September 11, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35 Psalm 103:1-13
1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-21 2nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12
We come to this house of worship because we are incomplete. There is something necessary in our lives to help make us whole. We need each other. We need God. We need to mend our relationships. We need to learn from our mistakes and find a better way to live. We come here because, as it says in the letter to the Romans this morning, “We do not live to ourselves.” Sometimes we realize this when we make a mistake or have an argument with someone. Sometimes we realize it when we get sick or can’t do all the things we’ve done before on our own. And sometimes we realize it during a time of national disaster and mourning, such as on September 11, 2001.
That day affected us all in a different way, yet that day did affect us all. We were going about our usual business, self-sufficient in our own little worlds, living for ourselves, satisfying our own desires, oblivious to others in a lot of ways—to our neighbors down the street, and to our neighbors around the world and how we might be impacting them.
Suddenly there was no business as usual anymore. Our world changed that day. We realized there was some broken relationship that we weren’t aware of. Someone wanted to hurt us and we didn’t know why. We were suddenly alert to the person driving next to us, tears running down their faces, the crowd glued to the television screen in the hospital lobby, the person desperately trying to get through on the phone to New York. We were seeing the panic, the sadness, the anger in each other’s eyes. We were suddenly aware of each other and that we couldn’t and didn’t live unto ourselves, like we thought.
Joseph’s brothers thought they lived unto themselves. They didn’t think they’d ever see Joseph again after selling him into slavery and lying to their dad he’d been eaten by wild animals. They just wanted him out of the picture out of jealousy. They did whatever they want. Then the famine hit and they realized they don’t live unto themselves. They need others to get by in life. They needed the grain that Egypt could provide. And they realized even more that they don’t live unto themselves when they went to ask for help and who shows up to talk to them but their own brother they sold down the river years before. They actually needed him, the one they had sought to destroy. They suddenly realized that all things are interconnected. None of us is an island.
The servant of the king in this morning’s parable was living life unto himself. How else do you accumulate billions of dollars worth of debt? Suddenly the King comes to collect and the servant realizes that he needs the king’s mercy. He is responsible to someone else. So he begs for that mercy from the king, who forgives the debt and forgives him and releases him. He sees his interconnectedness with those who can do something for him, and is willing to accept their help and their relationship, yet he is willing to destroy the life of someone more vulnerable than he is, rather than show that same mercy and connectedness with another.
I did not pick the readings for this Sunday, but if I were going to pick them, I don’t know if I would be so bold as to pick these. To advocate forgiveness and mercy on September 11 is asking a lot. But I am not asking that. These texts were picked many years before September 11, 2001 came about and will be texts that are used on this particular Sunday every third year for many more to come. So you could say that the Holy Spirit had something to do with it.
God is the one telling us to forgive. Was God ever so wronged as we were on 9/11 that God could give us such a mandate? Did we ever owe God so great a debt as a billion dollars?
The truth is, we act as if we are entitled to everything God has let us borrow. We take it for granted that God will continue to lend it to us when we abuse it and damage it and hurt other people around us. We put ourselves in the place of God, saying we earned this or that privilege we have, acting as if we made it all by ourselves, and denying our relationship with God and each other. How often do we say, “My house,” “my car,” “my church,” “my yard,” “my children?” And we do think of them as our own, but they are really gifts from God that we get to borrow for a little while and care for.
Of course God is the one who should get the credit for every good thing we have—for every bite we eat, for the roof over our heads, for our family and friends and health and pets and clean water to drink and all our blessings. God didn’t have to give us all this. God certainly has reason to deny connection and relationship with us—we’ve screwed it up millions of times. We’ve turned our backs on God and God’s friends. We’ve wasted what God has given us and ruined it. We’ve taken it for granted and taken credit for us. And when God came to be among us and try out our life, we nailed God to the cross and killed him. So yes, God has been as wronged as we have and more and yes we owe God more than a billion dollars. And God has forgiven us all of it. Every last cent is erased from the record. It is an amazing sense of relief to know that it won’t be held against us. We’ve still got that relationship. We can still go to God and sit on God’s lap and receive that love and comfort and help God’s always given us.
So we have the choice of how to respond. I always say this about a time of grieving for a family and maybe it is the same for a congregation or a country, “It can bring out the best in people, or it can bring out the worst.” We have a choice to respond with anger and vengeance and retaliation. We can decide it happened because “They hate our freedom.” We can kill and destroy and try to make this world better through those means.
But God says that never works. When people came to kill his Son, Jesus, one of the disciples cut off the ear of one of the guards in the garden of Gethsemane. But Jesus stopped him. Jesus went without resistance. When we nailed him to the cross and left him to die and mocked him, he did not return violence for violence.
God teaches us the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, relationship. Forgiveness is a sticky subject. It doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. Instead it means remembering so that we can learn from it. It doesn’t mean simply pronouncing forgiveness without examining the situation. Jesus says, “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That doesn’t just happen overnight.
Forgiveness is a process of learning from the other person, understanding what brought them to that point. It means claiming your own part in the situation—taking responsibility for the brokenness that occurred and for the healing that can occur with God’s help. It means moving forward in a different way than before, learning from this terrible tragedy what to do differently in the future.
Many of the results from September 11, 2001 have been anger and retaliation. Not only has our country become involved in several wars in which many innocent people have died and one could argue that the economy suffered greatly as a result of these wars, a mosque in our own state was bombed, Arab Americans have been singled out and threatened, kept from flying, and held without charges. We continue as a country and individuals to meet violence with violence.
I often wonder, what can I really do about it? I feel helpless at the same time that I feel responsible. Sometimes I wonder if it is up to me to do the forgiving or leave that up to others who lost loved ones or suffer from respiratory illnesses from the cleanup. In some ways, we aren’t capable of such forgiveness as Jesus commands. When we realize this is another way we fall short, may that turn us back to God to do the forgiving for us and soften our hearts toward one another.
Whether we can forgive all or part or none of these wrongs, there are ways we can become better informed about why these attacks happened. We can read about other perspectives. We can pay attention to news that is more than just sound bites of what we like to hear, but digs deeper to hear people’s stories. We can try to understand. We can sit down with an Arab American or invite a Muslim person to come to talk to our adult forum class as we have in the past. We can examine our purchases or our stock portfolios to see if we are supporting companies that support the war. And we can take actions of nonviolence in all areas of our lives, toward the earth and in our advocacy work and as we volunteer to empower people to have options other than violence.
This kind of tragedy can also bring out the best in us and in some ways it has done that, as well. On that day we found ways to reach out to those around us. Strangers who hadn’t been to church in ages, or maybe even ever, gathered in houses of worship to pray together. Many of us contacted our loved ones that day and told them how much we loved them. Maybe we don’t take so much for granted anymore—all the gifts we have from God, how much we owe God and those around us for their love and support. And if we can begin to see our neighbors around the world as family, too, and be in relationship with those we see as so different from us, we won’t be living unto ourselves but for each other, as God hopes we would do.
Although God did not cause the events of September 11, God can make something good out of it and build a world where we all understand our relationship to God and one another and are generous and loving toward all our brothers and sisters around the world.