Sermon for September 13th, 2015
1He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
7When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Teach Us To Pray: Debts and Debtors
Today's sermon is about sin and forgiveness--the fourth phrase in the Lord's prayer.
In a monastery, novices usually go through a period of testing before becoming monks, in order to determine if the monastic life is really a good fit for them. Well, four young novices were at the end of that period, and so their superior told them they would have to undergo one final test: Go out into the world for one night...and sin. You cannot fully appreciate God's grace and forgiveness unless you have experienced it firsthand, so go and sin.
So the novices go out, and the next morning their superior asks each one to report his sin. The first novice nervously steps forward and says, "Last night I took the monastery's van and drove it over the speed limit. Then when my brothers implored me to slow down, I thought some pretty not nice things about them."
The superior said, "That's it? That's the best you could sin? Well, I guess it's something. Say one Hail Mary and drink three sips of the Holy Water, and God will forgive you."
Hearing this, the second novice was feeling pretty smug that his sin would outdo his brother's. He stepped forward and said, "I drank all the communion wine, got roaring drunk, and called the Abbot a bad name. Then I punched brother Roger in the nose."
His superior smiled a little, but then said, "Everyone knows that Brother Roger had it coming to him. Say five Hail Marys and drink ten sips of the Holy Water, and God will forgive you."
Hearing this, the third novice was sure his sin would outdo the first two. He told the superior how he had stolen some money from a little old lady, and used it to spend the night in a house of ill repute.
The superior seemed pretty impressed: "Now that's some serious sinning there. Say ten Hail Marys and drink half of the Holy Water, and God will forgive you."
By now the fourth novice could hardly contain himself, and was nearly doubled over in laughter. The other monks were trying really hard to think what he possibly could have done to outdo them all. The superior sternly told him to get a grip on himself, and report on just how he had sinned.
With a final snicker, the fourth novice composed himself and said, "May God forgive me, Superior. Last night I peed in the Holy Water."
Forgive us, Lord, for our bad jokes, just as we forgive others who joke badly in our presence!
When I became a Presbyterian in my mid-twenties, after having grown up as a Methodist, the hardest part of the transition was probably remembering to say "debts and debtors" in the Lord's prayer, as opposed to "trespasses and those who tresspass against us."
It didn't take me too long to embrace that change, however: Like many Americans, by my mid-twenties I already had student loans, a car payment, a mortgage, and several credit cards. I knew what it meant to be shackled by debt, and the idea of having my debts forgiven sounded pretty good.
Trespassing, on the other hand--while it sounded interesting and maybe even a little fun--was not part of my everyday experience.
The version of the Lord's prayer in Matthew uses debts and debtors, although even this version is slightly different than the one we use in worship: We say, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" but Matthew says "Forgive us our debts as we 'have forgiven' our debtors." Have forgiven--past perfect, an action already completed, rather than an ongoing one.
The version in Luke uses the present tense consistently--like we do in worship--but to confuse the issue, it uses two different verbs (and neither one is "trespass"). "Forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us."
The Greek word used in Luke for sins is ἁμαρτία, which is literally "missing the mark." The Greek word used in both Luke and Matthew for debt is ὀφείλημα, which is indeed a financial obligation, something owed, but as much as I would love for this to be a purely financial word, it had a larger meaning, especially in Jewish custom.
Ancient Hebrew society was, like many ancient (and modern!) societies, transactional. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If I accidentally kill your cow, I owe you a cow of equal or better value.
And so if I take away something that belongs to God (like worship or obedience), or if I do something that offends God (like breaking my promises to God) then I owe God something of equal or greater value. In the Old Testament, there is an entire system of sacrifices or rituals, each assigned a value so that you always knew what you had to do in order to balance the equation again, to be right with God.
But what if I can't afford the price of my mistake? What if I accidentally kill your cow, but I don't have a cow of equal value to give you, or the means to acquire one? Well, then I am in debt to you. I am, in a sense, owned by you.
When you take a transactional culture and apply those rules to a person's relationship to God, then the overlap between words like debt, sin, and trespass begins to make more sense. Debt is coming up short. Trespassing is going to far. Both are missing the mark, or sin. All incur a reaction or a consequence of some kind.
A.J. Jacobs, who is a "marginally Jewish" author and journalist, decided to count just how many ways a person could "miss the mark" in the Bible. He came up with a list that spanned 72 pages and over 700 possible "sins." In other words, when it comes to God, it is very hard for a mere mortal *not* to come up short, or go too far. The Apostle Paul figured this out two millenia before A.J. Jacobs did, when he wrote in Romans 3:23 that "all have sinned, and fall short of the Glory of God."
We are thus all in debt to God, and none of us--no matter how nice we are, no matter how many good deeds we do--our debt is so great, we can never make up the difference. This is, incidentally, not unlike trying to pay off Ivy League/Private College tuition debt with the average salary of a teacher, a social worker, or a pastor: Two lifetimes would not be enough to even come close!
Not too long ago, the United States government took a cue from God, and said "if the debt can never be repaid, maybe in some cases--after about 25 years--we should just forgive it.
And that's what Jesus tells us to do in the Lord's prayer. Ask God to simply forgive our debt, our trespass, our sin. Wipe the slate clean, not just every 25 years, but every day.
There are only two things we have to do (and neither of them involve drinking Holy Water). The first is the hardest for us, because we are prideful people. Asking for forgiveness means admitting that we need forgiveness; that we were wrong; that we are sorry.
That's what the "S" stands for in our FRESH acronym. We're sorry. And it's an important thing to remember everytime we pray. If all we ever do when we pray is ask God for the things we want, the things we think we need, then its easy to forget all those times when what we wanted, what we thought we needed...was wrong. And got us in trouble. Praying "We're sorry, please forgive us" puts us in the right frame of mind to be realistic about what we really need, what really matters, and what God wants for us.
Praying "We're sorry" also puts us in the right frame of mind for the second thing we have to do. I have said that each part of the Lord's prayer is a radical call to action, and this is the one part where the call is very clearly stated: Forgive us...as we forgive one another.
It is almost impossible to forgive another person when we are convinced that we are the ones in the right, that we are innocent and they are guilty. That's a recipe for holding a grudge, not for forgiveness. So Jesus reminds us that first, we have to acknowledge to God our own failures and shortcomings. When we remember just how much forgiveness we need from God, the amount that others ask of us seems small in comparison.
By the way, a similar principle works well in marriage, too. If you're in an argument with your spouse, and you are absolutely convinced that you are right, that you have been offended, and that your partner owes you an apology...consider starting out with these words: I'm sorry, please forgive me. Not sarcastically, but sincerely, followed by a genuine attempt to recognize where you might be part of the problem.
It would be a rare and cruel spouse who would respond by saying, "Yeah, you are pretty horrible." Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable usually brings out the best in those who love us, not the worst. I think that's why Jesus told us to love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us. He wasn't trying to frustrate us or give us an impossible task. He just knew that it was a really effective approach.
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us. If you'll forgive me for one more lousy joke, we'll finish and close in prayer.
A woman bought a parrot for a pet, but the parrot was rude and treated her badly. It shouted insults at her, and every time she tried to pick it up, it would peck at her arm. One day she got fed up with the parrot and in desperation threw it in her deep freezer. The parrot continued to fume and yell for about five seconds and then it was suddenly quiet.
She thought, "Oh no, I killed it!" So she opened the door, and the parrot just looked at her with wide, pitiful eyes. She picked it up, and the parrot said: "I'm very sorry. I apologize for my bad behavior and promise you there will be no more of that. From now on, I will be a respectful, obedient parrot. Please forgive me."
"Well, OK" she said. "Apology accepted." After a few moments, the parrot said, "Can I ask you something?" She nodded, and the parrot, looking back at the freezer, whispered "What did the Chicken do?"
Let us pray...