I found Sunday’s church service to be a profoundly spiritual event. We had a Service of Remembrance within our Eucharist service.
The service started with words written by Bishop Shannon Johnston, of Virginia:
“We remember all whose lives were changed ten years ago on September 11, bless our remembrance and bless our prayers as we come before you.”
Bishop Shannon’s prayers included those who found themselves in the midst of the attacks: the victims, those who responded directly in the moment, and those who offered their support and prayers. They also included prayers “for innocent people who were treated with hatred or suspicion because of their religion or nationality,” as well as “for this citizenry of many nationalities, races and religions.”
Our collect prayer came from Bishop Griswold:
God the compassionate one, whose loving care extends to all of the world, we remember this day your children of many nations and many faiths whose lives were cut short by the fierce flames of anger and hatred. Console those who continue to suffer and grieve, and give them comfort and hope as they look to the future. Out of what we have endured, give us the grace to examine our relationships with those who perceive us as the enemy, and show our leaders the way to use our power to serve the good of all for the healing of the nations.
(Note: both of these were made available by Church Publishing)
We then sang In Christ there is no East or West, read the Gospel for the day, and then I began my sermon. I spoke without a text...only a few notes. This is my best at recalling the sermon:
In Christ there is no East or West is my favorite hymn. I love its vision: “One great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”
I have a “phantom memory” of this hymn, by which I mean that I have a remembrance concerning this hymn that actually did not happen.
The powerful movie Places in the Heart, set in 1935 Texas, begins with the small town sheriff responding to gunshots. Wiley, a young African American boy, has been drinking and firing off a gun. The sheriff calls Wiley by name, who then tosses the bottle in the air and shoots at it a few times till the gun misfires. Playfully, Wiley points the gun at the sheriff and pulls the trigger, and is stunned when the gun goes off.
The sheriff dies, and the boy is lynched.
The movie tells the story of the sheriff’s wife Edna as she fights to hold on to her farm, helped by a African American drifter named Moze, and a discarded blind war hero named Will.
The movie is full of complicated brokenness as well as heartwarming hope in humanity. They succeed in making it though the season, but Moze is driven to leave after a confrontation with town-members in Klan garb. Edna tells him that their success was his accomplishment, and that he should never forget this.
The final scene was church on Sunday morning: and communion is passed throughout the congregation as a hymn is sung.
(This is my phantom memory: I remember In Christ there is no East or West. In reality, the hymn was In the Garden. They SHOULD have used East or West!)
The shock of this scene, however, is who is present: somehow EVERYONE is there together in the passing of communion: protagonists and antagonists, those present and absent (including Moze), and even the dead. The movie ends with Wiley passing communion to Sheriff Royce, the man he shot and killed, with the words “Peace of God.”
Somehow, all are forgiven.
In looking at the Gospel today (Matthew 18:21-35), I can’t say I’m happy to see a complicated passage on forgiveness. Because, if I’m honest with myself, there are plenty of people concerning 9-11...from those who planned and executed the attacks, to those who responded with self-serving violence...who I simply don’t want to forgive.
Bishop Desmond Tutu says that “Forgiveness is an absolute necessity for continued human existence. Without forgiveness, there's no future.”
So whether I want to or not, I have to take forgiveness seriously...
The Gospel passage starts with Peter saying “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Those of you may remember a few weeks ago when I pointed out the Gospel writer’s use of the word “church”. There was no “church” during Jesus’ ministry, but after his life, his followers had to figure out how they would live in community together. The Gospel writer is addressing the way church of his time should treat each other.
There are a number of possibilities. What is most likely is that, in the living out of Jesus’ general teaching to forgive others as necessary, that the church used “seven times” as an example. (Perhaps Jesus had said this in a conversation about forgiveness.) Some took this literally, keeping tabs on the number of times someone messed up and required forgiveness. The spirit of forgiving as needed to restore relationship was being lost. Matthew’s dialogue has Jesus say “seventy-seven times” to illustrate the understanding, and not as the new literal number.
What follows, however, is a complicated story from Jesus about a king and his slaves.
There are those in the church who see this as a simple allegorical story: God is the king, we are the slaves. God’s tenedncy is to forgive, so long as we forgive others the same way. If we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us.
The biggest problem I have with this understanding is that it doesn’t fit the premise. The story does not in any way illustrate forgiving multiple times. So perhaps there is another way to understand it.
The story begins with a king settling accounts with his slaves. One owes him ten thousand talents, and the king is going to have him sold with his family and possessions. The slave pleads “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
The intent may be honest, but it’s not going to happen. The sum has spiraled too out of control. There is no way for the slave to ever truly “pay what he’s owes.”
The king, however, has pity. Having the power to do so, he forgives the debt entirely.
This slave turns around and encounters someone else who owes him money: a hundred denarii, an attainable amount. Despite the same words of pleading, he has him thrown in prison.
We do not know why this first slave, forgiven by the king, fails to do the same for his fellow slave. Maybe it is his understanding of “the real world”: a king with abundance has the luxury to forgive, but my survival depends on doing what I need to do...seizing by the throat and payment before someone can be released. He is either unwilling or unable to see himself in the position of having the power to forgive. It is tragic that the first slave cannot break free of his understandings.
In comes the forgotten characters: fellow slaves, witnessing this event, demand action. It is worth noting that their distress leads to the first slave being condemned, NOT necessarily to the second slave being released. There is the subtle reality that the bystanders are more interested is seeing someone get punished rather than wrong righted. For all we know, the second slave remain in prison: after all, he still owes a debt...
Finally, we return to the king, who originally chose to forgave. Now, upon hearing that the person he forgave did not live up to expectations, he acts in anger and hands over a man to be tortured.
I don’t think this represents God. Instead, the king illustrates how easy it is for one in the position of power (in this case, the ability to forgive) to feel justified in resorting to violence instead of forgiveness.
I ask you: who in this story is not poisoned? Everyone is damaged in the end. All fail to live up to the vision of God and the way things could be.
I believe that Jesus, among other things, was an extraordinary storyteller. I think he saw the complexities of human beings and their interactions with one another, and weaved a powerful narrative to illustrate that the kingdom of heaven (which refers to how we are to live our lives) is ultimately full of people who struggle to forgive.
Coming back to today’s anniversary, I am reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, 10 years is not that much time. We still have time to determine what kind of people we will ultimately be post September 11th, 2001.
It occurred to me that it has been almost 100 years since the event that came to be known as “The war to end all wars”. I have no wish to judge our actions from that time, except to observe that it now seems clear that you can’t end war thorough war.
I feel strongly that the same is true about a war on terror. It doesn’t work either...which leads us back to forgiveness.
What if we, as Deacon Paul observed the other week, reacted not with bullets, but with food, clothing, shelter, and clean water? What if we sought to make our legacy of September 11th be a new age of compassion and solidarity: that out of the ashes of destruction comes not an age dominated by control and fear, but one of new life?
What could we do together if we found the way to forgive?