I have to say I am privileged to be a member of the Seminary class that I am- VTS 2004. During our Seminary time, we weathered the 9/11 attacks, a giant snowstorm, a hurricane, and the great cicada hatching of Brood X. Our Dean joked at our graduation that we must graduate... before the frogs or locusts arrived! Through it all, though, through all the uncertainty, the fear, the protests, the natural disasters- we have never been a class defined by fear. We have always been a group of people best defined by our great love for each other. I know for a fact, having been a recipient of my classmates' generosity during my own tough times, that there is a safe place for me under their roofs, and I hope they all know that there will always be a place in my own home for anyone who needs shelter from their own storms. Love truly does cast out fear, and our class has lived out what it means to love your neighbors as yourself. They are why I am still an Episcopal priest, despite those rough first few years, and they give me hope for our church, our country, and our world.
With that said, I offer to you my sermon from Sunday the 14th.
Over the past week, I’m sure that many of us heard much about the passing of the seventh anniversary of 9/11. Even as that date rolled near, we also turned wary eyes to Texas as Hurricane Ike neared landfall. I watched the internet news ceaselessly as the giant storm rolled towards Houston, and I read ever article I found about the opening of the Pentagon memorial. 9/11 and the great hurricanes have both been events that have shaped my adult life.
I had just started seminary in 2001. Shortly after the plane crashed in the Pentagon less than four miles away, even before the acrid smell of smoke reached us, my new classmates and I huddled together in the dorm as we heard the then-foreign sounds of sonic booms as fighter jets arrived over Washington. Over the next week, the Pentagon would continue to smolder. But our class rallied around each other. We sorted out who had lost family and friends in New York and Washington DC. My adrenaline ran so high as I was woken up at night by military helicopters shining incredibly bright lights on our campus, that I wanted to run to war and rain down destruction on the sandy parts of the world. But even more than that, I wanted to forget a time when I didn’t know what a sonic boom sounded like. A friend and I sat up into the night watching the TV as we invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq.
Later that year, that summer, I went to Houston for an internship in Clinical Pastoral Education. St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital was celebrating their one-year anniversary after a serious hurricane had broken the floodgates and submerged much of the medical center. They told stories of the famous human chain. Employees fo the hospital had formed a chain up the tallest building, passing essential supplies hand-to-hand from the lowest floors to the highest floor, 27 floors. Staff was stranded at the hospital for four days.
I did work with police departments during Hurricanes Irene and Katrina, but they are not going to figure in this sermon, so believe me when I tell you that they were formative experiences. And I spent a few years with Concerns Of Police Survivors hearing the stories of families and officers who were 9/11 survivors. To me, those victims have families, friends, names, and faces. I remember the smell of smoke and the broken things just as well.
And yet, still, every year, every single year, we face Peter and we face Jesus. Every single year, Peter asks about forgiveness. He tallies up in his mind how often he must forgive those who wrong him. Every year, Jesus responds that we forgive until we’ve lost count how often we forgive, and then we forgive some more. Every year. Jesus never changes his relentless drumbeat. Every year, Jesus commands us to forgive until we forget how to do anything else but forgive.
Why? Why should I bother? When the plane hit the Pentagon, it touched off a stream of events that would eventually chase several of my foreign-born friends out of the country. When the plane hit the ground, it started the events that would forever change the lives of people I know. I would always know the smell of jet fuel. Is anger, vengeance, retalitation, so wrong when the sins are so great?
Jesus tells us a story of a master who forgives a slave. 10,000 talents is a lot- more than one could earn in a lifetime. Typically, it is understood that the slave probably did something he should not have done to spend that kind of money. The king does become angry. The difference and the quirk is what he does with his anger.
Isn’t it so much more complicated when we are dealing with our issues today? Issues of money, big deal. Today, our issues are much bigger. Our issues are life and death. I’ve told you where I was on Sept. 11 seven years ago. I’m sure you remember where you are, and you probably have your own sadness and anger around that time. I’m not going to tell us that anger, sadness, and yes, even a thirst for revenge are not a normal part of human nature. Of course they are! If a desire for revenge were not natural to us, then why would Jesus even spend so much time and energy around teaching us to forgive? When we are wronged, we want to have it righted. We want the person who said the thoughtless remark to apologize, in exactly the words we want. We want the ex-boyfriend to come back in town, and catch us, looking hot, on a date with a new guy. We want the pull the hair of the little girl who dipped her finger in our cupcake frosting. We want to kill the person responsible for planning the attackes that killed 3,000 of our friends and co-workers and made the smell of jet fuel burn in our noses for a week.
But here we are, instead. Here we are in this church, where we worship a God who commands us to forgive. I wonder about the power of forgiveness.
In St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, they elected to forgive the town and administration which did not plan. They remember the day that they formed the human chain, but they also served on the committees engaged in planning for future storms. New flood doors were constructed, and I am so relieved to report that as of today, St. Luke’s remains totally operational. Even as Houston is mostly suffering from widespread flooding and power outages, the medical complex benefits from special generators and flood doors. They are continuing operations as normal, providing emergency services to help benefit thousands of people, because their choice to forgive and be part of the future helped move them beyond their anger of the moment.
I often daydream about what could have been in our country. What if, if only, if only, instead of declaring that we would not give in and we would hunt down the terrorists to the end, what if our president had said instead, something like this: that we were a strong country, and a wealthy one, and that the attacks hurt s deeply. We’d be forever scarred. But as a powerful country, we would wage peace instead. What if we instead had waged peace at home, strengthening and rebuilding? With all those trillions of dollars, could we have saved the 5,000 lives of soldiers and military people and the 100,000 lives of civilians who are now dead? One of the most haunting images of the current war (for me) remains the image from the Washington Post a few years ago, of a father and son caught in crossfire. They never discovered (to my knowledge) which side fired the fatal bullet. They know only that the father was unable to prevent his toddler son from being hit by the bullets. The Post published the photos of the father desperately running for safely and then cradling his son as the boy died in his arms. That is the price of holding on to our anger. That is the price of no forgiveness.
Jesus commands us to forgive. We hav certainly failed on a national, collective level. There is no chance left except on a personal level, between you and me. St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital stands today, fully operational because they chose to forgive and work towards the future. Iraq stands in ruins today because our country did not. But I see the photos of the new memorial at the Pentagon, and I remember the words of the police officer who I drove to the airport one May two years ago. He had just completed the Unity Tour on bike, and told me stories of how he was putting his life back together as survivor of the attacks. He was remembering how to fall in love again. He was remembering why he became a police officer in the first place, and it had nothing to do with justice. It was to help people. He gives me hope, even today. What a challenge to me, if even he can forgive and move on.
Jesus commands us to forgive. That starts on a personal level, here, between each other. In the end, we can’t control the behavior of cruel people in government. I can’t control the decisions of engineers who didn’t plan for the right level of storms. I can’t control the insanity of a bearded man who comes up with the terrible idea to steal airplanes and crash them into our landmarks. But I sure as anything can choose my own actions. I choose my own path. Jesus commands us to forgive. I choose the path of Peter who listened to Jesus who commanded us to forgive until we forgot how often we had forgiven.
I know I am not offering any solutions at all today. I’m talking on a national level, not even on an Epiphany and Southbury level like I usually do. You are the ones who have to take this story and make it your own in your own heart and mind. All I am doing is granting us the most difficult charge of all: to hear and follow Jesus’ command to forgive, even here. Let me tell you with one final story.
In the final days before the war started, a number of us went to a final peace protest. I went with a friend from Nebraska. Military veterans and active duty military came to hear the group that was playing. We came armed with candles. On the stage, stood Peter, Paul, and Mary. The flame started to be shared and the famous words of “Light One Candle” rolled through the twilight. I believe it was the final song. Peter, Paul, and Mary said good night and left the stage. I remember walking to the metro, watching the lights shimmering and spreading in all directions as people let their candles burn as long as time and flame and the wind allowed. The lights glimmered for what seemed like miles, and it seemed that every corner you turned, more lights were there. In the darkness, hope, forgiveness, and peace blanketed our nation’s capitol.
Maybe someday, it will blanket our world.