Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-34
Anyone who says they don’t believe in speaking in tongues has never prayed the Lord’s Prayer with a group of Christians from diverse backgrounds.
Over and against each other—and all at once—you’ll hear:
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…
And nobody seems to know when the prayer is supposed to stop:
Some add the doxology; others don’t…
Some mouth along to words they can’t remember because they’re trying to show Christian solidarity but their tradition doesn’t recite that last bit…
Some are “amen-ing” when others are “kinging, powering, and glorying God”…
It’s chaos. But it’s beautiful chaos.
Leaving the end of the prayer for another week’s reflection, I don’t think it’s coincidence that the line about repentance and forgiveness is the one that we most struggle to articulate together.
A Case for Trespassing
Over the years, I’ve had the ability to take a deep look into the ways the bible talks about sin. My own studies and translation work has been aided by those of many others, such as my grad school colleague Joseph Lam, who wrote his dissertation on the concept of sin in the Old Testament. And all of that has led me to begin to think that the old ways might be best here—perhaps we should all be trespassing……in the prayer, I mean; not around town.
But first, a story. And actually, this exact story has played out more than three times in my ministry. In it’s basic form, it goes something like this:
An individual comes to me struggling with what you might call a moral dilemma. There’s something going on—perhaps in their own life, perhaps in that of a family member or among their circle of friends—but it’s something that they were taught was a sin, and they don’t know what to do about it.
At some point, I ask them what sin is. It seems a simple enough question: “What is sin?”
But universally, they each have confessed that they don’t really know. They talk about how they were given a list of things—behaviors and actions, usually—that are deemed “sin.” Sin is defined as what’s on the list. But lists are nearly impossible to use in the real world.
I believe that part of what has sapped Christianity’s witness in the last century is that we haven’t taught people how to identify sin “in the wild,” so to speak. We don’t really know what sin is, at its core. So when peer pressure, or emotions, or stress, or health issues, or whatever it is that breaks us down does its thing, we simply shake our heads at the checklist of sins and decide that asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission.
Sin = Trespass
From all the research I’ve done, all the reading and translating and praying and everything else that has gone into it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the core sense of “sin” is not too far off from the sense of “trespass.”
As the bible talks about it, we sin “against” someone—and that someone is usually God or one other. For instance, a commonly used prayer of confession defines sin through its confessions that:
We have not loved you [God] with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. (BCP)
Sin against God; sin against each other.
In fact, the context of the parable I read a moment ago is Jesus’ instruction for finding reconciliation with “your brother or sister” who “sins against you” (Matthew 18:15).
But what then does it mean to sin against God or each other?
As I said a moment ago, I’ve come to think of sin through the language of trespass. Here’s what that means:
Sinning against God
God has made us each unique, yet in God’s own image. It matters not our gender, our status, our economics, or our abilities—as human beings we bear the image of God. And part of that image—as seen as early as our very creation in Genesis 1 and 2—is that we are invited to be creators alongside God.
The task of maintaining creation is a creative one, requiring the full and adaptive abilities that our God-like free-will allows.
God invited the first human into this creative process by having him name the creatures, something that God seems to have taken delight in.
Yet of course, those initial ancestors revealed the shadow-side of free will, in choosing to do the one thing they were forbidden from doing.
In doing so, they trespassed against God—and in a more literal way than you might initially think! Those first people took on themselves the role of God—deciding good and bad for themselves, instead of trusting those things to the God who made all things. They tread onto God’s lawn, so to speak, supposing to make it their own.
This is one way we sin—by taking on the roles and responsibilities that belong to God and God alone. In doing so, we trespass against God……we go where we should not go…where only God should tread.
Sinning against Each Other
In the same way, we sin against others when we trample on their free will or the image of God that they bear. Murder, adultery, theft, deceit, jealousy (to name a few of the Ten Commandments)—all of it destroys the image of God in someone, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Interestingly enough—and contrary to what we might expect—it is these sins that the God of the bible seems to have the least patience with……they are the ones that send God into a rage at injustice.
And there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of biblical verses about this. For example:
Deuteronomy 27:19 pronounces a curse on “anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (NRSV).
Or: The pithy wisdom of Proverbs never fails to strike a cord. And in Proverb 6 (vv.16–19), the author says
“There are six things that the LORD hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.” (NRSV)
Now “hates” is pretty strong language—to be used with caution, especially in regards to God. Yet the author uses it here to describe God’s response to these ways we trespass against each other. Furthermore, in Proverbs 17:15, we read “One who justifies the wicked and one who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Both sins are against one another.
And Sodom—you remember the destruction of Sodom from back in Genesis 19?—Sodom, that archetypal bastion of sin, that eternal symbol of God’s consuming judgment. Yet Sodom was not destroyed for they ways they trespassed against God, but for the ways they trespassed against each other……and especially against those on the margins of society. Ezekiel 16:49 tells us “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (NRSV).
Let us not forget: Jesus himself said that the whole of the law and prophets were fulfilled when we love God and love each other (cf. Matthew 22:36-40). The early church understood this better than we seem to today, and Paul references this teaching of Jesus in virtually every one of his letters. But the specific connection to the way sin is trespassing on each other may be most directly offered in Romans 13:9-10:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (NRSV)
Sinning against Ourselves
But the more I read the scriptures, and the more that—as a pastor—I am invited to walk with people in the dark seasons and places of their lives, the more I realize there there are ways that we trespass not only against God or against each other, but also against ourselves. There are ways we sin against ourselves by trampling all over our own free will or the image of God that we bear. Things like feeding addictions, gluttony, sexual sins, and so on may have a corporate dimension—which would be sinning against others—but I wonder if they may at their core be sins against ourselves. They do harm to the image of God that we bear. They limit and cramp our ability to express free will. They involve trespassing on and vandalizing the person we were created to be.
But we never lose that divine image that is a core ingredient of our very creation. I was reading this week something written by St. John of Karpathos, a 7th Century Christian leader. He wrote:
“The moon as it waxes and wanes illustrates the condition of humanity. Sometimes he does what is right, sometimes he sins and then through repentance returns to a holy life. The divine image of one who sins is not destroyed (as some of you think), just as the physical size of the moon does not diminish, but only its light.
Through repentance a person regains her true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light. If a person believes in Christ, ‘Even though he dies, he shall live’ (John 11:25); he shall know that ‘I the Lord have spoken, and will do it’ (Ezekiel 17:24).”
(For the Encouragement of the Monks in India Who Had Written to Him)
This, then, is a big part of why repentance and forgiveness factor into this model prayer. Despite our sins, we never lose the image of God in which we were created. Despite our trespasses against God, each other, and ourselves, God never loses hope in us. God is always active in hoping for and pursuing reconciliation with us, and between us, and within us.
And we believe and confess this day and every day, that because God has conquered death through Jesus the Christ, we too can hope against hope in the promise of new life that is available now and eternally through the resurrection.
God awaits us like the father of the prodigal,
scanning the horizon for our return,
mobilized and ready to run and greet us,
eager to extravagantly celebrate the return of even this greatest of sinners.
Repent sisters and brothers, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Prayer (BCP, Penitential Rite 2, p.352)
Let us pray:
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.