“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
This passage from Romans is my good news today: that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord, who is the Lord of both the dead and the living. That all those who died ten years ago today belong to the God who loves them, and their lives were—and are—precious in his sight. It’s the faith that inspires the words of a hymn like “O God our Help in Ages Past” which we’ll be singing at the end of the service today:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.
The hymn, the biblical texts, the good news again and again: God is our help, our shelter, and our refuge; for yesterday, today and the future. It’s also the hymn I played and sang upon entering St. Paul’s Chapel on September 13, 2001 when we opened it for the first time to begin the relief efforts there that lasted so many months. I walked into the strange stillness of that room—a tiny bit of dust was the only sign of what had happened, and the noise from the pile was cushioned by the walls—and Lyndon Harris and I lit the candles on the altar. Then I took up a hymnal from a pew, went over to the piano and sat down, and I played and sang with Lyndon all six verses of O God our Help in Ages past. IT was a way of hallowing the space and rededicating ourselves to our faith in the Christ who knew what it was to suffer—and there was so much acute suffering going on in our city and our nation in those days—but who also was the incarnate reminder that in death life is changed, not ended, and that resurrection follows death. And it articulated my faith in a way that I couldn’t myself at the time—I was beyond words, unsure of what I was feeling, but the suffering and faith experienced by Isaac Watts nearly 300 years ago inspired this text that leapt through the centuries to become my words, my faith, for an event completely unimaginable to the author. When we finished singing, we got to work—bringing food, coffee, listening ears and participated in the national—and international—witness of strength and courage and self-offering in the face of a tragedy of such a magnitude.
I really don’t want to preach about forgiveness today, even with it being the focus of all three Biblical texts. Who am I to talk about forgiveness when I didn’t lose a spouse or family member or close friend? And is ten years really enough for wounds to heal enough to begin to even hear the word? And most of all—how do you talk about forgiveness in the absence of any repentance or apology on behalf of those who sinned?
But I’m a priest of the church that follows Jesus Christ, who cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” from the cross, and who taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Sometimes God leads us places we don’t want to go—and if we only believe in the words we pray when they are easy, then why are we here? So today we hear a gospel that commands us to forgive: not just seven times but seventy seven time. Are we really to forgive as many as 2,977 times?
Feeling my own limitations this week, I sought a definition of forgiveness from an expert. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the book, No Future Without Forgiveness in 1999 after his experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and spending time with Rwandan genocide victims and survivors—and perpetrators—of terrorism in Northern Ireland. He speaks—to me—as one having authority when he says the following:
“In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” (No Future Without Forgiveness, pg. 271.)
When I consider forgiveness as “drawing out the sting”, as picking off the bee sting that is still injecting poison into myself long after the bee is dead, then it becomes something that I remember I want. In that sense, forgiveness has nothing to do with the sinner—the bee is dead and gone—and everything to do with the healing of the one who is offering forgiveness. And that sounds like something we need. Ten years on, as a culture and nation, we have not healed. We are still suffering, and we are still dying. And if forgiveness was about the perpetrators, about redeeming them in some soft and fluffy way, maybe we would be right to scorn it. But if it is about our own healing, if we need to forgive not for them but for us that sounds like today’s Gospel. God is the judge—not us—and we show mercy not because it helps the other (although it may) but because it helps us. It allows us to heal, it allows us to stop being poisoned by other people’s sins, and it allows us to step forward on a different path.
And that does not depend upon the perpetrators or their representatives. Archbishop Tutu again:
“Does the victim depend upon the culprit’s contrition and confession as the precondition for being able to forgive? There is no question that, of course, such a confession is a very great help to the one who wants to forgive, but it is not absolutely indispensible. Jesus did not wait until those who were nailing him to the cross had asked for forgiveness. He was ready, as they drove in the nails, to pray to his Father to forgive them and he even provided an excuse for what they were doing. If the victim could forgive only when the culprit confessed, then the victim would be locked into the culprit’s whim, locked into victimhood, whatever her own attitude or intention. That would be palpably unjust.” (No Future Without Forgiveness, pg 272)
God is just. And our salvation does not depend upon the people who sin against us. It depends upon God alone, the God who is the God both of the dead and the living.
The living continue to live: I was reminded of that last night—and in the days preparing for this sermon—preparing for the blessing of the civil marriage of Dinushka de Silva and Nikkya Martin, which I did last night. I was preparing for the pain of this morning, and the joy of last night at the same time, and that seems to be to be a lot like most of life; there is always joy somewhere, even in the midst of suffering and tragedy. And it made me reflect upon how that is true even for September 11, 2001 for me, because that’s the day I met Jonathan, my husband. I showed up at Chelsea Piers, where they had set up a huge triage facility and operating theater and we were setting up chaplaincy for that, and he was there. He recounts that when I arrived, I immediately took charge and set him home—I told him at what time to return. But in the haze of the day, we noticed each other, and it meant a lot later to each of us that we truly saw each other on that day.
Under the shadow of thy throne thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone, and our defense is sure.