ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                     AUGUST 28, 2016



1 John 1: 5 – 10; Matthew 6: 9- 15

Rev. Sabrina Ingram


The phrase “Let’s call a spade a spade” is used to suggest that people speak plainly and come directly to the point.  There can be value in that.  Being in touch with “what is” is healthy.   And if calling a “potayto” a “potahto” can bring a romance to an end, calling it “a spud” might lead to full out war.  Yet not everyone agrees that calling a spade a spade is a good idea.  In his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s character, Lord Henry Wooten, remarks, “It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. The man who would call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.”  Being unable to call a spade a shovel would limit the creative ability of any writer.   While “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, it certainly helps to distinguish between a rosa villosa, an English rose, a ranunculus or an osiria.    Specific words can describe particular traits of very similar things.  This is the reason people who live in the far North have about 300 words to describe life in a snowy environment.


When it comes to prayer it might be unimaginative to call a sin a sin, but it would be more direct and less confusing than to call it a debt or a trespass.   This brings us to a frequently asked question, “When saying the Lord’s Prayer, why do Presbyterians ask for forgiveness of our debts while everyone else seems to use the words trespasses?”   There are a few possible reasons for this anomaly.  One is that Presbyterians are an ornery bunch who just like to cause problems.  Another may be that Presbyterians keep their assets in cash, while other denominations tend to own property.   Or it may stem from the Reformation when decisions were based on doing the opposite of whatever the Roman Church did.  A better reason is that the two words speak of sin in distinctive ways.


The most common usage of these words give us some insight.   When we think of trespasses we envision a piece of property or a house that isn’t ours and that we haven’t been invited to enter.  There is a boundary, a line, a threshold and when we cross it we have trespassed.  To trespass is to actively do something.  It’s to go beyond what is permitted.  Spiritually speaking to pray for forgiveness of our trespasses is to admit we actively cross God’s lines, doing things that displease God.  This may be a direct violation against God; as the Psalmist declared, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:4) or it may be a violation against another person.  In short we have acted; we have done something to offend God or hurt our neighbour. The word “trespasses” acknowledges the sins we have committed or what the Church calls “sins of commission.”    


When we think of debts we most often think of financial debts – how much is left on the mortgage?  What do I owe Visa this month?  Are we so far in arrears we need to see a debt counsellor?  In other words, debts are something we owe.  Debts mean we are lacking something – we’re in a deficit position.  We fall short of what is needed.  Spiritually speaking to pray for the forgiveness of our debts is too acknowledge our shortfalls and our passivity.   Not only can our actions offend God, but our inaction can too.  Passivity is not innocence.  “Debts” speak of what we’ve failed to do that we ought to have done.  It recognizes the good things we had the opportunity to do, but didn’t.   We are so far in debt to God that no matter what good we do or what evil we don’t do, we come up short.  Our good deeds don’t make us break even.  These right actions we’ve omitted are known as our “sins of omission.”


Some examples of these may be helpful.  To rob a bank is a trespass – we cross a boundary and take what isn’t ours; to see an error in your favour on your restaurant bill and not point it out to the server is a debt – we haven’t set out to cheat anyone, but we have and we owe them something.  To murder someone is a trespass – we actively take their life; witness a murder and do nothing is a debt – we allow that life to end by bowing out of our responsibility to another person; we look out for our own security over that of another.  To gossip is a trespass – we actively spread nasty rumours; to listen to gossip is a debt – where we could have put a stop to them, our passivity allows nasty rumours to be spread. To throw our litter on someone’s lawn is a trespass; to offend our neighbours with stinky garbage we haven’t thrown out is a debt – we’ve failed to do something that really needs to be done.


Jesus’ point in teaching his disciples to pray is: people need to confess their sins.  Whether our sin is a trespass or a debt, we’re not good at admitting we’re guilty.  Most Christians work hard at being “good” people and doing what is “right”.  Most of us, most of the time, would never hurt someone on purpose.  When we do hurt someone our tendency is to either be filled with righteous anger or absorbed by shame.   We either see ourselves as the injured party – the victim, the one who was wronged or we are so humiliated we want the earth to open and swallow us.  This makes it very hard for us to admit we have faults.  We’re embarrassed by our failings and so we often deal with our trespasses by being defensive or by deflection.  We come up with an excuse for why we did it; we pretend it didn’t happen; we blame someone else.  We’re not good at taking responsibility for our actions.


It’s also difficult to take responsibility for our inaction.  The last thing on the planet we want is to feel indebted to someone.  If we “owe” someone then they have power over us.  The truth is: we owe a debt to God we cannot repay.  On the cross, Jesus died to cleanse us from sin and release us from guilt.   What could we possibly do for God that could come anywhere close to that?  Like it or not, we owe God our souls.  That’s a big debt.  I suspect this debt and the memory of God’s grace is the reason Presbyterians have clung to that word.  By asking for our debts to be forgiven we constantly acknowledge God’s tremendous act of love and our indebtedness to him.


So confessing our sins, whether trespasses or debts is something we avoid.  Yet no human being, including each of us here, is perfect and holy.  We’re all flawed.  We all trespass.   We’re all in debt.   Christians however are called to confess our sins, admit our flaws, apologize and make amends.   This gritty part of our faith takes spiritual maturity.  Creating a healthy community of faith demands this level of honesty and vulnerability.  Many situations where people who have been hurt by others in Church could have ended with a deeper sense of connection if only every party involved had the courage to confess our own part and build a bridge, instead of casting blame.  It’s not easy.  I hate it when someone comes to speak to me about something hurtful I’ve done; I also admire and appreciate those people who chose to resolve a problem rather than causing disunity or disappearing.   While it’s hard, I push myself to listen because I can’t grow if I can’t accept I have flaws.  As a human being, I can violate others and sometimes I owe them something – if only an apology.   I appreciate those who forgive and let things go even more.  Jesus made it clear that unless we own that truth, admit our sin and ask for God’s forgiveness, we won’t find the freedom we long for.  The Prussian king Frederick the Great was once touring a Berlin prison. The prisoners fell on their knees before him to proclaim their innocence — except for one man, who remained silent.    Frederick called to him, “Why are you here?” “Armed robbery, Your Majesty.” “And are you guilty?”  “Yes indeed, Your Majesty, I deserve my punishment.”  Frederick then summoned the jailer and ordered him, “Release this guilty wretch at once.”   Then he added with a note of irony, “I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it.”   We too are in a prison of sin, guilt, shame, fear, anger and pride.  We have crossed the line.  We fall short and are in debt.  We can insist we’re “fine innocent people” or we can tell our King what we’ve done and allow him to set us free.


The Reformer, Martin Luther, once had a dream in which Satan unrolled a long scroll and read a list of Luther’s sins.  When he came to the end Luther asked, “Is that all of them?” “No,” came the reply, and a second scroll was read and then a third.  When Satan was finished accusing him, Luther exclaimed, “You’ve forgotten something.  God has written on each of them, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.'”   Scripture assures us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1: 8 & 9)  Whether our sins are trespasses or debts, when we’re willing to “call a spade a spade” and confess our sin asking for forgiveness, Christ sets us free.   While such grace is not something we can pay back, we can pay it forward by forgiving those who trespass against us and cancelling the past due notices of our debtors.