Sermon 01-31-10: “The Prayer Jesus Taught Us, Part 4: Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

February 4, 2010

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:12

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The following is my original manuscript of the sermon., a British Christian humor magazine, sponsored a contest asking its readers to compress the Lord’s Prayer into the size of a single text message. The regular Lord’s Prayer is 372 characters long; a text message is 160, so this takes some creativity. The winning entry was the following: [display on screen] “dad@hvn,ur spshl.we want wot u want&urth2b like hvn.giv us food&4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz.don’t test us!save us!bcos we kno ur boss,ur tuf&ur cool 4 eva!ok?” [Read it aloud.] I like that. I also like the third place entry:, You rule, up and down. We need grub and a break. Will pass it on. Keep us focused. You totally rule, long term. Amen.

Seriously, I do like the idea of making the Lord’s Prayer our own and finding ways to say it in language that speaks to us. You might try that as an exercise. But there is a problem, I would argue, with the winning text message. When they get to today’s verse, they say, “Forgive our sins like we forgive others.” Hmm… Wouldn’t we much prefer God to forgive our sins far more effectively than we forgive others?

I’m not sure how well we do in the forgiveness department. Think about what we usually say when someone apologizes to us: “It’s O.K.” “Hey, don’t worry about it; it’s nothing.” Sometimes it’s not O.K., and it’s not nothing, but we don’t want to admit that what that other person did to us really hurt. We’re supposed to be a bigger person than that. Instead of owning up to our sins against others by truly apologizing or accepting forgiveness for sins done to us, we’re more apt to sweep it all under the rug in the interest of peace and harmony. Act like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile, we privately feel guilty, or we privately feel hurt. And I’m sure that’s not healthy, spiritually or psychologically.

And we also have a hard time naming the wrongs that we do to ourselves, against one another and against God as sin. Sin is, however, the perfect word for it. It perfectly captures the deep spiritual dimension of the problem. If you don’t think sin is the root of humanity’s deepest crisis, consider all the money we spend on it. The largest portion of our federal tax dollars is devoted to defense spending, whose purpose, when you think about it, is all about dealing with human sin. Then think of the money we spend on police protection, our judicial system, and legal fees. Some types of insurance policies we purchase are related to sin.

Then think about how angry, depressed, and guilt-ridden we Americans tend to be—often a direct or indirect result of sin. Then think of the money we spend on psychotherapy and self-help books, which is often about dealing with sin, whether we call it that or not. Then think about daytime talk shows like Oprah and others, which are often devoted to talking about sin-by-another-name. Think about AA and the various 12-step and drug-treatment programs—also related to sin. The sin of gluttony, or over-eating—traditionally one of the “seven deadly” sins—and its associated health problems—well, we have doctors, diet programs and gym-memberships to deal with that.

There’s a great sad song by singer-songwriter Liz Phair called “Only Son,” not a religious song, which includes these painful, heartbreaking words: “I’m the worst kind of son/ Bringing shame to my family/ And I know I have worn my mother’s heart out, believe me/ I saw it, I saw it coming/ All these things I have done/ To my little, little sister/ When I try to support her, she don’t believe me/ Why should she? I hurt her/ I mean, I hurt her.” What other word does justice to that pain like sin?

My point is, Jesus Christ, the Church, and Christianity in general are not making too big of a fuss out of sin. Some people think that the Church tries to make people feel guilty with all this sin talk, and confession of sin, which they say isn’t healthy for our self-esteem or whatever, but—good grief!—what’s the alternative? Look at the trouble we get ourselves into when we bury our heads in the sand and pretend sin doesn’t exist! Jesus Christ means to solve our problem with sin, and this petition, “Forgive us our trespasses”—or debts or sins—“as we forgive those who trespass or sin against us,” is a good place to start.

Jesus tells a remarkable story about the forgiveness of sin: the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, my favorite chapter in all of the Bible. A younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance early—before his father dies. The father gives it to him. The younger son leaves home, goes to a foreign land and squanders his fortune literally on wine, women, and song. He takes a menial job and finds that he still can’t support himself. He thinks, “At my father’s house, even the servants are well fed. Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll go home, beg forgiveness, and maybe dad will let me live there as a servant. While the son is still a far way off, however, the father saw him—he had likely been watching for him. He was filled with compassion. And what does the father do? He runs out to meet his son. It was considered very undignified for an older man to run in that day and age. The father doesn’t care; he’s so excited. The father embraces him. Kisses him. Far from being angry, father throws the biggest party imaginable because, he says, my son was lost and now he’s found. This is the love of our heavenly Father. This is how much God wants to forgive us and bring us back home. Whatever else we say about God’s forgiveness, let’s keep this in mind.

When we pray privately, and we confess our sins, let’s remember our loving heavenly Father having compassion on us, running to us, embracing us. When we come to the Lord’s table for Holy Communion, let’s remember our loving heavenly Father having compassion on us, running to us, embracing us. When we are overwhelmed with guilty feelings, and we feel unlovable, let’s remember our loving heavenly Father having compassion on us, running to us, embracing us.

That’s all well and good, we might say. But I still don’t feel like I’m forgiven. How can I know?

Good question. Remember how I said that when we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth, there’s a sense in which that prayer has already been answered: because in God’s kingdom came to earth in the resurrection? Likewise, when we pray for forgiveness, we can know that prayer has been answered because of the cross: Jesus took all our sin, all of our guilt, all of our shame, and all of our pain and dealt with it, once and for all. In other words, you’re covered; I’m covered. It is impossible for us to commit any further sin that God has not already accounted for on the cross. God does not look at us and say, “I could forgive all your sins on Friday, but that was before I knew what you were going to do on Saturday.” No. God isn’t like that. He’s not waiting to see what’s we’ll do tomorrow. If we’ve accepted the gift of forgiveness, he’s already forgiven us because of the cross. To believe otherwise is to believe that Jesus needs to die on the cross again. Jesus didn’t accomplish all he needed to then. But that’s ridiculous.

Lisa and I met her sister and her brother-in-law in Paris 15 years ago. Nancy and Jones live in Brussels, and they met us there. We stayed a couple of nights in Paris at this quaint little hotel right in the heart of the city, near the Seine River. On the morning we were checking out of the hotel, I went down to the lobby to settle the bill. I pulled out my credit card. The clerk at the desk was shaking her head and waving her hands, saying something to me—I heard a “tout de suite” in there somewhere. I said, “I’m sorry I don’t… Je ne parle pa francais.” She smiled and waved her hands. I reached for my credit card again. She waved it off and smiled. I figured out what she was saying: my bill was paid in full! I didn’t owe anything. I didn’t know my brother-in-law paid our bill before I got down to the lobby. I couldn’t comprehend it. It was such a nice hotel. I expected to pay a lot for it. I couldn’t understand what this woman was saying, but I knew I was covered.

That’s why I like Matthew’s use of the word “debt” for sin. Those of you who are struggling with debt of your own can imagine what it would be like to have someone from the bank come by your house and tear up your credit card bills, your student loans, your mortgage, and say, “You’re good.” What a load off our minds!

This is what God’s forgiveness is like. It’s a little bit like my experience in the lobby of that hotel. This language of love, grace, and forgiveness is God’s native tongue, but it’s foreign to us at first. We’ll spend our lifetimes mastering this language. That’s what the next part of the petition is all about: as we forgive our debtors. It is not that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others—because, remember, God freely offers forgiveness through the cross. The problem is not on God’s side but on our side. As one commentator wrote, “When a door is closed, it is closed from both sides. What blocks the flow of mercy or forgiveness from us blocks its flow to us.”[1]

How do we learn God’s language of forgiveness? Well, it takes time, but praying this prayer helps. It’s like breathing: We breathe in God’s forgiveness; we breathe out forgiveness toward others. We breathe in God’s forgiveness; we breathe out forgiveness toward others. We can only inhale so much before we have to exhale. The more time we spend time in prayer, worship, and receiving the sacrament, the more time we spend reflecting on God’s awesome gift of forgiveness, the easier it becomes for us to forgive. A part of forgiving others is going into the world as the church to share this good news of forgiveness with others. That’s what our Honduras mission team is doing right now! We forgive others by continuing Jesus’ ministry of love, grace, and forgiveness, by helping to reconcile people to our loving Father, who has compassion on us, runs to meet us, embraces us, and welcomes us home. People need to hear this message! What can we do to share it?


1. Frank Stagg, “Matthew” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Nashville: Broadman, 1969), 116.

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