Sunday, September 11, 2011

Preach One: Proper 19A

Preached at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Forest, MS

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

It's true, what they say.  It couldn't have been a more beautiful day.  The sky was blue.  The sun was shining.  The air was crisp with the first hints of fall.  It was the kind of morning that makes you pause when you walk out the door, that makes you breathe deeply and smile involuntarily, that make syou glad to be alive.  It's true.  That's the kind of morning it was.

How the sky stayed blue, how the sun kept shining, I do not know.  Only the air changed, grew heavy with ash and astonishment, and how we kept breathing it, I do not know.  Only the air changed that day.  The air, and everything.

We were gathering in small groups to discuss a book by Rowan Williams, not yet Archbishop of Canterbury, but already a theologian of note.  "They think a small plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers," someone said, pausing in the door of the room where my group was meeting, and after a brief prayer for the pilot and whomever else might have been hurt or killed, we continued with class.  By the time we learned how immeasurable and unimaginable the loss really was, everything had already changed.

So is our gospel reading tonight is about something immeasurable and unimaginable, something that would change everything.  Jesus has just spoken with his disciples about how to handle wrongs committed within the community of faith.  Try to resolve it between the two of you, he said, and if that does not work, take one or two others along with you as witnesses.  If that fails, take the matter before the whole community, and if you still cannot be reconciled, treat that person as a Gentle or a tax collector.

Already, though, things were different, the disciples knew.  All eyes turned to Matthew, the one who tells us this story, the one who had collected taxes from them all.  The way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, the disciples knew, was not to turn them away but to welcome them, and embrace them, and forgive them, and invite them to follow him.

Rabbinic teaching at the time was that the one who had wronged another could be forgiven three times before exhausting all available forgiveness.  But things were different with Jesus, friend of Gentiles and tax collectors, and so Peter generously suggested that perhaps they ought to forgive as many as seven times, a number not only greater than three but also divine in nature, signifying wholeness and fullness.

No, Peter.  Jesus replied to everyone's astonishment.  You must not forgive seven times, but seventy-seven.  In Hebrew reckoning it was immeasurable.  Unimaginable.  Everything.  How many times do we forgive?  Always...

How we can keep breathing, I do not know, hearing such words on this day, the anniversary of that day when the air and everything changed.  It is all the more breathtaking for me when I recall that in the pages we were discussing ten years ago today, as the occasional siren of an emergency vehicle on Ninth Avenue became an unsettling steady wailing, Rowan Williams was reflecting on seeing the face of Christ in all persons who are victims of fear and violence, for Christ himself was a victim of our fear.  We nodded, thinking ourselves generous when we came across a passage in which Williams suggested that even the death of a terrorist (or a Gentile or a tax collector...) is a breach in which fear and violence have created a victim, and so, though the thought of it offends us, in that terrorist we must see the face of Christ.  Would we have nodded if we had known what was happening just three miles south of our ivory tower, and in our nation's capitol, and in the skies over Pennsylvania?

Today is not the first time this gospel reading has coincided with an anniversary of that beautiful, crisp, terrible, ashen morning, and it will not be the last.  Over and again on this day we will hear Peter ask how many times we must forgive, and over and again Jesus will answer, always.  And if that isn't hard enough, over and again Jesus will tell a parable to teach us that forgiveness does not end with the cancellation of some debt or injury or wrong-doing.  Forgiveness changes everything and demands that our lives be different.  It is the beginning of something new, or how else are we to understand Easter morning's empty tomb?  Life was different.  Everything changed.

Over and again when it coincides with September 11, we will have to remember that this gospel reading is not about what happened ten years ago.  This gospel reading is about what happened two thousand years ago, when God's immeasurable and unimaginable grace changed everything.  This gospel reading is about what is happening right now and in every present moment when those whom Jesus has welcomed and embraced and forgiven and invited to follow him gather together.  At this table we remember that our human condition makes us liable to fear and suspicion and wrong-doing...when we had fallen into suffering and death... We remember that by way of the cross, the victim, the Son of God, we are forgiven and so also liable to acts of amazing grace.

Forgiveness and grace, even resurrection itself, cannot undo.  Even as Christ bore scars of his suffering and death, so do our lives, our hearts, our minds, our spirits, and even our bodies show evidence of the ways we have suffered and have caused suffering.  Forgiveness does not deny this harm done.  It is not a condoning of sin, or an indifference to wrong.  It does not remove consequences or insist that the wrong be forgotten.  Forgiveness does not erase injury or restore what has been irretrievably lost.  Forgiveness cannot undo, but powerfully, immeasurably, unimaginably, forgiveness by God's grace remakes us from the ashes, breathes new life into us even when the air and everything changes.  For long before we were changed by September 11, long before we were or are or will be changed by any experience of grief or pain or terror or sin or violence or fear, we were changed by Christ, who even from the cross said, Father, what they do, forgive.

The forgiveness we offer, like the forgiveness we receive, allows us to move forward, to live again, to leave the tomb of our woundedness.  Forgiveness allows us to move forward unburdened by attention to what has injured us, unburdened by hate, unburdened by fear.  The forgiveness we offer, like the forgiveness we receive, frees us, remakes us, resurrects us.  Amen.

Photographs are all of the General Theological Seminary, New York, NY

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