The last couple of weeks, we’ve been digging into the Lord’s Prayer, taking a closer look at what we say every week as we pray it together. Like everything we do as a ritual, whether once a day, once a week, once a month, there is the danger of the prayer becoming another habit. The danger of words becoming so ingrained in our memories that prayer is an act of rote recitation.
We can get distracted or rush through the words, instead of knowing and re-claiming a prayer that speaks from the heart. And so this month, my goal has been to slow us down a bit. To take time to remember what we learned about this prayer when we were young – or at least young in our faith.
Jesus was giving his followers – then and now – words to pray that also remind us how to live.
We remind ourselves first that God is our Father –
The one who claims and adopts us
The one who provides for us
The one in whose image we are created
We remind ourselves that our Father is God
The one who is Holy and set apart,
The one who is worthy of our worship
We remind ourselves that our Father God is our Provider
The one who sends the bread we need each day
The one whose Kingdom has come and is coming
The one whose will we are part of making known in the world
And then we remind ourselves that God’s grace is the source of what we all so desperately need: forgiveness.
This petition about forgiveness is in the next to the last segment in both Matthew and Luke’s records of the prayer, though the words differ. In Luke we read: And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
Depending on what tradition you grew up in, you might have learned that portion of our liturgical prayer as debts and debtors, trespasses and those trespass against us, or even sins and those who sin against us
Regardless of which terms you usually think of within those phrases, the underlying meaning is clear.
First – We are sinful humans; we need forgiveness for the ways we fall short in our attempts to follow God’s commandments.
Second – we are not the only sinful humans in the world, and we will be called upon to forgive others.
We are indebted to God’s mercy and grace. All the love and care in the universe is extended to us, with only the expectation being that we love God in return and love our neighbors as God’s image-bearers in this earthly realm.
Forgive us, Lord. As we, in turn, forgive others.
It seems pretty simple, at least on paper.
I don’t know about you, but in real life, in the real world, I find forgiveness to be incredibly challenging. If I’m being absolutely honest, I have a hard time believing that I am worthy of being forgiven.
I understand and – by faith – continue living into the truth that there is not a thing I can do in this life that is beyond the power of the living God to forgive. I can stand here and say that with confidence to each of you, looking you straight in the eye. I can believe it on your behalf.
I can say it and believe it on behalf of the people who have confessed committing awful crimes in their past.
I can even say it and believe it on behalf of the people who have committed those awful crimes against me.
Because I honest and truly believe
that God’s grace is bigger than the circumstances in which we find ourselves struggling to find the next right thing to do.
that God’s grace is deeper than the depths of our despair over our own failings.
that God’s grace is wider than the gulf between perfection and our very very messy inner lives.
I believe all of those things.
And yet, there are moments when I desperately need a brother or sister in Christ to stand right in front of me, look me square in the eye and say it:
Yes, Laura, God’s grace is big enough and real enough to cover your sins, too.
I wonder sometimes if the difficulty I experience in receiving forgiveness from God is the risk involved in being honest about who I am, with myself before I go to God, and then again as I approach the one who loved me before I understood what sin and love are.
So much of what we are taught about sin has to do with condemnation and eternal damnation, mostly as a means of moving us to choose salvation.
So much of what we are taught about how to behave, how to move through this world – even when we are just talking about manners and etiquette – is tied to shame, often using sin language.
We are judged by our actions, dragging our families or other social groupings along for the condemnation. We are trained then, to judge and condemn ourselves, regardless of what God might have to say about it. Can you see why Jesus, when he talked about his work here on Earth, spoke about releasing the captives?
A big part of that bondage existed and still exists in the form of laws that keep us tied up emotionally, and relationally, the customs and traditions that keep us from seeing one another – and even ourselves – as loved and lovable children of God, worthy of a second, third or 500th chance.
Author Miroslav Volf once described forgiveness as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer”. Volf’s argument is that this is what God does. God recognizes the fault – the wrong that is done – and condemns it. But then God chooses to spare the wrong-doer from the punishment that is deserved and could rightly be given.
This, my friends is mercy.
This is God sending Nathan the prophet to David so that David might come to understand the lengthy list of sins he had committed while making Bathsheba his queen. Rather than strike David down, or even remove him from his seat of power, which God certainly could easily have done. God chose to spare David.
Oh, there were consequences, echoes of those choice made, as we see in the lives of his children. But God’s forgiveness and forbearance left space for change, for restitution and reformation. A chance for David to repent and become again the man after God’s own heart. A chance for David to experience the joy of forgiveness.
Now, here’s where Volf’s idea goes from teaching to meddling. What if, as we live into our roles as image-bearers of God, as ambassadors for Christ, God wants us to go and do likewise?
Yes… God expects us to forgive one another in the same way we are forgiven.
We are to acknowledge the wrong-doing, but rather than seek retribution or revenge, rather than holding a grudge, or even just keeping a tally…
We are to erase it.
Tear up the tab.
Forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
Yeah… I know.
It is hard. Really hard. Really really for real hard. And it’s not like this is logical at all. It’s pretty much the opposite of human nature. We are hard-wired and then loaded with software that moves us to protect ourselves and whatever we’ve gathered as ours. We build fences and install locks. We back away from dangerous situations. We filter our words and are aware of our actions, in hopes that we can move through the world without attracting the wrong kind of attention. We even erect unseen barriers around our hearts to reduce the risk of pain and sorrow.
Walking through the world in a way that invites people to apologize and believes the best about their intentions when they do… and asking others to do likewise for us… that is a very vulnerable, risky way to live. Especially when you start talking about forgiving people for BIG stuff, stuff that seems impossible to forgive. The stuff that you find it really hard to forgive in yourself.
But that is what we are called to do
That is who we are called to be.
Luke’s gospel is chock full of discussions around forgiveness. But perhaps the most salient passage for this discussion comes from Luke 6. This is at the start of Luke’s equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew records. But instead of going up onto the mountain to teach, Jesus has just come down to the plains from praying up in the hills. He stands and looks out on a huge crowd that includes his close followers, as well as gobs of people from all over the region…
They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
You see, forgiveness comes when mercy is offered where condemnation is expected.
Forgiveness comes when grace is extended. When lovingkindness has no strings attached.
Forgiveness is good news to the one who has red in his ledger, whether financial, emotional, or relational
Forgiveness is the first stop on our way to shalom, balance, peace, health.
If we speak at all of our faith, we do so in the language of forgiveness, of grace. We proclaim it together, week after week, in our assurance of pardon. The words we read with Marianne this morning at the end of the assurance of forgiveness:
“Friends, hear and believe the good news… in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, Alleluia! Amen.”
Every time we eat and drink our holy meal at the Lord’s Table, we proclaim Christ’s saving (forgiving!) death until he comes. The body of Christ is broken; the blood of Christ poured out as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.
As forgiven people, we are challenged to go out and offer that same forgiveness to others. Just as we love because God first loved us, we draw our capacity to forgive from God’s deep well of forgiveness.
It is a choice we make, each and every day, to live and love and forgive… to bear witness to the life, love and grace of God in Jesus.
Perhaps you are familiar with the an old proverb that says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”.
But forgiveness – Forgiveness is like cold water on a god-awful hot August day in Florida.
When we are unable to forgive we are holding on to anger and hurt. And we all know that hurt people, hurt other people. To be the people God created us to be, we need to forgive ourselves, we need to forgive each other, and we need to accept forgiveness from others.
All so that we can be healthy. So that our families and friends and neighbors can be healthy; so that our community and city can be healthy. We ask for forgiveness, even as we offer it to others…because God is ALWAYS at work in us.
And so we must pray, over and over and over again…
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive those who are indebted to us.