Sunday, September 11, 2011

Offering forgiveness...Sermon for Year A Proper 19

I think we are all aware that today is September 11th.
It is ten years after this country was rocked by vicious attacks--
on the World Trade Center Towers, on the Pentagon
and on a plane that was purposefully crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

We have placed white hangings on the altar
instead of the green for the season of Pentecost
because white is the color we use for burial services--
but more importantly for Easter--resurrection.

In front of the altar this morning is a table with candles
to remind us that each person in this world
is a light.
Lighting a candle is a way we remember.
We remember a person or a day or some thing done or left undone.

On the table behind the candles is a block print by artist Margaret Parker.
It is one of the block prints she created for a book she did with biblical scholar Ellen Davis
about the book of Ruth.
This print gives us a visual image of what grief looks like.
It gives us a visceral image of what grief feels like.

September 11th is a day that all of us--
if we were alive and aware of that day ten years ago--
probably remember exactly where we were when we heard the news.

We have had other days similar to this.
December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor Day.
My father was there--asleep in his army barracks on Oahu when the attack began.
December 7th never just slipped by in our family.

November 22, 1963--the day President Kennedy was shot.
I was in 8th grade. In Civics class.
I remember my teacher was called into the hallway
and she came back in crying
and then our principal spoke to us over the speaker
in all the classrooms
We were told the news and we were told to go to our lockers and go home.

We all have days in our own individual lives
that are forever sealed on our minds and hearts
but there are certain dates
that entire nations share.
September 11, 2001 is one of those dates.

Take a minute and remember where you were
and whom you were with that morning.

I was in seminary, sitting in the dining hall after chapel,
having a cup of coffee with two friends.

Another friend, Ken Brannon who was from New York,
came over to our table and said,
“A plane has flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.”

At first I thought he was kidding,
But when I saw the look on his face, I knew it was no joke.

I imagined a small plane, off course, lost--
crashing into one of the towers.
There is no way my imagination could grasp
what had really happened.
Just as we were about to ask Ken for more details,
the entire building where we sat violently shook.
I mean the windows rattled as if they were going to pop from their frames.

We did not know it at that moment,
but that moment was when the plane crashed into the Pentagon--
which is about a mile from the Seminary.

Like much of this country--and much of the world--
we would soon hear--and see--the details of this tragedy unfold.

Yes, today is the 13th Sunday after the Day of Pentecost,
but today, this is a day of solemn remembrance.

On this day we remember those who perished ten years ago:

+ United Airlines Flight 93, Shanksville, Pennsylvania: 40 souls.

+ American Airlines Flight 77, Arlington, Virginia: 59 souls.

+ The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia: 125 souls.

+ United Airlines Flight 175, New York, New York: 60 souls.

+ American Airlines Flight 11, New York, New York: 87 souls.

+ The World Trade Center, New York, New York: 2,606 souls.

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives to these terrorists attacks.
The victims were people of many different faith traditions, nationalities and professions.

It was a tragedy beyond the scope of which any of us could have imagined before that day.

We also remember today those who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began:

+ Those fighting in our American troops and our Coalition troops: 7,000 souls
+ Afghan and Iraqi troop members, civilians, contractors and journalists: over 900,000 souls

The death toll that began on September 11th now totals over one million souls.

Priests and preachers and lay ministers,
musicians and congregations
throughout the United States today
will acknowledge September 11 in their sermons,
their liturgies, their prayers and their music.

We are no different here at St. John’s.
This is a day of solemn remembrance.
Our challenge as Christians is to also help this become a day of forgiveness.
September 11 is not a specified day in our liturgical calendar.
When I began to read the scripture readings for this Sunday--
the same readings we read every third year for Proper 19--
I was somewhat stunned.
We have on this day
a gospel reading, a teaching by Jesus,
about forgiveness.
How ironic and profound
that on this day,
the gospel is about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is sometimes a very uncomfortable focal point
for those of us called to be as followers of Christ.

Peter is trying to be very magnanimous,
almost as if he is trying to impress Jesus
with how many times he thinks we should offer forgiveness--
So what do you say Jesus,
should we forgive someone SEVEN times?

Peter thinks he is going way over the top.
Jesus no doubt shocks Peter and everyone else when he says,
Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy seven times.

The parable that then follows
serves to remind all of us
that we ourselves have been forgiven so much and so many times
that we too must learn and try to be generous
in forgiving others.

This gospel calls us to forgive those
who did horrible evil to thousands of people
on September 11th.

Not just the evil done to those who died that day and in the weeks that followed,
but the evil done to all the families and friends
who still grieve and suffer.
I can guarantee that their pain is as real and harsh
as it was on that day ten years ago.

To forgive those who have harmed us
or harmed those we love is very very difficult.
Yet forgiving is precisely what Jesus is calling us to do.

Forgiveness is not an optional “if you choose to accept this assignment”
for us as Christians.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of our faith,
because love and forgiveness are bound together.

It may be the most difficult thing Jesus asks of us.
I cannot imagine there is any person here today
who has not been hurt or victimized or suffered
at the hands of someone else.
Perhaps it was just a small slight--but still one that stung deeply.
Perhaps it was a childhood of abuse and inflicted pain
by someone who was stronger or older or more powerful.
Perhaps it was a betrayal by someone you trusted
or it was a deliberate attack by someone you didn’t even know.
Perhaps it was losing someone you loved
because of the carelessness or foolishness or incompetence
or maliciousness of someone--
someone who may still be walking around alive today.

Sometimes I wonder if Jesus selected such a high number--
“seventy seven”-
because he knew how much practice we were going to need.
Forgive seventy-seven times
and perhaps we will do it automatically on the 78th time.

Why is forgiveness so difficult?
Anger comes so much more quickly.
Revenge is so much easier to fantasize and romanticize.

We remember our hurts--
we hold on to them and number them
and keep them ever handy
to bring up again and again--
if only to ourselves.

But what we need to nurture is forgiveness.

What we need to remember
are the times when we needed forgiveness and received it.
In abundance.

The times when we hurt someone.
The occasions when we spoke harshly or acted thoughtlessly.
The times when we stood silently by as other people were hurt.

We need to remember all the wrong we have done
and the times we have been forgiven
for our thoughtlessness or our cruelty or our ignorance.

September 11, 2001.
It is ten years ago
yet the pain for many is still so fresh.
All the deaths that have followed in the wars that have followed and continue--
all the pain that surrounds each of those deaths.
People are not statistics.
They are human beings.
Lives that matter--to other people--and to God.

There is another September day etched in the minds of some.
September 16, 1963.
Perhaps because it happened almost fifty years ago it is easier to talk about.
A bomb shattered the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Four little girls who had come to Sunday school that morning were killed.
Many were injured and the church was damaged.
Word of this tragedy spread around the world.

In Cardiff, Wales,
children began to collect money
to help replace the church’s shattered stained glass windows.

John Petts, a Welsh artist, offered to donate his services
to create a window for the church.
A local newspaper editor
launched a campaign to raise money for the venture.
They decided the maximum donation
would be half a crown (about 30 cents at the time)
because they really wanted the window to come from the people of Wales, and not just from a few individuals.

If you go to Birmingham to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church today,
and stand at the pulpit,
looking at the back wall of the sanctuary,
you will see this beautiful stained glass window.
Just as when we look towards the back of the church here at St. John's.

The light filters through the brightly colored glass
and the light touches--and blesses--
all who worship there.
At the center of the window at the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church there is a large figure of Jesus
with his arms widely outstretched.
His right hand pushes away hatred and injustice.
His left hand reaches out and offers forgiveness.

Underneath the figure of Jesus, the artist, John Petts, etched these words:
You do it to me.
You do it to me.

The people of Wales did not think about the differences
between themselves and the members of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church.
They thought about all they shared in common.
They wanted to take some of the pain and sorrow of those families
and give them something beautiful to help them heal,
to show them they cared,
to show that they understood that each one of those four little girls mattered.

Today memorials are being dedicated at Ground Zero.
A symbol of the pain and sorrow and loss--
a symbol that we care,
that we know that each person matters in this world.

Not just in the United States of America that we so dearly love--
but each person matters in the entire world, in God’s world.

We cannot control what others may do to us,
but we can choose what we do to others.
Hatred and injustice need to be pushed away--
but forgiveness must simultaneously be offered
and given away generously.
What we do to others is no different
than what we do to Jesus.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

As many as seven times?
Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.


Tim Finan said...

You have taken a momentous event in our lives and challenged us not just to mourn, to remember, to ponder, but to reflect on forgiveneness. God bless YOU!

Tom Eshelman said...

This was an amazing sermon and I am glad I got to read it in person but it still reads almost as powerful as it was preached. Combine that with the lighting of the smbolic candles and the long moment of silence and this was a truly remarkable Sunday at St. John's Asheville NC>

Tom Eshelman said...

Hmmm that was supposed to read "hear it in person" not read it in person.

Susan C Fisher said...

Thank you Jeanne for so many things. Yes, hatred and injustice need to be pushed away. I tried to push them a little today. The audio of the debate on the marriage amendment will be in the audio (archives) at shortly. But, we're still a little ways away from the day when GLBTQ persons will be treated as equals with all the same basic rights and privileges as other human beings. Ugh.. I wish I could have been with you all yesterday, but thank you for posting. I went directly to your sermon after the debate today.

Ben Robertson said...

This is a powerful sermon Jeanne. Thank you so much.