Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, V: Chapter 11
During the season of Epiphany, Bill and I are preaching the sermon series, Help, Thanks, Wow, the Lord’s Prayer for Our Times—inspired by both the prayers of Anne Lammott and Jesus of Nazareth. Today we reach the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The scripture to accompany this line is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18….
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Perhaps in your pandemic Netflix binging you have caught an episode of the fantasy comedy, The Good Place—which explores the idea of a divine point system where good deeds like picking up litter, add points, and bad deeds, like failing to put the grocery cart back in the coral, subtract from our totals.
Learning that, no one has earned enough points to get into the “good place” in millennia, the main character Eleanor and the good place architect, played by Ted Danson, go to the divine accounting office—a team of three billion accountants sitting in their celestial cubicles cross checking point values on an old mainframe computer.
They argue with the head of accounting that the point system is flawed, noting that even something as simple as buying a grocery store tomato results in negative points—because of the use of pesticides that harm the earth, unfair labor practices that harm farm workers, and shipping methods that contribute to climate change.
This one episode cleverly reveals two important truths: One, our efforts to try to imagine God’s accounting system fall laughably short. Two, the complexities of even the simplest everyday decisions leave us, in accounting language, in the red.
And so, we come to the heart of the prayer Jesus taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Note, we do not pray “if we have trespassed.” This imperative petition assumes we are both individually and collectively in need of God’s mercy. We begin in the red.
Fortunately for us, Jesus’ understanding of math and accounting often defies our human logic. Today I will propose three finance lessons inspired by Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant—lessons that might help us begin to scratch the surface of the complex topic of forgiveness.
The first accounting lesson is this: Don’t shortchange God. Did you notice the enormity of the debt that the Lord forgave the servant? Ten thousand talents is an absurd amount—one commentator estimated that it is equivalent to 100 million days wages for the average worker. No matter what the servant’s credit rating was, there’s no institution on earth that would lend this amount of money let alone write it off. Which seems to be exactly the point Jesus is making. God’s mercy is mathematically impossible to quantify.
When we pray we put our trust in God’s grace, trust that there is enough forgiveness for you, and for me, and even people who have committed the most heinous actions imaginable. Our smart young kindergartners often ask me “Does God love bank robbers?”—which thankfully seems to be their idea of the worst villain possible. And of course I say, “God loves the person, but not the crime. God must want them to say sorry, return what they took, and not rob more banks.” You and I can envision much worse transgressions. Can we imagine God forgiving the worst sins imaginable? Don’t shortchange God’s capacity for forgiveness.
The second accounting lesson is that, though God’s grace and forgiveness is free and abundant, it is not cheap. Knowing God is capable of forgiving our greatest transgressions doesn’t give us license to turn around and shake down the little guy, like the unforgiving servant in today’s parable. Though it is uncomfortable to read, it is reasonable to interpret that what really angers God is when those who have experienced God’s generosity, mistreat the poor and the least. God’s accounting system may not be what we imagine—but we are accountable.
The experience of God’s forgiveness is one that we know not just in our heads but feel in our hearts. The Christian word for this change of heart and mind is repentance. Will Willimon says it this way “The courage to forgive one another begins in the humility engendered by the realization that we have been forgiven…. So every Sunday the church reminds us that we gather as those who have been forgiven, for that is the way we plan to produce heroic souls who are able to forgive.”
Heroic forgiveness. We've heard examples of it like Corrie ten Boom, who after preaching a sermon on forgiveness, came face to face in the church entry with one of the SS guards that held her prisoner in Ravensbrück concentration camp. The guard told her he’d become a Christian and asked Christ’s forgiveness for his cruelty. He asks for hers as well. As images of what she endured as his captive flash through her mind she prays this prayer, “Jesus, help me!” “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” She manages to offer her hand and is overwhelmed with Christ’s power to forgive.
Heroic forgiveness may arise out of the most challenging of situations, but it is never easy. If it were there wouldn’t be 20,000 books—I googled it—on the topic of forgiveness. Again, grace is free, but not cheap or easy.
Perhaps you are wondering about the title of this sermon, chosen because the Lord’s Prayer happens to be located in Luke: Chapter 11—the modern shorthand for corporate bankruptcy. Notice the plural pronouns in this line of the prayer, “us, our, and we.” We are praying not only for our individual transgressions but our communal ones as well. Chapter 13 is for individual bankruptcy. The third finance lesson is this—Chapter 11 is a reorganization of corporate debt.
Forgiveness is both at the center the Lord’s Prayer and intimately connected with the third petition—“Thy kingdom come.” A few weeks ago Bill [Evertsberg] described the Kingdom of God as “an aspiration, not an attainment, the measure of our faithfulness as a church, as a community, as a nation, is whether we’re converging ever closer to or diverging ever further from God’s reign.” Today I would add that receiving, offering, and seeking forgiveness brings us closer to God’s reign.
I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is an author, botanist, master of prose, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She eloquently weaves the beauty and science of plants with the impacts of climate change and the history of Turtle Island, or North America, into a “braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world.”
In her story I find connections to my story that are both beautiful and challenging. I am the daughter, granddaughter, and great great granddaughter of—descendants of one of the original pioneer families listed on a stone marker in a county in northern Indiana. When Kimmerer talks about trees my mind is called home—to memories of my grandfather driving me to the wooded edges of our vast farm to collect leaves for a school assignment.
I have long known that these woods and farm fields were once stewarded by the Potawatomi. I knew because my daily, middle school bus ride took me half a mile from my house past another historical marker—the start of the Trail of Death which forcibly removed the Potawatomi from Indiana to Oklahoma in 1838.
Through a chance conversation about Braiding Sweetgrass I learned that a colleague had travelled to my tiny hometown and walked the trail as part of their seminary class. I shared a bit of my story with him and asked about the land my family lives on. “What do families like mine do to right the wrongs and ask forgiveness for the trespasses of nearly 200 years ago?” I wondered.
It’s the kind of question that emerges when we talk about the continuing impact of redlining that shaped our suburban neighborhoods and schools. The same kind of questions museums and collectors face in returning Stradivarius violins and golden hued Klimt paintings looted during World War II. How do we make amends?
Perhaps I expected a simple answer to my land question, but instead I received a gift, a Chapter 11 style reorganization of my understanding of how to address the unfathomable debts that threaten to bankrupt our collective soul. “Maybe the starting place isn’t what to do with the land,” he said. “Maybe the starting place is building and healing relationships.”
My colleague Amelia Richardson Dress says this about the practice of forgiveness, it is “rooted in our interconnectedness with God and one another...relationships and interconnectedness that can lead to such tremendous beauty and richness are also the sources of some of our deepest pain and struggle.”
And so we pray each week, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or simply, “Help. Thanks. Wow.”
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Howell, James C. in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2: Homiletical Perspective Matthew 18:23–35,
 Willimon, Will. Lord, Teach Us: The Lord's Prayer & the Christian Life, Chapter 7.
 ten Boom, Corrie. Guideposts Classics: Corrie ten Boom on Forgiveness. https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/positive-living/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness
 Richardson Dress, Amelia. The Hopeful Family: Raising Resilient Children in Uncertain Times, p 32.