Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
It was very hard NOT to be in New York on September 11, ten years ago. That bright, blue morning, I was getting ready to welcome new students to Northwestern University. That day we were to train the new dormitory staff in how to deal with the diverse spectrum of religious backgrounds they would encounter among their students.
Like most everyone else that day, I gathered with close friends. We watched in stunned silence as smoke bellowed and the unthinkable happened as buildings collapsed. As close as I got to caring for someone worried if a loved one had died was with a business school student from Hong Kong, whose brother worked at the World Trade Center. She finally spoke to him on the phone. A church friend, I later learned, panicked until he heard that his brother, who worked in the Pentagon, was safe.
Over the next day or so, I talked with close friends whose apartment overlooks the Hudson River. Their New Jersey balcony provided a front row seat. Someone in their building didn’t leave his apartment for months. Our friends, both clergy, became emergency responders, bringing water and sandwiches to rescue workers who were even the next day beginning to gather at St. Paul’s Chapel for rest and respite. Months later, we also paid a pilgrimage to that place, on a warm, November evening when we could still smell the fires and watch the trucks carry away massive steel beams.
Everyone one of us has an association, a memory, a friend who was there. Some of you went to help, others know people who died.
How do we remember that traumatic time?
How do we reconcile those memories and feelings with the demands of today’s Gospel? A pointed and even harsh parable of the cost of NOT forgiving those who have done us harm? “How often should I forgive, Lord?” Peter asks Jesus. “As many as seven time?” “Not seven but seventy-seven,” Jesus replies. On the face of it, this is an impossible demand. Impossible.
After the trauma of September 11, came September 12, which many people are remembering this year, too – remembering the time when people all over the world came together in compassion and solidarity. President Bush embraced Muslims, people hung flags, prayed prayers, held strangers and loved ones tight. But the promised of a “new world compassion” was quickly overshadowed by the drumbeat of war. This year, I read, the speakers’ lists at the big memorial events are omitting clergy, or omitting someone’s version of the “right” clergy. “9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about three-and-a-half minutes,” said religion scholar Alan Wolfe. “The country went from a brief moment of something like unity, to complete Balkanization, and now we’re seeing it in religion and in politics, like in everything else.”[i]
How do we reconcile the horrible effects of global terrorism and war with today’s reading from Exodus, where God acts as the Israelites’ field marshal and the Egyptians are drowned in the sea?
Is the song of triumph over the death of enemies really the song God would have us sing? Centuries ago, the rabbis wrestled with this troubling thought, and told a story about angels watching as the Egyptians drowned. They “wished to utter song before the Holy One,” the rabbis write, “but He rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are downing in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!’”
What a relief I felt when I read that story. The person who brought it to my attention put it this way:
How could God chastise the angels when God caused the drowning? The text was not erased, but a new word was spoken. The sages remembered other strands of Torah which called God’s people to care for strangers and foreigners, exiles and wanderers.[ii]
“A new word was spoken,” even as the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. What new word comes to our minds today, ten years after an event which traumatized the world?
Maybe today is the time to rethink what we thought was impossible, to forgive those who have harmed us? To forgive not only seven times, but seventy-seven times?
Think about it. Something that has harmed us so deeply can never be forgotten. The pain is part of our history, part of what makes us who we are. But when we add resentment to that pain, angry that that past was not different than what it was, then we stay there. Something that was so horrible in our past is now determining how we lives our lives now, and into the future. If we only look at the history, we will walk backwards into the future. Who wants to live in a future determined by all the bad things of the past? Didn’t Jesus come to show us another way? To remind us that God had always told us there is another way?
Forgive, forgive, forgive: does that mean forgive and forget? Does that mean peace at any price? Does that mean you become buddy-buddy with those who have harmed you?
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness releases us from being trapped by the past, from keeping that past alive in the present. So we can forgive, and even put our hearts at rest, but we may never be reconciled with those who do not share our values. Among Jesus’ last words, as he hung dying on the cross, were “Father, forgive them.” He forgave his killers, but he never reconciled with them. He never agreed with their imperial mission or their death-dealing ways. We can never be reconciled to those who use terror or violence or fear to achieve their goals. But how often must we forgive? Seven times? Seventy-seven?
Reading these lessons on this day reminds us that we have so much work to do, if the human race is to survive on this planet, if this beautiful world that God has created is to continue to sustain life.
But being a person of faith is to know that our blessed future is not determined by our tragic past. In our blessed future, resurrection is a fact. In our blessed future, there are enough resources to go around. In our blessed future, we can live together, despite our vast differences in language and culture. In our blessed future, we can say we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, and the person we have wronged can forgive us, and together we figure out what it means to live in this new creation, to be repairers of the breach, the harm, the pain, that seems to be so inevitable a part of the human condition.
As we try to do all of that, truly, the angels will sing.
[i] From “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest”, by Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, 9/8/2011; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/09/nyregion/omitting-clergy-from-911-ceremony-prompts-protest.html?hp
[ii] Barbara Lundblad, ON Scripture, http://odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-exodus-14-19-31