A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on September 11, 2011
Pentecost XIII (19A)
September 11, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21)
Nine years ago today was my first Sunday to preach here at Christ Church as your new priest, and it was this same passage that appeared in our lectionary on that day. Out of curiosity I looked back at the text of my sermon from that day to see what I said way back then. I said it seemed kind of strange to be preaching a sermon on forgiveness when I was new and hadn’t had enough time yet to offend you, or for us to need one another’s forgiveness. Nine years later we have had plenty of opportunity! And hopefully have not taken too much advantage of it.
In that sermon I quoted, Henri Nouwen, one of my professors, and a teacher to many of us through his many books and writings. He said something that is so true about forgiveness – that forgiveness is “the name of love in a wounded world.” Forgiveness is the name of love in a wounded world. It is the willingness to let go of the unrealistic expectation that any of us is, or will be, or ever can be perfect, always doing the right and good and kind and most loving thing –– and then loving ourselves and others in spite of that grim fact. Forgiveness involves letting go of unrealistic expectations of each other.
Nouwen says that “the great tragedy of human love is that it always wounds. Why is this so?” he asks. “Simply because human love is always imperfect, always tainted by needs and unfulfilled desires.” “Forgiveness,” he says, “is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.”
If you think about the wounded places in your life, they are most likely the results of human love gone awry: parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends. One of the great paradoxes of our lives is that it is the people closest to us – the people who love us and whom we love – who are most capable of hurting us, and vice versa –– because our love is always imperfect.
And if that is so in our personal relationships, how much more obvious it is when you multiply that out to a community of people – like us here, the church, or any other community. And the larger the community, the greater the effect of this exponential potential for things gone awry, because little imperfections get magnified when they are allowed to multiply. And multiply they do when there is no forgiveness.
Matthew’s gospel records these words of Jesus for a community whose limits were being tested, right there in the early Christian community. We might expect that all was surely sweetness and light in those early days, but it wasn’t long till things came up! We hear Peter saying in our gospel today, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Peter surely thought he was being generous with this suggestion!) Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
In other words, if you’re keeping count, you have somehow missed the point.
Ten years ago today, the limits of forgiveness were put to the test on another whole scale. A tremendous tear in the fabric of the human family was torn, the result of ancient and modern wrongs unforgiven – the result of love lived poorly, love that wounds, and too seldom heals.
The events of 9/11 and their aftermath have exposed both our best and some of our worst qualities. No one will ever forget that day ten years ago, the calls of people from planes to their loved ones, the loving words spoken to spouses, parents and children, knowing that they may well be their last. We can’t help but remember the courage of those who put their lives at risk to enter flaming buildings, or the many who lost their lives for the sake of others. We will not forget the way in which even the most hardened New Yorkers cared for one another in the most tender and loving ways. We won’t forget how we came together as a nation and experienced a shared solidarity that transcended differences, or the outpouring of love and sympathy that came from all around the world.
And in the days and weeks, months and years that followed, people continued to engage in sacrificial acts of care for the victims’ families, and for those engaged in the rescue and clean-up operations. St. Paul's Chapel in New York became the focal point of a remarkable effort to support the workers at Ground Zero. Hundreds of volunteers from many different vocations, religions, ages and income levels ministered to firefighters, construction workers and others working in what they called "the pit," providing a place of rest and care and spiritual nurture to people engaged in one of the most harrowing of clean-up operations ever undertaken. These were all examples of some of the best of human nature.
In a sermon the day after 9/11, Rowan Williams, then archbishop of the Church in Wales, now Archbishop of Canterbury, talked about having been just blocks away at Trinity Church Wall Street during the attacks. He said, "Yesterday, we were spoken to in one language, and we now have a choice of in what language we respond to the conversation that was initiated by the attack.” And he asked, “What is the language of Christians?"
At St. Paul’s and elsewhere we heard the language of love. But sadly, we began to hear the language of hate throughout our country in the days and weeks that followed. And alongside those most noble of human qualities we witnessed on the day of the attacks and in the days that followed, we also began to see some of the worst of human nature emerge: fear, suspicion, racial and religious prejudices, and along with them our most primal response to fear, which is violence. All of these have radically changed our lives, and for the worse.
A wounded world, indeed. Just how do we love in a wounded world?
It’s easy to get stuck on the question of whether there can be forgiveness when the perpetrators of evil neither ask for nor desire forgiveness. It’s not an easy question! And I would suggest that if we get stuck there, we can only lose. When there is no repentance on the part of the one who commits a sin, we have to look also at the damage we do to ourselves when we live without forgiveness. And we have to accept, too, that forgiveness is not acceptance or endorsement, or passivity in the face of evil. Rather it is a difficult, demanding, active, counter-intuitive response to evil, and one that refuses to allow the evil done to set the terms of the relationship, or the terms of our future.
So much of what I have learned about forgiveness, I have learned from our friends in Rwanda. I’m thinking a lot about Rwanda this week because our friend, Fr. Philbert Kalisa, was here with us this week, and he’s speaking later today at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York at a 9/11 observance. And also because Chris Valleau is with us today after returning yesterday from spending his summer in Rwanda working with REACH. I have (and I’m sure Chris now has also) witnessed perpetrators and survivors of genocide coming together to be reconciled, not because of warm fuzzy feelings toward each other, but through an act of will that is initiated by one or the other, and often it is the victim. That act of will is a recognition that to hold onto hatred and resentment and fear and the desire for retribution is to live with a death-dealing wound to the soul. And the price of that, many have concluded, is just too high.
It’s hard for us to imagine what forgiveness and reconciliation might look like with those who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11. One of the closest images I can come up with comes from a friend and colleague who several months ago accepted a call to become the principal of a Christian college in Peshawar, Pakistan. Yes, that’s in the northwest region near the tribal areas, not far from the Afghan border, and just a few miles from where Osama bin Laden was killed just a few months ago. My friend, Titus Presler, arrived the day before bin Laden was killed.
Titus is engaged in what I would describe as a difficult, demanding, active, and yes counter-intuitive gesture of reconciliation. He has gone to a place most of us would fear to go, to a place where we assume we will be hated and might even be in danger. But Titus walks the streets of Peshawar, wearing his clerical collar everywhere he goes. People on the street know he is a Christian, and they can look at him and see that he is not a Pakistani.
Edwardes College is a Christian college, but over 90% of its students are Muslims. Every week during the Friday Muslim prayers, the Christian students gather for worship at the same time for the Eucharist in their tiny chapel. This past Friday, just two days ago, as they gathered, they prayed for the departed during the Prayers of the People, as we always do, and they prayed with these words:
We lift up before you the 3,000 people who were killed in the attacks that occurred on 9/11. And we lift up before you the 35,000 people who have been killed in terrorist insurgency since then in this country of Pakistan. Gather them to yourself, we pray, and be with all who continue to mourn the violent deaths of those they love. We pray for the outbreak of justice and peace in this suffering land and in Afghanistan.
Titus writes that
In the international dynamics affecting Afghanistan and Pakistan – dynamics involving the USA,… the United Nations, and myriad political and economic interests – and in the anguish of Talibanization and political turmoil in Pakistan, such praying can seem, on one side, mere ineffectual words.
On another side – the side of engaged faith and bold hope – such praying is vital. It keeps us centered where we need to be, which is in the stream of God’s challenging and transforming work in the world.
He also writes that “Meanwhile in another part of the campus the Muslim students who constitute the vast majority in this college of 2,800 gathered at the same time for Friday Prayers. I know that the anguish of the nation and the world at this time was in their hearts and minds as well.”
Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the post-WWII era, was convinced that God sees even the most despicable human evil as an expression of profound suffering. If that is true, then forgiveness is the great and largely unexplored key to our own and the world’s salvation.
It must be said here that only God’s love is perfect. And it is in claiming that love for ourselves – recognizing that with all our imperfections God still loves us perfectly, that we are able to release others from the expectation that they will love us perfectly, that they will never hurt us, that they will be able to satisfy the deepest need we all have to be loved unconditionally. When we accept God’s unconditional love, something very important happens: we can free others from the responsibility for filling the place in us that only God can fill. And in doing so, we find the beginnings of forgiveness.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, even after all of the horrendous evils of apartheid in South Africa, has famously written that there is “no future without forgiveness.”
I think that’s why Jesus said what he did. “How often should I forgive?” Peter asked. “As many as seven times?" And Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
So, keep at it. There is no future without it. But with forgiveness, we find new life.
The Rev. Jeffrey Shilling Gill
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, “Forgiveness: The name of love in a wounded world,” in Weavings (Vol. VII, No 2, March/April 1992), p. 15.