Does a Decade Make a Difference?
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
September 11, 2011
10th Anniversary of 9/11 Attacks
Matthew 18: 21-22 (NIV)
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Luke 6: 27-28 (NIV)
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
Have you ever been through an event so distressing that it restarted your clock? Like, for example, the year when the tornadoes hit? Or the year that your lost your home? Or maybe it was the year that your spouse died. Have you ever experienced something like that? A situation so intense that it makes you forget all the other years that had faithfully marched ahead in your life? Or maybe your heritage? Perhaps even the year you were born? We regularly mark time by the month, day, and year. It’s how we schedule meetings and date checks; it’s how we plan for the future or refer to the past. But sometimes, something happens in our lives that changes everything; an event that stops time and starts it all over again, but now in a different way.
What kind of event has the capacity to restart a person’s historical clock? Perhaps your memories include the year of the big World War or the year that the stock market crashed. Or maybe, for you, your clock hovers around that year that all the planes in America were grounded for days — when hijacked planes took down the World Trade Center in New York and penetrated the impenetrable Pentagon in DC.
At 9 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was walking into the Registrar’s office on the campus of Furman University. It was the first day of my senior year of college, and my class schedule was wrong. As I stood in the office waiting for the changes to be made, I heard a voice from a cubicle in the back, “Another plane just hit!” As the lady who helped me walked by on her way to the copier, she looked and me and said, “Did you hear that a plane flew into the World Trade Center?” Of course I hadn’t. And as the news broke that morning, I don’t think any of us could fathom it’s total impact.
When I was moving a year ago, I came across the printout of my new class schedule for Fall Semester 2001. It was dated 9/11/2001, 9:08 a.m. I kept it. That’s where I was when I heard the news of that fateful day. That was the time when everything changed. I still remember the hours, and days, and weeks that followed. The images. The words. The sense of loss and insecurity. I remember frantically trying to contact my Dad that morning as the media talked of the plants in Oak Ridge as potential targets. I remember watching the news every free moment for two weeks, longing for more information, for good news, for something that I now see couldn’t be fulfilled.
The events of 9/11 affected us all in a lot of ways, and it affected us all in different ways. In the decade that has now ensued, we have all had our own ways of reacting and responding to the attacks of that day, and many things have changed. We are still in the midst of a war that is the direct result of that day. The way we go through airport security has changed dramatically. Some have adjusted to life without a loved one. Others have been through job changes because of the widespread economic impact of that day. As a post-9/11 people, we have two choices, we can either look at the present condition of the world as the worst thing that has ever happened here, or the greatest opportunity that the church has ever had. And that’s where these words of Jesus we heard this morning come into play; in a mighty way!
Today’s Gospel Lesson from Matthew 18 propels us to wrestle with one of the most difficult practices of Christian discipleship—forgiveness! Forgiveness is a hard road to walk, but it is the way to life and life abundant. Forgiveness is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. And while revenge may seem to be much easier and more desirable, it in fact is what leads to bondage and death! Did you know that the Greek word for “forgive” means to “let loose”? It’s like a really tough knot that suddenly gives way and becomes completely untied. It’s like a dark bondage from which there is sudden release. That’s what it’s like to be forgiven. And that is what it is like to forgive as well!
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other, but forgiveness is not denying or forgetting our hurt. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, or tell ourselves that it was not really that bad, we cannot really forgive. Today, as on every September 11, we remember how awful those attacks were. But perhaps we also remember the pain and the hurt, the fear and the anger, that have changed our lives in the last decade. Forgiveness is only truly possible when we are able to acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions in our lives. And what Christ teaches us is that once we have acknowledged the hurt, we are to forgive the perpetrators. We have to make a conscious choice to release those who have wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be.
Often we do not really want to forgive someone or ask for their forgiveness, even though we know we “should.” One reason may be a desire for revenge, and that is surely true for many when we recall the events of 9/11. We want to get back at the people for what they have done to us. We may want to return the hurt by inverting the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as they have done unto us.” We may resist forgiving another because we think that the person who hurt us ought to do or say something to mend the hurt, or repay us for what we have experienced. We want to put conditions on forgiveness, probably because it is so difficult.
After Jesus teaches his disciples about how to deal with those who hurt us, Peter asks how many times he must forgive someone. “Up to seven times?” he asks Jesus. And Peter, having thought he was being very generous with this number must have been quite shocked when Jesus came back with the answer: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Which, in other words, means beyond all calculation! Whoever is keeping count has not forgiven at all, but is instead just postponing revenge! It’s like what Jesus says to his followers in the passage from Luke, “I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
And the great blessing of forgiveness is that it is a two-way street, where both the one who is forgiven as well as the one who forgives are set free. How can we, sinners saved by grace, those who owe a great debt to God but who have had that debt cancelled by Christ’s shed blood on the cross, by God so loving and forgiving us; how can we refuse to forgive others? Our hearts are either open or closed to God’s forgiveness. If they are open, able and willing to forgive others, it shows that they have truly and for real been open to receive God’s love and forgiveness gratefully and in such a way that saves our very souls, changing us from the inside out! But if our hearts are locked up to the love of God they will be locked up from extending God’s love to others. It’s basically just a law of nature!
Scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way, “Forgiveness is like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate quickly.”
There can be no doubt that this is a hard lesson for us to learn, both in our thinking and in our acting. This lesson holds up a mirror for us to see our tendency to withhold the very mercy and forgiveness we have received. Think about it, the only righteous judge, Jesus, says from the cross, “Forgive them.” We, from our positions of self-righteousness, cry out, “Pay me back what you owe!” The key point of Jesus’ words to Peter are that the way of life which marks out the Christian life is forgiveness! Those who truly understand the magnitude of God’s mercy must may it forward to others.
Not only does Jesus forgive us, but it is only through Jesus’ forgiveness that we, ourselves, can possibly forgive others. As Jesus’ words make clear, those of us who have been forgiven so very, very much by God through Jesus Christ must take a good look in the mirror. Those who have been forgiven, must forgive. Every time we accuse someone else, we accuse ourselves. Every time we forgive someone else, though, we pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful that God has already given us.
What do any of us do when something happens that is so big that it shakes our world, displaces us or uproots us, restarts our clocks, and places us in a situation where it may feel as if we are looking up at hell? Today, as we remember the events of September 11 a decade ago when four hijacked airplanes wreaked such destruction and woe and changed our world forever, we can decide to continue our suffering by holding hatred and anger in our hearts. Or we can open our hearts to the loving, healing forgiveness of God, asking Jesus to give us his forgiveness. And thus, we can choose to remember the events of 2,000 years ago when God’s own Son, seeing a field of broken lives and desolate hearts, chose to call down from heaven forgiveness, not vengeance, and therefore opened a future marked not by judgment but by mercy, not by despair but hope, not by fear but courage, not by violence but healing, not by hate but love, and not by death but by new life! On this 9/11 let’s make that the new legacy because that’s what forgiveness can do!