September 11, 2011
The Lord is full of compassion... and we are not.
Here is the unedited text of today's sermon. The audio will be up tomorrow. The text is Matthew 18:21-35 and my life experience in the 10 years since 9/11. The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... So began our reading of a selected portion of Psalm 103. Truth be told, the Lectionary allows the option to read all of Psalm 103 on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, but it seems to me, that on this day, we should echo the prayer of David by giving particular attention to this ancient creedal statement, The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And we should probably rightly finish it by adding, “and we are not.” The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... and we are not. Which is, for many of us, why gathering for worship on this particular day, this 11th of September, 2011 is so very different than just about every Sunday we have experienced. We join with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, and whatever else, united not by creed or color, but by universal memory, we all mark this day as a somber anniversary when two-thousand-nine-hundred-seventy-seven men, women and children senselessly lost their lives and more than six-thousand others were injured. If you are anything like me, you come today with a myriad of mixed emotions, which is why, I believe, our mantra for today should be, “The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... and we are not.” September 11th, 2001 fell on a Tuesday, and by the weekend, for most of us, life had at least found its way back to some semblance of routine. On Friday night, as was my custom, I joined my work buddies in the basement of the Travelodge to drink some beer while terrible karaoke singers ruined good songs. We were all a bit dazed, still in many ways in shock at the events of the week, but as is the case after tragedies, life, though changed forever, goes on. I remember this evening more vividly than most, not because the singing was any better or any worse than usual, but because of an impromptu speech given by the Karaoke Jockey. With words unfit for the pulpit, he turned his emotions into a very graphic description of what he would do to Osama Bin Laden should he ever run across him on the streets of Lancaster or the caves of Aghanistan. I remember feeling icky, to use a technical term, profoundly icky. I want to think I felt that way because, even thought I was a 21 year-old who spent too much time at the bar and not enough time in church, I could recognize the dignity of every human being, and the thought of one human being feeling such hatred and anger toward another made me uncomfortable to the point of feeling icky, but I'm afraid I felt icky because, in a lot of ways, I understood what the guy on stage was feeling, and I didn't like those emotions in me. The LORD is full of compassion, and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness... and we are not. On the 26th of May, 2009, Lt. Col. Mark Stratton, very much a child of this parish, died with two others, from wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated as their Humvee traveled the well worn road outside of Bagram Airfiled in Eastern Afghanistan. Mark was serving as the commander of a Provincial Reconstruction Team helping to rebuild the war torn region, and was, in many ways serving to ensure and protect the freedom of the Afghani people more so than his own country. To think that people tasked to build a school that would help bring children up from the depths of poverty would be the target of such an attack is hard to stomach. This community gathered, filling this nave beyond capacity to remember and give thanks for Mark's service. Today as we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we also remember the five-thousand-seven-hundred-ninety-six American lives that have been cut short and forty-one-thosuand-two-hundred-twenty-one others forever altered by injury in the ongoing war on terror. No matter our political affiliation, we all grieve these numbers, especially the multitudes who, like Mark, were killed not on the field of war, but in the honest attempt to offer a better life to those who had nothing to do with the geo-political machinations that lead to 9/11 and the war on terror. The LORD is full of compassion, and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... and we are not. On the 2nd of May 2011, mastermind of 9/11 and leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, was killed in an well orchestrated strike on his family compound by a skilled team of Navy Seals and CIA operatives. As news spread, massive celebrations spontaneously erupted around the country. As the pictures of those celebrations filled our 24 hour news cycle, many looked arrogantly and begrudgingly down their noses at the joy, and I was, once again, feeling profoundly icky. On one hand, I gave thanks that a seed of hatred and violence had been eradicated from the earth. On the other hand, I grieved that another one of God's created children, broken and sinful as he was, had found a violent end. One one hand I felt like celebration was the wrong response, and on the other, I thought smug self-righteousness wasn't any better. The LORD is full of compassion, and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... and we are not. BUT... But God calls us to strive after compassion, mercy, and kindness no matter how hard it may be to attain them. Perhaps by chance, but more likely by Providence, the universal theme running through today's lessons is the one topic we really don't want to talk about today: forgiveness. After Jesus taught his disciples the art of reconciliation that we heard last week, Peter, probably acting as spokesman again, walked up to Jesus, stretched the very limits of his imagination and asked, “If a brother or sister sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? As many many as...
seven times?” Peter is beginning to figure out that Jesus works on a much larger scale than the rest of the world. Earlier in their time together, Peter would have said something like, “Should I forgive someone two or three times?” Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, I might forgive you. Fool me three times, and forgiveness is just a crazy pipe dream. But by now, Peter has expanded his thinking, how about seven times? Jesus, however, is thinking even bigger than that. Even if you get burned seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times – forgive, forgive, forgive. “Forgive beyond your ability to keep track,1” and then forgive some more. Conceptually, this sounds fine and good, but with a nod to C.S. Lewis, “everybody agrees in principle that forgiveness is a mostly lovely idea and this agreement continues right up until that moment when you have an actual person in front of you whom you must forgive—then suddenly caveats, nuances, and provisos start to fill the air.”2
Forgiveness is hard because forgiveness is a life changing endeavor. To hold onto a grudge is to yoke yourself to another person. To forgive them not only frees them from that bondage, but it removes the weight from your own shoulders as well, and most of us don't know what it feels like to stand up straight, free from the bonds of animosity. Be it a husband, or a wife, a child, or a parent, the Republicans, or the Democrats, Al Qaeda, or Timothy McVeigh, the inability to forgive another, whether they deserve it or not, whether they ask for it or not, is detrimental to your health: spiritually, emotionally, and even physically.3 Jesus never tells Peter that forgiving someone four-hundred-ninety times is going to be easy. Seven times is hard enough. The reality that we all know, is that forgiveness is difficult and messy and awkward and sometimes sad, but it is always a requirement.
On the 2nd of October, 2006 a man named Charles Roberts backed his pick-up truck up to the entrance of a one-room Amish school house in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Based on the elaborate materials found at the scene, his plans were grotesquely sinister. His sloppiness allowed the police to respond quickly, but in then end, five young girls were dead and five more critically wounded before he turned his gun on himself. As early as that afternoon, a grandfather of one of the dead little girls was quoted by CNN warning others against hating Roberts, saying, “we must not think evil of this man.” Another man reiterated the point, “I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”4 And reach out they did, as community leaders met with his family, attended his funeral, and one Amish leader even held Robert's sobbing father in his arms for an hour. As one unnamed Amish man told CNN, “The acid of hate destroys the container that holds it.”
Our culture is not rooted in forgiveness the way it is for the Amish. They have their own areas of brokenness, just like us, but I add the story of the Amish 9/11 to our own corporate memory to prove my point, “The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness... and we are not... but with God's help we can be.” May we always remember. May we strive to forgive. May we seek to be set free. All for the glory of him though whom all thing are being brought to their perfection, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.