The Teacher’s Prayer

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
(Colossians 2: 6-19; Luke 11:1-13)

It was in the basement of a small church in Munich that she saw him.  He was balding, heavy-set.  He clutched his brown felt hat between his hands.  The year was 1947 and Corrie ten Boom had been giving a talk on the recent war and its aftermath.

As the man waited his turn with the others that had gone forward after her talk to speak with Ms. Ten Boom, Corrie struggled to recollect his face.  Where had she known him?  All at once it came back to her.  One moment she saw his overcoat and his brown hat, the next a blue uniform and a hat with skull and cross bones.  This man had been a guard in Ravensbrück, the concentration camp where Corrie and her sister Betsie had been held during the war, the same camp where Betsie had died.

The ten Booms were not sent to die in Ravensbrück because they were Jewish, but because they had helped their neighbors, the Jews of Haarlem in Holland.  They had hidden Jews in their home and were an active part of the Dutch resistance.  Corrie alone among her immediate family survived the ordeal.

But now, in this church in Munich, the man before whom she had once walked naked into the showers of the concentration camp was now standing in front of her.  He seemed to be smiling.  Corrie had been on a tour giving talks on the need for forgiveness in a post-war Europe of damaged buildings and destroyed lives.  “When we confess our sins,” she had earlier told the audience gathered to hear her, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

Her heart beat faster as he approached her.  He spoke to her first, “Fräulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”  He thrust out his hand to her.  Corrie’s blood ran cold.  In his hand all she could see was the leather crop with which he had once beaten her and her fellow prisoners.

He went on, “You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk.  I was a guard there.  But since that time I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fräulein,” he said and put out his hand again, “will you forgive me?”

Corrie stood there, with what she described as coldness clutching her heart.  How could she forgive this man?

In the gospel reading this morning, we hear some of the most familiar words in all of scripture, what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Some theologians and scholars would quibble with this title, however, for truly Jesus is not praying this from the depths of his being, unlike the prayer he prays for his disciples at the Last Supper or his anguished prayer in the .  No, this prayer comes from Jesus as a gift to his disciples at a particularly teachable moment.  At this moment, the disciples are truly that, learners.  They are not yet apostles, those who are sent.  They are still learners.

The disciples simply say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  The account in Luke’s gospel implies that they had been watching John the Baptist and his disciples closely, and they want what John’s disciples have – a model for prayer. 

Would Jesus have eventually taught this to them anyway?  Perhaps.  But the moment has presented itself and Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them how to pray.  And so this prayer does not come from Jesus the intercessor or Jesus the redeemer; this prayer comes from Jesus the teacher.

This is a model prayer.  It is a way to pray.  It is a structure that provides us a framework on which to build our own prayers.  But like good students we recite Jesus’ words over and over, not necessarily what Jesus intended in my opinion.  We have learned these words by heart and we have said them over and over, like the 23rd Psalm, until they are deeply engraved on our hearts. 

In the Anglican and other liturgical traditions, we believe something about how our worship affects us, we say, “praying shapes believing.”  What we pray, whether it be collects or intercessions or the Eucharistic prayer, these prayers, these petitions, form us and shape us as a sculptor might shape clay, or a baker might knead bread.  The Lord’s Prayer perhaps more than any other has truly shaped our spirituality for centuries.

The account of Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, to pray is found only twice in the Gospels, and these two readings occur only twice in the three year lectionary cycle – today we hear Luke’s account.  On Ash Wednesday in Year A we hear Matthew’s rendition.  I'm sure you remember…  They are not identical and what has come down to us liturgically is a prayer that has been crafted out of these two readings, mostly Matthew’s, with the appropriate doxology tacked on the end, “For thine is the kingdom…”

What I find disappointing is that we have, like so many other scriptures people love to quote, lost the immediate context of Jesus’ words.  And since we only get to hear them once in a three-year cycle, I want to review both of them.  Here in Luke, after giving the model prayer, Jesus launches in to this discussion of asking and giving, “If your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Would you give a scorpion instead of an egg?”  Ask God what you will, and, just as a Father treats his children with compassion and love, God will give you whatever you need.  “Give us our daily bread,” both versions say.  Be persistent, Jesus teaches them.

Both accounts of Jesus’ prayer include petitions for God’s kingdom to come on earth, words that were more dangerous than we usually recognize.  When God’s reign does begin on earth, it will replace all those who think they are truly in power.  No doubt, Jesus’ enemies made special note of this.

But it is the note of forgiveness that leapt from the page for me today.  We have used two sets of words for this discussion of sin and forgiveness in our various translations of this prayer, trespasses and debts.  I remember as a child hearing Christians from other traditions say the word “debts” when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer in church.  I was a bit of a snob.  I pitied them.  “Trespasses” was so much cooler to say, and of course, our way was God’s way.

Flash forward to a day when I, sitting in Greek class in seminary, was about to start translating the Lord’s Prayer in the original language.  And I was so excited – at last the “trespass” camp will be vindicated against those who pray “debts.”  I was greatly surprised to discover that both terms are used: παράπτωμα which implies trespassing, crossing boundaries, violation, but also ὀφείλω, a monetary term that truly does imply indebtedness.

Whereas trespass implies boundary lines and crossing into someone else’s space, I dare say debt speaks to us much more loudly and clearly.  The essence of this word tells us that sin is as real as money.  It’s not as amorphous as we might want to think.  Sure, you can sin against your friend or your family and you might get away with it.  But try sinning against your bank or against the IRS.  Suddenly it all becomes very real.  The need for forgiveness comes quickly into focus.

Have you ever owed someone, not money, but owed them something you can’t possibly repay?  I think of the former Nazi guard standing in front of Corrie ten Boom.  He asked her to forgive him his debt, how could she, really?  The sense of indebtedness has no easy resolution.

We are in debt.  We owe God.  We owe each other.  Think of all the times we have behaved abominably in the face of God’s goodness.  The things done and left undone.   The times when we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  Think of all the times we have mistreated others, whether individually or corporately or even nationally or racially.  We have sinned.  We are in debt.  We owe.  No one likes to be in debt.  So we ask God to forgive us our debts.

God promises to indeed forgive our debts if we ask, but this forgiveness is conditional.  We must first forgive the debts that we hold against others.  In Luke’s prayer, asking God’s forgiveness seems to spring out of the fact that we have already forgiven, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

The words in Matthew’s version are far stronger, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Why do we struggle so with forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a concept that most of us in have found ourselves meditating on this past year like at no other time in our lives. 

Our community has collided head on with evil, whether it be the evil of sexual abuse or the evil of mass murder, we have lost any option to stand idly by and pretend not to understand what it means to need to forgive someone.

Why do we struggle with forgiveness?  Perhaps because we place ourselves in a more vulnerable place.  We cede some amount of control over the situation.  If we truly forgive, we must let go of any claim on revenge or restitution.  We fear that if we forgive, truly forgive, the guilty party will have gotten away with their crime.

Forgiveness is a choice.  Despite the word origins, the choice to forgive is not a monetary action.  It’s not as easy as filling out a check or an IOU.  The choice to forgive must come from the very depths of our being.  It can be an agonizing decision, but the consequences of unforgiveness are that much more severe.

We see people groups at war with each other over unresolved grudges and unforgiven debts.  Individuals seek revenge on those who have harmed them or their loved ones.  Unforgiveness is not God’s way.  We have no greater example than Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Members of this community have found themselves in very different places in the wake of what happened to us in April.  Many of us lost friends and colleagues on that day.  Others of us simply lost whatever sense of innocence and safety we may have thought we had.  There are some in this community who immediately made the choice to forgive Cho Seung-Hui for his unspeakable crime.  Do you remember the debates on how many balloons should be released, how many stones should be placed?  There are others who I seriously wonder will ever be able to forgive him.  As one person remarked, “Some of us will spend our lives trying to get from 32 to 33.”  Unlike Corrie ten Boom standing before the man who had abused her, we do not have Cho here.  We cannot hear him ask for forgiveness.  We cannot scream at him.  We cannot even assure him of his forgiveness.  It is a one-sided transaction now.

What option are we left with?  We must trust God and we must obey.  It may take every fiber of our being, but this is the only option Jesus gives us.

Corrie knew this all too well in that church in that night.  She stood facing a man who had caused so much pain in her life and had helped bring death to her sister.  “Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me,” she writes, “I saw the sin of them.  Jesus Christ died for this man; was I going to ask for more?  Forgiveness is not an emotion—it is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  “’Jesus help me!’ Corrie prayed silently.  ‘I cannot forgive him.  Give me your forgiveness.’” 

At that moment Corrie took his hand and cried, ‘I forgive you brother, with all my heart.’  She writes, “And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His.  When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”  She writes, “For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then.”

Forgiveness takes great faith in God, but it also takes courage.  Corrie’s courageous example of forgiveness should speak to us all.  She shows us how the Church, the Body of Christ, can live out lives of forgiveness in the midst of our culture torn by unforgiveness.

When his disciples asked him, Jesus told them how they should pray.  Ask God for what you need, and like a mother God will give you what you need.  But Jesus also said, “forgive as you have been forgiven.”

The teacher has given us our assignment – learn what it truly means to forgive, so that you in turn can receive forgiveness.  May the God who longs to give good gifts to us, God’s children, give us the strength and the grace and the courage to choose to forgive.  Amen.

Another powerful story of personal forgiveness that has always moved me is the meeting of Pope John Paul II with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate him in 1981.  

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