On this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I’m not exactly sure how to talk about the events of September 11, 2001. Even at this remove, I do not presume to be able to explain or make sense of them. Kathy and I were living in the Philadelphia area in 2001, and I clearly remember the day and the effect the attacks had on our parish community. But I’m not sure, ten years later, that I understand September 11 any better than I did then. Oh, I think I understand the political and social forces that led to the attacks, and I think I have a sense of the various ways Americans and others have processed them. But I don’t think I see September 11, 2001 with any more clarity than I did at the time. Was it the day that everything changed? Not really. Was it the day we lost our innocence? I don’t think so. The easy bromides don’t help any more now than they did then. But I do know that it felt like a wound and still does. And I do know that our tradition has a lot to say about how to deal with wounds. And that is where, as a Christian, it makes sense for me to try to talk about it.
In the Gospel for today, we begin with this interchange:
Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother or sister sin against me, and I forgive them? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. [Matthew 18.21]
What we’re offered in the scriptures this morning—and this is the Gospel actually scheduled for today, not something I chose for the occasion—is a parable of forgiveness. The Bible uses numbers—40 days and 40 nights, 40 years, 77 times—without modern scientific precision. When Jesus says “seventy seven times” or in another reading, “seventy times seven”, he does not mean either number literally. He uses 77 as a figure for infinity. We must always forgive.
And then he tells a parable—one of his most outrageous—about forgiveness. A master forgives a debt of 10,000 talents to a slave who then forces repayment of a debt of 100 denarii. In contemporary terms, the disparity between those debts is enormous. The first slave owes the master something like three or four lifetimes’ worth of wages. The second slave owes the first something like the price of a latte at Starbucks. The point of the story is clear: we who have been forgiven a gigantic amount by God need to extend a proportional amount of forgiveness to our fellow beings.
Now I’m not going to say that we should clap Al Qaeda members on the back and say “let bygones be bygones”. But I am going to say that there is something in the process of forgiveness that we need to attend to if we want to make sense of any hard world historical event. Even though we preachers talk a lot about forgiveness, none of us fully understands it. I know in my own life I have experienced the ability to forgive as a gift more than as an act of my own will. When I’ve been able to do it, I’ve experienced the granting of forgiveness as a surprise. The grace to forgive comes to me from outside myself. But I know it starts with an acknowledgment of the injury I’ve suffered.
We live in what one writer [Michael Hrebeniak ] calls the “Amnesiac Market State”. When we experience pain or tragedy, we tend to say, “Let’s put this behind us and move on.” One thing I do know about forgiveness is that you can’t forgive someone for a wound you haven’t fully acknowledged. To the extent that our 10th anniversary remembrance of September 11, 2001 helps us recall and acknowledge the pain, confusion, and grief we felt on that day and afterwards, then it’s all to the good. To the extent that this anniversary becomes an occasion for boastful posturing or an anniversary we forget tomorrow, then we really haven’t moved very far down the road to healing.
But once we recall and acknowledge that wound, what then? One of the deep life lessons I’ve learned in almost 62 years on the planet is that I can really, finally, only change myself, not someone else. So the question for all of us on this 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001 is: how do we become the people God is calling us to be? I can’t really do anything to change the heart of an extremist, whether abroad or here. But I can do something about my own heart and my own world. And that, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at when he talks about forgiving 77 (or 70 times 7) times.
A year ago I asked Beth Taylor to join our staff and take on primary responsibility for youth ministry and outreach. The vestry and I felt at the time that the parish needed both to increase its commitment to our own young people and to develop ways to call all of us into deeper relationship with our wider metropolitan community. Beth has done extraordinary work in both areas, but as we think today about moving forward from September 11, it is her work in the outreach area that engages my imagination.
Over the last year, Beth and the Outreach Committee, chaired by vestry member Felix Rogers, have studied Detroit and its challenges, and they have explored the possibility of finding a non-profit organization with whom we could partner and through whom we could channel all our volunteer and philanthropic energy. My vision for this was that we would build a relationship with a real urban neighborhood, get to know the people in that neighborhood, and build a volunteer program through which parishioners here could offer their energies in the areas of education, healthcare, employment, and housing. This would be a concentrated, focused outreach ministry where our parishioners could offer themselves to tutor kids, build houses, offer professional skills, and help stabilize an endangered neighborhood. It would also allow us to get to know women, children, and men who live in a very different context than the one we all inhabit. Such a program would be transformational for them and for us.
After a year of work, Beth, Felix, and the Outreach Committee have proposed a partnership with Focus Hope, a well-known Detroit non-profit with a forty year history offering hunger relief, career training and development, and racial reconciliation. We have been invited to join their Hope Village Initiative in a section of the Oakman Boulevard neighborhood in Detroit which has the newly reopened charter elementary school, Glazer, as a community anchor. Kathy and I have been down to Focus Hope and to Glazer Elementary, we’ve met with the leaders and the school principal there, and I feel that this partnership will offer us a way to make an enormous difference in the health of Detroit both as a city and as the metropolitan area in which we all live. This partnership will allow Christ Church parishioners to offer the wide range of their skills and energies to help improve the lives of real people in a real place. And this partnership will help us all live out what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century, pledged in the Prayer Book’s words “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being.”
I don’t know what else to say about September 11 except this: when the remembrances and the speeches are over, all of us are left with the question, what have we done to make our community more just, more loving, more prosperous, more safe? What have we done to take on and engage the sufferings and struggles of people whose culture and context may differ from us but whose fundamental humanity we share? There is nothing we can do, finally, to stop others from hating us. But we can, together, work to help our city, our community, our society reflect our deepest values and highest aspirations. And that is why I believe God is calling us to this new work with Focus Hope in Detroit.
The same year as the terrorist attacks, 2001, I became rector of the parish in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—the Church of the Redeemer, a parish similar in size and demographics to this one. When I arrived in Philadelphia in May of that year, I made a pilgrimage to talk to the retired Bishop of Pennsylvania, Robert DeWitt, not coincidentally the third rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, serving here at the parish in the 1950s and in the 1960s as Suffragan Bishop of Michigan. Bob was a hero of mine, and he had been famous for all kinds of great things in the church, especially for getting so many ministries going here that responded to the urban and social crises of those days.
Because Redeemer, Bryn Mawr and Christ Church Cranbrook are so similar, I asked Bob how he managed to get so many outreach projects going in a large suburban parish. He responded, “There are a lot of people in the congregation who care deeply about the things you and I care about. So I would just get up on Sunday and tell people what I’d been thinking about, and then I’d ask them, if they were thinking about it too, to come over to the rectory some night and we’d think through it together.” So this morning, following in Bob DeWitt’s footsteps, I’m telling you what’s on my mind. I hear God calling us to respond to the fear and pain of September 11, 2001 by opening our hearts and hands to real, nearby people in our own metropolitan area. And I’m asking that, if you hear some version of that voice in your own head, that you come and think and talk about it with Felix and Beth and me at the rectory this Wednesday night. Details are in the bulletin. We’ll be open for coffee and talk from 7:30 to 9:00. Let’s think about this together. Let’s go forward from this tenth anniversary of September 11 not in vengeance or in anger but embarked on a process to know and serve and love people whose lives are linked with ours in an infinite myriad of ways.
Christianity is a realistic religion. It understands that both human sin and aggression and human heroism and compassion will always coexist within and among us. Our call as Christians is not to try to change human nature—only God can do that. Our call is to be faithful, generous, and compassionate as we are where we are, with the people God has made us neighbors.
In this morning’s epistle [Romans 14], Paul says this: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 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.” Paul and Jesus knew what it is to be afraid. And they knew something else: they knew that those they feared would not say the last word about them; they knew the final word would be God’s. Whether we live, whether we die, we are the Lord’s. That great truth puts every other claim in its place. Threatened and vulnerable though we may feel, we are ultimately, finally, safe. As we take in the knowledge of that safety, let us reach out to love and serve those who will only come to know of God’s blessings through the work of our hands and minds and hearts. Amen.