Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nineteen Troubling Ribbons

We who strive to follow Jesus as our Lord and Guide are inheritors of a blessed tradition that at times is like the beauty of the pedals of a rose while at other times is more like its thorns. “Jesus, how many times should I forgive?” His answer is a thing of beauty when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, but it is very prickly when we are the ones who must forgive. How prickly? The Rev. Dr. James Cooper, Rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street, published his notes for today’s sermon a month ago in order to make New Yorkers aware of the readings they would be hearing this morning.

I am not going to preach a sermon that proclaims you must forgive. I am not going to tell you how to forgive. All I am going to do is lift up what Jesus teaches and tell you I struggle with it too – especially today. It is a struggle of the head and a struggle of the heart and a struggle of the spirit.

And it creates a very practical struggle right now for us at St. Paul’s. Here are nineteen black ribbons. Like the 3,000 ribbons that hang above us, each represents a life lost ten years ago today. As the color might suggest, these ribbons stand for the nineteen hijackers. We could add to their number: one for Zaccarius Moussaoui, the so-called twentieth hijacker who was arrest prior to 9/11 and is now incarcerated; one for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the plot; one for Osama Bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaeda network; and so on. But these nineteen will do for now.

They are challenging enough because we must ask what should we do with them? Should we hang them above our sanctuary with all the other ribbons – ribbons that represent innocent victims and courageous responders? Should we burn them, bury them, or spit on them? Should we make excuses for them, dismissing each terrorist’s personal responsibility for his actions?

I suppose our individual answers would be indicative of where we are on the path to forgiveness. If we could make a collective response it would be telling of where we are as a congregation. I guess we could do that by a hand vote or some other measure. I have no idea how we could do it as a society and I am glad for that because forgiveness is both a commandment and a gift – a grace that comes from God to each person in God’s good time.

I suspect many of you like me recently watched and read several retrospectives of the events of ten years ago. I came away from those experiences with the deep realization that every person’s sense of loss and pain and grief from the events of 9/11 is unique. The spouse on the cell phone to her partner on Flight 93 as it crashed, the young bride whose husband served in Iraq during the first birthdays of both their daughters, parents whose son died on the Cole, me whose life was changed as our world became a very different place in a matter of minutes… our experiences are so varied and what it takes to come to forgiveness is so very different.

This week a clergy friend of mine posted a quote by Nelson Mandela, he himself a victim of terror and terrorism. It said simply, “Resentment is like drinking a poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” I think there is great wisdom in his thinking. It encapsulates much of why Jesus directed us to forgive. Not only does hatred acted upon perpetuate hate, but as Mandela suggests it prevents us from moving forward into the possibility of a better future.

When the Worship Committee meet several weeks ago to discuss today’s service, I spoke of my desire to have the liturgy move from remembrance of the past to dreaming about the future: how can we as we recall the events of the last ten years dream of the world we would like to live in ten years from now? Jesus tells us that we get to that dream only as we take a step toward forgiveness. Mandela offers that we get there only as we stop drinking the poison that is resentment.

I don’t want to stand before you and pretend to be a great social theorist or analyst. Many of you can speak more intelligently and insightfully about the last ten years than I. All I can say is that I sense we have done some things well and other things not. We have pursued justice and vengeance. We have made sacrifices and we have engaged in indulgences. We have turned to God for solace and for guidance and we have used God’s glorious Name to exult our own fallen qualities. In short, we have been human; exhibiting both our highest and our lowest tendencies.

The age-old message of the faith is that, through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, God meets us and loves us where we are… where we are the best at what it means to be human and where we are the worst… and God invites us to follow Jesus to a better place. The way to that place, which we call “the way of the Cross,” is never easy, but always life-giving.

Those terrorists who carried out the events of 9/11 accomplished things they could never have imagined or dreamed - world conflict, economic turmoil, and a destabilizing sense of fear and uncertainty. But they also set in motion things which they never, ever would have intended – courageous self-sacrifice, a world-wide response against terror in all its forms, and (I think this is most important) a thirst in the Western Christian world to understand and appreciate the virtues and values of Islam. In communities around our country today there will be interfaith services that bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims who will celebrate our dedication to the one true God and lift a vision for a peaceful future. That definitely was not a part of the 9/11 plan.

Last Lent we spent Wednesday evenings encountering the words and witness of five different saints from the Christian tradition. This past week I went back to those services to hear again what their voices might say to us today. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th Century Cistercian monk, said this:

Charity joins the lowest to the highest,
binds in harmonious peace
contraries to contraries,
cold to hot, wet to dry,
smooth to rough, hard to soft,
so that among all creatures
there can be nothing adverse,
nothing contradictory,
nothing unbecoming,
nothing disturbing,
nothing to disfigure the beauty of the universe.

He captured exactly why Jesus taught us to forgive. It is so we can move into a new future that more closely resembles God’s dream for the world.

And today we are left with these nineteen ribbons. What should we do with them? And what do we want the world to look like a decade from now? How should we work, pray, and give to make that dream a reality? If our faith tells us one thing it is this: God will bless any and every effort – be it offered by an individual or by an army – that aims to make God’s dream come true.