• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Debts, Sins, or Trespasses?

Lord’s Prayer, a three-week series on the Lord’s Prayer(s) in Matthew, Luke, and John.

Week 1 of 3, preached September 12, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship


Context

This summer, in our Faithfully Asked Question series, we had a few questions we just couldn’t answer. We ran out of summer! One of the submissions was, “I’d like to hear a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer.” Well, here you go, whoever submitted that one. And better yet, we aren’t just hearing A sermon on it. We are spending three Sundays on the Lord’s Prayer, the version in Matthew, the one in Luke, and the one that isn’t in John.


Today, we are in Matthew. As Jesus is introducing himself and his message in the Sermon on the Mount, we get some instructions about prayer, the ones we just read together, followed by what we are about to read now, what we call the Lord’s prayer…


Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord from…


Prayer


Scripture Matthew 6:9-14

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.[c]

12 And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]

but rescue us from the evil one.[e]


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.


Sermon Debts, Sins, Trespasses

There came a point in my mid-30s where my golf game was stuck. Jill got me a lesson at a club called Chateau Elan for my birthday, where they had a well-renowned pro and all the video swing technology. He watched me hit some balls and took some videos. Then he said, “With you, I’m not going to have to teach you anything. I’m going to have to unteach you a few things, and that’s harder.”


In an article in Education Week, columnist Madeline Will makes this same point … “What’s Harder Than Learning? Unlearning. “Unlearning” says that in order for people to transform… (we) must confront and move beyond (our) previously held beliefs, assumptions, … values. In other words, it’s a shift in identity. We as human beings are really good at learning new things, but we’re really bad at unlearning things…”


For many here, the Lord’s Prayer has been in your life for a long time. Let’s do a quick check. For those of you who know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and if I got you started, you could say it all the way to the end… if you’re willing, raise your hand. Okay, for those of you without your hands raised, congratulations, you don’t have as much to unlearn! To those of you with your hands up, if you really became comfortable with the Lord’s Prayer in the last 20 years, since 2001, lower them. I bet lots of people in America learned this prayer that year. Now, lower them if you learned it after 1981? How about if you’ve learned it since 1961? If your hand is still up, I’m so sorry. You might have the most unlearning to do! Thanks, everybody, hands down.


In today’s scripture readings, Jesus is teaching the people about prayer. In those opening lines _____ read with us, we heard Jesus tell the people not to bother praying in public just to be heard and seen by others but to go home behind the door and pray. He was critiquing the style of prayer he saw most often.


Jesus’ critique and first lesson on prayer are not really about where or when to pray, though. He’s not telling us to hide or be secretive or secluded when we pray, to pray only when alone. Back then, lots of people considered speaking to God a privilege only the clergy could practice. And Jesus has some sharp rebuke of how they were practicing it.


The first big lesson Jesus is teaching in today's scripture is, everyone can set aside time for prayer. Prayer is an essential practice of knowing, worshipping, and following God, and therefore is not just for blowhard clergy. The people, everyone, are invited into prayer. It’s not enough just to study prayer, or think about things, or read a devotional book. Those things can be lovely, important spiritual tools to help our awareness of God and others, and to nudge us toward prayerfulness, but prayer is more than study, thinking, reading. Prayer is setting aside some sacrificial chunk of time for speaking and listening to God without other voices in our ears. Its not enough to watch or listen to other people praying. It's something we each are called to do, to put ourselves into that vulnerable space with God.


Which leads us to the second thing Jesus is teaching us about prayer. Jesus' big critique is how the clergy are praying to be seen and heard by other people. Prayer is not for other people. Prayer is for us and God. He says, Don’t pray in places or at times or with words just to be seen, or heard by, or impress others. Don’t pray to teach others or preach to them. Don’t pray so you will finally have a chance to say something, or to have the last word. Don’t pray to increase their impression of you as devout, spiritual, or sincere. If anyone else is the audience of your prayer other than God, then it isn’t really prayer. Make every prayer you offer have God as the audience… not anyone else around you who might be listening or watching… In all prayer, speak directly to and listen directly for God. That’s means be honest, and vulnerable, in a way that may be uncomfortable if others are the audience, but with God as the audience, who already knows and feels, honesty and vulnerability are the only options.


Jesus’ critique of prayer was mostly aimed at the clergy because they were mostly the ones allowed to and expected to pray. And he bites at them for how they pray to keep the people happy, to say what the people expect, or to look holy and righteous in front of the people. So he teaches prayer isn’t intended to be used like this. Prayer is meant to be a connection and a confession with God, a moment where God hears and sees us, and we listen for God sees and hears in us that we might have missed.


Some people get confused by this teaching of Jesus. They think he is saying all prayer should be done at home, in private. One pastor tells a story about a woman who used this text to complain that they should never pray out loud in worship but should simply pray at home, silently, in their closets. The pastor, given the gift I do not have of thick skin and a non-defensive spirit, said, “O, is that how you pray, at home.” And the woman said, “No, I don’t pray at home. But that’s not the point. The point is you shouldn’t be praying in public.”


Jesus is not condemning all public prayer. He is saying first pray, and second, have God alone as the audience of your prayer. We can do that in public and in private, when alone or with others. But it does take practice.


And that’s something to unlearn about the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t the greatest prayer of all time. It isn’t the best and perfect way to pray. It is a basic, beginner, oh my goodness, yall are really new to this or bad at this, so here are the simplest little tips to help you get started on a path of healthy prayer. People in church say this prayer like it’s the great one, like it’s the best prayer of all time, and the prayer that ends all prayers. Well, its really the training wheels prayer. Jesus saw how some people were misusing and mis-practicing prayer. He saw how some others were avoiding prayer all together. He saw how some were confused about how, or when, or to whom we pray. This lesson was intended to help us all develop more honest, authentic, vulnerable prayer lives.


I’ve found for lots of people, praying is hard, especially if someone is asked to pray in front of others. There is a part of me that stands before you every week afraid, afraid to preach, afraid to pray. Often the fear I encounter isn’t about what to say to God or what I might hear from God. The typical fear of preaching or praying or being a liturgist has to do with what others will see, or hear, or think, or say, or email, or gossip about over lunch. That fear comes from a confusion. We aren’t praying to or for the people. Our goal as pastors or pray-ers is not to try to impress each other, not to convince anyone listening I am a good pray-er or I make good words. Our goal in prayer is to speak directly to, and to listen directly for God.


If someone is thinking more about their fears, and the other people listening, it would be better to go home and practice. Go home, in private, set aside some time and space in your life, go to a place where you won’t have to worry about what others see and hear, and pray. Unlearn the old way you’ve seen religious leaders pray, and go home and learn a new way to pray. If you’re new to really praying, remove all other people from around you, so can unlearn bad habits of prayer, and relearn a more healthy, holistic, open and vulnerable way to speak to and listen for God and God alone. In those moments, be honest. Take more risks. Wonder. Ask questions and wait. Try to express your deepest worries and fears. Spend some time on yourself. Then shift the focus to loved ones, and friends, and strangers, and others people in the community or world. Dare to ask God why, or to beg God to come and make a difference, to bring a miracle. And then listen. Listen for God’s hints and clues. Listen for God’s guidance, how you could make a difference, today. Listen for a name or look for a face of someone who may need something you can give. Catch a glimpse of an idea that may bring hope and healing into the life of someone around you. Do all this with no one knowing or watching, and train yourself how to have God as the main audience of your prayer. Practice this often enough, and you’ll be okay praying in public because you won’t do so to impress people. You’ll do so to speak directly to and listen for God.


That’s when Jesus teaches us this basic beginners prayer, the one we call the Lord’s Prayer. This isn’t the greatest prayer of all time. It isn’t the perfect way to pray. It’s Jesus first homework assignment for prayer rookies. It’s Jesus video swing analysis for people who think they’ve been praying but don’t hit many greens in regulation. We often treat this prayer like it’s the greatest bestest prayer ever prayed, and if we would just memorize it and regurgitate it, then we are praying exactly how Jesus taught us to pray.


Let’s unlearn that. This Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ homework assignment to those of us who are still trying to pray honestly, openly, authentically to God and God alone.


Maybe you don’t know how. Maybe you’re afraid you won’t know what to say, or how to get started. Maybe you’re a bit scared to open yourself us that much to God, or to have God open you up that much to yourself. Yeah, I can understand that. That’s why Jesus says, “Then start by going home, where you won’t be all self-conscious about what others think when they see or hear you praying, find a quiet along place, and then, when you feel silly and don’t know what to say, here are just a few phrases to get you started…”


May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.


Charge

How many of you grew up saying debts and debtors in the Lord’s prayer?

How many learned this prayer saying sins, and those who sin against us?

And how many of you heard it with the word trespasses and trespass against us? I once had a member of a former church complain we weren’t praying the Lord’s Prayer right, the way Jesus taught, because we weren’t saying “trespasses.”


I knew I was in trouble. I had to help him unlearn something and unlearning is hard. I showed him the Greek words, and we talked about them. Then I invited him to see the Lord’s prayer as a beginner’s prayer, not the perfect one, and an invitation to relearn prayer as a practice of speaking and listening to God. I asked him to worry less about which word, and to focus more on being honest to God and open to God’s honesty in return. That’s what I ask of you today too.


Next week, we will play with all the Greek words and phrases though.


Benediction

And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

Let’s pray…


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