Original sermon title: Forgive Us Our Sins
(Editor’s Note: the title has been changed in retrospect because in the last few months or so of WGMC’s worshipping life, we shifted from using the word ‘Sins’ to the word ‘Debts’ when praying the Lord’s Prayer. In this, as in so many things, Lesley was ahead of the game – as this sermon demonstrates.)
Preacher: Lesley Misrahi
11th October 2009
Forgive us our sins is the subject of this sermon in our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Sin has gone out of fashion. We don’t often preach about it in this church and it’s certainly not a word you find used much in society in general.
First of all, let’s be sure about this word ‘sins’. We may have grown up saying “Forgive us our trespasses” and other versions of the Lord’s prayer say “Forgive us our debts”. So which is right? Well, having done extensive research using Sue’s Greek/English New Testament, which I failed to give back to her after I borrowed it some while ago, I can definitely say that in Luke the word is trespasses, whereas in Matthew, which is the version we tend to follow, the word is debts. So how do we get from debts to sins? The Greek word means ‘obligations’ or ‘things owing’. In the Lord’s prayer we start by addressing ourselves to God and, remember, we take with us, in saying ‘OUR Father’, all those who might claim to be children of God. To pray ‘Forgive us our debts’ in this prayer means that to do so we must be in harmony with the earlier parts of the prayer. We are approaching with this request the loving Father who longs to give us bread. To do so hallows God’s name, fulfils God’s will and hastens the coming of the Kingdom.
So what does the Bible tell us we owe to God and to the rest of God’s family? We are told that we must love the Lord our God, with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. And we must love our neighbours with the same care and attention we show to ourselves. Now which of us can stand up and say that we have not, just occasionally, failed in this obligation? And that failure is what the Bible calls sin.
We understand debts because the vast majority of the population probably have debts of one kind of another, even if it is only an outstanding credit card bill which they usually pay off every month. So the state of being a debtor is pretty well universal, but the debts are owed by each as an individual and it is for what we owe as individuals that each will be held accountable.
We know that Jesus linked debts and sins because he told parables which equated the two. The people of his day knew a lot about debts. Most peasant farmers – that is most of the population – were more or less permanently indebted to the large landowners who had flourished under Roman rule. These debts could be passed on from parent to child, so that someone could be born in debt, even though it was in contravention to the Law of God. One such parable, in Matthew 18, is in response to Peter’s question ‘How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me?’ Jesus replies with the parable about a king who cancelled the huge debt owed to him by one of his servants. I won’t go into the parable now because I expect that Veronica may want to talk about it next week, but I just want to point out that the word used for debts in the parable is the same as that used earlier in Matthew in the Lord’s prayer. So when Jesus teaches us to say ‘Forgive us our debts, he clearly means our sins – in other words, our failures to love God or our neighbours. And the word for forgive is the same as that for release from debts in other parts of the Gospels. It means to set free, not from prison, but from the chains of obligation.
It has always seemed to me that there is a rather abrupt shift in the Lord’s Prayer. We have moved from honouring God to making requests. And our first request is for the basic necessities of life, summed up by the term ‘daily bread’. I would expect that the next request would be for the next most pressing requirement that people have. The psychologist, Maslow, even proposed a hierarchy of needs, starting with food and water at the bottom, through needs for social interaction, to what he called self-actualisation, including spiritual needs, at the top – something to which we may pay attention when all other requirements are satisfied. The Lord’s prayer is more realistic. In fact we find people all over the world attending to spiritual needs when other things are far from satisfactory. Among the billion people who are hungry in the world they still pray. As Jesus told Satan, “Humankind does not live by bread alone.” So what comes right after our daily bread is a spiritual need. What Jesus implies is that getting our sins sorted out is the most urgent spiritual need we have.
As I said, sin has gone out of fashion – if it ever was in fashion. I mean the word sin. Being sinful has always been popular. In these days we’ve stopped talking about it. The word ‘sin’ conjures up images of outdated and absolute moral codes and formal authority and other people telling us that we’re bad. And quite frankly, these days, we just don’t want to know. In fact our society has a great antipathy to anyone presuming to tell others what they should do. Even someone whose personal behaviour shows up the low standards of the rest of us is intolerable to a good section of the population. So we have books and TV programmes revealing all the shortcomings of Martin Luther King or Ghandhi or Mother Theresa. But this attitude seeks to ignore the fact that these individuals show that it is possible for humans to do a great deal more neighbour-loving than most of us manage. It’s as if we can feel better about ourselves if we can show that they weren’t perfect – as, of course, they weren’t.
In Western culture’s denial of sin, the only real crime is hypocrisy. And look at the glee with which the media have pointed the finger at MPs about their expenses – even, now, about being so profligate as to pay their cleaners more than £40 a week! (Even though this was allowed within the previous rules.) You’d think that MPs didn’t have anything else to do with spending large amounts of public money! I think this obsession with MPs’ personal dishonesty is because. in the course of governing the country, these people, by the nature of their work, have to say something about the way that the rest of us live and what is right for society as a whole. But let’s remember what Jesus said about casting the first stone and that no matter how much I cut someone else down to size, it doesn’t increase my stature by one centimetre
At the same time, we see in our culture a strong tendency towards externalisation of evil. By that I mean that we tend to feel that it’s not us that’s bad; it’s something outside ourselves. The evil people are serial killers or child abusers; they’re Osama Bin Laden or, earlier, Sadam Hussein. We have a tendency to make whole groups of people into scapegoats – Muslims, homosexuals, young drinkers. The other tendency is to fantasise evil. There’s a huge proliferation of TV shows with paranormal themes and lots of vampires and witches (both of which seem to be being rehabilitated), ghosts and ghost hunters. For Halloween we’re told there will be a dangerous paranormal experiment, revealing the real face of evil or some such stuff.
What is clear is that, in our society evil is them not us. But on Friday I came across a Sunday Times magazine article showing pictures of various notorious people and pointing out that Himmler had “nice eyes”, that Rosemary West and the killer of Baby P look like people you’d see on the street any day. And I must say that one of the things I find difficult in the work that I do on the Mental Health Review Tribunal is that I can meet people who have committed heinous crimes and yet seem quite pleasant. I’m sure Judith could say the same about people she meets as a probation officer.
What the Lord’s Prayer asks us to do is to admit our sins – to recognise that we are as capable of sin as the next person and that we have done things of which we cannot be proud. It recognises that this is the last thing we want to do. Last week I heard a radio interview with Gillian Slovo, whose parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were anti-apartheid activists (and Ruth First was assassinated for this). Gillian described attending various sessions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This post-apartheid body gave people amnesty for crimes, including murder, committed as a result of their administration of the apartheid system, so long as they told the truth about what they had done. Gillian Slovo said she had only heard one person tell the truth. The others said what they had done but they hedged it around with justifications and mitigating factors. As she said, how do you live with the knowledge that you have done terrible things?
I don’t think it’s just about big crimes. We all of us spend our lives conducting an internal narrative about ourselves – who we are, what we’ve done, why we did those things. It is essential to our sense of identity and we will still try to do it even if we can no longer remember what has happened in the past – so people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can come up with some bizarre explanations for things, for instance as they try to make sense of their lives. And in our internal narrative, we want to be the hero of the tale, so we explain things to ourselves in a way that shows ourselves in the best light. We do not believe we are sinful. We make excuses and justifications for our actions.
Thinking again of murderers; they also have an internal narrative and will tend to minimise or explain away their crimes. None of us like to think of ourselves as evil. In Britain, someone convicted of murder has a mandatory life sentence, and at the time of sentencing a tariff is set by the judge – a period that has to be served before parole can be considered, depending on the nature of the crime. Parole is not automatic. It is only possible if it is likely that that person will no longer be a danger to the public. One of the things the Parole Board is looking at is whether the person admits the crime, is remorseful and empathises with the victims. I deal on occasions with murderers who have mental health problems. They still have to serve the tariff and the tribunal then is looking at their psychological state and, again, whether they continue to minimise the severity of the crime, to blame the victim or others, to give excuses for their actions. The system requires the offender to face their sin in all its naked horror and to accept responsibility for it.
And God requires the same thing of us. We are not different from the rest of humankind. In the Lord’s Prayer, it is our debts which we bring to God. So we number ourselves amongst the great crowd of sinners. Just as the publican who stood in the Temple said, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner,” we do not claim to be different from the great herd of mankind. So the Pharisee who said, “Thank you God that I am not like other men” was not forgiven, while the tax collector was. As I John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and are strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
In the case of murderers, we demand this so they can participate in society again. God requires us to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness so that we can be part of the society of Heaven – or whatever phrase we may use for freely partaking in the company of our God.
This is where we look at that peculiar series of readings that we had. I went through the Bible and I picked out the descriptions of encounters between God or God’s heavenly agents and human beings. What is the common factor? Being Afraid. What’s the first thing people do? Mostly they fall down – usually flat on their faces. Noel Moules used to say this when I did the Workshop course, so I thought I’d have a look at it for myself. I thought he was exaggerating. But I was staggered by the consistency with which people fall down in their terror, in such a way as to hide their faces. The question is why? Well, pure fear of the unknown may be one reason, but I would think that usually people’s response to a frightening apparition would be more varied. They might scream, run away, freeze in shock, pretend it’s not happening or have any number of other such reactions.
Falling down indicates both fear and submission. It is cowering in recognition of almighty power. In these events, the people recognise that they are dealing with God. Isaiah gives a clue to the other factor: “My destruction is sealed, for I am a sinful man and a member of a sinful race. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” In other words, it didn’t matter what story they had been telling themselves about themselves or how they had rationalized away the things they had done, at the point of encounter with the power of God, each of those people were terrified as they recognized the purity of God and their own inadequacy to face up to this. So they literally covered their faces from God.
God has not changed. We are still unfit to stand in God’s presence. We require forgiveness. But forgiveness cannot be based on a lie. Just as we require murderers to admit the truth of our crime so we need to look at the truth about what we are really like. Remember that we are thinking about all the ways we have failed in love to God or neighbour. I can only be forgiven myself if I am first of all conscious of my sin. Forgiveness cannot come first.
One of the other reasons that people don’t like to talk about sin any more is that psychologists tell us that we need self-esteem and there is quite a tension between knowledge of our sinfulness and self-esteem. As I’ve been involved in counselling and psychotherapy in various roles for many years, that has been an issue for me. However, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot base self-esteem on a lie. How does it help anyone for a person to think well of themselves when in fact they hurt others around them? The sin still works away under the surface, even if it is buried, and causes pain and distress. Better to know what I really am and to come for forgiveness. It is noticeable that seeking the forgiveness of the people that I have hurt is an essential step in the Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step Addiction programmes.
Yes, low self-esteem, often thought to be due to lack of feeling loved during infancy is a real cause of hurt and distress, as people cannot make relationships properly without having them distorted through a lens of how they view themselves and others. How can someone find that love in later life? Do we expect a partner to be able to make up for what we never had? The burden is often too great for the relationship to sustain. Do we seek to love ourselves and look after ourselves first? We risk even more failures towards our neighbours – and it’s often difficult to love even ourselves when we have suffered damage as infants.
But there is One whose love is big enough to sustain even the most damaged. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said, “I bring news of great joy” and “He is risen!” In Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is a way for us also to be forgiven and loved. The cost is coming to God as we really are, with all our sins exposed, and that may feel like death. But the reward is that we may rise like Jesus, as the song says: “Forgiven, loved and free.” John 1 which tells us that we are all sinners is also the book in the Bible which most talks about love – love for our neighbours, the love of Jesus in his incarnation, death and resurrection and the overwhelming love of God– so that it says, “God is love.” And that love is for us. As Gene Robinson said on a tape that our small group listened to on Thursday – in my words: “Just as God can be throughout the Universe and beyond and yet can hear our small prayer, so God can love all of us equally – and yet I am his favourite – and so are you.”