The last time I preached a sermon on the events of September 11 2001 was ten years ago. I was a senior in seminary. It was supposed to be about stewardship; y’know, a sermon that would evoke the generosity of each member. In some ways, it was a sermon on stewardship: a call to turn to God in the face of such great tragedy.
This past week has been full of remembrances. The newspapers, radio and television compel us to re-live that day. I remember two things about September 11, 2001. I remember my run that morning, hours before planes and towers fell to the earth. It was still dark outside and I remember watching the planes fly overhead. I did this during every run because I was always fascinated by the way their bellies light up. And I remember sitting with my friends, John and Ann, as they talked with their children. I remember being grateful for the wisdom of parents and that I was not a parent.
In my sermon from 2001, I wrote this: “ I feel that I am now living in a world of chaos. I want, somehow, to make sense of what happened…my heart struggles…I am sad, angry, confused, overwhelmed and I am afraid. What will happen to the world that I knew on September 10th?” I remember feeling all of these emotions and struggling to write that sermon. I remember feeling that the world would never be the same.
And, indeed, the world is not the same. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of change. For instance, we now have smart phones. There’s also Facebook and every other social networking media. For the last decade, we’ve also been at war. Our literature now focuses on non-fiction, especially about the Middle East and Islam. We watch more news, reality television, and dramas focused on first responders and soldiers. And there’s no more showing up at the airport 30 minutes before your flight. Instead, we willingly submit to full body scans and carrying small bottles of shampoo, just in case. We cannot deny any of these changes and, even if we expected them, we were not prepared for them. I never imagined that my seven year old would text me from her father’s phone. I never imagined that I would drive a car that is powered by gas and an electric battery. I never imagined that I would one day try to explain to our son what happened on September 11 2001.
As we reflect on the last ten years, I hope we will begin to imagine the next ten years. How will we explain to the next generation what happened on 9/11, the days and years that followed? How will we be changed and transformed by our experience? Because it is not only our past that shapes us; our dreams, imagination and vision inspire and guide us into the future.
Matthew’s Gospel, written around the year 100, is more than the telling of Jesus’ life. It is a vision for the Church: a story that guides the Church closer to the kingdom of God. One quality of God’s kingdom is forgiveness. Matthew uses the words forgive 47 times in his Gospel, more than any other book in the New Testament. And Chapter 18 offers us the most explicit teachings on forgiveness. Last week, Jesus directed the Church in the practice of reconciliation. This week he tells us a parable.
Before we get to the parable, let’s take a moment and consider Peter. There are many reasons to admire Peter; one of them is that he always says what everyone else is thinking. Like, in Chapter 15, after Jesus tells another parable. And Peter is the one who asks for understanding: “Lord, explain this parable to us…”, he says.
And so, I can imagine, the disciples discussing Jesus’ mandate for reconciliation in the Church. They must’ve wondered: how often to do we have to do this? When do we have to do this? What about when someone does something unforgivable, do we still have to reconcile with one another? And it’s Peter who asks the question: “How many times do we forgive?” Peter is the voice of the Church, the voice of our humanity, wondering how we fulfill Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus answers Peter with a number. Scholars have spent reams of paper and hours of study on the number 77 (or is it 70 times 7?). Personally, I think it’s a sign of Jesus’ sense of humor (like when my children ask me how many of their vegetables they have to eat…). If we have to ask, then the answer may be a bit facetious. We all know the answer. How many times do we practice reconciliation; how many times must we forgive? We must live this way every time, all the time.
The one aspect of the parable I want to be sure is clear has to do, again, with numbers. The debt of the first slave is ten thousand talents. Biblical scholar, Eugene Boring, calculated the 10,000 talents exceed all the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria. In other words, Jesus is being facetious. More than that, the extreme debt becomes a revelation of the master’s generosity. And the master’s generosity is really God’s generosity. Jesus’ hyperbole reveals the intensity of God’s love for creation.
Jesus goes on to contrast the master’s generosity with the slave’s hardened heart. Despite his own reprieve, the slave harasses and terrorizes another. It is as if the slave was never offered forgiveness or, at least, he never accepted it. And for this reason, he is held accountable: not for his financial debt, for the life of his fellow slave. The parable could be a story of transformation. Instead, it is a tale of judgment. Because the slave depends on his own righteousness, he is condemned.
And Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” The truth is very plain. To experience the grace of God in our lives, we must offer it freely to one another.
How often should we forgive? Every time, all the time, no matter what.
A friend of mine shared with me a story from 9/11. A reporter encountered a couple whose daughter died in the towers. The reporter, trying to offer comfort, said, “Well, I know that you will be able to go to your place of worship this weekend and there maybe you’ll find some consolation in your faith . . .” And the grieving mother replied, “No, we won’t be going to our place of worship this weekend ’cause we’re Christians, and we know what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and frankly, we’re just not ready for that yet. It’ll be some time before we’ll want to be with Jesus.” This story captures the tension between Peter and Jesus today: When do we forgive? How many times? All the time, every time, no matter what.
This is overwhelming to me. My thinking brain goes into overdrive arguing with myself about how this forgiveness thing works. And this is where I end: I know that I have, that WE have, all been offered a massive amount of forgiveness. Sometimes it is easy to receive this gift and then offer it to someone else. Most of the time, though, accepting and offering forgiveness is difficult.
This is why I love our baptismal covenant. The covenant reminds us that repentance and forgiveness are done by the grace and help of God. To know how deeply we are loved by God, we must accept God’s gift of forgiveness and mercy. To be transformed by God’s love, we offer God’s forgiveness and mercy to others. The truth is: it is not the commandment that is overwhelming; God’s love is overwhelming.
What will the next decade look like? What will our reflections on September 11, 2021 sound like? I don’t know. I do know that we make an impact on the future, we can shape the next decade.
May we receive the gift of God’s love, grace, mercy and forgiveness today, every day, no matter what. May God help us as we carry it with us, offering it to everyone we meet, all the time, no matter what. May forgiveness be our dream and vision for the future.