September 11, 2011
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Day of Remembrance – September 11, 2001
(Nativity of our Lady)What do you remember about September 11, 2001? Do you remember what you were doing the very moment the terrorist attack happened?
It was an unforgettable, gut-wrenching, world-changing day. Many of us recall exactly where we were when the terrorists attacked. In terms of national impact, it was a day on par with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK.
Carl Wilton, a minister in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, vividly remembers walking down to the beach after the towers fell and looking to the north. He saw a pillar of cloud. What he was seeing, of course, was the massive column of smoke rising from the devastated buildings. He wondered: Was it a sign of the Lord's presence and power, amidst our national agony -- leading us onward, to some new way of being God's people? Or was it merely the smoke of ruination, inciting us to vengeance? He has a strong intuition that how we have answered that question as a nation over these last 10 years says everything about how our faith intersects (or fails to intersect) with our national life -- and, indeed, our individual lives as well.
Why do terror groups hate as a nation? What is a Christian response to this? Our lord calls us to find a new way to behave toward others, one that exemplifies the peace of the Gospel and the love of Christ.
In Exodus 14 we read, "The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel". God was powerfully present with the Israelite army, and in the middle of the Red Sea the Egyptians discovered that God was fighting for the Israelites. After passing on dry ground through the sea, "Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians".
Where was God present on 9-11? Was God fighting for us, and if so, how? In the middle of so much loss of innocent life, what work did God do on 9-11? These and many much harder questions will be asked today, just as they have been asked over the years.
Phillip Yancy, author of Where Is God When It Hurts?, was asked after the terrorist attacks, "Where is God at a time like this?" He answered with a question of his own, "Where is the church when it hurts? If the church is doing its job -- binding wounds, comforting the grieving, offering food to the hungry -- I don't think people will wonder so much where God is when it hurts. They'll know where God is: in the presence of his people on Earth."
Then he reflected on what our nation was taught by 9-11 (Christianity Today, October 1, 2001): "We learned that even in a city known for its crusty cynicism, heroes can emerge. We learned that at a time of crisis, we turn to our spiritual roots: the President quoting Psalm 23, the bagpiper piping Amazing Grace,' the sanitation workers stopping by their makeshift chapel, the Salvation Army chaplains dispensing grace, the chaplains comforting the grieving loved ones. Thanks to them, we know where God is when it hurts."
Today we read in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus telling the parable of the unforgiving slave to remind his followers that God forgives our sins -- but only if we forgive those who sin against us. In the parable, a king tortures a slave who refuses to show mercy to a fellow slave, and Jesus promises, "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 servant debtor did not ask the king to forgive his debt but to remain patient until he paid it off. The king did not do what the servant begged for. Instead, he immediately forgave the whole debt. Absolutely unthinkable! This overwhelming, unexpected, compassionate forgiveness of the king makes the servant’s behavior toward his fellow servant all the more despicable. It also helps us understand Jesus’ response to Peter's question about how often we are to forgive one another. God forgiveness of us knows no limits it is always granted. Anything less in our forgiveness of one another brings the same judgment against us that Jesus renders against the “wicked servant.”
Life in the church demands that we forgive one another not only because it is the compassionate thing to do but because this is how God acts and expect us to act. It belongs to the very being of God to forgive; if we are of God, then it is also of our very being to forgive also. The key to understanding this is that we are in a relationship both with God and with each other. By forgiving, we choose not to let any offense that has happened between us control how we continue to relate to one another. By forgiving we repair the damage to the relationship and restore dignity both to the forgiver and to the forgiven.
This is why counting how many times we forgive, even to the seven that Peter suggests at the beginning of the gospel, misses the point. Jesus’ response to Peter is a way of reminding us that God forgives us countless times, and this is the motivation for forgiving each other equally countless times. Our Heavenly Father has shown the way; we are to forgive each other from the heart.
As St. Paul says in Romans, “None of us lives for oneself” because we “live for the Lord.” Our relationship to each other is described in terms of our relationship to God. Forgiveness is absolutely central to the message of the whole Gospel because it is necessary in order for our relationships with God and each other to continually grow stronger and more graceful.
Christ’s dying and rising examples for us our own dying and rising, “no one dies for oneself.” We always die for the sake of the other. Forgiving entails dying to damage relationships so that we might all belong to the Lord and rise to every new life with Him. Forgiving means God has hold of us and enables us to act in a Christ like manner. Forgiving means that petty hurts or even major ruptures pale in comparison to the life-giving wholesomeness of being in healthy and strong relationships.
Now, Ten years after the 9-11 attack, have we forgiven those who sinned against us? What does forgiveness mean in the context of war or military action? Where is the link between our willingness to forgive and the forgiveness we hope to receive from God? How can we pursue reconciliation with those who have done violence to us?
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus not only forgave others, but challenged his followers to forgive -- not just seven times but 77 times. Forgiveness is never easy, especially when we are faced with something as awful as 9-11 which has forever changed our lives. But it is important for us to remember that it is God who forgives sin and wrongdoing. Our forgiveness is actually a participation in God's larger act of forgiveness.
Recall that in Luke's gospel, the first word of Jesus on the cross is about forgiveness: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). We often read this as Jesus forgiving his executioners, but in actual fact, Jesus is calling on God, his Father, to forgive them all. Jesus is still in the midst of his suffering. He cannot forgive his executioners for something they have not yet completed. But he can call on his Father to forgive.
In the same way, we can ask God to forgive those who sin against us, "for they do not know what they are doing." In prayer, we can lift up those who have hurt us terribly, and trust God to include them in an act of forgiveness that is beyond our abilities as hurt and suffering human beings.
After passing safely through the Red Sea, "the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31). The Exodus story has been handed down from generation to generation to remind us of God's power and faithfulness, and to inspire awe and belief within us.
How will we hand the story of 9-11 to the next generation? What will its lessons be? Is there evidence that our Christian beliefs have become stronger? If so, where? What do you think the memory of 9-11 will inspire in future generations?
The late Peter Gomes, the long-serving pastor of Harvard University's Memorial Church, said after 9-11, "The whole record of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and the whole experience of the people of God from Good Friday down to and beyond September 11, suggests that faith is forged on the anvil of human adversity. No adversity; no faith.
"Consider the lesson from the ancient Book of Ecclesiasticus. Could it be put any plainer? My son, if thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure, and do not make haste in time of calamity.' You don't need a degree in Hebrew Bible or exegesis to figure out what that is saying.
"What is the context for these words? Trouble, turmoil, tribulation, and temptation: That's the given, that's the context. What is the response for calamity? Endurance. Don't rush, don't panic. What are we to do in calamitous times? We are to slow down. We are to inquire. We are to endure. Tribulation does not invite haste; it invites contemplation, reflection, perseverance, endurance."
On this 10th anniversary of 9-11, God is giving us an opportunity to contemplate, reflect, persevere and endure. We can testify to our faith being forged -- not destroyed -- on the anvil of human adversity. We live in a society wherein there are many walks of life, many religions and many nations. This is not really any different now than it was during Christ's time. What is different is that we have Christ as our example and teacher in how to deal with them in a better way than our ancestors may have.
10 years ago was a terrible day. There are no words that can express how terrible it was for the people of this nation but most especially for those of loved ones that lost their lives. Today I do not debate the merits of what our nation is doing and the various skirmishes overseas; I simply hope to put a face on the situation in a way our Lord would will us to do. For some this may not be so hard. For others, however, this could be the most difficult thing to have ever had to do. There are some who will never be able to forgive the tragedy which happened in our lives those ten years ago.
So again, God is giving us an opportunity to contemplate, reflect, persevere and endure. Most probably a great majority of all Christian churches, and probably many other religions as well, will be praying this day for those who been lost; for those who've been left behind; for those who orchestrated this act of terrorism; but most especially that God will give us all the grace, courage and will to forgive. I know that that is my prayer for all of us today. May we all come up out of the ashes and forgive as our Lord wills us to forgive!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.