The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2011
The Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
Sermon: "Where Were You When it Happened?

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Gospel:

Peter came and said to Jesus, "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.

"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."

Matthew 18:21-35

Where Were You When it Happened?

Were you there; when it happened; when Nine-Eleven happened? We’re you there: Did you see it as it happened; the air strikes, the burning towers, the collapse? All of us were there that day. 

That morning, I remember walking into my kitchen 3,000 miles away, while it was still dark outside. I turned on the network news as background while getting breakfast before going off to teach school. The immediate image was of the first tower with smoke billowing out of its upper floors. The news people were questioning exactly what had happened, though they supposed that a small private plane had accidentally strayed, and crashed into it, based on some early reports they’d received. One newscaster was beginning to comment on the safety of civil aeronautics when suddenly, faster than comprehension could grasp, an airliner slammed into the second tower; a ball of flame and smoke shooting out instantaneously as an exploding bomb. 

The news people were stammering, trying to force their tongues to speak actual words of what we all had just seen; trying to bring sense to what we were all working to wrap our brains around; our minds racing, reeling with disbelief. 

I don’t remember finishing breakfast, or even the drive to school. But arriving in my classroom I immediately turned on the TV. There were the images of the first responders, camera crews and emergency vehicles in the streets below, fire and police captains being interviewed as they directed rescue operations above them; people falling, then that terrible, horrible collapse. 

My Principal’s voice came over the classroom intercoms. We were summoned to an immediate teacher’s meeting. The question on all our minds that moment was, “What will we tell our students,” soon to start arriving for the school day. How would we, how could we, make sense of it for them; especially when we couldn’t ourselves? How much lesson time should be given to their shock, their questions; a few minutes, the whole day? 

The Principal spoke, “We will not lose instruction time on this today. You will not focus on it, or speak of it, that is not our job. Those children who do not know will find out from those who do. We are to keep things as normal as possible and avoid fear. You will set an example of routine and normalcy.” It seemed like wisdom at that moment. Ignore it-maintain the school day-no special assemblies-follow routine tasks and hope for the best. 

It didn’t work, of course. Oh, the school day schedule did alright, but, the students weren’t really emotionally present. They passed from one class to the next, some merely quieter than usual, many shaken, a few nervously joking as middle-schoolers will do when unsure of things, all clearly affected. Three thousand miles away, they, we, had been there. That’s just my story. I know you have yours too.

I really haven’t thought a lot about all this since; until a few weeks ago when I realized that the tenth anniversary of September 11 was going to land on a Sunday morning, squarely, today. I called clergy friends in LA, New York City, and here to kind of poll them about what they were going to do about addressing it. A few have actually been planning for months now, and this morning is being set aside for congregational members to share their memories; a time to heal memories; a catharsis of healing, they said. One church will be showing video clips during worship when they start in about two hours from now on the West Coast, and then eliciting responses. Nearly all have said that they will be acknowledging it in some fashion; most preaching about it, saying that we can’t ignore the 700 pound gorilla in the room today. 

A couple of rectors said no, however. They said this is another Sunday like any other. They will be maintaining a normal routine; no need to bother people with it. I really considered this latter approach. It seemed like wisdom; standing for normalcy and routine; not giving in to the cultural buzz going on in all the media around us right now. Then I reread the Gospel lesson for this morning, and knew that it was time to hear our Lord’s words in the context of real life; in the context of disaster; in the context of deepest hurt, anger, and hate. 

In our Gospel lesson from Matthew this morning, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving slave to remind his followers that God forgives our sins -- but only if we forgive those who sin against us. In the parable, a king tortures a slave who refuses to show mercy to a fellow slave, and Jesus promises, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." Is that really possible? In the context of 9-11, what do we do with this teaching? It raises questions.

* Ten years after the 9-11 attack, have we forgiven those who sinned against us?

* What does forgiveness mean in the context of war or military action?

* Where is the link between our willingness to forgive and the forgiveness we hope to receive from God?

* How can we pursue forgiveness with those who have done violence to us; not just in this case, but anytime?

Yet, we are Christians, and forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message, of Christ’s message. Jesus not only forgave others, but challenges us, his followers to forgive; not just seven times but 77 times. Forgiveness is never easy, but most especially when we are faced with something as awful as 9-11, or any violence that changes our lives. So how do we even consider it in this context. It might help if we first remember that it is God who forgives sin and wrongdoing. And when we forgive, our forgiveness is actually a participation in God's larger act of forgiveness. That larger picture can help. 

Then there’s this. Whenever we are faced by the challenge to forgive, it is always a good idea to consider our Lord upon the Cross. Recall that the first word of Jesus on the cross is about forgiveness: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). There is something to notice here; something we don’t often mention when we speak of it, but that could be most helpful to us right now. We often read this as Jesus forgiving his executioners, but in actual fact, Jesus is calling on God, his Father, to forgive them. Jesus is still in the midst of his suffering. He cannot forgive his executioners for something they have not yet completed, something they are still carrying out. But he can call on his Father to forgive.

We can think of those who suffered directly, the first responders, the families who lost loved ones, the friends who lost friends. In many ways, for these, the injury continues still; first responders in debilitating illness and haunted dreams, others in the continuing emptiness of dear one’s lives lost. How can they participate in God’s forgiveness? In the same way, that we can, by asking God to forgive those who sin against us, "for they do not know what they are doing." In prayer, we can lift up those who have hurt us terribly, and trust God to include them in an act of forgiveness that is beyond our abilities as hurt and suffering human beings.

Is there anything else we can do to pursue our Lord’s teaching this morning; to strive for healing and forgiveness? This week, I received a mailing from The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, rector of Trinity Church in New York City. I share his call on this very question this day with you. 

First, he says, remember to love. This is Trinity’s parish theme for the tenth anniversary. Maybe there is no greater advice. The horrific nature of the attacks had their counterpart that day in the messages that were spoken person to person, prayed, and heard by God. Remember to love; every day.

Second, make it not a day, but a decade. Let’s try to make this anniversary more like a season and not just a day. Let’s look back ten years and remember, But, let’s also look ahead ten years, considering how we might make the world better; remembering that as God loves us and forgives us, so too do we love and forgive.

Third, practice forgiveness. Remember to forgive (and remember that you are forgiven). When we remember that we are forgiven by God, we pass that forgiveness along to others. 

Fourth, find the spiritual response. Cooper writes, “In Trinity Church, just after the first tower fell, the congregation that had gathered there did something remarkable; they read the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. A spiritual response to physical violence, and as powerful-more so- than any physical violence.”

Fifth, be part of the story. Millions of people visit St. Paul’s Chapel every year, near Ground Zero. Why do you think they come there? Perhaps to be part of the story they have heard about—the story of the best of humanity emerging after we all saw the worst of humanity. I knew some of the seminarians, now priests and deacons who worked there around the clock with other volunteers, helping the physically and spiritually wounded at Ground Zero. The story of volunteers giving their time and energy to those who need it, whoever they may be, is a Christian story; a story the Church has been telling for ages. A story we can be part of and tell.

Finally, Go help. Cooper writes, “Why did so many volunteer at St. Paul’s? Because we heard the whisperings—God loves you, you are forgiven—and the call to action that results: go help.” 

Let us, right now, make the spiritual response. Let us together recite our Lord’s words from the Beatitudes. You’ll find them in your bulletin. 

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3-14

Again, make it not a day, but a decade. Bring those whisperings of God’s love and forgiveness to others as we journey on together. Voice them for all to hear. Carry the Lord’s words into the world around you every day, and speak them out loud, “God loves you! You are forgiven!”

< Back to the Sermon Index