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And When You Pray: The Threefold Benediction

(a sermon for August 27, 2017, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Chronicles 29:10-13 and Matthew 6:9-13)

And so now, after all these weeks, finally we come to the final petition of our Lord’s Prayer, and what a word it is:  “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever… Amen.”

Amen, indeed! I mean, from a literary standpoint alone, this is the grand finale of a remarkable work, is it not; it’s the pinnacle of everything that’s been said and prayed up until this point, each phrase and petition having built upon the one before so that now there’s nothing left for us to offer up except this ultimate expression of our praise and thanksgiving unto God: to proclaim with whole hearts and loud voices that thine is the kingdom, and thine is the power, and thine is the glory forever and ever, Amen!

You know what I’m saying; it’s there in just about every musical setting you’ve ever heard of this prayer, most especially in the beautiful version by Albert Mallotte that we’ve heard sung and played here on a couple of occasions this summer; and I don’t know about you, but even on those numerous occasions that we speak this Lord’s Prayer together in worship, there’s nonetheless this same crescendo that peaks the moment we come to the final verse!  It’s a true benediction and powerful way to end this prayer of our Savior, and not only am I grateful, as we’ve said so often through this sermon series, that this is the prayer that Jesus himself gave to his disciples and to us, but also that Jesus – Jesus himself (!) – also chose to conclude this prayer he gave us in just this way!

Except…

…that maybe he didn’t.

I’m sure you’ve probably noticed by now that this particular part of the Lord’s Prayer is not included in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching of it.  Luke doesn’t refer to it at all, and Matthew’s gospel relegates it to a mere footnote, claiming that “other ancient authorities, in some form” included these words about the kingdom, the power and the glory; but frankly, most biblical scholars argue that that’s not even the case!  The likely truth is that this final petition to the Lord’s Prayer was something added on by the early Christian Church (probably sometime around the fourth or fifth century) as a way of making it more liturgical in form; that is, to “complete” the Lord’s Prayer as an all-encompassing affirmation of faith by adding what is referred to in “church language” as a doxology, which in the Greek literally means to give a “word of glory and honor.”  Obviously, the addition caught on because we’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer that way ever since; although if you’ve ever repeated this prayer with a group of Roman Catholic worshippers, you’ll know that they end their unison prayer at “deliver us from evil,” owing to the fact that addition or no addition, as far as we know from the gospels Jesus most likely did not say those particular words in teaching his disciples how to pray!

Now, does this mean that the Lord’s Prayer, or at least the way we’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer, has somehow become nullified by our mistaken translation?  Absolutely not!   To begin with, adding those words about “the kingdom, power and glory” at the end of Jesus’ prayer does bring an appropriate (and dare I say, triumphant) conclusion to these series of petitions that, one after the other,  speak not only of the presence and power of the divine but also to our relationship, yours and mine, with the divine.  Moreover, there’s a symmetry to how that last verse relates to everything before:  we start out the Lord’s Prayer by praying that God’s, our Father’s, name be hallowed and requesting that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven; and we finish with the unequivocal affirmation that “thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  It’s a true doxology, a threefold benediction that serves to remind us, even as we pray, that everything we are and have and can ever hope to be is solely by virtue of the power and glory of God!

So it does seem a fitting addition to our prayer; and besides… though Jesus might not have spoken the words in that specific context, he most certainly knew them to be true; in fact, as a teacher himself, Jesus likely spoke of that moment we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning, in which King David, toward the end of his life and about to pass on the task of building the temple to his son Solomon, gathers the people and prays unto God, “Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom O LORD, and you are exalted as head over all… and now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.”  That those words are familiar to our ears is by no accident at all; to quote one commentator, “It is fitting… that a portion of David’s kingdom prayer should be attached to the Son of David’s kingdom prayer.”

You see, at the end of the day (or the end of the prayer, as it were), what we pray in this amazing series of petitions that Jesus gave to us is that it’s God’s kingdom, God’s power, and God’s glory that prevails over everything… everything in our lives, now and eternally.  Our God is the Creator of heaven and earth, who has breathed the very breath of life into each one of us; whose presence and power is felt in every passing moment of our lives, whose very strength is felt in each and every joy and sorrow and challenge that we face.  Our God is the one who nourishes us with daily bread, who offers us forgiveness of sin along with the grace that we might forgive others in kind, who leads us along the surest of pathways that deliver us from evil. Our God is the one who decries all kinds of evil in the world by proclaiming a gospel of love and justice and peace, sending forth his own Son as the example and expiation, and then calling you and I to proclaim that same Word by our very lives.  Our God is the one who intends for his truth to be made real in and through every one of us here; so that truth – God’s truth, the truth of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ – might finally begin to penetrate the walls of division and hatred that are the ongoing construct of a sad and misguided culture.  Our God is the God who wishes that in all things – whether that applies to the ways we approach one another around the breakfast table or how we stand on the streets of Charlottesville or Boston –  that in all things we might live as true reflections of God’s kingdom, his power, his glory and yes, most especially, his love.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Perhaps Jesus didn’t speak those words in exactly the context we like to think he did; but we do know that it’s exactly what he meant, and what he means for you and for me as we are sent out into this world to walk the walk of discipleship in these days of sad, confused and conflicting situations.

As you might imagine, and perhaps like a lot of you, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past couple of weeks reflecting on the faith implications of everything that’s been happening in the world and in our own country; specifically, how we as the church ought to be responding to the kind of destructive hate that’s been so much on display as of late.  I mean, I think it’s obvious that we in the church need to be loud and clear in naming “the evils we deplore,” denouncing all manner of racism, violence and bigotry as being not only un-Christian, but un-American as well.  Moreover, though I must confess that I was more than a little skeptical as to what good it could do, I stand in great admiration of my brothers and sisters of faith (especially my clergy colleagues) who linked arms in Charlottesville and Boston and stared down the Neo-Nazi’s and White Supremacists, witnessing to love and justice quite literally there on the front lines of conflict.

But that said, what I’ve been wondering about is the rest of us?  How do we respond?  How about those of us who sit in these pews every Sunday morning and who need to spend the week ahead at our jobs, or running errands, going to doctor’s appointments, running kids (or grandkids!) to school on time and all the rest of the “stuff” of life: what are we to do about those who would so easily and deliberately dismiss the law of loving one’s neighbor as themselves.  Honestly, friends, these days, all it’s taken is ten minutes watching the news to make one feel helpless about the state of the world!

But then in my reading over vacation I came across a piece from the Christian Century, actually written a couple of years ago by Samuel Wells, regarding the great 20th century theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, as you may recall, was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis; the result of speaking out against the Third Reich and having been implicated in a plot to kill Hitler.  Ultimately though, writes Wells, it was not Bonhoeffer’s politics that got him put in jail; it was Jesus!  It was Bonhoeffer’s confession that Jesus was over and above any and all of the powers and principalities of this world; that it was and is God’s incarnation in Christ that makes us the Church and what moves us surely and steadily toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Wells writes that “Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say.”  It’s truly the difference between death and resurrection; and it’s what not only renews the Church in every generation, it’s what empowers us to stare down the face of every new evil that arises in this world… for thine is the Kingdom, and thine is the power, and thine is the glory forever!

You’ve heard me say it before from this pulpit: that the first and best thing you and I can do in these times is for us to truly be the Church of Jesus Christ; and that begins, I believe, with making God in Christ the centerpiece of everything in life.  And no, it’s not always, if ever, an easy thing to have one’s faith take priority over that which is safer, or more expedient, or more profitable in a worldly sense.  In fact, it’s almost certainly going to involve some risk; but it is, truly, the way, the truth and the life that Jesus spoke about, and not only will it change us for the better, it will change the world as well.

So, friends… “and when you pray,” how will you pray?  Will you let the words of Jesus simply roll off your tongue in the same manner as you have countless times before?  Or will you let the phrases and petitions that we’ve been given be the means by which let our Lord have leadership of your life?

What’s interesting is that beyond the King James Version of the Bible, this final part of the Lord’s Prayer isn’t included in most modern translations of scripture for the reasons we mentioned earlier.  It does, however, appear in The Message (which, given that it’s technically a paraphrase of scripture rather than a translation, gives it a little leeway in interpretation).  But this is one “rendition” of the Lord’s Prayer that, while decidedly untraditional, kind of says it all from beginning to end, and seems as good a way to conclude this sermon series as any I can think of:

“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

And so, beloved, may it truly be, “Yes, Yes, Yes,” forever and ever…

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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And When You Pray: The Times of Temptation

(a sermon for August 6, 2017, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 10:1-17 and Matthew 6:9-13)

Well, not counting my time away, now we’re six weeks into this sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, and I have to tell you: speaking both as a preacher and as a hearer of God’s Word, I have been amazed by just how many big questions we’ve had to address as we’ve gone along!

I mean, from the very existence and nature of God (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”) and his unending grace and providence (“…thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), to the gift of both sustenance (“…our daily bread”) and forgiveness (“…forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”),  this seemingly little prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples not only touches upon many of the central issues of our Christian theology but also encompasses just about everything we hold dear about our faith; and friends, that’s a lot!  In fact, it can all be a bit overwhelming; and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that even in preparing these messages I’d find that for every one of these big questions I’d hoped I was answering for the sermon and for myself, I’d discover that there was another question to take its place (and trust me, that’s not something you want to happen late on a Saturday night!).

Honestly, sometimes it’s enough to make your head swim (!); but then, that’s sort of the nature of a life of faith.  What’s the expression about the unexamined life not being worth living?  Well, I’d suggest to you this morning that the unexamined faith is, well… impossible!  We reach out our hearts to God, knowing that God’s Spirit will intercede for us “with sighs too deep for words;” (Romans 8:26) but then we are left to prayerfully discern what the nature of that intercession and its meaning for our lives might be!   We seek to live, as the old confessional puts it, “a godly, righteous and sober life to the glory of God’s Holy name,” but then we have to wrestle with what that actually means in today’s world.  And we know that ought to be in accordance with biblical truth, however that happens to apply and based on what we’ve come to understand about scripture, and absolutely it needs to adhere to the teachings and the example of Jesus Christ.  But then in trying to do that we make a very interesting discovery: that it’s not so much what we don’t understand about scripture or about Jesus that raises up the bigger questions for us; it’s what we do understand about our Christian faith that gives us pause, leaves us confused, and sometimes, absolutely scares us!

You see what I mean?  Big questions, one right after another…

I tell you all this today because now we’ve come to the next to last petition of this “Prayer of Our Savior” that arguably raises as many questions for us as it answers:  “…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Now, on the face of it, this is pretty straightforward language that represents a necessary shift in this prayer to a tone of stark realism.  Mickey Anders writes that this has to happen in the Lord’s Prayer, because ultimately “life is about more than lofty language about God’s kingdom, God’s will, daily bread and even forgiveness.  There is [also] the reality of temptation and evil, call it what you will… [and] we face the temptation to evil every day.”

Now, I love that quote; but I still have to ask, what does all this mean?  I mean, ordinarily when we talk about temptation we’re apt to be speaking about the need to avoid those worldly enticements that are bad for us and which keep us apart from God; ranging from the temptation toward eating too many sweets to being unfaithful in one’s relationships.  It’s all about ethics and morality, self-care and righteousness before the Lord; and while that’s most certainly a part of it, this prayer to God to “lead us not into temptation” really does seem to go much deeper than this.

And while we’re on the subject, are we really praying that God not “lead” us into temptation?  Why would the Lord who loves us beyond limit and who wishes us to be in a relationship with him ever be leading us into temptation to begin with?  If God is good, then why would God ever deign to tempt us to do evil, especially as we’re praying that he deliver us from said evil?   And here’s another question:  is it even possible to forever be led away from temptation?  That’s a question that’s at the heart of our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians, in which Paul – lifting up the example of generations of the faithful who had come before – says to these new Christians, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind,” or to quote one very apt paraphrase, “If you think you are beyond the reach of temptation, be careful,” because nothing that comes your way is any different than what others have had to face!  Bottom line is that none of us are totally beyond the reach of temptation; quoting Mark Adams here, “All of us are tempted. The monk who lives behind cloistered walls wrestles with it just as much as the salesman out on the road.”

So… if temptation is an inevitable reality that all of us have to deal with; and if we understand that God’s would never be responsible for leading us into that place and probably cannot completely remove us from it; then what are we asking when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation?”

Questions…. Oy veh, the questions!

Actually, part of the problem here has to do with translation.  The Greek word that’s used here for “temptation” is “peirasmus,” and this is a word that just as appropriately can be translated as “enticement or temptation,” or (and listen to this!) “a test or trial.”  That’s how in a number of biblical translations, including our own NRSV, this verse in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer can be read, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”   This might seem like a subtle change, but for me it brings this prayer from seeking refuge from a place of hopeless repetition of inevitable mistakes to… a way of enduring and triumphing over the trials and tribulations of life; in particular the life of faith. For me, you see, what we’re praying for is a way to confront the struggle we all have with this thing we refer to as temptation, but which is in fact the effort that it takes to face up to the reality of evil and live that “godly, righteous and sober life” in a fallen world: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (we’ll get to that second part in just a minute…)

So… here’s yet another question: what is the nature of temptation; what is the time of trial we you and I will so often have to face?  Actually, to answer this I always come back to a verse from Romans – and by the way, friends, if there’s any verse in Holy Scripture that seems tailor made to make one’s head spin, this is it – “…for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (14:23)

Let me just repeat that just one more time so it can sink in:  “…for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

Now, understand that Paul is saying this in the context of admonishing the Roman Christians to not be a stumbling black to those whose practice of the faith might differ from their own (specifically, what is permissible to eat under the canon of law).  In other words, this is a stern message not to let one’s faith become a means of arrogance because if your actions and attitudes aren’t wholly attuned to your faith then it’s no longer faith but sin.

Opens up a whole bunch more questions, doesn’t it?  What that means is that even our most well-intentioned behaviors, as good and even  as “religious” as they might well be, end up not proceeding from faith at all if they are not rooted in our “own conviction before God.” (v. 22) Worship, outreach, mission, stewardship, the things we do for the church, the things we do for the world, the things we do for each other, to say nothing of our own personal piety; the applications to such a truth as this are literally endless!  I remember back in seminary, when we had to “exegete” this particular passage in our systematic theology class, our heads pretty much exploded (!); and if that’s your reaction when you go home today and start thinking about all this, I’m truly sorry; although, if it ends up in some spiritual self-evaluation, then so much the better!

But I also have to tell you that this very difficult assertion from Paul ends up connection with this every Sunday prayer I pray that my God “lead[s] me not into temptation.”  If, in fact, there is so much that apart from my faith is sinful behavior, then I need God, in Jesus Christ, to save me from it; to lead me beyond the barren and empty temptations of the world so that everything that God has given me and has empowered me to do and to be in this life can work to deepen the relationship I have with God, and to strengthen me to be more fully a disciple of Jesus Christ in my walk through these days of, to say the very least, confused situations.  I need my Lord to save me from this time of trial; understanding I can avoid it, but I can triumph over it.  It won’t be easy, for the evil in this world is real and relentless, but I won’t be alone in the effort either.

That’s where the second half of this petition comes in:  “…but deliver us from evil,” or, as our gospel reading puts it, “…rescue us from the evil one.”  Now whether one takes the view that the “evil one” depicted here is quite literally the figure of Satan, or rather a representation of the whole curse of a sinful humanity from back in the time of Genesis (now there’s a big question for another day!), the meaning is nonetheless the same: there is ever and always going to be the temptation before us to succumb to the evils of this world.  And lest we forget the story of Adam and Eve, evil can come in very attractive and enticing packages; even sometimes in what looks all the world like goodness and light.  We need to be delivered from that kind of evil; and that only comes in walking arm and arm, heart in heart with God himself!

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  A hard prayer this is; but a necessary one.  And, might I add, nothing new for any of God’s people past or present.  Remember that passage from 1 Corinthians?  “Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock tha followed them, and the rock was Christ.”  And it was not always easy; the way was very often filled with temptation, and very often they failed in the midst of trial, to the point, Paul says, “that God was not pleased with most of them.”

But they persisted on the journey, seeking to live unto their faith in the Lrod their God… generation after generation, from age to age, through countless challenges and in the midst of a thousand or more big questions;  and today they are part of a communion of saints of which you and I are part and which we celebrate at this table set before us; indeed, “there is one bread, [and] we who are many are one body.”

Let us today allow this holy meal, and those with whom we share it, be our inspiration as we walk the walk of faithful discipleship in Christ’s name, having been lead beyond the times of temptation… and delivered from all evil.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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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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