“Forgive Us Our Debts”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 31, 2019

Matthew 6:9-13


This morning, our journey through the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the fourth sentence.  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  But before we get there, I’ll ask you to come with me on a journey to another part of the Bible:  all the way back to “in the beginning,” all the way back to the book of Genesis.

In the second of the two back-to-back creation narratives (which are quite different from one another—but that’s another sermon for another time), the story begins with a dusty patch of earth, watered by a stream.  The story says that God scooped up a handful of that soil and formed a human body, and breathed into that human’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.  God planted a garden called Eden (Hebrew for “pleasure” or “delight”), and in it God planted every kind of plant that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life and the tree of knowledge there in the midst of the garden.  And God placed the human in the garden to till it and keep it.

But then, the story says, God recognized that the human could not fully know the delights and pleasures of Eden without companionship.  “It is not good for the human to be alone,” God said.  God made all the animals, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and eventually, God made another human being.  The two people became partners, helpers to one another.

Now, you know (I hope) that I am a firm believer in evolution; these stories do not replace the scientific method in our understanding of how the earth and all its inhabitants came to be.  But that does not mean that they do not have important truths to impart to us about who we are, what we are about, and from whence we came.  And the truth I hear in this story today, the truth that is relevant to Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, is this:  those first humans, our ancestral forebears, lived interdependently.  They relied on each other (sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment, as relationships always are).  If one was hungry and the other had food to spare, they would share it.  If one was hurt and the other could bind up the wound, they would heal it.  If one was sad and the other could offer comfort, they would offer it.  If one was tired and the other was rested, they would lean on one another.

Somewhere along the line, maybe as the human family grew beyond a small kinship group where you knew everyone, we humans created systems to regulate our dependence on one another.  We invented ways to assign a numerical value to help needed and help received.  We devised systems of barter and trade and monetary exchange.  We created contracts to govern who could expect what kinds of assistance from whom, and at what price.  We came up with the idea of debts, of owing, and of collecting on those liabilities.  What started out as relational became transactional.

Of course, when you live in a system where to ask for help incurs a debt, where it means that the person who helps you holds a sort of power over you, where you don’t necessarily know when they’re going to call in the favor or what you’ll feel obligated to do then… there is a pretty strong incentive not to ask for help, not to need anything from anyone.  If I am independent, self-sufficient, then I don’t have to worry about being indebted, about owing anyone.

This way of thinking is pervasive.  Just the other day, I was talking with a dear friend.  She’s been going through a lot, and the last time we spent time together, I offered a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.  When we spoke later, she said, “Hey, I owe you one.”  First I responded by listing some of the times when she’s been there for me, as though that balanced out the ledger somehow.  She pushed back:  no, this time was different somehow.  After some more push and pull, back and forth negotiation, finally we agreed that we didn’t have to keep track of credits and debits like some kind of friendship bank account, where you can only spend it if you have enough capital accumulated.  We could just be real with each other about what we need, and offer care as we are able in a spirit of mutual love.  (Imagine that!)

Another thing that happens when you live in a system where care is transactional is that access to care becomes determined by access to resources.  People who have enough resources can get their needs met; people who don’t have enough resources are left out in the cold.  Communities who are marginalized—the ones for whom Jesus has particular care, concern, and affection—bear the brunt of it because of how oppression simultaneously creates more need for care and less access to resources in the communities and individuals it targets.  It gets passed on—generationally, culturally, economically, systemically—until it just seems like this is the way it is.

And then Jesus comes along and teaches his disciples to pray, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  You don’t have to live like that, he says.  This may be the way it is, but it is not the way it has to be.  This may be who you have become, but it is not how you were made.  When care is given and received relationally, not transactionally, it blesses both giver and receiver.  When you live in such a way that debts are forgiven, in such a way that everyone has what they need, you can know the delights of Eden, and you can help to bring about the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.


But then, you don’t need me to tell you this.  You know this, because you are the church.  You know this, because you practice this kind of relational care—day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, decade to decade, century to century.  You know this, because you have been both giver and receiver.  You know this, because you have given and received freely, with no sense of indebtedness or obligation, and you have felt the kind of delight and pleasure this giving and receiving brings.  It is a tremendous blessing to be part of a community that knows this truth and lives it out so genuinely, so authentically, so truly.

Yet even in relationships of care rooted in love, forgiveness is sometimes necessary.  Sometimes we miss the cues and don’t know what another person needs.  Sometimes we don’t communicate our needs in a way that others can hear.  Sometimes we are not able to provide what is needed.  Sometimes we try and fail.  Sometimes we miss the opportunity entirely.  Always there is more that we could have done.  Even back in the garden of Eden, the two human beings sometimes went astray, and the same is true here and now.

In the weeks and months between now and June, we will have time to reflect, both apart and together, on all the ways we have cared for one another in the six years I’ve had the privilege to serve as your pastor.  We will have time to name the blessings we’ve found and made together, as well as the ways we have fallen short.  We will have time to give and receive forgiveness.

But between now and then, we have more work to do together, more opportunities to be about building up the realm of God.  More opportunities to embody truly loving care for one another and for our world.  More opportunities to recommit ourselves to that kind of relationship.  More opportunities to spread that ethos of care more widely, more broadly, more deeply into the world.  More opportunities to mean it when we pray, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.


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