Finding Forgiveness in the Dust

A sermon for September 11, 2011

(Proper 19a: Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35)

Chris Young arrived early at the World Trade Center that beautiful Tuesday morning in September.  He was a struggling actor earning money as an office temp, as so many struggling actors do. He had been called to a morning meeting on the 99th Floor of 1 World Trade, but it turned out his boss didn’t need him after all, so he was sent home almost the minute he arrived.  He boarded an elevator headed for the lobby at around 8:40.  The elevator was empty.  Everyone else at that time of day was heading up.

Alone, Chris had no awareness of the events that began to transpire around him.  All he knew that his elevator suddenly stopped just feet from the lobby.  Try as he might to open the door and press alarm buttons, nothing worked.  He was stuck there for over an hour.  Water began trickling down into the elevator car from somewhere above, water that for some reason smelled of fuel.  He heard distant sirens.  He felt the earthquake of the south tower collapsing, but again he couldn’t conceive what might be happening outside those elevator doors.  Dust began to rain down on him from above, and then smoke rose from beneath.

Only when the power failed did his elevator suddenly drop the few extra feet to the lobby.  The doors opened automatically, and he emerged into the nightmare unfolding before his eyes.  He was completely disoriented.  He said, “It didn’t seem like the world I left.”  Chris made it only a few hundred feet outside of the north tower lobby when the building collapsed behind him.

On that morning, many of us felt as disoriented as Chris did emerging from that elevator car, stepping into a world unlike the one we knew before.  All our lives were changed in those 102 minutes.  That horrible moment when we suddenly realized that this was not an accident.  Our nation was under attack.

In the days following the attacks, our individual reactions began to take on different forms.  For some, anger turned to a burning passion for revenge.  Others prayed for peace.  Fear, denial, compassion: emotions ran the gamut.  For most, there was just sorrow.

I recall very clearly the next Sunday at the parish in Pittsburgh where I was doing my field study as a seminarian.  Bill, one of our stalwart members and a veteran of World War II, asked if he could carry the American flag as part of the procession.  The rector, also named Scott, agreed.  With tears streaming, Bill carried the flag up the aisle.  We sang patriotic hymns.  Scott’s sermon was a heartfelt reflection on all the events that had shaken us so deeply as a people.  We were still in shock.

At the end of the service, when I, as the deacon, was ready to give the dismissal, I asked the rector if I could lead the congregation in a few prayers.  Again, he agreed.  The prayer that had been gnawing at me that morning all through the service is simply called, “For our Enemies”.  O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

On that morning, that parish family, along with so many other Christians who had gathered to worship in America’s churches, faced the paradox that often faces us in this world.  We are Americans.  We are Christians.  What does that mean for us on mornings like September 11th?  Our country was attacked.  Our churches were full.  What did we cry out to God from the depths of our hearts?  Did we want revenge?  Many did.  The outrage was as visceral, Bill told me, as when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  Many prayed, “Smite our enemies, O God!”  But what other prayers rose up in those days?  There were prayers laced with doubt.  Why did you allow this, God?  Why didn’t you stop it?  Where were you?  There were also prayers for peace and reconciliation, and yes, even prayers of forgiveness went up alongside those prayers for vengeance.

We, American Christians were a conflicted people in this changed country of ours.

The media sure told us how to feel.  September 11th was quickly branded and marketed and used by various groups and individuals for their own ends.  It seemed like everyone was ready to go to war.  To question that sentiment seemed almost treasonous, or at least unpatriotic.  What do we do when our country tells us one thing, but our faith tells us another?

Are we any less conflicted this morning, as a church or as a country?  The message of the Gospel remains the same as it was on September 10th: forgive.  Jesus doesn’t leave us any other option.  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Even from the cross, Jesus’ words were not a call for revenge but instead unconditional forgiveness.

We often forget that the world Jesus inhabited was one full of “terrorism.”  They had been under Roman occupation since before Jesus was born.  The enemy was “in charge,” with an unjust and corrupt government oppressing the people.  Jesus would die at the hands of this unjust occupying force and corrupt religious leaders as well.  His response was to ask God to forgive them, even though they did not know they needed to be forgiven.

Forgiveness can seem so counter-intuitive in many ways.  It just doesn’t make sense to us.  We want revenge.  Anger feels good sometimes.  We want an eye for an eye.  We want to be ones who have the power, the last word.  We want God to destroy our enemies just like the Egyptian army.  And yet, we still gather each week to ask God’s forgiveness, to seek peace with God and with our neighbors.  Forgiveness, ultimately, is a choice, not an emotion.  It is an act of our wills just as much as raising our voices in song or bending our knees at the altar rail.  It is a choice we make every day: to forgive.

Even ten years later, not all of us are there.  Some of us have good days and then turn around and struggle with hatred and the desire for vengeance all over again.  This is why we Christians need each other so much.  God has called us not live in isolation, but in community.  We are called then to strengthen and encourage each other, with no one left out.  The reading from Romans this morning is a snapshot of a Christian community struggling with members who aren’t all at the same place.  Their fights were over purity laws and religious observances, but Paul’s message to them is as true today as ever, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Why do you despise your brother or sister?”

We must not be divided, despite our differences.  The moment when we exchange the peace is not simply a time to shake hands and meet your neighbor.  It is a moment of reconciliation in this church family.  We are acting out, even if just for a brief moment, the message of the Gospel to be at peace with one another.  The celebrant has just proclaimed God’s forgiveness, offered to us in Christ Jesus.  Then the focus turns from the vertical to the horizontal.  Now that you’ve been forgiven, embrace your brothers and sisters in peace.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Does that exclude anyone?  It is only the people we like.

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded with a parable, the hero of which was a Samaritan, the “good neighbor” was the most unlikely person imaginable.

Now, of course, there are those who seek to destroy community, whether they are terrorists hijacking planes or troubled people who love to stir up trouble in their local church.  We must not let either of these destroyers win.  Pursue peace.  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  Live the lives of the true Children of God – with an open hand, not a clenched fist.

A quote has been making its way around Facebook as things do in this socially networked world we live in.  No doubt many Episcopalians will also be hearing these words this morning.  In a 1998 Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “When you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change. Nobody knows how to act anymore, because forgiveness is an act of transformation. It does not offer the adrenaline rush of anger, nor the feeling of power that comes from a well-established resentment. It is a quiet revolution, as easy to miss as a fist uncurling to become an open hand, but it changes people in ways anger only wishes it could.”

Is forgiving easy?  No.  Do we always feel like it?  Certainly not.  Does that let us off the hook?  Nope.

Just feet from the World Trade Center site stands St. Paul’s Chapel, an Episcopal church dating back to 1766.  Founded as a “chapel of ease” by nearby Trinity Wall Street, for most of its life, St. Paul’s has been the smaller, quainter worship space of the two.  It survived September 11th without even one broken window.  There is an iconic photo of the huge clouds of dust kicked-up by the collapse of the north tower.  The spire of St. Paul’s is clearly visible, standing, as it were, against the onslaught of that cloud.

In the months following September 11th, St. Paul’s became a haven for rescue workers sifting through the rubble, at first looking for survivors and then victims.  From the start, St. Paul’s identity was as a place of healing, “a hospital for so many souls,” as one parishioner put it.  It was never business as usual after that day, but the life and history of that parish had lead it to that point in time, had prepared it to truly become a chapel of ease on the edge of the abyss.

This is the challenge all families of faith face.  Can we offer something truly different when the world comes crashing down?  Can we be the Body of Christ, broken and given to the world, when the world around us is bent on revenge, when the country we love rejects the very idea of forgiveness?  We must.  This is our calling.  This is our destiny.  And we must remain faithful to this calling, until as that prayer says, we all stand reconciled before God.  Amen.

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