Sermon for 9/11: Forgiveness is Divine

This week’s lectionary gospel reading on forgiveness is perfectly appropriate for our observance of 9/11. It illustrates a grand gesture of forgiveness that is modeled by God and that God intends for us to emulate in our communities.

Matthew 28:21-35

In this story, Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, comes to Jesus and asks the appropriate number of times someone should be forgiven. Conventional wisdom at the time was once. One time, if someone wrongs you, you forgive. After that, no more. Peter probably thought he was being very generous by offering to forgive seven times. After all, in biblical numerology seven is the number of perfection. Jesus countered with the number “seventy times seven’ or “seventy seven times”, depending on your translation. Either way the indication is one not just of perfect forgiveness but of COMPLETE forgiveness. He then gives the story of the two debtors and to put a super-fine point on it, he shows a vast contrast in the two debts. The first man owes a debt of ten thousand talents. I looked up how much a talent is and it’s roughly 15 years’ worth of wages for an average worker. I had to look at that about 10 times. 15 years’ worth and this man owed 10,000 of that. Let’s put that in today’s terms.  The average household income in CA in 2009 for a single income household is $47,000. 15 years of that is $705,000. Now multiply that by 10,000 and you’ve probably broken your calculator. I’ve got $705,000,000,000. The point is that it’s impossible to pay. And it is forgiven. The second man owes 100 denarii. A denarii is one days’ wages. If we go with our original $47k figure, that works out to $150 per day, so 100 of those is $15k. A large debt, but doable.

A few weeks ago we did a lectio divina exercise and I’m going to read the passage again and I want you to close your eyes, or do whatever makes you most open to hearing what the text has to say and I want you to put yourself in the place of the first man who was forgiven the enormous debt. After I’ve read it I’ll allow a moment of silence for contemplation and then I’ll ask you to respond with what it felt like to have such a large debt removed.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”– Mahatma Gandhi

Withholding forgiveness is a reactionary response to being wronged that is frankly the easy way out – it is a natural human response.Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That is the natural order of things and there is no resistance. When I drop this tennis ball, it pops back up. That’s normal. There’s no fight there. If I dropped it & it stayed, it’s either defective or all the laws of nature have changed and we would totally be freaking out right now. Forgiveness is an unnatural act of the will; a choice we make to release a person or a community from our own perception of what they deserve. Elsewhere in scripture we read “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” That doesn’t sound forgiving. The truth is that actions do have consequences and there are repercussions, but how that all plays out isn’t our decision to make. If we believe that God’s chief concern is who we are and are becoming, then we must recognize that the call to forgive is a call to the formation of our character. Too many times I have let things go, put them in God’s hand, and seen consequences realized that were appropriate and deserved and had nothing to do with me. I trust God’s methods. I am not responsible for other people’s choices – only mine.

“Resentment is like a glass of poison that a man drinks; then he sits down and waits for his enemy to die.”—Nelson Mandela

I come to you today in the soul & body of a person who has a difficult time with forgiveness. It’s a family trait. My mother’s family is splintered into factions that span generations because of real or perceived snubs or injustices stretching back decades. For a while there, my mother was flying solo among her 5 other siblings because of her great sin of reconciling with my father over 20 years ago. One of her brothers, who had not spoken with my mother or 2 of the other siblings emailed my mother out of the blue about 7 or so years ago. After a lifetime of anger, difficult family relationships and alienation, through his wife, he’s become a devout Catholic, has a relationship with God and wanted to reconcile with my mom and have a relationship with her. It’s a big deal. They’re super tight now, vacation together, talk & email all the time. My mom has wanted to have a relationship with her siblings for years. It was only through her conscious choice to give up her hope for a better past that she was able to forgive and move forward to a full and loving relationship with her brother. The decision to withhold forgiveness does damage internally and externally. It eats away at the soul’s ability to breathe

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. ” – Mark Twain

After a catastrophic event like September 11th we are faced with some real and difficult choices. A Methodist bishop said that “American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat … when our people felt vulnerable, they reached for the flag instead of the cross.” I don’t believe that the original intent of the flag of this country was to indicate absolute power & superiority over the rest of the world but in some circles that is what it has come to mean. It’s sad to me that in this day & age, a majority of our Muslim neighbors are afraid to leave their homes on 9/11, and the majority of the Christian community has not spoken out against this. The cross would stop this, the flag keeps our neighbors indoors.

“Forgiveness is the final form of love. “–Reinhold Niebuhr

The Cross of Christ compels us to love & forgive in a way that is not natural to human inclination. The cross says to us that we are worth dying for. The flag says there are people who are worthy of killing. The cross says that love is the answer. The flag says that force is the answer. The cross says that we will be forgiven. The flag assures us that we will pay.

“Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.” –George MacDonald

The cross gives us the power and ability to give life through forgiveness and reconciliation that the flag does not. Tragedy, pain and oppression exist in the world in many forms but through Christ we can offer forgiveness that is not of this world, divine forgiveness that can change the world.

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