Here’s a second draft of tomorrow’s sermon. Any feedback you might have is appreciated in the comments below!
a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
to be preached on September 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Where were you? Where were you on that clear and beautiful September morning eleven years ago today? September 11, 2001, is one of those days that we cannot forget where we were or what we were doing, especially if we were in or around New York City. Take a moment, as if you have not done it already today, and remember where you were when you first heard or knew about the strange and horrific attacks on the World Trade Center.
Those moments are times that we truly cannot forget. For the last ten years, people have been crying out, “Never forget” – never forget the horror of nearly three thousand people dying at the hands of a carefully coordinated terrorist attack on American soil; never forget the faithful service of thousands of women and men working as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders to bring thousands of others to safety; never forget the worldwide sense of outrage at these incredible things that united us as we sought to figure out what to make of this unspeakable tragedy; never forget the stories of fear and hope from friends and neighbors and acquaintances all around us that made us cry and made us laugh and everything in between.
Memory like this stands at the center of our gospel reading today from Matthew. This reading that centers on forgiveness is difficult to stomach on any day, but the memories we bring with us here today don’t make it any easier. Even after ten years, it is really hard to broach the subject of forgiveness around the attacks we remember today, for the pain and hurt and terror are still very, very raw for us. However, while this reading seems to center on forgiveness, I believe it also has something important to say about forgetfulness too – it also says “never forget.” We’ve twisted our understandings of forgiveness into the trite and easy saying, “Forgive and forget,” but that’s not at all what Jesus says here – in fact, he almost seems to to say the exact opposite: “Forgive and never forget.”
Peter starts things off, following up on Jesus’ words that immediately precede this passage, that we heard last week, about how to deal with wrongdoing in the community of faith. Clearly a bit confused and concerned about Jesus’ call to forgive, Peter asks him directly, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus, ever the generous interpreter, responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” not putting a limit on this forgiveness and suggesting that Peter add ten extra row to his spreadsheet that tracks the forgiveness of his friends but instead insisting that there is no limit to the kind of forgiveness that he makes possible and saying nothing whatsoever about the level of forgetfulness that must be involved in forgiveness.
As usual, when the disciples got confused and needed some clarity, Jesus tells them a parable in hopes that they will not forget his point. A king called in one of his slaves to pay off a debt of ten thousand talents. Now a talent was more than a year’s worth of wages for the average person, so this debt was astoundingly large and truly impossible to pay off. The slave asked the king for more time to make good on what he owed, but the king went a step further than even the slave asked – he forgave the debt entirely! As the slave made his way out, though, he saw another slave who owed him a much smaller debt, and rather than showing any of the grace that his king showed him, he had the debtor thrown into prison until the debt was paid. The king got wind of this and called the slave back in to account for his actions. While the slave forgot how the king had treated him when he demanded immediate payment from his debtor, the king had not forgotten. The forgiveness offered the slave was taken back and the debt reinstated immediately – and the slave himself put into prison until he could pay back the insurmountable amount.
We may say, “Forgive and forget,” but Jesus clearly has something else in mind here. The king in the parable grants forgiveness with great generosity, forgiving a debt that could never be paid, but that generosity and grace are never to be forgotten. As commentator Charles Campbell notes, “…there can be no limit on forgiveness, because it is a never-ending practice that is essential to the life of the church.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 69) Just as we cannot forget the events of September 11, 2001, we cannot forget the gracious and generous forgiveness that Jesus describes and demands here. As we remember the indescribable horror of that day ten years ago, we also must remember that the perpetrators of these things are a tiny minority amidst millions of women and men who share our humanity and our faithfulness. As we remember the sights and sounds and smells that followed 9/11, the overwhelming sight of watching a plane crash into an iconic skyscraper, the sounds of mourning of so many whose loved ones were killed by such violence and hurt, the smell of burning tires and unsettled souls, as one writer so aptly put it, that stuck with you long after you left Lower Manhattan for months after the attacks, we also must remember that Jesus offers us a new and different attitude in the face of unspeakable horror. As we remember the stories of fear and hope shared by our friends and neighbors, we also must remember that hope will triumph over fear and that grace will reign supreme always because of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
In the light of September 11, 2001, I don’t think we have to completely forgive those who perpetrated such horror upon our city, our nation, and our world, but I think there is some part of forgiveness that we must offer because of who we are in Jesus Christ. As commentator Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn puts it, “Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt…. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives…” (Feasting on the Word, p. 70)
It is time for us – us as individuals, us as New York City, us as the United States of America, us as the world God so loves – to remember some part of this forgiveness again, to begin letting go of the horrors of this day a bit, to start viewing this difficult day through new and different eyes, to sort out how we can live in a way that stops the cycle of violence that emerged from these horrors once and for all. I think we are ready for this move, and we want it to happen, but somehow our individual readiness never quite translates into real change in the broader society.
We are ready to put the cycle of revenge and oneupsmanship behind us, but not at the expense of our own preferences. We are ready to bring an end to the culture of war and violence, but only once our side has won without compromise. We are ready to treat everyone as equals and put an end to abuse and torture, but not if it means that someone doesn’t get the punishment that we think they are due. We are ready to give up the fear that the attacks of 9/11 brought upon us, but not at the expense of risking even the slightest minimal chance of apparent safety. But we can still remember and never forget the horrific events of ten years ago without letting them define us forever, and perhaps that is what we really need.
Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn relates a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner:
A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, ‘Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’ I answer her, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.’ (“Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, p. 34. Quoted in Feasting on the Word, p. 72.
May the extravagant, endless, incredible forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ inspire us this day and always so that we might be free from all that weighs us down, that we can be empowered to remember and never forget what we will always carry with us, and that we can live in the fullness of new life we have in Jesus Christ here and in the world to come, forgiving and never forgetting. Amen.
What a tough day to preach. My feedback would be to reconsider asking people to remember where they were that day – many will have spent most of this week doing that, if not that morning already. It creates a disconnect for me to be asked to put myself back into the place of fear etc, and then towards the end of the sermon be asked to begin letting it go “to remember some part of this forgiveness again, to begin letting go of the horrors of this day a bit, to start viewing this difficult day through new and different eyes, ” There is enough of what it was like 10 years ago throughout the sermon to make the point effectively without asking the congregation specifically to re-live it at the beginning of the sermon.
Andy James says
Not a bad suggestion at all. I’ll definitely take another look at this. My first draft retold my own experience of that day, which was equally if not more problematic. But perhaps it would make sense to invoke the memories of that day that we’ve thought about all week long rather than forcing silent reflection to keep it going.
I’m thinking pastorally as well (not that you aren’t, just from another angle) – re-opening wounds in a worship setting and then having to address those as well as the text seems like a lot. But acknowledging what is in the air seems safer.
Leah Johnson says
Not being in NYC probably means I don’t have same perspective but I totally agree w/above comments of not focusing on it the way you’ve framed the beginning. I think some comment on the ways folks have moved toward healing would be beneficial. The movie, name I can’t remember, that tells of the widow and the afghani woman who worked together. The camp for children of those who lost parents. The places where interfaith dialogue has arisen and continues. Examples of the witness to forgiveness and healing are helpful witnesses. Not easy that’s for sure! But your congregants will appreciate your words with them on this day.
Andy, thanks for sharing this. A couple thoughts from e “if I’m being completely honest” file: first, the reference to eleven years ago in the opening is confusing. Having read just that, I immediately thought you were going in a completely different direction and referencing the year 2000, and how we’d be unlikely to remember where we were. Honestly, if it’s a reference to how if 2001 was September 11 #1 we’d now be on number 11, not 10, fine… But you use it in context of “eleven years ago today” and then reference “ten years ago” later in the sermon. I couldn’t figure it out. It strikes me as possibly pretentious and distracting at best. Secondly, and most importantly, I’m assuming you were in seminary at the time, right? Maybe not? Certainly not at FPC Whitestone from what I recall. I don’t know if you were living in NYC or not but you are preaching to a group of people that experienced this so raw and real that I’m not sure you get away without mentioning that you were not there and they were. It’s a frame of reference that they have that needs to be honored. You use enough of “we” and “us” that unless they buy in that you understand their perspective as new Yorkers on 9/11 and consider you one of them, this isn’t going to go anywhere. Other than that, though, as a piece on forgiveness, it’s interesting and It’s solid, and the thoughts are all good, especially at the tail end. Peace to you. A tough day to preach in NYC for sure.
Andy James says
Thanks for the thoughts. The intro is definitely going to be reworked a bit. In 2001, I was actually working at Stony Point, and on 9/11 I was headed into Manhattan for a meeting but didn’t make it. I’m not a true lifelong NYer, but I got a strong taste of the experience for NYers on that fateful day. I think most folks in the congregation are aware of my story, but I might mention it in brief.