Matthew 18:21-35
What kind of people shall we be?
September 11, 2011. The Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Roy W. Howard

Let me begin by confessing that I have as many questions as answers, and the answers I do have often give rise to more questions. This is particularly true of the more difficult sayings of Jesus. Reading this gospel text on the radical requirement of forgiveness in light of the solemn remembrance of the horrific attacks of September 11 raises important questions even as it offers a way forward. I am convinced that our nation still has to find a way forward from the horror of ten years ago, and that the gospel has something positive to say about that way. Others, including those from other religious traditions, will have positive word to offer, too. In the mercy of God, may they be as one shining path through a very dark time in our history. For Christians however difficult the teachings of Jesus may be, and radical forgiveness is certainly one of them, they remain binding obligations for us to follow. And we pray God give us the capacity to embrace them as the way of life. By doing so, I believe the Church may actually be a light to the nations. Given our historical record, I would be grateful to be a modest bright candle.

The tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11 prompts both remembrance and hope.

This is not the same as nostalgia and sentimental dreams, neither of which is helpful for our times. Nostalgia looks backward to some glorious moment, which may or may not have ever existed, and tries to recreate it. Sentimental dreams envision something that is ethereal and usually grandiose bur rarely possible. In the end, nostalgia and sentimentality remain locked in a perpetual cycle going nowhere. The result is cynicism and despair.

On the other hand, remembrance and hope have a dynamic about them that suggests something other than an endless cycle of the same. Remembrance is about honoring the past in a way that shapes a better future, learning from those who have gone before us and the events of their times. This is true of President Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. With September 11 in our background, listen to what he said at Gettysburg:

[…] in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This is what remembrance sounds like: calling a people to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us.

Who, of those who were living, doesn’t remember September 11 ten years ago? That Tuesday the sky was without a cloud in sight and the most beautiful blue shining bright. Then chaos erupted in every way possible. Yet, within hours from the chaos, community began to emerge in remarkable, and yes, unforgettable, ways. Heroes came forth, leaders led and a people cared for one another that seemed to touch the deepest center of our national life. Someone described this as a moment in which “our hearts were broken, but they were broken open.” There were fleeting moments of solidarity when we discovered something bigger than ourselves: the desire to help, and the capacity to grieve with those who were grieving. On the Saturday after the Tuesday, my wife and I spent an afternoon slowly and prayerfully walking around each of the monuments telling the story of our nation’s core convictions, while observing diverse people from all walks of life gathering around those some monuments to freedom, openness and democracy. I am not hesitant to call it a holy moment that I hope to never forget.

Yet, we know that within months something else occurred: war; two of them, along with thousands of dead and wounded men and women. An entire infrastructure of protection was born that has changed forever our common life. Torture occurred. And the community we experienced has largely dissolved. We have been arguing ever since about the reasons behind the wars, the torture and the dissolution of community and the return to widespread cynicism. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that we have been struggling to find a way forward ever since and find a way to come together as a nation. Lincoln said that remembrance is about calling a people to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That is the task of hope.

As a Christian reading the gospel in light of September 11, it seems to me the question is what kind of people is God calling us to be? In Haiti they speak of hope as a resurrection from the rubble. Hope looks beyond the rubble of 9/11 and the terrible scar inflicted upon the psyche of this country.

What then might hope look like embodied in a people? The gospel offers two ways.

Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is a hard demand. Yet, John Paul Lederach, my teacher who now teaches at Notre Dame, says this is the great challenge of moving past 9.11: pursuing justice while loving our enemies. It is neither helpful nor hopeful to pursue justice as only an act of vengeance. Our text from Romans tells us that vengeance is forbidden because it has its own consequences, usually an endless cycle of the same violence.

What if the pursuit of justice were joined to love for the enemy? Reinhold Neihbur said this is impossible, and he may be right. Would the combination be hopeful? Yes. Would it be difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Maybe. But I believe it is worth pursuing because I believe in the God of possibilities. What if we stepped toward our enemies rather than away from them? What if we sought to know the roots of enmity by asking why? more often and more seriously?

What about forgiveness? Is it also an act of hope? Yes. Why? Because forgiveness refuses to live only in the past; it leans into the future where the past will not be repeated endlessly in one’s mind and body. As our parable suggests, forgiveness requires an acknowledgement of our own failure even while naming the failure of the other. This may be the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings and the one that seems most likely to be ignored. Again Reinhold Neihbur said it was impossible and even dangerous to employ on a national scale. Others disagree, including his student and former President of Union Seminary, Donald Shriver, who has written extensively on national reconciliation, pointing to South Africa as on example among others.

Neihbur may be right and Shriver may be right though we have never tried that path. But it seems to me that if we ignore the most demanding of Jesus’ teachings at the most critical test, what value are they at anytime?

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t have a way of delivering this into a tidy sermon package. Nor to I believe Jesus expected it to be so. In the cross of Christ we see something of the radical way of forgiveness and love for enemies. The way of the cross is the very strange way of God in this broken world. It seems to me that if we are to recover real hope for our future in a post 9.11 world, we have to risk some difficult actions that radically change the status quo. Forgiveness and love for enemies: this is the way of the cross.

Isn’t astonishing that the visual emblem of 9.11 that was left standing at ground zero is a jagged cross, formed from the rubble of that horrible day?

I find that hopeful.