Sermon, 9/17/23: And which do you choose: trespass, sin, or debt?

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16 Pentecost

Psalm 114; Exodus 14:19–31; Romans 14:1–12; Matt 18:21–35

I offer you this morning, the opportunity to engage me in a word game.  I give you three words and ask you to choose one and then describe an instance, when you could use your choice to describe an action which you engaged in.  The three words are: trespass, debt, sin. Your choice remains confidential, known only to yourself.  

I cannot explain why, but as I read this week past the lectionary appointed for today, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, I was transported back to the future, as it were.  I was a teenager in high school.  One of my friends was the son of a Presbyterian pastor.  My friend invited me to come to his church, so that I, an Episcopalian, could see how true Christians worshipped.  You must understand that he and I joked often with each other in this manner.

So, I went and there I had the most shocking discovery of my teenage life.  Not all Christians pray alike!  More specifically, my shock was brought about in language usage, in reciting the prayer central to all Christians.  In a few minutes, I will say “And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say: Our Father….”  If history holds true, you will join me and together we shall pray without aid of our Book of Common Prayer.  And we say without thinking: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Herein lay my shock.  When I, an Episcopalian, worshipped—lo, those many decades ago—with my high school classmate, a Presbyterian, I discovered that we Christians, laying aside polity and liturgics, were not united in the one prayer which we claim unites us.  My Presbyterian classmate prayed; “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Later, he joked, as I recall even unto this day: “You Episcopalians own and protect your property.  We Presbyterians want to make sure that we do not owe anyone anything.”

This recollection from my teen years, spurred this week by reading today’s Gospel, sent me on a word chase, to etymologies, to books which trace the origin and development of words.  And here is what I (re)discovered.  To trespass is to go beyond the limits of what is considered right, to go on another’s land or property unlawfully; to intrude or encroach; and to offend, to sin.  This leads to my question of the week.  Which word would you choose in reciting the Lord’s Prayer: trespass, debt, or sin?

I suggest that we might find it off-putting if we were to pray: “And forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  It is psychologically and emotionally easier to understand and accept the concept of transgression of property and of owing someone repayment of debt, as these are both tangible.  But sin?  I suggest further that that is so, because we have relegated the word “sin” only to define moral or ethics codes, about which St. Paul writes often in his letter to the Romans: “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy…. and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:12f.)  Those are personal ethics indicators; so surely we cannot replace “trespass” or “debt” with the word “sin.” 

Yet, Jesus whose mission then, as now, was to shore up, to revitalize the value of living in community, uses that three-letter word, as Matthew has recorded: “Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven time?’  Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times!’” (Mt. 18.  21- 22) 

And Jesus, to make plain what is truly at stake, offers an easily understood transgression or sin, by talking about debt.  And the debt was money, a hundred denarii, to be exact.  However, the debt does not in our thinking equate with Paul’s “reveling and drunkenness and debauchery.”  Try as hard as we might to separate the two, we fail.  We fail because Jesus does not separate the two.  Sin, if the biblical reference to Jesus is true, is whatever destroys or impedes true fellowship, true equality that goes beyond material wealth.

Many have been the times that I sat in meetings and watched and listened to colleagues explain in great detail the substance of their position, only to have another colleague oppose it, who then, in explaining why he opposes it, reiterates the same argument that he was disputing.  He had not been listening but preparing his own presentation. Colleague B’s sin was the game of one-upmanship.  Most of us, myself included, have to make a special effort to work at being thoughtful of others, at being good listeners, at being radically honest, instead of taking the easier path of silence or spiritual laziness.  Could that be a sin?  A trespass”

The concept sin, of transgressing against another, is evidenced throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis.  But sin is not a very popular subject these days even among Christians, or if discussed, is limited to individual social moral behavior.  The Church, at various times in its history, has so defined “sin” such that we have come to believe that sin is entirely a matter of individual personal failure, detached from any connection to community.  This declaration or explanation of “sin” led to a feeling of an all-pervasive and destructive sense of shame about ourselves that is so crippling that it leads to nowhere and freezes us in inactivity.  This is an illegitimate sense of self-hatred, and all its devastating manifestations.  This is not what today’s gospel addresses.

Anything, according to Jesus that impedes union is a trespass, is a sin.  The priest and the Levite sinned when they left the injured traveler on the road and failed to give him aid.  I fail to understand how we can live in a post-holocaust, post-apartheid, post-9/11, post-Rodney King or -George Floyd world and still naively deny the reality of sin.  Sin exists.  But it is not a matter of individual, moralistic browbeating, or of destructive, crippling shame that leads nowhere.

If we could really accept this truth, I believe we would be freed from the Middle Ages imposed mental and spiritual flagellate behavior that to earn God’s love we should be perfect, and totally beyond all reproach.  Our book of Records teaches us that God recognizes our human flaw.  Our belief is that Christ, through his death and resurrection has altered that equation.  Fortified by the gifts which we share at this altar, Christ sends us all, with faults and flaws, back out into the world to spread the Good News.  With true and penitent hearts, we are to again go back into the world, to exert our effort to affect harmony among our fellow beings.  

This understanding of “sin” frees us to react to the challenges of life.  That is what scripture calls the spirit of humility.  When it is truly embraced, it can lead to a basic posture of forgiveness.  When it is not embraced, it leads to the kind of overt hypocrisy that we saw in today’s text, where the very one who was forgiven his own large debt, failed to forgive a smaller debt owed him.  It seems so obvious, but which of us can justify holding a grudge or criticism? 

I am reminded of a poster which I saw once.  I forget where.  It read, “Lord, may my words be sweet and tender.  For tomorrow I may have to eat them.”  I would vote for changing that to “Lord, may my words be sweet and tender, for someday I shall certainly have to eat them.”  And the magnanimous thing about it all is that God continues to love us, no matter what.  Amen