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And When You Pray: Debts or Trespasses?

(a sermon for July 16, 2017, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on Psalm 32, Mark 11:20-25 and Matthew 6:9-15)

It’s just a little scene that, pastorally speaking, has repeated itself time and time again over the years.

Maybe it’s at a funeral, sometimes at a wedding where I’m the officiant; or for that matter, it could be a regular service of worship, particularly one where there are people present from different churches or faith traditions.  But it’s always the same thing:  everything’s going along just fine, and then you start to pray the Lord’s Prayer and everyone along with you; and it continues to be fine… at least until you get to that one line, that piece of the prayer that we’re looking at this morning:  “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  For it is at this moment that even the most spiritually unified of congregations will become strangely disoriented; hesitating, stumbling and looking up from their prayerfulness, suddenly unsure of what they’re supposed to say next:  is it “debts” or “trespasses?”

This may seem like a small matter, and in the greater scheme of things, I suppose that it is; however, I also have to say that I’ve seen more than a few times of prayer disrupted, if not unraveled, by the lack of a shared and appropriate translation!  I mean, which is it:  are we to “forgive our debtors,” or “forgive those who trespass against us,” which not only sounds and feels different to say, but is also a bit longer; which matters, especially if you’re in a “mixed group,” so to speak.  I remember once leading a graveside service where I prayed, as I’m familiar, using “debts and debtors” but those who were gathered prayed as they were familiar, saying “trespasses;” which is fine and wholly appropriate, except that when I paused just a moment to let them say, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us,” their voices quickly faded away to nothing (!) and they literally looked up to me for guidance, as though when I stopped speaking, that meant they were supposed to stop, too (or at least until the moment I started again with, “And lead us into temptation…”)!

Now, this actually speaks to something that we’ve been referencing throughout this sermon series: the danger of our letting such an important part of our worship as the Lord’s Prayer become little more than something we say out of habit; or more to the point, the tendency we have of praying these petitions unto the Lord without really understanding what it is we’re actually asking!  So maybe it is a valid question after all, this matter of “debts” versus “trespasses,” especially when it comes down to that which is at the center of this part of the prayer that Jesus has given us: our request for and our need of… forgiveness.

And the thing about it is, at least where the question of “debts or trespasses” is concerned, scripture doesn’t really give us a definitive answer.  Matthew’s gospel, from which we read this morning, very clearly refers to debt, which then, as now, suggests a financial indebtedness; and that’s not by accident.  For the Jews of Jesus’ time, you see, financial indebtedness was akin to the worst kind of oppression and slavery; there was no greater crime, so to speak, than to have failed to pay back what they owed And so to pray, “Forgive us our debts” was to acknowledge that one’s unrighteousness and sin was the debt incurred to a Holy God; in other words, every time we violate the laws, the principles and the will of God in thought, word and deed we are creating for ourselves a mountain range of moral debt unto the Almighty!

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, on the other hand, is a bit more to the point: “…forgive us our sins” (11:4) is how it’s translated there.  And here’s a fun fact; trespasses?  That particular word isn’t really part of the Lord’s Prayer at all (though it’s a word that does turn up elsewhere, and in fact, as part of our readings today): our use of “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer itself dates back to William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525!  But regardless of the translation, the meaning ends up exactly the same:  we are each and all of us debtors… sinners… trespassers; for we have broken God’s loving laws time and time again.  And when we come to this point in Jesus’ prayer of asking God to “forgive us our debts” (or our trespasses, or our sin) we are both confessing this to be true about ourselves, and asking that somehow, someway by his grace and love God might forgive us that huge mountain of debt we’ve built up.

I’m reminded here of an old colleague and friend of mine from my seminary days who in a class one day confessed to us that perhaps the hardest thing he ever had to do as a newly minted student pastor and preacher at this little church in Maine was to stand in the pulpit and look into the eyes of that beautiful, wonderful elderly lady in the third pew with the kind and gentle soul – pillar of the church, dontcha know (!) – and, holding fast to the biblical truth of our faith, to say to her and everyone else in that congregation, “You are a sinner .”   Now, in this particular tradition of faith, we’re not exactly “hellfire and brimstone” in our approach to such things; but I have to say that this is a truth that haunts me as well, and nowhere more so than when I look in the mirror.  This is the sad truth of our existence, friends: we are all sinners; by our unrighteousness we are so deeply indebted to the Holy God that there is never any hope at all of paying off that indebtedness n our own.

And it would seem hopeless, except that there is good news; and that good news is that ours is a God who desires mercy more than judgment, and who will be faithful, just and above all, forgiving to those who would acknowledge their sin, who, in the words of the Psalmist, “will confess [their] transgressions to the LORD,” and thus have their sins be covered.  As The Message translates it, “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. Count yourself lucky – [for] God holds nothing against you and you’re holding nothing back from him.”  This is true forgiveness and a gift of true grace, and all of it begins, simply and profoundly enough, by our coming humbly to God and saying from the heart, “forgive us our debts…”

However, all this said, there is a catch… well, not so much of a catch as an understanding.  And it comes in the other half of this particular petition of prayer:  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It’s one little word that makes all the difference – “as” – and in the words of Charles Williams, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.”

Yes, it is true that we are all sinners; but it is equally true that we are all sinned against; we are not just the perpetrators of sin, we are the victims of sin; we have been hurt and sinned against, betrayed, abandoned and made to feel far less than what we are.  And so as such, then, we not only are debtors, we have debtors as well.  And the question is – the question always is – what do we do about that?  What kind of attitude are we to have toward all these debtors in our lives?  We may well struggle with our answer to that, but make no mistake, God’s answer is clear, and it’s right there in our prayer:  “…forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

There is a correlation, you see, between the way you and I treat our debtors and the way God treats debtors like you and me.  Since we’ve been including Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday through the weeks of this sermon series, I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that as Jesus comes to the end of this teaching on how we should pray, there is something of a caveat:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  It’s also there in our text from Mark, in which Jesus reminds Peter and the other disciples that the power of prayer is such that even mountains can be “taken up and thrown into the sea,” but then adds, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

And for any of us who would be looking for loopholes where this is concerned, rest assured that this same principle is confirmed throughout scripture. The measure of mercy that we extends to others will be the measure God extends to us; or to put it another way, no one can truly love God and be un-forgiving to a brother or a sister. Are we to take this to mean that our forgiveness from God is earned solely on the basis of how we forgive other people?  No; remember that our forgiveness is a gift of grace; but, to quote pastor and blogger Ken Baker, “If we choose to hoard the forgiveness granted to us by failing to forgive others, not only do we disobey the Lord’s teaching, but also we miss the full benefit of forgiveness, [for] God’s purpose in forgiving us is that we might be reconciled to him and to each other.”

To be forgiven so that we might forgive; in the end, you see, it’s all part of the same gift.  Divine forgiveness strengthens and empowers us to share mercy that would otherwise be beyond our ability; forgiving others their “trespasses against us” is what brings us into a closer relationship with the one who fills our lives with deeper purpose and a fuller love.  This is central to everything we know to be true about our faith; and it’s been made real in the life, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus:  we forgive “as” we have been forgiven… friends, for us to neglect one part of that equation cannot help but diminish the other!

And so when we pray this prayer of our Savior, this is what we say: “forgive us our debts (or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us).”

I trust that each one of us in this room today can easily claim the blessing of forgiveness for ourselves; but I ask you this morning, beloved: who is it right now that we need to forgive?  Who are those who right at this moment stand amongst our debtors? Maybe it started as just a small thing; a minor slight, a misspoken word or hurt feeling; but now here’s someone to whom you are estranged.  Who has trespassed against you? Perhaps the one you thought you could trust and with whom you risked a relationship, but who ended up breaking a confidence or who betrayed you in a way that you feel is irreparable?  Maybe it was the one who took advantage of your good nature or your generosity and left you feeling empty and used?  Or could be it was someone who withheld from you the affection or the caring or the kind of blessing you so desperately needed at some given time of your life, or even now?    Or maybe it’s that ever growing mountain of offenses, either real or perceived… but which cumulatively has begun to tear you apart from the inside out, and which has ever so slowly but surely changed you and put a wedge in the center of your relationship with God…

Whoever it is, whatever it might be, it might be good for you to remember today that there is great power in forgiveness; like love itself, forgiveness has the power to move mountains… and us, as well.

Forgive us our debts, O God, as we forgive our debtors.

And let our thanks always be unto you, O God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: The Gift of Daily Bread

(a sermon for July 9, 2017, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on  Deuteronomy 8:7-18, John 6:32-34 and Matthew 6:9-13)

So now here we are, roughly halfway through this “prayer of our Savior,” having appropriately prayed for things that relate directly to God and God’s kingdom –“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – after all of this, now things get personal. And for the first time, our prayerfulness turns to the practical realities of life; asking God for the things that are necessary for our physical lives, yours and mine:  “Give us this day our daily bread.”

You might remember that last Sunday I spoke about how there are “three levels of prayer,” and how that first level of prayer is basically our asking God to provide for us any and all of the blessings that we ask for; which isn’t necessarily as bad as that sounds!  However, I must confess that the whole time I was working on that sermon and into this week as well, I had this one particular tune running through my head:

“O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
– “Mercedes Benz,” written by Janis Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth

Hey, I am a child of the 60’s after all!  What’s funny is that I can remember as clear as day hearing that song from Janis Joplin on the radio for the first time at about the age of 12 or 13, and thinking to my Sunday School educated self, “Well, that’s no kind of prayer, is it?”  Granted, Joplin intended for this song to be a bit of satire regarding the rampant level of materialism that still exists in our culture (and in spades!), but even back then, I remember thinking that this doesn’t jibe at all with praying that God “give us this day our daily bread!”

And I was right about that… God’s not meant to be the supernatural giver of luxury cars (or as the second verse of that song suggests, color TV’s!); yet, as I would discover throughout all the years that have followed, there’s much more included in that particular petition of the almighty than simply a loaf of bread!

Of course, make no mistake; there’s great significance in the fact that Jesus specifically speaks of “daily bread” in this prayer he’s giving us.  First and foremost, it’s a powerful image that would have strongly resonated in the hearts of the people of his time; in many ways bread was symbolic of the totality of God’s providential care!  T was reminiscent of the “manna” that fell from heaven and which kept Israel from going hungry during their time of wilderness wandering; it speaks of God’s on-going covenant of care with his people, from the time of Abraham to Jacob to Moses and beyond. Moreover, biblically speaking, bread is symbol of hospitality, of charity and generosity, and even of reconciliation:  “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat.” (Proverbs 25:21)  And anyone within the sound of Jesus’ voice would know that food begins with… bread.  It’s simply the stuff of basic sustenance!

Now, glutens notwithstanding, bread might still be for us “the staff of life,” but I would suspect that most of us would think of our basic sustenance as something much broader.  For us, “daily bread” might well exist in the form of a good job and a regular paycheck, the means to have food on the table but also a roof over our heads, or for that matter, a solid pension or a good 401K plan for our retirement years!  Actually to take this a step further, hear the words of Martin Luther from some 500 years ago: he said “that daily bread doesn’t just refer to food… it stands for all the physical things we need for life; everything that nourishes life;” things like “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Whew… maybe that Mercedes Benz wasn’t so far off the mark, after all!)

The point here is that “daily bread” we seek represents all of that which provides for you and me a good, and full, and dare I say it: even a prosperous life.  But do you see what every one of those things I listed off have in common?  It’s that no matter how hard we work to attain it, hang on to it, cling to it or protect it, it could nonetheless all slip away from us… just like that.  Not that it will – I don’t want to inspire panic here (!) – but the fact remains it can!  In a prior church, I had a parishioner who was the CEO of a multi-million dollar, international corporation that had done quite well; and one day, in the midst of a conversation about faith and stewardship, actually, he said to me that today he could honestly say that he was worth an amount of X million plus dollars.  But tomorrow, he went on to say, I could well have nothing at all.  I asked him if that had ever happened to him, and he answered, “Oh, yes, any number of times…”  And then he smiled and added, “I just don’t really have any control over that.”

You and I are not likely at that rung of the corporate ladder, but the fact remains is that all of the sources of our wealth and security; all of the things that we work for and consider to be sustenance is temporary at best.  And I’m here to tell you this morning that this is less an economic truth than it is a spiritual one:  for ultimately, you see, the source of all good things is eternal; and the place where we receive the gift of daily bread is from God!

I would suggest to you that when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it is not as much a request for all the good things of life (though I would agree with Luther that it is part of it!), as much as it is the true acknowledgment that all good gifts do come from God!  This is a truth that comes through strongly in our reading this morning from Deuteronomy, which is a celebration of God’s many blessings unto his people (a reading, not coincidentally, that we often read around Thanksgiving!): “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land… [and] when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… do not say to yourself, ‘My power and my might of my own hand have  gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Not that we people ever completely learn this; that’s why I also included this morning those verses from John’s gospel, in which some of those amongst the 5,000 who’d just been fed the loaves and fishes were still wanting to ascribe miracles to someone like Moses, who brought forth that manna in the wilderness.  But Jesus was quick to remind them that it wasn’t Moses, but “my Father who gave you the true bread from heaven,” the bread “that gives life to the world.”

In many ways, at least for most of us today in the kind of world we live in, it doesn’t seem like all that much, does it?  It’s such a simple request for us to bow our heads say to God, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but in fact, it’s everything.  Like I said at the beginning, here’s the point of the Lord’s Prayer when things get personal; for when we pray this prayer, we are affirming God as the sole source of our lives, our health, our food… every bit of what we consider to be our sustenance.  We are placing our whole trust, our whole selves in the hand of the one who cares for his people day by day by day; and in doing so, we discover that while the truth has always been that we don’t have the control over these things that we like to think we do, all will be well, and we will always know the gift of daily bread.

I think it important to add here that “daily bread” does suggest a simplicity of life; our focus is not meant to be on the so-called luxuries of life.  To quote one preacher by the name of Mickey Anders, “We are not to ask for cake or pie but for bread – the necessity of life.”  (I’m not sure I really like that quote, but there you are!)  Moreover, it should be said that just as throughout scripture bread is seen as the first means to share with others, to reach out to the poor or to reconcile with one’s enemies, our prayers for “daily bread” must also include our intentions for what which God is blessing us.  In so many ways, as we often like to say around here, we are blessed to be a blessing; and, I might add, we are people of a promise.

The renowned theologian R.C. Sproul tells a story of the days following the Korean Conflict, when there was left a large number of children who had been orphaned by the war.  There were, of course, a number of relief agencies who tried to deal with that situation and care for these children, many of whom quite literally starving to death.  But “even though the children had three meals a day provided for them, they were restless and anxious at night and had difficulty sleeping.  To help resolve this problem, the relief workers in one particular orphanage decided that each night when the children were put to bed, the nurses there would place a single piece of bread in each child’s hand,” not to be eaten, but to be held by those children as they went to sleep, a reminder that there would be food for tomorrow and “that there would be provision for their daily needs.”  And sure enough, the bread calmed their anxieties and those children slept soundly from then on.

Some would argue that there’s no real need for us to pray this prayer; for such is the grace of God that “daily bread” will come to us whether we pray for it or not.  But I would say that’s missing the point entirely; for just as those children found their comfort in holding a piece of bread for the next day, this prayer of humble dependence upon God gives you and me the assurance that no matter what other sources of sustenance run dry in this life, we will always have the presence of this ever graceful, infinitely loving Lord who provides for our needs on this and every day of our lives.

And whereas we can’t claim luxury vehicles and color TV’s as part of that providence, there is nonetheless spread for us a table of the bread that comes down from heaven, and which gives us life… and life for the world.

And for this day, our daily bread, thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Ways We Pray

In and through “the act and attitude of worship” on an average Sunday morning, one is apt to be led in prayer in any given number of ways.

For instance, depending on a congregation’s particular tradition of faith (or denominational affiliation), there will likely be some sort of bulletin containing a selection of unison and responsive prayers designed to lead worshipers through a celebration of Word and Sacrament that’s both spiritually meaningful and liturgically correct. Other churches tend to be a bit more “freestyle” about the matter, leaving pastors and other worship leaders to lead and direct the church in its prayerfulness; music very often plays an important part in this, and depending on the size and shape of a particular congregation (not to mention the length of the service!), prayer concerns are often shared from the pews before and during the act of prayer itself. But however it’s done, speaking and silence, confession and assurance, thanksgiving and dedication all end up as part and parcel of the church at prayer.  Oh… and yes, usually somewhere in the midst of things, the Lord’s Prayer is a part of it.

At East Church, as was true at other churches where I’ve been privileged to serve as a worship leader, our prayer life has been a healthy mix of the liturgical and casual; always seeking to allow what we do together as God’s people to embrace the inherent and Spirit-led movement of the worship service from praise and thanksgiving to nurture and dedication. It’s all about tradition, creativity and above all, reverence to God; and I try my best to guide the congregation accordingly.

I will freely confess here, however, that as a pastor I’ve always had a few preferred prayers to which I regularly return; for example, just prior to preaching (“O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts…”), or occasionally something like an invocation or offertory prayer. But just as familiarity often breeds contempt, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes this kind of repetition can get you into trouble: once, years ago when one of my sons was still a teenager, during one such prayer I glanced up (yes, sometimes we do that, too!) to discover that he and his buddy were at the back of the sanctuary not only silently mouthing the words I was speaking but also imitating my particular vocal inflections with appropriate facial movements; giggling the whole time!

It was funny, I’ll admit – and trust me, I mixed things up the following Sunday (!) – but it was also an enduring reminder to me of how easily the flow of our words of worship and prayer can become little more than habit.  I think this about this a lot when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, especially about now as we’re in the midst of a sermon series that seeks to unpack those all-important petitions that Jesus taught his disciples and us to pray. To wit, if our repeating of these words is merely by rote or because it’s what’s printed in the bulletin, are we truly “hallowing” the name of God?  Are we at all claiming the supremacy of God’s will or acknowledging God’s gift of daily bread, and are even really asking for forgiveness of sin?  If praying the prayer of our Savior is simply a matter of mechanics, can we honestly say that “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever?”  I wonder…

Interestingly enough, over the years when I’ve been asked by parishioners about a way to begin or renew a discipline of prayer, I’ve recommended something that’s worked well for me: to go someplace quiet and say the Lord’s Prayer… again and again and again.  But in this instance, rather than engaging in an empty exercise in sheer repetition I’ve found that this offers us the much needed opportunity for us to pause after each and every phrase and prayerfully consider what’s actually being said; perchance to let God’s own Spirit not only deepen our understanding of the prayer itself, but also our relationship with the one who gave us the prayer to pray!

To be sure, for such a true spiritual awareness to grow within us takes time, effort and perhaps above all, patience; indeed, for every part of this prayer that comes easily to our lips, there are inevitably those bits and pieces that we stubbornly resist. But that’s the very nature of prayer, isn’t it: that even as we give thanks and praise to God for giving us all the myriad blessings of our lives, we are forced to confront the ways that we’ve fallen short of God’s intentions for our lives, our living and our world; truly, it seems to me that if we’re doing it right, the very act of prayer ought to be as humbling as it is uplifting!

And if all this feels a bit overwhelming… well, you’re right.  But the good news is that when we pray in this way, we are promised that God will be present with us in every moment and beyond with hope, with peace, with joy… and love that’s abundant and eternal.

And to this, what can we say exceptAmen, and thanks be to God!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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