Sunday, July 28, 2013

Debts and Debtors

Debts and Debtors
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 28, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 6: 5-14 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When 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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread. 
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial, 
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [1] 

For six years at Christchurch, and now for four years at Blue Ridge, at least two times a week we have chapel at school, and since both are Episcopal Schools, the other version of the Lord's Prayer is done, the one where they say trespassers and trespass against, rather than debts and debtors, like Presbyterians do. Do you ever visit other churches? Do you stumble when you get to that part of the service? When we have visitors here, sometimes you hear them start saying trespassers and then catch themselves into confused silence. I've been in Presbyterian Churches where they, trying to show hospitality to unknowing visitors, put in the bulletin "here we say "debts and debtors,"" which always comes across wrong somehow. Like in print the "we" seems to get emphasized, creating again the inhospitable, we're us, and you visitors are them, situation. When I'm at school, what I tend to do  is softly say debts and debtors, which I don't think anyone really notices, until we get to the end and they say forever and ever, I just say forever, you come to notice that when people say, forever and ever they pause, whereas when you just say forever you get right to it. Maybe the extra ever makes you feel like you have enough time to pause or something. I don't know.
Why don't I just go along with the crowd and say, trespassers and ever? Maybe it's the poet in me, who thinks trespassers is too wordy and clunky, especially the second part, the trespass against us. You have this beautiful iambic rhythm of the lines:

Our Father,
Who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in heaven,
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our tresspasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.

 The worst is before football games. Now you have to picture a bunch of fired up, big teenage boys, who have just been given a profanity laced pep talk, taking a knee to recite a prayer. . . in a mixed group of believers and non believers, the words I just spoke, come out and build into a frenzy, then you get to the trespass line, and it just seems to drag, "FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES ARE WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO HAVE TRESPASSED AGAINST US." The ex-football player is laughing to himself about these boys barking such solemn words, the preacher is underwhelmed by the irony, and the English teacher in me is dying because just how clunky and ridiculous the cadence of it all sounds. So maybe that's what I hear each time I hear trespassers.
The other possibility for why I usually say debts and debtors against the crowd is more personal. The Fall of 2003 was difficult for me. I had been teaching at Christchurch for 3 years, beginning my fourth. And I have to admit that at that point I wasn't going to another church, because I had to be at an evening chapel service each Sunday Night, in addition to the other two during the week, and at that point I was going right along saying Trespasses with everyone else, going with the flow of it all, like a good Episcopalian would. It was an easy role to play. But that fall many things in my life began to change, some of the seeds were planted that have led me to the very and unimaginably, at least then, different life I live today. That fall my best friend from High School passed in a tragic on the job accident, and then two weeks later one of my students passed. More than just a student, I taught him twice, I was his advisor, I coached him in football, wrestling, and baseball, for all four years he had been there, since he began in 8th grade, and he literally lived next door to me. I lived on dorm, opened my dorm apartment door, and there this kid was. We were close. Halloween night he was in a car accident and died instantly. It was hard. But the reason I tell this story was that he was Presbyterian, and so his funeral was in Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church, in Weems, VA, another church in our very own POJ. I remember sitting there on the first row, as I was a Pall bearer, and having grown up Presbyterian and having gone to a Presbyterian College, feeling at home, and the point was driven home during the Lord's Prayer, hearing and saying debts and debtors so naturally, while everyone else stumbled on those words. There was something so familiar about it all, and from that moment I knew that I needed something more in my life, and from there many things began to grow, but that's another story.
So that's part of why I say debts and debtors, remembering that moment. That's not it though, to me it really has more to do with what I think the Lord's Prayer itself is all about. But first off, let me say that either is Biblically correct. If we look at our New Testament reading for today from Matthew, his version of the Lord's prayer, you'll see it translated as debts there in the middle of the prayer, verse 12, but then after wards in verses 14 and 15, Jesus seems to add to the prayer an explanation, saying:

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [2]


So either makes sense, and either is Biblically appropriate. You could argue that debts and debtors is taken from the ordered text of the prayer, but you'd be stretching a bit, since the prayer is augmented and added to, in the final shared way that Christians recite it in English today. In other words the translation into English is already augmented to an extent, and not taken verbatim from the Biblical text. I'd also like to point out that the Greek words for debts and trespass, are translated well and it is appropriate to translate them differently. Opheilema is translated as debt, meaning "amount owed/obligation" and paraptoma is translated as trepassing is literally "stepping around the rules." You here it there with the "para" part of it, which means around. The other places in the Bible where they are used are obviously in line with these definitions of debts and trespass. In Luke's version Debt is used, and then sins is used, so again it can be seen as both.
But I digress, I mentioned that the real reason I prefer to recite debts and debtors has to do with how I see the Lord's Prayer. I see it as more than words, as I spoke about in another sermon of mine I called Magic Words, more than those Magic words, but instead a very statement of Christ's teachings, from which you can derive the totality of Christ's message. So the words don't just stay as words but become a living prayer, a way of thinking, a way of living, in short Christian discipleship, and being as such it must run then parallel to the other great statements of the meaning of discipleship, especially The Great Commandment, of Loving God and loving Neighbor, so the Lord's Prayer in a way is a parallel statement and must then fit in with the amazing power and sacrifice of Love, and this gets at why for me Debts and Debtors is more appropriate.
There is a difference between law, which I think fits trespass more,  and love, which I think fits better with the word debt, and it is the difference between the old and new testaments, and it becomes a major Theological difference. It is not that law disappears or is abolished, but instead, as Christ says fulfilled, and surpassed. Love must be big enough to include and then transcend the law. If it does not, include the law, it cannot be love. It becomes instead the self indulgent shadow of love, that we so often mistake as love in our culture, but that is not new to us, it is a human problem, and a great symptom of our brokenness. So love must include law, but they are still different. It is a basic difference. Here is the Philosophic statement of it: Laws are finite and love is infinite. But  you probably are asking yourself, what does that mean? Of what use is such an abstraction? What does it matter?
Here is what I mean. What is law? It's a list right, a list of rules. There could be Ten of them, there could be 273 of them, there could be pages and pages of laws, sometimes in bills too large to be read. They list out what it is that you cannot do, or define tangible things that you are required to do. If we use the 10 commandments as a example.

1.      No other gods
2.      No graven image
3.      No Lord's name in vain
4.      Remember Sabbath and Keep it Holy (But even this is a tangible no, do not disrespect the Sabbath)
5.      Honor your father and your mother, (Again, do not disrespect your parents)
6.      No murder
7.      No adultery.
8.      No stealing.
9.      No false witness
10.  No coveting 

Now at the end of the day, you could check off that list, at least theoretically, and be finished, be successful, be good enough, but still haven't loved. But you couldn't do the opposite, could you?  Could you love and do those things? Love and still murder, love and commit adultery. I don't think so, but again some may disagree and in our larger culture many do. A lawyer may begin to quibble over the details, bargaining, negotiating, trying to somehow place their client above the line of guilt. That's it isn't it with law, it's a dividing line of good enough, those who are and those who aren't, which means that we are dealing with minimums. Laws are always based on the minimums of behavior, whereas virtues/love do not deal in minimums. They live in places above the minimums. Someone may murder, there is the limit, but reflexively, there is no limit to how much life you can give in this world. Someone may lie, breaking the law, but there is no limit to how much truth you can spread. Just not being adulterous doesn't make someone a good spouse, yet a loving spouse would never even think about adultery. . . See how it works, love transcends the law. It lives in a realm above it all. I'll jump cultures for another example. The golden rule of reciprocity is found also in the teachings of Confucius, almost word for word like it is in the Bible, but almost. Confucius has it, "Never do unto others what you would not want them to do to you." See the subtle difference between that love your neighbor as yourself. You could live in a cave somewhere by yourself, and fulfill Confucius' teaching, but you could not love as Jesus teaches.
And so I find debts more appropriate than trespasses, or even sins for that matter. Trespassing means stepping outside of the norm, breaking the law, breaking a set standard, but debt has to do with relationship, individual and infinite. Some relationships are based in laws, but others reside above, and these are the ones where love is present. And therefore there is no standard of forgiveness. No hoops to jump through, no lowest common denominator, no earned status, simply two beings who exist in concert, and if love is present, no limit and no condition, simply abundance. This is what God wants of us, and what God freely gives to us in grace. Any limitations we put on forgiveness subtract love from the equation, leaving us and the relationship broken, just as we do when we put limitations on God.
So why debts. . . as I said debt is relational, it lives in a give and take, trying to somehow achieve a balance. If it is money, one gives money, one owes money, that relationship is out of balance until the debt is paid, . . . or forgiven. Let's look to God in this equation first. God gave us life, existence, this world we live in, our friends, our loved ones, our talents, our gifts, all things. That's a mighty balance to put back into place isn't it. If that wasn't all, God also made covenants and agreements, gave us laws, and then gave us his son, giving us new life again. Way way way out of balance. Do we think we could repay that debt, put things into balance, by following a list of minimums? No the only thing that can put that deal back in balance is forgiveness, and not just of our missteps, but of our very existence. Our debt, but Jesus took that debt upon his own shoulders, and for us forgave that debt in love, unconditionally. Saying debts reminds me of the tremendous infinite value of grace, and reminds me just how much God truly loves, for he not only forgives my missteps, but my everything. Now with that kind of love abounding, how can you limit it with details?
Having been given so much, can we forgive likewise?  What does it say when we do not? Our Old Testament Passage referred to the Year of Jubilee, when all debts and transactions went back to 0 and a reset button was pushed, not because anything happened except the passage of time, the time had come and so debts were forgiven. This is what we pray for when we say, Thy kingdom come, on Earth as it is in heaven. Let  us seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness one forgiveness of debt at a time. May it be so! Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 6:5-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 6:5-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.