September 11 Remembered

The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Ark.
September 11, 2011
13 Pentecost
Proper 19, Year A

(Matthew 18:21-35) – Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Ten years ago on the Sunday after the September 11 attacks, we brought our own sense of trauma into this holy place, to offer our anguish before God – to remind ourselves that in the cross of Jesus we see the presence of God in our most extreme human suffering and evil. I said that morning, “Whenever evil appears to triumph over innocence, there is Jesus the holy victim. Whenever human beings suffer physical pain or spiritual abandonment, there is Jesus the man on the cross. Whenever people know the terror of certain and unavoidable death, there is Jesus the crucified one. God knows our plight. God is with us.”

I invited you to take your memories of that week and to see everything “through the reality of the cross. … See Jesus there, protecting, guarding, loving. … See God’s divine light surrounding (everyone) in an eternal, protective love that is more powerful than death.” I asked us to “look beyond the superficial material image of earthly terror, and see the spiritual reality that is present and strong to save. Believe that the resurrection of Easter is already present in our Good Fridays.”

At that time, we had not yet heard many of the inspiring stories that would emerge from Ground Zero. The South Tower of the World Trade Center came down just a few feet from Trinity Episcopal Church. A friend and former Arkansan, the Rev. Stewart Hoke was inside the old church. After the noise and shaking stopped from the first tower’s fall, Stewart looked at the congregation gathered there in the dust, and he recited the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God, and so forth. An observer said, “It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever encountered. That was the response of faith. It wasn’t the reaction to run, it wasn’t the reaction to react violently, or panic. It was very meaningful.”

Our friend Fred Burnham was nearby in another part of the Trinity Church complex. He has since visited us twice to tell about his experience that day of a profound circle of infinite love and an unbounded interrelatedness of Being that transformed him as he huddled in the smoky dark just a few feet away from the falling buildings. In the months that followed, he marveled at the outpouring of compassion that found a place of creative expression and self-organizing at St. Paul’s Chapel, there at Ground Zero. Groups from our congregation traveled twice to serve in that place, which has become a shrine to healing and restoration. For those who have eyes, God has been profoundly present through it all.

***

Here in Fayetteville, as part of our response we invited a teacher from the Muslim community to spend several Sunday mornings with us sharing us about Islam. I thought it was very instructive and helpful. I found myself humbled, hearing witness about the Muslim discipline of five rituals of daily prayer and of a month of fasting; the ethos of surrender to God and the commitment to practices of charity that are at the heart of Islam.

We shared prayer with our Muslim neighbors. Who could forget the evening when they joined us in the Parish Hall where Muslims prayed the prayers for the end of the Ramadan fast and Christians prayed our Evening Office, then we shared an incredible feast. Some of the best food and smells we’ve ever had in that wonderful space. Somehow it tickled my funny-bone that from our Parish Hall, the direction one kneels in order to face Mecca is directly toward First Baptist Church.

We’ve made a lot of friends since September 11. A number of us participate in various University programs of cultural dialogue. It is not unusual for a St. Paul’s host family to bring their Muslim guests to church here on Sunday morning, where I believe they find welcome, hospitality and respect.

Since 9-11 we’ve also heard stories of acts of hostility toward Muslims and toward people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. The apostle Paul speaks in today’s reading an invitation to inclusiveness and reconciliation when people are divided by custom and by religious beliefs. “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds,” he says. Follow your conscience, and allow others to follow theirs. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” Paul asks. “Or why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

***

In today’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus about the boundaries of forgiveness. Jesus gives Peter an unsettling answer. Jesus calls us to be a radically forgiving people.

There is still much forgiving, healing and reconciling to do. I know I was heartbroken that our leaders decided to focus their response by invading and occupying Iraq, but I also recognize I was in a small 7% minority of Americans opposing the war at that time. I still have my own work of forgiveness to embrace, as I grieve what looked like a lost opportunity for a more peaceful and creative response.

How heartening it is now to see the yearning for freedom rising again in the Middle East in the aspirations of today’s Arab Spring. There is much to be hopeful about.

And yet the world remains an unpredictable and conflicted place. It has always been so.

In some way, what we experienced in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a familiar and continuing reality for so many in other parts of the world. Now we know a little better how they feel.

I am thankful for the intelligence services, who do the hard work of penetrating the circles of organized crime. They’ve done a good job to undermine Al-Qaeda and to protect innocents everywhere.

I am thankful for those who serve in the military. As we remember and memorialize those who died on 9-11, and others whose lives were severely marked on that day, we also remember our military families, especially those who have served in combat – those who have suffered; those who have died; those who still suffer and die daily. We also see God’s divine light with them, surrounding them in an eternal, protective love that is more powerful than death.

***

Ten years ago I said, “The one battle that you and I can engage in against the unseen enemy that has attacked our people, is for us to refuse to let them damage our souls and our lives. We must refuse to let their evil have power over us. We must continue to be the people we were created to be B loving, compassionate, and strong.” That is still our calling.

***

Every decade brings new challenges. What can we learn from the previous decade? I think we can learn from Steward Hoke and from Fred Burnham, and from the healing outpouring of compassion that characterized the work at St. Paul’s Chapel. How can we bring that kind of spirit and creativity to the new challenges of 2011? I think we can learn from our own acts of meeting and befriending the other.

In this coming decade, how can we become more loving, more related, more generous?

If we are to solve the considerable challenges that face us on September 11, 2011, we will need to be more deeply in touch with the reality of infinite love and the unbounded interrelationship of Being that is God’s presence in our world. We will need to remember and embrace the Beatitudes. We will need to forgive. We will need to reach out to the stranger, the other. We will need to organize on behalf of generosity and healing and community. The same strengths and virtues that brought health and healing to us a decade ago are the qualities we need for this moment and its challenges.

We have learned from 9/11. We have learned that we always do better as a people when we function out of hope rather than fear, out of creativity rather than reactivity, out of interrelatedness rather than division. Let us claim that knowledge, and go do the work of rebuilding that we need to do today.