glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Looking Back and Looking Forward: A Sermon for September 11

I don’t know how you are feeling today, but I am a little conflicted. On the one hand, I am excited about the start of another wonderful program year here at Emmanuel, full of promise and hope for all that we will learn and accomplish together as God’s people in this wonderful place. But then, on the other, we can’t escape the fact that today is also the 10th anniversary of the day that we have come to know as “September 11th,” and all that that dreadful day has meant and still means for us, for our nation, and for the nations of the world. So, somehow it seems that we are being called to hold or balance this conflicted mixture of thoughts and emotions in our hearts, thinking back on a tragic day seared in our collective memory, while also looking ahead to what we hope is a bright future.

You know, we often hear it said that September 11 changed the world forever. Certainly it has made a dramatic impact on the last decade, here in the United States and in many other countries and continents. Our faltering economy, heightened security concerns, especially for air travelers, and two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost too many lives, are all signs that the events of September 11, 2001 are still impacting us in various ways. But in other ways, those of us who haven’t lost loved ones in the attacks or in the subsequent wars have probably moved on, not returning to where we were before, for sure, we can’t go back to life on September 10, 2001, but to a new “normal.” More alert perhaps, a little more suspicious of those around us unfortunately, but still picking up with our lives, raising families, going to Red Sox games, coming to church, smiling, embracing, loving, giving thanks for the gift of life, while perhaps a little more aware of its fragility and uncertainty.

Most people who were alive in old enough in 1963 say that they remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was killed. I think that’s true with regard to September 11, too. In September 2001 I had just started a new job. I had been working as a parish administrator in an urban church for a couple years after seminary, but that summer I applied for (and actually was hired) to be the Office Administrator for the Episcopal City Mission in Boston, at the headquarters of the Diocese of Massachusetts. I took up my duties right at the beginning of September. And I remember that I was swamped the first week, as the position had been vacant for some time. I thought I would never make it. But after a week it got better and by Sept. 11 I was settling in a little. And that morning, I got an email or phone call from a friend, saying that a plane had flown into the world trade center. Well, it sounded terrible, of course. But I thought it was a small plane that had an accident. But then, of course, more news came that another plane had it. And that they were large passenger jets, and that they had come from Boston.

I don’t remember how it happened, but just about the entire staff at the diocesan office gathered on the top floor in Bishop Tom Shaw’s office to see the news on TV—Bishop Shaw was on sabbatical in Turkey, but it was the only TV in the building. Of course we watched in shock as the towers fell right there on live TV. And then we heard about the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania. How do you even begin to make sense of all that? There was a Eucharist in the cathedral that noon, presided over by Bishop Barbara Harris. I have no idea what she said, if anything. And after that, at 1:00 p.m., we were told we could go home. I remember that I felt safer in the diocesan office than I did on the subway to Jamaica Plain, but eventually I left. People on the subway cars were absolutely silent, reading special afternoon editions of the Globe and Herald, perplexed about how this could happen here, and perhaps like me worried that the subway, too, would find itself under attack. I was so thankful when I made it home safely. I didn’t want to go out ever again; although, I don’t know that I had ever felt the distance from my family in Minneapolis so greatly as I did that day. We had a prayer service at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain that evening, but I don’t remember anything about it really.

It’s interesting how seeing the news footage again, after all these years, brings back emotions that I had tucked away. I suspect the same is probably true for you. So much of it we haven’t seen in years, and you kind of forget how awful it really was. I’ve seen news clips of live coverage of the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, and it seems like the mood of shock, disbelief, and fear was much the same. Was it just one (or a few) people who would do these things, or was it something much wider and deeper? We’ve been told that in the case of President Kennedy’s assassination, it was just one man acting alone (though many question that). But in the case of September 11, of course, we have learned that it wasn’t just a few, it wasn’t even just the hijackers themselves, but an international network determined to bring western culture and civilization to its knees.

On the one hand we can be very thankful that our nation and the nations of the west have largely resisted the attempts to force us to succumb terror. We are more cautious, yes. But life, for the most part, has not come to a screeching halt. In that way, the terrorists have failed, and presumably will continue to fail, over and over again. The human spirit is just too strong and too courageous. But then on the other hand, we have entered into wars that seem to have no ending and that at this point make little sense, at least to me. I was watching the PBS Newshour not too long ago and they had an interesting piece about Afghanistan and what, if anything, the people there know about what happened here 10 years ago. Amazingly, really, few did. Their nation has been torn by armed conflict for a decade (actually much longer than a decade, but 10 years involving the United States), and yet many of the ordinary citizens have no idea what caused it, our part of the world is so far from theirs. When soldiers showed ordinary people pictures of the World Trade Center towers enveloped in fire and smoke, the Afghanis had no idea what it was, or even where it was. One man even asked if it was a photo of Kabul, since that was the only city he had ever even heard of. The solider narrating the piece joked: clearly the man had never been to Kabul, if he thinks it looks like New York City.

So, how do we make sense of that? How do we make sense of on-going wars that have brought so much destruction? It is believed that 2,977 innocent people were killed on September 11. It was horrific and we will never forget so much death and destruction brought in one wretched day. But in the 10 years since, 2,606 coalition forces have been killed in Afghanistan. About 24,000 Afghan forces have been killed. And anywhere between 14,000 and 30,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. I was not opposed to going into Afghanistan in 2001. I thought we should go after the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden. But now, a decade later, enough is enough. That’s more than 50,000 lives lost. Sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, spouses, friends, whose faces will never be seen again, whose voices will never be heard again, whose touch will never be felt again. I usually shy away from politics in my sermons. But sometimes, we just need to say, enough is enough.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in today’s gospel lesson Jesus calls us to forgiveness. And not just once or twice, but over and over again. Not 7 times, but 77 times, or in some translations, 70 x 7 times (that’s 490 times, for each offence). In other words, an infinite number of times. As people of faith, Jesus tells us, forgiveness has to be at the center of our lives. Forgiveness has to define who we are. And why do you think that is? Well, we could say it’s in part because it’s what God wants. And that’s a pretty good reason. But I think it’s also because Jesus knows that it’s good for us. He knows that unless we embrace forgiveness, we will live forever torn apart, consumed by hurt and anger, and possibly revenge. If we don’t forgive, we can’t move on. If we don’t forgive, we can’t live.

I think that’s the point in the harsh parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. One who forgives is able to go on with his life. But one who isn’t, who can’t forgive, is forever tortured. In the gospel it suggests that God does the torturing, but I don’t think that’s exactly how it works. I think we simply end up being consumed by our own anger and hard heartedness. God doesn’t need to do anything to us, because we’re plenty good enough at torturing ourselves, sometimes without realizing it. And sometimes I wonder if our nation has fallen into that same trap, as much as many of us do individually.

But let’s be honest. Certainly, I have had trouble forgiving slights more times than I would care to admit, and I suspect that you, too have at least once or twice lingered too long over some offense and missed the love and grace extended by others. It’s what we all do. But you know what, maybe Jesus calls for such extravagant, infinite forgiveness because he knows that it will take some of us 77 or 70 x7, or even an infinite number of times for his message to really sink in. But when it does, when we understand how to forgive, how to let go, how to move on, how to look forward, and not only backward, we experience again the grace and love that allow us to live. We are set free. In a very real and present way, we experience the power of the resurrection, over and over again.


So, today, in our thoughts and prayers we, of course, remember the events of that September 11 a decade ago--when hijacked airplanes killed thousands of people, and set into motion a chain of events that we couldn’t have anticipated on September 10. We remember the lives lost. We remember the courageous souls—firemen, policemen, and ordinary citizens like you and me, who put their own lives at risk to save others. We remember also those who were left behind, grieving for fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, partners, and friends. We hold them all in our hearts, and we trust that they are held in God’s heart, as well.

And while we are remembering that day, let’s also take time to remember a little further back, 2,000 years ago, when Jesus, God's Son, looking onto a world of broken lives and hurting hearts, looking onto a world as burnt and scorched as ours was on September 11, chose to embrace forgiveness, not revenge, and thus opened for us and for all people a future shaped by mercy, hope, healing, love, and new life. Because that's what forgiveness can do. That’s its power. It frees us to live. It frees us to look ahead, and not just back. It frees us to live now and in the future, full of hope and promise, full of new opportunity, full of resurrection.

May God give us all the strength, the courage, and the hope to forgive, and love, over and over again, so that we can live and grow, now and in the age to come.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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