Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
This is now our fourth sermon in a series on the Lord’s Prayer, and if you’ve been here during that time you may have noticed we’ve been using the same Scripture reading, from the 6th chapter of Matthew, all along.
Today we’ve just read Luke’s version of the same prayer.
They’re not that different, really, with the exception of the very last line, which we’ll get to next week. (You may also have noticed that neither version includes the words with which we normally conclude our prayer when we pray together here in worship. We’ll come back to that later on too.)
Meanwhile there’s really just one difference between the two gospel versions of this prayer in the section about forgiveness, which is our focus for today.
“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
And in Matthew:
“forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
If you’ve ever wondered why different churches use different English words when we get to this line – debts, trespasses, sins – it turns out three different Greek words do come into play, in Matthew and Luke.
Matthew uses the Greek words closest to English debts and debtors in the actual prayer, but then uses the Greek word closest to English trespasses or transgressions a few verses later when referring back to this line about forgiveness.
And Luke uses the Greek word closest to sin, in his version of the prayer.
Traditional denominational preferences for one version over another, then, are simply that – traditional preferences - since all of the options are rooted in the Greek gospel texts.
And all are really different ways to get at the same basic idea, right?
We might think of trespassing as stepping out of line, or over the line.
Of sin as missing the mark.
And as for debts? “Our books are in the red, as far as our relationship to God is concerned. We have run up a debt with God so large that all we can do is ask for forgiveness. We can never hope to pay it back.” (Hauerwas and Willimon, Lord Teach Us, p. 79)
Each word choice, when we say this prayer, acknowledges we are continually making mistakes, falling short, falling down on the job. And each acknowledges that others are continually doing these things as well.
Teaching us to pray in this way, “Jesus assumes that we will need to ask for forgiveness not on one or two rare occasions but very regularly. This is a sobering thought, but it is matched by the comforting news that forgiveness is freely available as often as we need it.” (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 59)
And so we pray:
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Now you may have noticed which words didn’t change there, in the three versions:
“Forgive us… as we forgive…”
Does this mean God can only forgive us if we forgive others?
Tom Long notes: that would be like saying “God waits to see how forgiving we are, and then matches our level. [But] our behavior does not somehow transform an unmerciful God into a merciful one. God is forgiving even when we are not. God is generous and merciful because God is God.” (Long, Matthew, p. 71)
So is God’s grace is only as big as our own? Certainly not!
But might we increase the odds that we’ll understand and appreciate that forgiveness when we’ve done the hard work of forgiving someone else?
NT Wright suggests this understanding may be built right into the prayer itself: “we ourselves must be forgiving people, [for] the heart that will not open to forgive others will remain closed when God’s own forgiveness is offered.” (Wright, p. 60)
And really the chronology moves in the opposite direction anyway, right? For God’s grace, God’s mercy always precedes any action on our part.
So “our forgiveness begins as a response to our being forgiven. It is not so much an act of generosity toward our fellow offending human beings as an act of gratitude toward our forgiving God.” (Hauerwas and Willimon, pp. 82-83)
Tom Long further notes: “Forgiveness is not a matter of bookkeeping; it is part of a living relationship with God and others. Forgiveness is not a matter of some distant divine accountant burning the note on our sinful debts and saying, ‘Well, that’s that.’ Forgiveness is to the Christian life like breathing; constant and life-giving. What we breathe in from God’s mercy we express to others. Inhale. Exhale. Forgive us, as we forgive; as we forgive, forgive us.” (p. 71)
Now it’s terribly important not to forget the place of repentance in the whole forgiveness equation.
When we’re talking about our own sins, we shouldn’t be asking for God’s forgiveness as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, without being truly sorry for what we have done and trying our hardest to do better next time. We also need to acknowledge that our sins can have real and lasting consequences. We, and others, can bear the scars. Those scars don’t go away simply because we have said, to God or anyone else, “Forgive me.”
But where repentance is real, God does offer us fresh starts and new beginnings, second chances and opportunities to hit the ‘refresh’ button on our lives. As many times as we need.
It’s a bit trickier when it comes to forgiving others. We have some control over whether or not we honestly repent of our own sins, but we can’t control whether the person who has done us wrong is truly sorry, or intends to change their behavior in any way.
I admit to feeling conflicted about what to advise in these situations.
On the one hand, if God expects repentance from us, before God forgives us, and God’s mercy and grace far outstrip ours, then it’s entirely unfair to expect us to forgive those who have hurt us, if they show no signs of remorse or repentance. Our anger and hurt may be justified. And certainly we’d want to act wisely, and protect ourselves from further injury, not remaining in a situation of abuse, for instance.
So let’s be clear that forgiving others does NOT mean saying what they are doing is ok, nor does it mean we must allow them to keep hurting us.
On the other hand, what does it do to us, to hold onto anger and injury for a long period of time? Not acting on it (for instance, to get ourselves out of a bad situation) but simply dwelling on it, picking at the wound.
You may have heard the saying: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon offer an interesting take on this. They say:
“In commanding us to forgive others, Jesus is not saying that the injustice we have suffered is inconsequential. The sin we commit causes pain. The sins committed against us cause pain. Rather, Jesus is refusing to let sin have the last word in our story… In commanding us to forgive, Jesus is inviting us to take charge, to turn the world around, to throw a monkey wrench in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance. We don’t have silently to suffer the hurt, to lick our wounds, lying in wait for the day when we shall at last be able to return the blow that was dealt to us. We can take charge, turn things around, be victors rather than victims. We can forgive.” (Hauerwas and Willimon, Lord, Teach Us, p. 84)
Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s not easy to offer, when we feel ourselves deeply wronged, and it’s not always easy to ask for it, for ourselves.
But forgiveness is an important part of God’s path of life and health, wholeness and peace.
Which is why, if you’ve been here since the start of worship today, you have heard and said words like these:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In humility and faith let us confess our sin to God.”
We remind one another every single Sunday that we are imperfect people. We are sinful people, debtors, trespassers, but we are also people who can be forgiven.
One of my very favorite assurances of pardon is this one we said this morning:
“While it is true that we have sinned, it is a greater truth that we are forgiven through God’s grace in Jesus Christ. All who humbly seek the mercy of God can say with confidence: In Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven.”
I’m going to provide a moment of silence as I conclude, and you’ll see in the bulletin that I’m inviting you to lift up in prayer one of two things:
Either an area of hurt in your life, something or someone that it is hard for you to forgive.
Or something you have done, for which it has been hard for you to ask for God’s forgiveness, either because you are too busy beating yourself up over it, or because you aren’t really ready to change
Don’t worry about trying to articulate it in the right words. Let’s be honest. It’s likely to be a real mess, this thing that has been hurting you, or this thing you’ve done that’s weighing on you because you know it’s wrong. You don’t need to sort it all out right now or even think of a way to express it verbally at all.
Just hold it for a second. And then, in your mind’s eye, lift it up. Hand it off to the only One who can really help you with it. Lift up the whole stinkin’ mess, and give it to the God of grace and mercy and forgiveness. Trust that God knows what to do with it, even if you do not.
Let’s pray in silence for a moment…
Forgive us, Lord, for having difficulty forgiving others. Invite us to let go of that hot coal we’re carrying around in our hand.
Thank you for understanding those situations in which someone might not be able to forgive quite yet, without risking further damage to body or spirit. First offer a way out, a safe place, and then extend an invitation later on, to forgive.
Forgive us, Lord, for telling you we’re sorry when we don’t really mean it, when we don’t intend to actually change our ways, to step back into line, to hit the mark. Bring us to a place of true repentance, so we realize what a gift your forgiveness can be, and so that we can want it with all our hearts.
Forgive us, Lord, for being afraid to ask for your forgiveness. Allow us to admit to you the mistakes we have made, and then free us to move on and move forward in your grace.
Forgive us our debts…our trespasses…our sins.
Loving God, work your peace into situations that are anything but peaceful right now.
And thank you for the amazing good news we receive here each and every week.
For while it is true that every one of us has sinned, it is a far greater truth that you show yourself abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness, to all who call on your name.
And all God’s people said: Amen.