How many of you like to camp? I’m not talking about camping in a large trailer with a satellite dish; I mean hardcore camping. The kind of camping where you take a small tent, a sleeping bag, and a couple of cooking utensils out into the woods and you live off the land for a few days. Believe it or not, that’s the kind of camping I used to do.
My older brother and I, along with a cousin, would spend as long as a week camping in the woods of Ohio. We took a small tent, sleeping bags, some cooking utensils a little bit of food, and mostly lived off of fish we caught. I’ve wizened up since then.
If you have done that type of camping you know it is not for the faint of heart. Now, imagine living in an even more primitive fashion for six and a half years. Not because you want to, but because you have been kidnapped and forced to sleep on the ground, with no tent for cover and no sleeping bag for comfort. And then imagine you are not in the woods or a forest, but a jungle. And not just any jungle, but the Amazon jungle, a jungle so dense and dangerous it is one of the most inhospitable environments for human habitation on our planet.
That is the experience of a woman by the name of Ingrid Betancourt.
Ingrid Betancourt has a remarkable story. Harrowing, but remarkable. In 2002, as she was traveling through the country of Columbia campaigning for president, she was kidnapped and held prisoner for the next six and a half years. Her captors mistreated her, abused her, and drug her through the Amazon jungle for six and a half years before she was finally rescued. Life in the jungle meant she was constantly under attack by insects large and small. Fire ants and mosquitoes dug into her skin so deeply that she was in constant misery from their bites. Living in the jungle brought danger from large predators as well as the constant threats from her captors. Attempting to escape on numerous occasions she was recaptured, beaten, and received more severe treatment.
Shortly after her rescue she was asked about all the suffering she had endured. Of all she had to say about her experience, the most surprising and profound statement she offered was this –The only thing I've settled in my mind is that I want to forgive. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jul/10/colombia.france1)
Can you imagine saying those words after experiencing six and a half years of such horrible torment?
As we continue through the Lord's Prayer we come to the phrase forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Or, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Jesus taught about a lot of subjects, but there are certain themes he returned to time and again. One of the regular themes in the preaching of Jesus is that of forgiveness. A year ago today I preached on The Challenge of Forgiveness. We talked about it a little bit when we looked at the Beatitudes early in the summer. We return to it again today as we continue our study on the Lord’s Prayer. If Jesus spoke often about forgiveness, so should we.
Forgiveness is one of those topics that make us squirm, because we recognize how incredibly difficult forgiveness can be. When we hear a story such as Ingrid Betancourt’s we instinctively want to say instead of forgiving her captors she should be pushing for justice. I think that if we are really honest, we will admit that forgiveness comes neither easy nor natural to us.
Out of curiosity I did an internet search for stories of forgiveness. Some of the stories I found were absolutely mind-blowing. People who forgave others for acts so horrendous that it made me ashamed that I have withheld forgiveness for hurts so small in comparison to what others have suffered. I read those stories and wondered how can people forgive after experiencing such horrendous acts?
And yet Jesus calls us to practice forgiveness. Going through the Sermon On the Mount is a tough experience, because what Jesus asks us to do seems so monumentally challenging that it is easy to feel incredibly inadequate. But I believe we instinctively know that what Jesus says is true and that if we could all live what he teaches in this sermon the world would indeed be a better place.
When I visit other churches, and they repeat the Lord’s Prayer, I always hope I say the same version. Have you ever been to another church and said debtors while they said trespassers?
Whichever word is used, I think they both communicate some important truths.
When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time riding motorcycles. There was a great farm out the road from where I lived, and my friends and I really wanted to ride on that farm, but there were No trespassing signs posted everywhere. As much as we wanted to ignore them, we knew better than to do so.
The word trespass means there is a line you don't cross. To forgive those who trespass against us is an acknowledgement that someone has crossed a line of what is right, what is good, and what is acceptable and have done something that causes some kind of hurt to us. It acknowledges there has been real hurt that has taken place.
It also reminds us that perhaps it is us who have crossed that line. It’s not always others who do the hurting; sometimes we are the ones who hurt others with our words and our actions. And that is a difficult truth to accept.The word trespass means there is a line you don’t cross. To forgive those who trespass against us is an acknowledgement that someone has crossed a line of what is right, what is good, and what is acceptable and have done something that causes some kind of hurt to us. It acknowledges there has been real hurt that has taken place.When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time riding motorcycles. There was a great farm out the road from where I lived where my friends and I wanted to ride, but there were No Trespassing signs posted everywhere. As much as we wanted to ignore them, we knew better than to do so.
When My mother-in-law lived on Tybee Island, Georgia, my family and I used to visit a neighboring island, which had a statue of John Wesley, the great hymn-writer and one of the founders of Methodism. Wesley had some difficulties with General James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe told Wesley, I never forgive. Then I hope sir, replied Wesley, you never sin.
Granting forgiveness and receiving forgiveness brings about an end to the toxicity that can exist in relationships, where hurt is piled upon hurt, and bitterness builds and builds until it becomes a soul-destroying force in our lives.
But the words debt and debtors are important as well.
What Jesus is saying is to release that person from the position of being a debtor. We are called to remove the shackles of guilt we want to fasten to them and we are called to release the other from any sense of indebtedness to us.We usually think of the word debt as a financial word – someone owes a debt to someone else. That’s how we sometimes see forgiveness. When someone hurts us, we believe they owe us something. They owe us an apology, they owe us an explanation, and they owe us restitution. It is easy to hold the offense of the other person over their head and to place them in a position of being a debtor to us.
I need to add another note as well – forget about the saying forgive and forget. We have so connected those two words in our minds that people believe forgiveness has not taken place unless they have completely removed the offense from memory. We do not always forget hurts, but that does not mean we have not forgiven and it does not mean that we are unable to move beyond them if we haven’t forgotten them. Forgiveness is an act of the will. Forgiveness means we make a conscious decision to refuse to allow the poison of bitterness to build up within our hearts and minds. It does not mean we forget the things that happen to us, but it does mean that we will not allow those memories to serve as open wounds that feed bitterness.
Who do you need to forgive this morning? Perhaps there is someone in your family. Perhaps it’s yourself. Perhaps it’s God. There are a lot of people who are mad at God.
When I was in the 6th or 7th grade, I got in trouble one day. My mom was not very happy with me, gave me a lecture, and sent me to my room to wait on my dad to come home from work. I waited in my room for a while, wondering what was going to happen. I can still hear the sound of his car coming down the driveway and the front door opening. I couldn’t hear the conversation he and my mom had, but I heard his footsteps coming up the stairs and then the doorknob turning. He came into my room, sat down on the bed beside me, and put his arm around my shoulder, and actually said very little to me. It was a moment of grace that I was given. It was also a good cop/bad cop routine I think my mom and dad were pulling on me as well, but it worked.
There are people who have hurt us, and they owe an apology that may never be offered. But we have caused hurt as well. Grace is what is really needed, and that is what Jesus is asking, that we learn to give and to receive grace.
May we do so this day, and all days.