(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