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The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Just before three o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Jacalyn and I were driving up to our little farmhouse in Settignano after dropping off a friend and colleague at the Santa Maria Novella train station in the centre of Florence. It was a beautiful day and when we got back to our place, I tried to give my father in New York a call and, strangely, all the circuits to the United States were busy and I couldn't get through. Just then, our landlady’s housekeeper came rushing into our place and said we had to turn on the television and see what was happening, as she put it, “in your country.” Through a fuzzy CNN newsfeed on MTV Italia, we saw the World Trade Center North Tower on fire and then a few minutes later we saw the second plane crash into the South Tower, we then learnt, along with the rest of the world, of the plane that hit the Pentagon and of the extraordinary story of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. For hours we tried to get through to my parents and, although I knew that they had no business in lower Manhattan that day, it was a relief when my father finally called us several hours later.

Our experience of the September 11, 2001 attacks was at a distance. As expatriots, we faced a different kinds of uncertainty as we did not know if Americans and American institutions—like the one at which I was a fellow—would become targets for further attacks. Furthermore, much of my time and energy in the days, weeks, and months that followed was diverted from my academic research on Pope Sixtus IV, to working with college students and young adults, themselves far away from home, who came to Saint James’ Episcopal Church looking for fellowship and support in frightening times. I came to realise that our sense of fear and expectation was very different from that felt by those in New York and Washington and this was brought home to me around Christmas time when we met up with my parents in Paris and they told their story and expressed their particular sense of ownership of those attacks as New Yorkers who were there.

Each of us has our unique September 11, 2001 and a course of personal, local, and world events in the ensuing ten years. Nevertheless, we were all changed by the evil wrought on that day and much of what we have experienced we have gone through in community. Indeed, much of the healing that has come has come in and through community, through sharing our experiences, knowing that while our response, our story is unique, we have never for one moment been truly alone.

This is perhaps the greatest comfort of the Christian in the face of tragedy, of evil, and of sin. Towards the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

We are never separated from God. We are not separated from him in life and we are not separated from him in death. While it is an easy and natural thing to forget in the heat of the moment, in the midst of fear and sorrow, God is our companion and guide. God shines through the darkness and pain. In the hours and days following September 11, 2001, we realised collectively that even from the ashes of the Pile there emerged stories of heroism and self-sacrifice, of love, and of hope. We looked to the firefighters, police officers, the search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers, to the construction workers, the chaplains, and to the average citizens who poured out their hearts and souls to help in the moment of crisis and who did even more in the weeks and months that followed. While God does not initiate sin—that is the work of humans turning away from God’s loving purpose, turning away from the commandment to love God and neighbour—God enters into the occasion and turns hate into love.

In this morning’s lesson from Genesis (and remember all the lessons we heard today are from the Proper and were not chosen specially for the anniversary), we read of Joseph’s reaction to his brothers’ casting him into the pit and then coming to him for help. Joseph does not scorn them, rather Joseph saw an opportunity for God to act:

As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

Joseph tells his brothers that their sin was real, that they “meant evil against” him. Nevertheless, God entered into the situation and turned it on its head. “God,” Joseph said “meant”—and I would rather say used—“it for good, to bring about that so many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” God enters into sin and turns it to good and we must train ourselves to be aware of this so we do not lose hope, do not lose faith in the power of love to defeat sin.

Part of using love to defeat sin involves forgiveness and reconciliation. This is one of Jesus’ harder teachings to accept, to feel in our hearts, especially as we discuss the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Our suffering on that day and in its aftermath was real and deeply painful, and for some it was much more so than someone like me can imagine. We naturally cry out for retribution and we cry out for deliverance from that pain. In our hearts, however, as Christians we know that retribution is not the answer, that responding with hate and violence is not the way in which we are lead. Indeed, we have a Lord in Jesus Christ who is acquainted with sorrow, who knows what it is to suffer and we can find comfort the knowledge God in Christ is our companion in suffering, understands our pain, and seeks our healing. In this way we know that we are called to respond in ways that are in concert with the aims of the Kingdom of God.

In a different age, G. K. Chesterton, in the hymn text that we will sing shortly, offers a prayer of deliverance from sin and its consequences, especially the sin of those who inflict their views on others by force:

From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men, from sale and profanation of honour and the sword, from sin and from damnation, deliver us, O Lord.

We do wish God to give us the strength to deliver us from terror and sin and we want God to give us the power to move forward and that way forward is intimately bound to the project of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In today’s Gospel, Peter comes to Jesus and says “to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” and Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” God calls us to keep forgiving. Indeed, this call to forgiveness, to reconciliation, is tied into the very nature of the Kingdom of God as we learn from the parable Jesus then tells him about the king who forgave his servant the debt. What this parable also teaches us, however, is that turning from God, turning from lives of reconciliation and peace into sin—as did the terrorists on that day ten years ago—has consequences.

We reflected on this subject last week when we heard Paul’s words, “whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” Our actions matter and have consequences—for good or for evil. Forgiveness does not change what happened. It does not return the dead to life and it does not give us amnesia. Indeed, in forgiving, we still remember what has happened and we offer as best we can—and sometimes in the face of great pain—the love of God. We hope that this offer of love in the face of hate—which is nothing less than Jesus’ offering of himself on the Cross—will convert the other to the project of love and ensure that the sin is not repeated. It offers another kind of resurrection, which is the rising of God’s love from the death of sin. If forgiveness is a way forward, a way towards reconciliation, it is a way that never forgets. Indeed, it is the way of memory, of anamnesis, the same powerful work of memory and love that effects the sacrament we share today, effect’s Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine we take into our own bodies.

Are we called to forgive those who perpetrated that evil, that great and sinful act on this day ten years ago? It seems to me that God is calling us to do that. God is not, however, calling us to forget or to pretend that the suffering we have endured was not real. Rather, we are called to continually offer the hand of peace to those with whom we disagree—which in many ways is what Paul is talking about in the passage from Romans we read this morning—in the hopes that God will transform us all together into something new within his emerging Kingdom. This work is not easy, it can be frustrating, and over the past ten years we have seen our nation and our community at its best and at its worst as we work towards this goal. Keeping our hearts and minds trained on the Gospel of love and reconciliation, trained on our Lord on the Cross, however, we find the strength to do this in the knowledge that God is at work, making use of sin for Good. We find God entering into the midst of our deepest pain and suffering and showing us the light of Christ’s love in and through the hands, actions, and words of others who have emerged to do this work and cooperate with God in this great project. Together, then, God will usher us into his kingdom where love and peace reign and sin and sighing are no more and where God will wipe away every tear form our eyes.

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8 September 2011

 

© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume