hamilton did not come up to their standards, didn’t meet their rules.

I would like to think that incidents like this were rare, isolated. But it seems that was not so.

In 1855, the Session of our church called “Mr. _____” to appear before the Session to give answer to a charge of the sin of “intemperance.” The accused appeared and acknowledged the sin, “expressed a deep feeling of sorrow and penitence on account of it, and a firm determination in dependence upon divine aid to abstain from that vice hereafter.”

The minutes of the meeting continue: “The members of the Session urged on him the importance of living a consistent Christian life and attending regularly upon the ordinances of God’s house. The Session then, on account of the recency and notoriety of the offense, advised the accused to absent himself from the communion table on the following Sabbath.”

This member came before the session with a penitent heart, seeking forgiveness. What he got instead was judgment. Apparently, the Session was not willing to forgive the offence because of the “notoriety”, which meant that people might think them soft on sinners. So they temporarily excommunicated him.

There was a time in our church’s life when, in the days before communion was to be celebrated in worship, elders from the church would visit the members and examine them on their faith and practice. Those members who were found worthy would be given a communion token, and on the following Sunday only those with a token were permitted to take communion. No token…no communion.

I’m glad those days are gone. Yet there are still so many times that we let our judgments of others keep us from reaching out to them and welcoming them and caring for them.

I ask God for forgiveness for those times when my judgments of others create a barrier. And I pray that God will show me how to knock those barriers down.

– Chuck Williamson