13th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A, Proper 19

The day of 9-11, ten years ago, was without doubt, a horrifying day in the history of our nation.  Still, ten years later, this day grips us, and the memories of it come flowing back, because on that day, all of human history is writ large.  On that day we witnessed the playing out on three stages, the playing out of the evil of which human beings are capable.  But we also witnessed the best of which human beings are capable. 

We witnessed the actions of people like Welles Crowther, a young man who did, as Jessica Powers puts it in her poem that the adults  heard in Sunday School today, “walked out of himself and went into the woods of God’s mercy” and poured out God’s mercy on the twelve people he was able save by going back up 71 flights of stairs twice in the South Tower before it collapsed.  Twelve people alive today, because this young man was willing to sacrifice his life to save them-

Themes of mercy, of death, of resurrection—

Harder to wrestle with are the themes forgiveness, one of the great hallmarks of Christianity—and yet, that is the theme that the lectionary hands us today. 

And so, I would like to talk about forgiveness in the context of 9-11–

Because the events of that day  still, all these years later, hold incredible power and challenge for every  person in America when considered in light of the command we have from our Lord and Savior  in answer to Peter’s question about how often we should forgive

“Not seven times, Peter, but I tell you, seventy seven times.”

When an event takes place that hurts us, our brains are hard-wired for revenge.  When we think of getting back at whoever hurt us, pleasure pathways in our brains open up.  Feelings of revenge are automatic, and feelings of revenge feel great and give us pleasure.

So Jesus is asking us in the scripture we heard today to make a conscious rational decision to decide to forgive, a decision that may directly go against our emotions. 

What I’ve learned in my life is that it takes awhile to decide to forgive when I’ve been hurt.  In addition to wanting revenge, I’ve had to struggle with anger and depression over hurts in my life.  Making the decision to forgive is difficult, and it is a decision that can’t be rushed. 

And then, when  I’ve  decided to forgive someone who hurts me, I’ve found that forgiveness is a process, a long drawn out process if the hurt is deep enough. 

In the end, reaching a state of forgiveness  in which I can let go and be free of the hurt I’ve suffered is finally an act of grace and mercy from God.

No matter how hard it is, or how deep the hurt is, Sooner or later, if I take the words of Jesus seriously, my job as a Christian is to make the conscious decision to forgive, because that is what Jesus asks us to do. 

But how do we get started, once we make the decision to forgive someone who has hurt us? 

Father Frank Desiderio, a member of the Paulist religious order in the Catholic church, has done a series of talks on forgiveness called Letting Go:  Five Steps to Forgiveness. 

I’m going to refer to some of his teachings to help us consider how to get started once we make the decision to choose forgiveness in dealing with hurtful situations in our lives. 

Desiderio talks about the three big forgives we have to work on when we make the decision to forgive.

We have to forgive God, we have to forgive ourselves, and then we can move toward forgiving the ones who have hurt us. 

Ever since 9-11, many many people have wondered, and asked,

“Why did God do this?”  Or, “Why did God allow this?”

As Christians, we wonder.  If God is all-powerful, why does God allow things like 9-11 to happen?  Why doesn’t God protect us from abuse, from illness, from death? 

So first, we have to forgive our all powerful God for not using all that power to keep the mystery of evil in check.  When we choose forgiveness, we decide to focus on God’s love and mercy, and to renounce evil and to do good, as Jesus did. 

A conscious choice.

Second, we have to forgive ourselves. 

Diane Horning, and Rose Foti both had sons who died at Ground Zero on 9-11.  Lynn McQuinn’s husband died.  The women share the stories of their journeys  toward forgiveness in a documentary called The Power of Forgiveness.

All three women struggled with the fact that the bodies of Matt, Frank and Robert were never recovered from the site of the attack on 9-11.   They blamed themselves for not doing more to find the bodies and they were devastated by the decision to remove the one million tons of  debris from Ground Zero and to take it all to Staten Island, to the Fresh Kills Land Fill. 

In a poignant scene in the documentary, Rose is walking across the land fill, and crying out, “I’m so angry that my son is in the dump!  How can  I ever forgive anyone for any of this?”  Later, she says, “I want him out.  Three hundred and forty three firefighters received the Medal of Honor and they’re in the garbage.  What sense does that make?”    “I should have gone down there and found him.”

A piece of Diane’s son was eventually found at the landfill.  She says, “I have trouble with it, but I’m working on it.  Forgiveness is something I am doing for myself.  It’s a journey to make my life easier.”

Diane accepts the fact that she is imperfect and has trouble forgiving not only the people who caused 9-11, but her trouble accepting the fact that remains of her son are in a land fill. 

Yes, she has trouble with this situation, but she is working on it—this is a good example of  what Desiderio says, that part of forgiving ourselves is to accept God’s love for us in all of our brokenness, accepting ourselves as we are. 

OK, for example, I love those feelings of revenge, or I get angry and hurt people, or I’m vindictive. 

God forgives us for our shortcomings when we go to God as the slave went to the master and begged for mercy.  The master forgave the slave all of his debts—that is what God does for us when we ask for mercy. 

When we accept God’s free gift of mercy, we can forgive ourselves for being the imperfect people that all of us are.

Desiderio has some excellent suggestions about how to work on forgiving ourselves.

He suggests that we substitute positive thoughts for negative thoughts.  So when I have a negative thought about myself—I make the decision to substitute a positive thought in the place of it. 

Another suggestion is to substitute gratitude for self-pity—

Self-pity can keep us mired in a pit of depression and self-hatred.  Instead, Desiderio suggests that when we are tempted to pity ourselves, that instead we turn to gratitude—that we intentionally focus on the good things in our lives. 

Focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses—

And to do good to others, as we would have them do for us. 

The third big forgive is to forgive the ones who hurt us. 

I’d like to point out here the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.

Forgiving someone is something we choose to do.  Desiderio says that forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.  We cancel the emotional debt the other person owes us to free ourselves from destructive feelings.

As Christians, we decide to accept God’s grace of forgiveness and to extend it to others.  We feel differently.  We find ourselves praying for the person rather than wanting to get back at the person. 

Forgiveness is something we do regardless of whether or not the other person apologizes to us or changes, or feels remorse.  Ultimately, forgiveness of the one who hurt us is something we do for ourselves.

As Lynn McQuinn, who lost her husband on 9-11 says, “On the road to peace, we have to cross the bridge of forgiveness.”    Each one of us makes a decision about whether or not we want to walk down the road to peace in our own lives, regardless of what the person who hurt us chooses. 

Reconciliation is a two way street.  We can forgive the person who has hurt us without being reconciled to that person. 

For instance, forgiveness is NOT putting up with hurtful behavior, setting the reset button and returning to a situation in which we get hurt all over again. 

If the other person is not willing to be reconciled to us, then we might have to remove ourselves from the situation, because we have compassion for ourselves.  So even as we forgive someone who injures and hurts us, we do not continue to accept abuse as part of forgiveness.  

Some relationships cannot be mended, but even in these broken relationships that come to an end, when we decide to cross over the bridge of forgiveness , we cultivate compassion and love in our hearts for the person who has wounded us, and we look for the lessons we have learned in the bad situation that we have left. 

If you would like to learn more about the work of forgiveness, I have included a list of resources on the Prayers of the People handout, and I hope that at some point in the coming year, we, as a parish,  can gather for a series on how to forgive others as God has forgiven us.

Paul said to the Romans that “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.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 

As a way of honoring those who died on 9-11, as a way of honoring those who have died since, as a way of honoring those who are fighting now for the security of our nation

Paul’s words challenge us to live to the Lord–

Invite God into your particular story, invite God to walk with you down your broken road, and ask God to help you study the hurtful events in your lives.

Ask God to ‘re-mind” you—to help you seek a new mind about those hurtful situations. 

And invite God into your life as a healer—so that instead of hurting others you can cross over the bridge of forgiveness and  become part of God’s compassionate, healing power in this broken world of ours. 


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