September 11, 2011
As I was growing up and learning history, I would often ask my parents to recount their memories of significant historical events.
“Where were you when you heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?” “Where were you when you heard about the assassination of President Kennedy?” “What were you doing when you heard that Dr. King was shot in Memphis?”
Hearing their memories of these events made them more real to me. They weren’t just dates and facts in a history book. They affected people that I knew and loved.
Now it’s my turn to answer this kind of question as my children ask about historical events. Obviously the event that weighs most heavily on all of us today is the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
My memories remain vivid. It was a Tuesday morning. The weather was perfect. Clear, sunny, not too cool, not too warm. I was holding my two- month-old son in my arms and Phoebe was watching Clifford on PBS Kids television. Matt was off that day and he was the one to answer the phone. I heard him greet my dad and then say, “Oh no. Oh no.” He came into our living room and said we had turn to the news because something was happening in New York City.
And then we watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center.
As my brain tried to comprehend the horror that was unfolding in front of our eyes, I thought about my friend Chris who was living in Queens. Was she in the city? Was she near the towers? When we learned that the flights had originated out of Logan Airport in Boston, I kept thinking that Matt had flown out of Logan just the week before. What if the terrorists had chosen that day instead of September 11th?
When Chris called a few hours later to tell me that she was all right, because she knew I’d be frantic with worry, I burst into tears; tears of relief and tears of anguish over the nightmare that the whole world was witness to.
Any of us who were alive and old enough that day to understand what we were watching can describe their experience of September 11th as easily as I can mine. Certainly I don’t have the same grief from that day as someone who lost a loved one in the towers or on the planes or at the Pentagon, but the anguish we share over our memories is no less real.
So we come today to the tenth anniversary. It seems impossible to believe that ten years has passed since that horrible, terrible day. And unlike some anniversaries this is not a pleasant one to commemorate. Our nation commemorates the events of September 11th today, but I also believe that lifting up this anniversary in our context of faith is essential. Especially in light of the passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning.
In the verses we read last week Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to respond to someone who sins against them. Now Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how many times do I have to forgive them? Is seven times enough?”
Now as I understand it, seven times was far beyond the cultural norm of forgiveness. So Peter, in offering to forgive seven times was taking the high road on this. It’s as if he were asking, “Look, if someone wrongs me, I’m willing to go above and beyond what’s required of me for forgiveness. I will forgive at least seven times, but after that when can I just give up and stop forgiving? When can I write that person off?”
But Jesus’ response makes Peter’s high road look like nothing.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I don’t fully grasp the math involved in this, but different scholars on this passage write that Jesus is actually saying that Peter must forgive into infinity. In other words, when it comes to forgiveness, lose count.
Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about forgiveness. In my Bible, it’s entitled “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.” And Jesus, as he often does, makes a comparison to the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his slaves. When the king started to look over all of his accounts, there was one slave who owed him ten thousand talents. The slave was brought to him, but he couldn’t pay his debt. So the king ordered that not only the slave but his wife and children and all of their things should all be sold to pay off the debt of the father. The slave begs for mercy. He falls on his knees before the king and promises that if the king will just have patience with him, the slave will pay off everything. The king relents and shows mercy to the slave. The king forgives the slave his debt.
Yet almost immediately after being forgiven and released of this terrible burden, the slave crosses paths with another slave who owes him a mere hundred denarii. The first slave grabs the second by the throat. Visualize this, and you can imagine the first slave just throttling this other slave and demanding his hundred denarii.
The second slave also falls down before him and begs for mercy. But the first slave will have none of it. He has the second slave thrown into prison until the debt can be paid. Now the other slaves, or servants as we can also call them, see the one thrown in prison. And naturally they are upset by this. So they report it to the king. The king calls the first slave to him and rebukes him. “I forgave you this enormous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your fellow slave when he did the same?” So in his anger, the king hands the slave over to be tortured until his debt could be paid.
Then Jesus winds this whole story up by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Now I think we have to be careful to remember that this story is a parable not an allegory. Both means of expression try to tell a larger truth about something. But I hesitate to define God in terms of a despot king who was at first willing to punish not only the slave but the slave’s wife and children along with him, then throws the slave into a lifetime of torture when he still doesn’t get it.
But that being said, the larger truth here is about forgiveness. The first slave would have had to work a lifetime, maybe more to pay off his debt of ten thousand talents. That was a ginormous sum! Ginormous is a technical term here. But the king shows him mercy. He forgives him this terrible, crushing debt. But the second slave owed just a little relatively speaking, and the first couldn’t even be bothered with mercy. Forgiveness was not in his vocabulary.
It seems to me that Jesus wanted Peter and the other disciples to understand that our debts and those debts owed to us are in the same realm. What we have been forgiven is enormous. What we are asked to forgive seems small in comparison. So when it comes to forgiving someone, even if we have to forgive that person over and over and over again, we have to lose count.
And that works … until we come to today’s anniversary. The attacks on September 11th were no small thing. Even those of us who weren’t directly affected by them were still affected by them. Our nation lost the last of its innocence that day. Two wars were set into motion because of that day. Two wars that are still being fought. So many lives were lost that day, so much potential wiped out. And lives are still being lost. There seems to be no end in sight.
So are we really supposed to see this as a relatively small debt to forgive compared to the enormous debt we have been forgiven? Are we really supposed to lose count when it comes to forgiveness of that day and all the days since then? I lost no one on the planes or in the towers or at the pentagon that day, but I struggle with forgiveness for September 11th. I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel if I had lost someone – a father or a mother or a husband, a child, a friend.
And yet we have these words of Jesus. Seven times isn’t enough. Seventy-seven times. You forgive into infinity. You forgive until you lose count.
I don’t know how many of you have heard of the writer Corrie Ten Boom. She and her family were Christians who hid Jews in a secret annex of their home during World War II. She wrote about it in her book The Hiding Place. It’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I do know that the whole Ten Boom family was arrested. Most of them were released but Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to several different concentration camps, finally ending at Ravensbruuck. Betsie died there.
After the war Corrie was traveling to different speaking engagements around Germany, trying I believe, to tell her story and show how God’s love can overcome so much. After one lecture, a man came up to Corrie telling her how God’s love had changed him. She recognized him. It was one of the guards from the concentration camp. One of the cruel guards who had done so much harm to her and Betsie. He asked Corrie to shake his hand.
She didn’t want to. How could she? How could she shake this man’s hand after he had caused so much pain to her and her sister? But she realized that she was called to forgive, so she took his hand in hers. And when she did, she felt something, a feeling of warmth and love she couldn’t fully describe. She realized that she didn’t have to feel forgiving of someone, she just had to do it. She just had to forgive even when she thought she couldn’t.
Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about? Forgiving, even if we feel we can’t. Could I stand in front of the people who have really hurt me in my life and shake their hand? Could any of us stand in front of one of those hijackers and shake their hands? It seems impossible and too much to ask. But when I think of what I have been forgiven, I know I have to be willing to put my hand out there – again and again and again. When it comes to forgiveness, we have to lose count, because I know for a fact, God’s lost count with me. Alleluia. Amen.
My thanks to WorkingPreacher.org, The Text This Week and Wikipedia as resources for this sermon.