“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.” I’m sure we have all heard this prayer in various ways. I think it’s interesting that we have used various words. I grew up hearing “debts” because I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. Someone once told me it wasn’t much of a surprise that Presbyterians used the word “debt” since that word had financial implications. Maybe the choice of the word was influenced by this morning’s gospel lesson where Jesus spoke of forgiveness and used a story about financial obligations. The word “trespass” always makes me think of “no trespassing” signs. I don’t know what that says about the choice! Perhaps it reflects cultures where ownership of territory matters, and boundaries are carefully marked and observed.
In the modern translation we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Ellsworth Kalas suggests that using this translation matters. He wrote, “The word debt doesn’t’ frighten our contemporary culture unless it is associated with bankruptcy – and for some, even that threat is simply a legal process to be passed through.” He goes on to suggest that because the word “debt” has lost its sting or stigma we have, at the same time, watered down the concept of sin. He cites Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who noted that people don’t see themselves as sinful. They see themselves as “immature, underprivileged, frightened or sick.” What’s missing, Kalas says, is any sense of personal responsibility. We never admit guilt.
A 20th century psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, wrote a book about this modern phenomenon titled Whatever Became of Sin? He thought we needed to “restore that ancient, direct, and quite offensive word to our vocabulary.”
It’s interesting that way this plays out in the church. I remember the story of a woman who attended church, years ago, and joined in the reading of the corporate prayer of confession. It angered her. She insisted that she had not committed any of those sins, so she refused to attend church ever again. One of my mentors was fully against using a prayer of confession. “People already feel bad about themselves,” he said. “They don’t need a prayer of confession that brings them down.”
When I was in seminary, there was a book that had become a national best seller, I’m OK, You’re OK. We read it in one of my classes. When we were done, the professor said that he admired the intent – to help people feel better about themselves, but that it didn’t account for sin (my words, not his.) He suggested that the title of the book, were it to be Christian in its outlook, should be I’m Not Ok, You’re Not OK, But That’s OK.
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asked. We’re so accustomed, in human life, to try to balance the books, to even things out. So, Peter, who had seen something different in Jesus, offered to be a forgiving person – seven times! (Seven, as a number, indicated a sense of wholeness.) Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some translations suggest it should say seventy times seven. In others words, don’t count. And he told a parable about forgiveness. The king forgave an unpayable amount. We’re told the slave owed 10,000 talents – and a talent was fifteens years of wages. So, the slave owed 150,000 years’ worth of wages! And the king forgave that debt.
We hear in this story about the magnitude of the forgiveness God gives us. It is something we can never repay. We can’t earn our way into God’s grace. It is given. It is a gift. It is beyond our imagining.
The slave, having received this great gift, left. But he encountered someone who owed him money – 100 days’ wages. When that debtor pleaded for time, the slave responded with anger and threw the debtor into prison. When the slave was brought back to the king, the king punished him as he had punished the one who owed him.
Our forgiveness is to flow from an awareness of God’s grace in our lives – that we have been given something that we can never repay. The only appropriate response is to extend that same grace to others. We have not truly understood the magnitude of God’s forgiveness if we live in ways that withhold forgiveness from others. “I’m not OK, “You’re not OK, but that’s OK speaks to an understanding that we live in a world where sin is committed – by everyone. But we live in a world that is touched by God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s promise of new life, new creation.
It is still hard for the Body of Christ to practice forgiveness. Congregations are torn asunder by hurt feelings. People walk away and we don’t know how to respond, how to heal, how to live with each other when wounds are deep and hurts are real.
In 2006, Charlie Roberts killed five children and wounded five others in an Amish schoolhouse. The nation was stunned by the violence – and astounded by the response from the Amish community. I’d like to share reflections from Charlie Roberts’ mother. A decade later she spoke about the aftermath.
"As I turned on the radio on the way there, the newscaster was reporting that there had been a shooting at the local Amish schoolhouse," Terri Roberts tells her friend Delores Hayford during a recent visit to StoryCorps.
"By that time I was at my son's home, and I saw my husband and the state trooper standing right in front of me as I pulled in," she continues. "And I looked at my husband, he said, 'It was Charlie.' He said, 'I will never face my Amish neighbors again.' "
That week, the Robertses had a private funeral for their son, but as they went to the gravesite, they saw as many as 40 Amish start coming out from around the side of the graveyard, surrounding them like a crescent.
"Love just emanated from them," Terri says. "I do recall the fathers saying, 'I believe that I have forgiven,' but there are some days when I question that."
Terri finds it especially hard to accept that forgiveness when she thinks of one of the survivors, Rosanna.
"Rosanna's the most injured of the survivors," she explains. "Her injuries were to her head. She is now 15, still tube-fed and in a wheelchair. And she does have seizures, and when it gets to be this time of year, as we get closer to the anniversary date, she seizes more. And it's certainly not the life that this little girl should have lived."
Terri asked if it would be possible for her to help with Rosanna once a week.
"I read to her, I bathe her, dry her hair," says Terri, who herself is battling cancer.
And, while she can't say it with 100 percent certainty, Terri believes Rosanna knows who she is.
"I just sense that she does know," she says.
"I will never forget the devastation caused by my son," says the 65-year-old Terri. "But one of the fathers the other night, he said, 'None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can't put a price on that.' "
"And their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us," she says. "And I think it's a message the world needs."
“Our Father” is the way we begin this powerful prayer. Maybe that’s an important thing to remember when we get to this line about forgiveness. It’s never just about me or some small us. It’s about this world that God loves, about community, about relationships, and about restoration.
Kalas wrote, “Jesus is telling us that in some strange way, forgiveness is all of one piece. As we forgive, we are forgiven. Mind you, the process of forgiveness begins with God who has extended mercy to us. But this divine majesty is meant to be passed along, and if it is not passed on, it ceases to work in our own lives.”
I had never heard this particular legend, but it is said that Leonardo da Vinci, when he was painting the Last Supper, decided to put an enemy’s face on Judas Iscariot. Then he found that he could not paint the face of Christ. When he finally forgave his enemy, the face of Christ appeared to him in a dream.
Kalas concluded, "When we hold something against another person, we begin to shut out the face of Christ, and when the image of our Lord is blurred, we no longer have the faith to accept forgiveness…So it is that forgiveness for my own sins is made impossible – not because God is unmerciful, but because when I hold something against another, I shut out the vision that gives me the faith to accept forgiveness.
When one of my younger sisters was four, she spent the summer with two of my great aunts, Blanche and Georgia, and their brother, Jake. Jake told the story about taking Beth with him to the grocery store one evening so that he could shop for Blanche. When they passed by the marshmallows, she grabbed a bag. “Beth,” he said, “Blanche didn’t put marshmallows on her list!” “I know,” she replied. “But we’re out!” Those three childless adults learned that a four year old had a very different idea of what needed to be on a grocery list. Beth told Jake that they needed marshmallows because they were out. (Of course, I suspect that they weren’t out. Marshmallows had never been in that house – until she helped with the shopping.)
What do we need? A colleague, years ago, said that he worried that Christians often couldn’t tell the difference between wants and needs. I always think of that Janis Joplin song, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (As a little aside, I started to put that phrase in a search engine…Lord, won’t…. and an ad for Mercedes appeared!) Beth wanted marshmallows – and declared to Jake that they needed them.
We live in a consumer society. We are often told that it helps our nation if we go out and spend money. Advertising tells us that we need certain things to be happy or successful. Years ago there was a commercial, I think for Rubbermaid, that showed a house full of junk. The owners shopped for storage containers so that everything was neat and orderly. The commercial ended with them declaring, happily, “Now we can go out and buy more stuff.”
Our consumer society depends on our wanting more, more and more. So, we assume that what we buy will wear out or break, and we will throw it away. And one way of engaging us is to tell us not that we might want something, but that we actually need a particular thing. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between that which we might want and that which we truly need.
“Give us today our daily bread” is a central phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. So, as we hear it, as we pray it, we need to ask, “What is our daily bread?” Perhaps it is, or should be, a clarifying phrase that forces us to ask, “What do we need?” What do we need to sustain life? The phrase “One thing is needful” kept running through my head this week, so I looked it up. That’s what Jesus said to Martha when she complained that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet – and not helping her. “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part.”
We might begin to wonder. Was Martha’s focus on what she wanted – to be recognized as an outstanding host—instead of on what she needed – to be in the presence of Jesus? Had she convinced herself that her want was, in reality, her need? Her culture might have led her to such an assumption. Hospitality was understood to be of extreme importance. And the women in that culture had responsibility for preparing the food and making it available to guests. Everything in Martha’s world would have told her that she needed to be busy with the tasks that befell one offering hospitality.
“One thing is needful,” Jesus said to her. It was not condemnation. It was an invitation for her to discern what mattered. She may have wanted to be the loving host who offered this treasured guest hospitality that bore witness to her adoration. But what she truly needed was to be nourished by Jesus – spending time in his presence and listening to what he had to say.
“Give us today our daily bread.” This is basic. That colleague was right when he fretted that Christians often get caught up in the world’s inability to distinguish between what we want and what we really need. We know that inability exists. Otherwise there wouldn’t be T-shirts that say, “Lord, I’ll prove to you I’m not selfish. Let me win the lottery!” How many things do we think we might need?
Even the church – congregations—get caught by that want masquerading as need. Almost every congregation has, at one time or another, looked for the perfect pastor. I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but the standard ideal was, “We want a married young man (whose wife will play the organ). They should have two children.” Many of my male seminary classmates were desperate to find wives before they started looking for jobs. (Granted, some of that desperation was driven by the denomination’s fear, at the time, of homosexuality. None of them wanted to appear to be gay.) Churches have other “needs” – members, bank accounts, particular music styles --- the list can go on and on.
“Give us today our daily bread.” We are reminded that one thing is needful – needed. We need Jesus, the Christ. Jesus is the one who told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. If you come to me you will never be hungry. If you believe in me you will never thirst.” Ellsworth Kalas says that the prayer reminds us that our human needs aren’t to be the first thing on our minds. We are to put God’s realm and God’s will first. That provides the structure for our living. We remember that the true bread that we need is God’s life-giving presence in our lives.
It is, maybe, one reason why liturgically this prayer comes after the prayer of thanksgiving when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We are to connect this phrase, “Give us today our daily bread,” with our “eating” the Lord’s Supper. In this meal we receive our daily bread – we are nourished by the presence of the living Christ who gave of himself that we might know life in its fullness.
“Give us today our daily bread.” One of the primary things to remember about this prayer is that it is communal. In that way, it is a reminder in our very individualistic society that we are called into the Body of Christ, into communion and community with others. It doesn’t say, “Give me bread.” It says, “Give us our daily bread.” We are to look beyond ourselves, as broadly as possible. It is a prayer for the world. In it, we remember all who struggle to find food, to eat adequately. We remember those who work two or three jobs so that their children may have food to eat. We cannot seek for ourselves alone. We pray on behalf of the world – that all its inhabitants may know that which truly gives life.
The good news is that God knows our need for “bread,” for that which sustains us – and even for that which gives us joy. The God to whom we pray is a God of abundance! That does not mean an abundance of stuff – but abundance in life that leads us toward rejoicing in the gift of life. There is a wonderful movie, Babette’s Feast, which critiques a faith that is without joy. Spinster sisters think that serving God means rejecting any form of pleasure. Babette, a French housekeeper, prepared a sumptuous feast for them – giving them a taste of God’s love that they had not known. The feast became an opportunity to know God’s abundance that leads to joy!
What do we need? What do we need to be God’s joyful people? The world’s answers are not satisfying. If we are always striving toward what the world says will make us happy, make us fulfilled, we will be disappointed. What if, instead, we find joy in all the opportunities we have to share in God’s abundance, to share in it in our own lives, in our life as a congregation in this place, and in our work and witness to the world?
It is our daily bread to be able to gather together, to worship, to share the feast of the Lord’s Supper. It is our daily bread to share a meal together, to share our lives. It is our daily bread to stock a little food pantry so that those who are hungry may have something to eat. It is our daily bread to be able to send a teddy bear to someone who is in need of knowing God’s love. It is our daily bread to participate in the CROP Walk as a visible sign of our concern for the well being of others and as a sign of our commitment to serve them. It is our daily bread to be invited, by God, to be part of God’s redeeming and transforming work in this world.
“Give us today our daily bread!” God awaits our asking, our intent. For when we ask, God offers us the banquet of that which nourishes our souls for daily living and for eternal life – participation in the work and ways of God.
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