Thursday, September 11, 2008
I preached this sermon on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 (which happened to fall on a Sunday). On this seventh anniversary of that terrible day, I post a revised version of it here in honor of both the living and the dead who suffered that day, in thanksgiving for the heroic and selfless sacrifices of firefighters, police officers, EMTs and paramedics (and countless others), and in the conviction that the Good News of Jesus Christ shines a light of hope that this world’s darkness can never overcome.
Book of Common Prayer lectionary, Year A, Proper 19
Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:5-12; Matthew 18:21-35
During the course of a year, few days are widely associated with extraordinary events. It's true that we have our personal and family remembrances, including birthdays and anniversaries. And as a nation, we have holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. But as important as all of those days are, they don’t pack quite the emotional punch of 9/11.
September 11, 2001 will always be the day when America was attacked. It will always be the day when 3,000 people died. And it will always be the day that set off a series of events that, for both good and ill, are shaping the course of world history. In the four years that have elapsed since that awful day, so much has changed. And paradoxically, so much has remained the same.
We continue to grapple with the same question: Why do some people in this world hate us so much that they’re willing to kill thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and themselves in the process? Many answers have been given to that question – some simple, some complex. But none of them proves satisfactory, for none of them can heal the wounds inflicted by 9/11 on our nation’s soul.
As we remember the awful events of this day four years ago, a remembrance made so much heavier by one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history, we hear God’s Word speaking to us through the words of Holy Scripture. And those words appointed for this particular seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost speak against anger, wrath, and vengeance. And they speak for forgiveness.
I think it’s fair to say that today’s word of the Lord is a dissonant word. It’s a hard word. And perhaps for some of us, it’s a word we’d rather not hear. Even after four years, to warn against anger and to counsel forgiveness in the face of terrorism seems almost ridiculous if not cruel.
Is it really possible or even desirable to forsake anger and wrath in the face of such malevolence? Is it really possible or even desirable to forgive those who perpetrate such unspeakably vicious actions?
Those are not merely philosophical questions. They’re as real as the pain and loss that friends and relatives of the 9/11 dead continue to feel to this very day.
And yet, here we find ourselves in church saying, “Thanks be to God” after the Old Testament warning against anger and vengeance, and then standing in reverence and praising Christ for telling us that his followers cannot set limits to the scope of forgiveness.
From the Sermon on the Mount to the crucifixion, Jesus consistently teaches our responsibility for showing mercy and practicing forgiveness, even and especially towards our enemies. It’s what Jesus did. And in our baptisms, it’s what we promise to do, too.
But let’s face it. Few of us are naturally disposed to be as generous as Jesus. It’s much easier to nurse grudges and harbor resentments. And often for reasons that seem perfectly justifiable.
But we Christians are called to a higher standard. It’s a standard we find in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Matthew 5:48 REB). Part and parcel of that boundless goodness is found in Jesus’ willingness to forgive even those who tortured and crucified him.
Part of the problem with all of this is the misconception about forgiveness in our culture. We’ve all heard the saying, “Forgive and forget.” That’s often taken to mean that forgiveness is the same thing as forgetting. Well, that’s hogwash! And besides, in the case of 9/11, forgetting would be morally wrong.
Christian forgiveness is not about forgetting. Christian forgiveness is about how we remember.
Remembering is central to what we Christians are all about. That’s why we gather every Sunday. We gather to remember. We gather to remember who God is: the One who creates and loves us, who calls us into relationship with Him, and who expects us to treat others with love and justice. We gather to remember who we are: creatures made in God’s image who have fallen into sin and death, and who too often choose to continue in the way of sin and death. We gather to remember the sorrows and the joys of our world, our community, our church, and our lives. We gather to remember the cruel, savage death by crucifixion of a first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. And we gather to remember the resurrection of that same Jesus from the grave.
The key to forgiving past acts of grievous wrong is the context in which we remember them. If we were to remember 9/11 in the context of an angry, vindictive mob, that would shape us in a particular way. But that’s not what we’re doing, is it? No, today we remember 9/11 in the context of Christian worship. We remember 9/11 in the company of the baptized as we hear God’s Word in scripture and give thanks for Christ’s death and resurrection by celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And so we remember 9/11 in the shadow of the cross and through the open door of the empty tomb.
It’s sometimes said that the world changed on September 11, 2001. Viewed through the lens of the New Testament, that statement is false. The world did not change on a September day in 2001. The world changed almost 2,000 years ago, sometime around the year 33 A.D., when Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day.
As Christians, it is imperative that we remember what happened on 9/11, not in the light of this or that political ideology, but in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For only in the context of the story of Jesus does the story of what happened on 9/11 have any redemptive meaning. And only in the light of the One who is the light is it even thinkable that we can find release from the oppressive weight of fear and anger and live, instead, in the newness of life that only forgiveness makes possible.
So today, we remember 9/11. We remember the airplanes crashing. We remember the towers crumbling. We remember the heroism of firefighters and police officers. We remember that resistance to terrorism is ongoing and imperative.
But we remember it all in the context of our faith. For our faith boldly and even defiantly proclaims that through the cross of Christ, God turns tragedy, death, and despair into joy and eternal life.
And so today, as we remember 9/11 in the context of Sunday – the Feast Day of the Resurrection – we join with the communion of saints around the glorious truth so resoundingly affirmed by St. John Chrysostom: “Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated!”