Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore at 8 am at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
This gospel reading today begins with Peter coming to Jesus and asking, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?’ And Jesus answering ‘not seven but seventy-seven times!’ Wow! Are we really to be that forgiving? That totally forgiving?
Today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Every one of us here will remember where we were that day when we heard the report of a plane flying into the world trade center. Seeing the bodies falling from the twin towers. Watching the video of the twin towers collapsing. And the plane flying into the Pentagon. That day is emblazoned on our minds. And will be for the rest of our lives.
Our world has seen a lot of change since that time. Every report of a random shooting is followed by a question of ‘is it an act of terrorism?’ Suspicious packages are cordoned off and blown up. White powders are suspected of being anthrax. And of course there is the all too presence of security in our lives, whether it is entering the Cathedral here, a skyscraper business building, or passing through airport security. Our world is different.
And actually, I suppose, that we are both the victims and the perpetrators of this nightmare. We individually, we corporately, and we nationally, responded with anger and bile at the possibility that someone could attack us on our own soil and bring down two icons of American prowess, and change the skyline of our major city forever. How could they do that to us? How could that happen here?
And yes, we captured Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. And they are both dead. We have our pound of flesh. Our retribution. But do we? What has become of us in the process? Are we any less angry? Any more secure? Any less tense? Any more free? Free from…?
Over three thousand people were killed on 9/11. In the war since, in Iraq and Afghanistan over 919,000 people have been killed. The majority of them civilians. More people have died every month since 9/11, for ten years, than died on the one day of 9/11. 9/11 for us, the Madrid train bombings, the London subway bombings… How do we react? What do we do?
Jesus had a different approach. Turn the other cheek he told us. Forgive seventy seven times. Wow! What if we had done that? There is a significant part of the world that probably still would hate us. But perhaps not so many. We would not have slaughtered so many innocent bystanders. 900,000 people dead.
In the Old Testament reading today from Exodus we have an account of God protecting the Israelites from the Egyptians as they crossed the Red Sea. Many times God does protect groups and individuals. And many times groups presume God’s protection, God’s being on their side, God’s authorship to substantiate their actions of aggression, war, and killing. Think the Crusades, the driving of the Jews from Spain, modern day jihaad, the Arab-Israeli conflict. How do we know if God is on our side? In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was once asked if he thought God was on his side. He responded that he didn’t know but he certainly hoped he was on God’s side.
In the New Testament reading today from Paul’s letter to the Romans we he hear of people doing all kinds of actions on account of their faith, eating anything, eating only vegetables, not eating; observing the Sabbath on one day versus another. And it ends advising us not to judge one another. Someone’s actions done in earnest for the Lord may be just as valid as ours done in earnest. Perhaps! But it is not up to us to decide that. Contemporaneously we may consider the 7th Day Adventist Church who admonish those of us who don’t worship on the seventh day, Saturday. Or the Church of God who don’t use any musical instruments because of an islolated verse of scripture. Are we all so sure we know the mind of God?
Our gospel reading today begins and ends with Jesus advising us to forgive not seven but seventy seven times, and reminding us that our heavenly Father will do to us as we do to others. And we retaliate in the world?
Is this gospel message a lofty ideal or Jesus’ tough gospel? Can we live it or even begin to approach living it? Retaliation does not seem to be a part of the gospel equation.
A recent church billboard was circulated that read ‘Message from God: Governor Perry, that voice in your head is not God. Go back on your meds!’ It is not heresy to admit that we don’t know the will of God. In fact it maybe a better testimonial of faith to say that we do not know the mind of God. H.L. Mencken, the famous early 20th century journalist in Baltimore, wrote, ‘All great religions, in order to escape absurdity, have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely… The difference between religions is a difference in their relative content of agnosticism. The most satisfying and ecstatic faith is almost purely agnostic. It trusts absolutely without professing to know at all.”
It trusts absolutely without professing to know at all. Using our faith, using our believed knowledge of God to harm others is always a dangerous supposition, a very slippery slope. We would do well to truly turn the other cheek. Give the benefit of the doubt to the other. And truly forgive seventy seven times. When we judge another’s intentions or actions or values, we are playing God. When we say that another’s faith is wrong and ours is right, that we know God better, we are playing God. When we forgive and just love we are being godly. And are living Jesus’ radical gospel. Concerned about retribution or justice or correcting evil? Those who have done the heinous acts are accountable to God. That is between them and God, not up to us. We are to forgive seventy seven times. Regardless of the cost. It is our gospel imperative. Perhaps we really are to be that forgiving!
May God bless those who have died on 9/11 and since in the cause. And may God bless each and every one of us as we live in His love and learn to forgive, forgive, forgive.