Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35
Two days after 9/11, on Thursday night, we gathered UCC clergy from the NY Metro. area… to begin thinking about, to talk about our sermons for 9/16.
The difficulty of an assignment that’s not easy on a typical Sunday– if there’s ever a typical Sunday — …suddenly the difficulty had increased geometrically.
As is always the case — but, thank God, usually not so dramatically — life happens all around us in ways that affect what needs to be said from the pulpit. It’s as true about the details of members’ lives as about great historical happenings around the globe.
Preaching is a mysterious and difficult mix. The Scripture and our tradition never suggest anything independently– their meaning can’t be cordoned off from the context of a specific time and space… where you are, how you are feeling, what you are celebrating and what you are mourning.
Significance does not ever exist of the moving targets of where real people and our world find themselves when we hear anything, especially a message from God…. The meaning of Scripture through tradition can not be isolated from the hopes and fears, the aspirations and the needs of their audience… The Holy Spirit knows that, even when we forget, and brings it all together in each of our hearts and minds and also in and among us as a congregation, as the church, in ways obvious, subtle and even unconscious.
In the fear engendered by 9/11‘s destruction right here at home, pastors recognized that in record numbers people were turning to their religious communities for support. All of a sudden, there was a clearly recognized need for what faith could offer.
The UCC’s NYConference asked the Rev. Henry Simmons… you might call him the preaching dean of the Conference… to help other pastors prepare for their sermons that first Sunday after 9/11.
Henry is the senior pastor at St. Albans UCC, a 1400 member African-American congregation in SE Queens, a gifted preacher and a wise pastor.
We also asked Marta Green, a pastor and pastoral counselor, to join Henry. Together with pastors, they were going to try and figure out how our preaching could possibly find people on that Sunday– with mixed and overwhelming emotions, with so much confusion, with many in worship who were not church regulars. Could all those various people and their different pastoral needs be touched on homiletically?
Most of the conversation that night was clergy sharing their own feelings. Pastors are people too. We struggle. And get confused. We hurt and doubt and fall way short of forgiveness too.
Because we’re called and expected (at our best) to speak for or to something greater than ourselves, it’s absolutely necessary to keep in mind and to acknowledge where we are personally… before aiming for that higher place.
The preachers that night, like everyone else, were overflowing with emotions: anger, fear, vengeance, sorrow, emptiness, panic, despair…
Henry Simmons delivered our calling’s challenge:
He said: “Whatever you say on Sunday, you have to accomplish two things:
First, what you preach has to be true– if you are angry or sad or hurting– say that. But second, whatever you end up saying, you also have to leave God’s people with hope…”
A sermon must be true. And it must leave us with hope.
My sermon title today, even incendiary 10 years later, didn’t come from the conversation among pastors that Thursday night. I first heard it a week or 2 later.
A suburban pastor call to say he was having trouble with his congregation. Or, more exactly, he was in trouble with his congregation.
His sermon for the Sunday after 9/11 used the title I have borrowed for my message today. He insisted, he couldn’t understand his congregation’s negative reaction. “Why are they so mad at me,” he asked, “they’ve always known I’m a pacifist.”
If I remember correctly, two people in that congregation had been killed on 9/11, and I suspect even more in that town. I thought to my self, “you’re either being a boob… or acting out awfully… doing something pretty passive-aggressive.”
As hard as the sermon title is to hear even a decade later– that pastor’s theology was not wrong. Jesus said — we heard Nancy read it earlier… if we listen carefully today, we’ll still hear God saying– “Go on forgiving endlessly, because I have and do and always will show you unending mercy.”
The preacher’s theology was dead on point; but his pastoring was all out of whack! Expecting people to be able to field a reasoned theological exhortation for a loving loving response 5 days after the Towers fell was unreasonable. Even cruel. Unfair. Inappropriate pastorally. As wrong as could be.
I might even be asking too much to re-use his title ten years later. It may still be pastorally unrealistic. But its insistence still stands theologically!
Beloved, as I said in this week’s e-pistle, ten years later, 9/11 leaves us with many questions we can barely struggle with and very few answers we can count on.
The ensuing years, the reactions and the bloody playing out of history during this last decade have compounded the violence and rolled out innumerable more deaths.
Honesty demand that I confess questions whose answers I can’t begin to even imagine:
Can we forgive, or, perhaps more aptly, how can we forgive?
If we could, what would forgiveness look like?
Is there forgiveness that doesn’t require us to make ourselves vulnerable to further harm?
Could forgiveness be possible while we still prosecute wars in the name of defending ourselves?
Beloved, I don’t pretend to answers. Sometimes humility and honesty are about saying less, remaining silent.
But, thank God, in the face of our questions, Scripture and the teaching stands. Challenges. Probably convicts…
How many times are we to forgive? Endlessly, Jesus answers, because God’s mercy goes at least that far with us…
On Thursday, The Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry published “A Prayerful Request in the Huffington Post.
She tells of her friend, Theresa, whose husband, Francis, died in the World Trade Towers. Theresa, just weeks after 9/11, noticed how much sabre-rattling was going on. She responded with 7 words that speak 70 times more:
Her request echoes biblical imploring for resisting revenge, righting wrongs, curing injustices, and building a lasting peace wherein all God’s children may live out full and abundant lives.
We must confess today, our responses have fallen short:
~ 6,026 U.S. military personnel have died. ~ Over 900,000 people overall have been killed.
May we mourn each and every last one of them right alongside the 2,976 or so humans who perished that day in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania.
And we ask to be forgiven, even as we ask how we can forgive.
“This Sunday,” wrote Rev. Hawley-Lowrey, “for those who gather — whether at church or community services — I plead… reflect and realize that in so many ways, we have changed for the worse.”
We have become more suspicious and mistrusting,
more violent and vindictive.
We have closed ourselves off to others.
We constricted our own freedom and denied others liberty.
Rev. Hawley-Lowrey wrote, we’ve “too often yielded to the temptation to love ourselves — and care less about our global neighbors.” She appealed to Archbishop Tutu’s challenge, “God loves our enemies as much as God loves us…”
God loves are enemies as much as God loves us.
At the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Theresa, Francis’ widow and Reverend’s friend, was quoted in the New York Times:
“My husband loved life, and I want [our children] to live life and love life. You can’t do that when you’re consumed with hating someone…”
You can’t LIVE…
you can’t LOVE LIFE…
…I might add…
you can’t SHARE LIFE…
if you are consumed with hating someone else.
That’s why and where forgiveness needs to come in…
Theresa continued, “We have a… powerful future — IF WE CHOOSE.”
May the decade ahead be marked by
more love than hate,
more peace than war,
more truth than lies,
more forgiveness than revenge, and
more hope than despair.
We, church, like Theresa, are free to choose how we respond.
Because God offers us forgiveness.
We can forgive others and ourselves.
IF WE CHOOSE…