Trinity 12 Proper 19
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
There is no getting away from today’s date. The 11thSeptember, 9/11, is as much part of history now as the Ides of March or the 5thof November. It’s the kind of day where if you were old enough to have memories, you know where you were when you heard the news. I was at work that day. The Trading Floor fell quiet as the biggest screen was switched from price information to BBC news. And no-one who watched the images of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, burning and then collapsing, on that day ten years ago will ever forget what they saw.
But there are other images I carry with me, also associated with that day. The first is of people on the streets in the Middle East, celebrating the attack on the heart of Western power. The other is a much more recent image, from Thursday morning this week, of a woman being interviewed on BBC Breakfast. Her daughter had flown out to New York the day before, and was in the World Trade Centre for an interview where she died. The image I carry is of a mother saying “My life ended that day.”
None of these images I carry is comfortable. None of them make me smile. All of them heighten the reality of what happened that day, ten years ago.
There are some parallels between the fractured east/west relationships, and those of Jacob’s family in Genesis. The original problems in that family started when Joseph was given so much by Jacob – and then boasted about it. The conflict across our world today need not be framed in terms of Christian/Muslim relationships, but is more properly grounded in the divide between rich and poor – between the nations that have so much, and those who have so little. Between nations who have exploited, and nations which have been exploited. Jealousy is a dangerous motivator. So too is feeling ignored, despised, rejected. To be told that “our way is right, your way is wrong”. The desire for revenge in these circumstances is strong. Jacob’s brothers wanted to kill him, and compromised with Reuben by selling him into slavery. For nations that felt wronged by the United States, seeing its people suffer must have seemed like some kind of justice. But that desire for revenge is not what we are taught in our faith.
Joseph’s brothers thought they were forgiven – but on the death of their father Jacob, they suddenly realized that they might be under threat from a very powerful man who was biding his time. But when they threw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, in our reading this morning, he reminded them that he is not God. Implicit here is a sense that judgment belongs to God, not to humans.
Paul makes the same point about judgment belonging to God not humans in his writing to the Romans. He is talking about those whose faith is strong, and those whose faith is weak. He argues that actually it doesn’t matter – that God accepts everyone, as they are, and regardless of whatever people think of them. We are all subject to God’s judgment, and all subjects of God by his Grace. It is worth noting that although Paul identifies the “strong” group and the “weak” group, he says very little about their characteristics. He does not divide them as Roman citizens, and those who are not citizens; he does not divide them as Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and his association of the weak with “those who eat only vegetables” may serve to identify them only as the poorer people who cannot afford meat, rather than being an ideological division. In other words, he reminds the Christians of Rome that the way they describe themselves and other groups may be a bit too neat, a bit too simplistic – much like our ways of describing ourselves and others today. It’s easy to label ourselves – and even easier to label other people. But generally, beliefs, ideologies and relationships are more complicated. Paul reminds us that all people are accepted by God.
And of course there is our Gospel reading, all about how we treat each other. When Peter asks his question, he is speaking as if he is the injured party, choosing to forgive or not. By the end of the parable, where a man is forgiven, chooses not to forgive, and is then punished, Peter may have the point. We all need to be forgiven, as well as to forgive. One of the open wounds left by 9/11 is that there hasn’t been an apology from those inflicting such damage. Obviously those who actually carried out the attacks can’t apologize from beyond the grave, but those who ordered and facilitated the attacks possibly could. And yet to expect an apology is wishful thinking. And to require an apology as a condition of offering forgiveness is also missing the point. When we offer forgiveness, we do so from a human viewpoint. The act of offering forgiveness may be as much about healing for our self as it is for the other person.
But what of those who cannot find it in their hearts to consider forgiveness – those who are frozen at the point of loss? We have been talking in Christian terms of sinners and those who are sinned against. But in modern terms we are talking about murderers and victims – and the victims are not just those who were hurt or killed, but those affected by their loss – such as the mother I heard on Thursday. She has been rendered powerless by someone’s sin against her daughter. She is a victim too. The trouble with being frozen is it may be less painful than being thawed out – a bit like a much worse version of pins and needles after having a numb arm or leg. To define people as victim and oppressor is again a matter of labels – remember those who celebrated, who felt as though they finally had a voice on the world stage.
Moving on from devastating events takes courage, and energy. It requires support from those around us. 9/11 is an event about which we all have opinions and memories, and it is a point of our shared history from which some of us may move on more easily than others. But move on we must, eventually, in order to live our lives. We are told at the end of every Holy Communion Service – “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And we all reply “In the name of Christ Amen”. We are told what we must do, and we have a community here that I hope can support us in our thawing out and moving on. It is notable that we have to go in peace, before we can love and serve the Lord. Achieving that peace is not something we can do for ourselves, it is God given. We submit to God’s judgment, we give thanks God accepts us as we are, and as many times as we turn from sin to his name, we can be confident that God will forgive us all, not once, not seven times, but every time. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit