Deciding to Forgive
Proper 19 | Ordinary Time 24
Ronald H. Love
Matthew 18:21-35 — Romans 14:1-12
Exodus 14:19-31 — Psalm 114
This coming Sunday offers a big challenge, as it will be impossible to avoid the fact that it will be the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Knowing that this event will be on the minds of everyone in the pews, should we take the bull by the horns and directly address it from the pulpit? Or should we deal with it primarily through prayers, litanies, and other worship material? Or perhaps we should leave the commemoration to civic gatherings and media specials, aware that it's still such a sensitive topic that any missteps could easily create serious issues within the congregation? As team member Dean Feldmeyer notes in this installment of The Immediate Word, the wounds remain fresh -- even after a decade has passed and Osama bin Laden has been eliminated. (Indeed, the controversy over building a proposed Islamic community center in the vicinity of "Ground Zero" revealed the depth of resentment that still lingers.) Choosing how to approach the day will be a delicate task that calls for respecting and honoring the raw feelings many people still have about 9/11 while having the courage and dedication to share the biblical witness. But as Dean points out, the lectionary's assigned texts for this Sunday give us some tools for fruitfully responding to this seminal event. In particular, the gospel parable with its emphasis on forgiveness beyond our capacity to imagine ("Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times") offers us a clear roadmap on how to process our grief and anger and begin to leave behind the valley of despair. The path of forgiveness is not an easy choice, Dean acknowledges, but it is the one that we as Christians are called to follow.
Team member Ron Love offers some additional thoughts on the waterfalls being built as an essential part of the 9/11 memorial on the World Trade Center site and how we in the church have much to learn from their purpose to remove the noise and distraction of a busy metropolis in order to focus meditation. Ron notes that Paul's purpose in this week's epistle passage was much the same: to draw the congregation away from their focus on the noise and distraction of petty squabbling over unimportant side issues and instead to bring them together in unity of purpose. However, as Ron points out, the only way the Romans -- and we too -- can achieve that objective is by attempting to avoid the judgmentalism that inevitably arises from overconfidence in the righteousness of our own opinions. Rather, we ought to focus on harmonious fellowship and let God pass judgment... for, as Paul aptly puts it, "each of us will be accountable to God."
In addition to our usual worship resources, this installment also includes a litany of remembrance suitable for use in community events (and that you may wish to adapt for worship purposes) as well as a children's message and several illustrations related to 9/11, forgiveness, and judgmentalism.
Deciding to Forgive
by Dean Feldmeyer
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Matthew 18:21-35
In less than four years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had bombed, defeated, crushed, humiliated, occupied, and begun the process of rebuilding Japan in our own image. V-J Day was a celebration. The troops came home; it was finished.
Ten years after the September 11, 2001, attack on America by Islamist extremists from various parts of the Arab world, we are still at war, our hearts are still wounded, and the monuments we said we would build are still unfinished.
On the tenth anniversary of that terrible day, "unfinished" may be the operative word for America. We are not finished reliving that nightmare. We are not finished grieving for our lost brothers and sisters, our lost innocence, our lost sense of security. We are not finished being angry.
And yet, we are Christians. We call Jesus Christ our Lord. We pray daily that God will "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." We hear the call of Jesus to forgive those who have injured us and pray for those who have done us wrong.
How do we get from the valley of grief and anger to the mountaintop of love and forgiveness to which Jesus calls us?
On Sunday, September 11, church bells will toll. Silence will be kept. Prayers will be prayed and hymns will be sung. The line between church and state will be rendered invisible if only for a brief period while we remember the grief and the pain of that horrible day.
In the little county-seat community where I live, there will be three large public gatherings at different times of the day. Church bells will be rung and emergency sirens sounded across the county at 1:00 p.m. No doubt, worship services in many of the churches will mention if not focus on the symbolic importance of the day and our promise to "never forget."
Like Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news. People who were there will tell their stories and the impact of that day will be felt one more time. Photographs and film from that day will find their way onto our televisions and the pages of our newspapers. The names of the dead will be read aloud. Their numbers will be counted again. We will pause to revisit that sadness that has not yet "flown away on the wings of time" (Jean de la Fontaine).
Tragically, some among us will use the day as an opportunity to whip up feelings of jingoism and religious prejudice. Patriotism will be confused with violence, and justice with revenge.
As Christians, many of us find ourselves mired in ambivalence. Our grieving is still unfinished, our anger is not fully abated. Yet there is something at work within us that wants to leave the anger behind and wants to heal the wounds that were inflicted upon us these ten years ago.
In our hearts, we know that healing begins with a most difficult and often painful decision: the decision to forgive.
Scholars and historians tell us that it would have taken a long time for the Children of Israel to cross through the divided Red Sea... days, maybe even weeks.
Then they looked back and saw the sea collapse upon the army of Pharaoh. They were safe, for the moment, but before them lay the wilderness, a vast desert expanse full of mystery and danger with only their faith in God to lead and protect them.
It must have been scary.
So they paused for a few moments by the seashore and they sang a song praising God and giving thanks for their deliverance. But they did not make camp. They did not decide to live there by the Red Sea. They did not decide to forgo the journey to which they were called and the promise it entailed.
They sang their song -- then they picked up their stuff and they moved out in faith, following Moses, who himself followed the pillar and the cloud.
Jesus and Paul have a lot to say on the topic of forgiveness. If it is not their favorite topic, it is certainly on their "Top Ten List." And it is not a prescription for national foreign policy. Jesus does not speak to nations but to the hearts of those who dare to call themselves the people of God. He speaks to us as Christians.
* We are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile (Matthew 5:39ff).
* If we want to be forgiven, we must first forgive (Matthew 6:14-15).
* Our forgiveness is to be limitless (Luke 7:4).
* Our forgiveness has the power to change lives (John 20:23).
* We love and forgive because we were first loved and forgiven (Colossians 3:13).
* Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus prays for God to forgive his tormentors.
In this Sunday's lection, we are told in the parable of the wicked steward that we are ourselves forgiven by God by the measure we use to forgive others.
The ability to forgive is, according to scripture, not a gift of the Spirit, available to some and not to others. It is, like other forms of love, an act of the will. It is a decision.
It is, to be sure, not a simple or easy decision, but it is a decision nonetheless. It is something we do because as Christians we must, whether we feel like it or not, because we were ourselves forgiven.
CRAFTING THE SERMON
If we preach forgiveness on this of all days, we dare not preach it from our own authority but only from that of Jesus Christ as he comes to us in scripture.
If we are ever to move from the valley of grief, anger, and despair to the mountaintop of peace through faith, love, and forgiveness, it will not be by our own vision or under our own power. That path can be successfully traversed only by following that same pillar and cloud that Moses and Miriam followed and by walking in the footsteps of the One from Galilee, those same footsteps ultimately led to Calvary.
It is never permissible to proof-text from scripture -- to use passages out of context to prove a personally made point. It is always permitted, however, to illustrate a scriptural point with different passages from scripture.
A survey of New Testament passages that deal with forgiveness may be a good place to begin here. It will show that we are not speaking from our own authority but from that of scripture, and it will lead us naturally to this day's text -- that of the wicked steward who wants to be forgiven but who is himself unwilling to forgive.
Note that nowhere in the parable are we told that he is not able to forgive -- he simply chooses not to. There is too much to be lost if he forgives those who owe him as he has been forgiven.
So it is with us. If we make the decision to forgive, we will have to give up our anger. We'll have to give up our hatred, our resentment, our grief, and our sadness. We'll have to give up that privileged place that victims hold in our culture. We'll have to leave the seashore and turn toward the wilderness. We'll have to allow ourselves to be led in faith to that promised land of which we have heard but which we have not seen.
This day calls for that most delicate of balancing acts, which is truly responsible preaching. On the one hand, we must be sensitive enough to acknowledge and honor the feelings of our flock. At the same time, we must be sensitive and accountable to the text that calls them to begin reaching beyond those feelings and stepping out in faith.
My prayer is that you, as a preacher, will have the strength and insight necessary to deliver such a message and that your congregation will have the grace and openness of heart to hear it.
by Ron Love
At the World Trade Center Memorial in New York City, the two largest man-made waterfalls ever constructed will be at the footprints of the two fallen 110-story buildings. At 26,000 gallons per minute, the water will cascade down 30-foot black garnet walls into a reflecting pool below. The pool, called "Reflecting Absence," will allow visitors to meditate both on our past loss and our future hope. The cascading water will create "white noise" to drown out all the other noise that accompanies being in the heart of the nation's largest city. Hearing only the cascading water, one will have a time to truly reflect.
White noise: It quiets the rumblings of a hectic city. It quiets the screeches of adolescents at meaningless horseplay. It quiets the cries of vendors seeking customers for their goods. It quiets the cries of those trying frantically to hail a cab. It quiets that couple who cannot leave their marital discontent at home. It quiets the subway running beneath your feet and the plane flying overhead. It quiets the whistle of the tugboat and the clang of barges. It quiets the scampering feet of those who are in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere.
White noise: It leaves you alone in your thoughts. It provides the serenity for quiet meditation. It allows you to speak to your neighbor in a whisper. It is calming; it is peaceful; it is unifying. And it is seemingly absent in the church.
The sanctuary ought to be filled with white noise prior to worship, as congregants focus their hearts and souls on the worship of Christ. Instead, there is a bedlam of discussion about who won Friday night's high school game and whether the Steelers will prevail over Cincinnati this afternoon. Meetings ought to be a place of white noise as individuals thoughtfully, quietly, and respectfully discuss the issues before the church... but we know different. Anger flares, opinions are thundered forth, voices are raised so each can be heard above the other, and we have nothing that could be referred to as "Reflecting Absence."
It seems the only day the church had white noise was when the Holy Spirit came like tongues of fire upon the congregants and they spoke in one language with a unified message that was respectful of all. Since that day, racket and clamor ramble through the sacred halls of God's holy abode.
Reading Paul's letters, one would think that the church is schizophrenic. We are all members of one body, each with a special calling; but then, why are you so self-centered that you eat all the communion food before those who must travel the farthest can sit at the table? Gentile, slave, and Jew are all welcome in Christ's church; except the Jews should really give up that insignificant rite of circumcision. We are a church that welcomes all people; except Peter and his strange ideas must really be surrendered to Paul's way of thinking. We are one church; but James, you stay in Jerusalem and Paul will go to Antioch -- that way both can get along by staying in their separate domains.
Things have not changed, for today we are still a church of squabbles. We list the gifts of the Spirit; not to be confused with the works of the flesh. But why should the latter have to be mentioned if we live by the former? Grace is wonderful, and the more one sins, the more it can be appreciated. Who wants to pass up an invitation like that? And so, in reading Paul's letters, we really wonder where the demarcation line is between the flesh and the Spirit.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is being criticized for not allowing any clergy of any faith or any prayer at the 9/11 Memorial service. In an editorial piece for the Washington Post, Jordan Sekulow disagreed with the mayor, writing: "In America, public prayer is unifying.... Prayer brings people together and changes lives." Sekulow recalled the power of the "Prayer for America" event held at Yankee Stadium a few days following the 9/11 attack. Present were Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims, whose prayers fostered ecumenical and interfaith healing. A place as large as Yankee Stadium was also a place that, for one day at least, was filled with white noise.
Our lectionary epistle reading should bring a tear to our eye, especially since it is no different in our day than in Paul's. Paul questions "the purpose of quarrelling over opinions." Do we have two services during the summer or just one? Should we give to foreign missions when we have so many people in our own community who need help?
Paul asks, "Who are you to pass judgment?" I saw the preacher at an R-rated movie. How can the preacher afford a new car like that? She shouldn't wear stilettos to worship. Babies belong in the nursery, not in the sanctuary. The youth should only go on mission trips, not to amusement parks. The only Sunday school literature we should use is David C. Cook. You are in my pew!
Paul wonders why those who judge are "fully convinced in their own minds." Red is the only color for church doors. Everyone knows girls' bathrooms are pink and boys are blue. Only the women's auxiliary can use the new stove. If we all took turns, we wouldn't need a janitor. My carpet at home is older than the runway in the sanctuary.
Paul does not leave us unscarred by our deviant behavior, for our reading ends with these words: "So then, each of us will be accountable to God." God will judge us on whether we allowed white noise to prevail in the church or filled it with the rancor of quarrelling. Did we abide in the Spirit or succumb to the flesh? Did we heighten the meaning of grace by sinning more?
When Timothy Cook recently became CEO of Apple after Steve Jobs had to retire for medical reasons, Cook sent a memo to all employees with a simple message: "Apple is not going to change." The message was one of reassurance. Perhaps on the day of Pentecost God should have sent the same memo; but it seems from the writings of Paul that if God did, we missed it. Things have changed since that day, as we no longer speak in one voice and in one language.
So how do we account for being accountable? The answer lies not in looking to the natural human failings of Paul nor to the inconsistencies in the church, but rather in observing Paul's serious admonitions for righteous living. It means not quarrelling among ourselves. It means being open to another's opinion. It means recognizing that there are different expressions of the faith. It means substituting forgiveness for judgment. It means focusing on the gifts of the Spirit. It means finding our calling in the body of Christ and not venturing forth into another's area of expertise.
Sam Owen is an Episcopal priest who likes to play tennis. The problem, though, is that tennis is a one-on-one competitive sport. That led Owen to wonder, "How can you be Christ-like when you want to beat the hell out of your opponent?". After more than two decades away from the game, Owen realized that tennis is a "microcosm of life" as it reflects all of our difficult interactions with others. The answer? It was a change in perspective. Owen says, "What I see about tennis is that you can take it from being competitive to being a dance." Owen no longer focuses on the battle but on the beautiful chorography of the game. Hastings College tennis coach Corman Yazdgerdi, who is also a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, went through the same internal debate as Owen. Yazdgerdi ended his quandary when he realized that his battle was not with an opponent but with "a yellow ball."
We can be the same kind of church that saddened Paul, Peter, and James -- a church that is quarrelling and possessed with judgment. Or we can be a church that Paul, Peter, and James rejoice in, an institution that is of one opinion, one language, and one unity of purpose.
Let us be a church that permits us to kneel before the altar and relish in the "white noise" of serenity.
CRAFTING THE SERMON
I. Discuss the events of 9/11 that might keep us separated from people of other cultures.
II. Discuss events in the church that cause disharmony.
III. Discuss how Paul was aware of the problems of the church.
IV. Discuss how Paul offered a solution -- to live harmoniously in the fellowship of the church.
In Exodus 14:19-31 we are given two powerful images -- God would be a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites learned on that long, hard journey that God was with them night and day. Their response in Exodus 15:1-18 tells how Moses and his people lifted their voices in praise to God for crossing the Red Sea and being victorious over the Egyptians. In 15:20ff, Aaron's sister Miriam sang of her people's victory: "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." The people of God stopped after moments of grave danger and sang their own doxology. Our Psalm reading for this week, Psalm 114, is a meditation-song on God's delivering his people from Egypt.
The story is told that during the Depression when so many were suffering, Clarence Darrow, the atheist lawyer, went to a black church in Chicago to give a speech. When he got there, the people were singing... and the singing went on and on. When it was time for Darrow to speak, he said: "I can't understand you people. Most of you don't have jobs. You are despised by so many in this city. So many of you are having a hard time. And yet you sing. I have never heard singing like this. What in the world do you have to sing about?"
From the back of the room a black woman yelled, "We got Jesus to sing about!" And Darrow just shook his head. Like Moses and his people and Miriam, even on this anniversary of September 11 we have much to sing about. God has been our pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Isn't this the time to raise our voices in song? Despite the terrible tragedy of September 11, we have discovered -- as the people in Exodus discovered -- that God really is our pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
* * *
If you were to drive to College Avenue and Main Street in Enterprise, Alabama, you would be in the heart of that town's business district -- and there you would find a strange monument. At that crossroads stands the only monument probably anywhere that honors an insect. In 1919, the citizens of Enterprise erected this monument to show their appreciation to the boll weevil. The boll weevil first appeared in Alabama in 1915 and ran through the cotton crops, leaving nothing but devastation. By 1918 the farmers knew they were fighting a losing battle with this pest. But one man saw this tragedy as an opportunity to convert much of his plantings to peanuts. Cotton continued to grow, but as the area diversified into peanut farming new money came to Coffee County -- and Enterprise came to be known as the Peanut Capital. A local businessman came up with the idea to build a monument to the boll weevil as a symbol that something disastrous could be a catalyst for change and renewal. He envisioned the monument as a reminder of how the people of Enterprise had adjusted in the face of financial adversity. The inscription reads: "In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity, this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama."
Work continues on the memorial at what we call Ground Zero in New York City. Could this spot of so much pain and grief become a monument to a misery? Could the people of the United States determine to be a people who united and became stronger and more committed to peace and justice for people everywhere? The wise among us take the hard things of their lives and in the taking become stronger and better people. This is the challenge of the yet-to-be-completed monument at Ground Zero.
* * *
September 16, 1963 was a sleepy Sunday morning until a bomb shattered the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. When the dust had settled, four little girls who had come to Sunday school that morning had been killed. Many were injured and much of the church was damaged. Word of this tragedy spread around the world. And in Cardiff, Wales, children began to collect money to help replace the church's shattered stained-glass windows.
A Welsh artist, John Petts, offered his services to create a window for the church and a local newspaper editor launched a campaign to raise money for the venture. The maximum donation would only be half a crown (thirty pennies), so that the window would come from the people of Wales and not just a few well-heeled people.
The project took two years. When it was completed, Petts delivered his gift from the people of his country to the church. If you go to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church today, stand at the pulpit, and look at the back wall of the sanctuary, you would see this stained-glass window; it dominates the whole church. As the light filters through the colored glass it touches those who worship there. A rainbow surrounds a huge black Jesus with his arms outstretched. His right hand pushes away hatred and injustice, his left hand holds out forgiveness. Underneath the figure of Jesus, Petts etched into the windows: You Do It to Me. This gift came from thousands of people in a country many in the congregation had barely heard of. Underneath the windows these powerful words are inscribed: "Given by the people of Wales." A symbol of forgiveness has been fashioned out of pain and suffering and racism.
* * *
In our Matthew passage (18:21-35), Jesus strongly pointed out that forgiveness is not an option -- it is at the heart of the Christian faith. The noted filmmaker Spike Lee made a documentary Four Little Girls that takes viewers through the whole sad story of the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Family members, church members, and people from the community were interviewed for the film -- and as it comes to an end, we hear from Mrs. Dorothy Robertson, the mother of one of the little girls who was killed. She sent her little girl off to Sunday school that Sunday and she never came home. Mrs. Robertson spoke of the pain and loss that her daughter's death had brought her. The interviewer asked how she felt after all the years had gone by. The authorities had just arrested one of the Klansmen who was part of that destruction. Mrs. Robertson spoke slowly: "How do I feel? I miss my daughter every day. Her name was Carole -- with an 'e.' But I hold no grudges and no animosity now. It has taken me a long time but I have let it go. Life is too short not to forgive -- and I have put that behind me."
As we remember September 11, it would be good to put Mrs. Robertson's words down beside Jesus' words of forgiveness.
* * *
The philosophy that produces murderers is a philosophy of hate. Sometimes that philosophy burrows into religion for a home, whether that religion is Islam or Christianity. It lives in hate, not love. It deals in lies, not truth. It peddles violence, not peace. We won't ever forget September 11, 2001. Let's not forget September 15, 1963, either.
-- Cliff Vaughn, associate director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, writing in an EthicsDaily.com column about the anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
* * *
The eminent writer Barbara Kingsolver reflected on 9/11:
This is what changed for us that day: not what we know, but how we feel. We have always lived in a world of constant sorrow and calamity, but most of us have never had to say before, "It could have been me." My daughters and me on that plane, my husband in that building. I have stepped on that very pavement, I have probably sat on one of those planes. This was us, Americans at work, on vacation, going home, or just walking from one building to another. Alive, then dead....
Worse disasters have happened -- if "worse" can be measured solely by the number of dead in practically every other country on earth. Two years earlier an earthquake in Turkey had killed three times as many people in one day, babies and mothers and businessmen. The November before that, a hurricane had hit Honduras and Nicaragua and killed even more, buried whole villages and erased family lines; even now, people wake up there empty-handed. Some disasters are termed "natural" (though it was war that left Nicaragua so vulnerable), and yet their victims are just as innocent as ours on September 11 and equally dead. Which end of the world should we talk about? Only the murderous kind? Sixty years ago, Japanese airplanes bombed U.S. Navy boys who were sleeping on ships in gentle Pacific waters. Three and a half years later, American planes bombed a plaza in Japan where men and women were going to work and schoolchildren were playing, and more humans died at once than anyone had ever thought possible: 70,000 in a minute. Imagine, now that we can -- now that we have a number with which to compare it -- 70,000 people dead in one minute. Then twice that many more, slowly, from the inside....
We all tend to raise up our compatriots' lives to a sacred level, thinking our own citizens to be more worthy of grief and less acceptably taken than lives on other soil. When many lives are lost all at once, people come together and speak words such as "heinous" and "honor" and "revenge," presuming to make this awful moment stand apart somehow from the ways people die a little each day around the world from sickness or hunger. But broken hearts are not mended in this ceremony because really, every life that ends is utterly its own event....
This time it was us, leaving us trembling, leading my little daughter to ask quietly, "Will it happen to me, Mama?" I understood with the deepest sadness I've ever known that this was the wrong question to ask, and it always had been. It has always been happening to us -- in Nicaragua, in the Sudan, in Hiroshima, that night in Baghdad -- and now we finally know what it feels like. Now we may learn from the taste of our own blood that every war is both won and lost, and that loss is a pure, high note of anguish like a mother singing to an empty bed.
-- Barbara Kingsolver, "Flying," in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins. 2002), pp. 187-188
* * *
One of the most amazing examples of forgiveness comes from the Amish community. On October 2, 2006, a gunman shot and killed five Amish girls and wounded five others while they were at school. Marie Roberts was the widow of the gunman. In her grief and shame, she wrote a thank-you note to the Amish community for their extraordinary forgiveness after the shootings. It read:
Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you've extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you've given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.
Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.
* * *
Elizabeth Conroy was a pastor in Walkerton, Ontario, when the E.coli virus was found in the town's water in May 2000. As a result of the virus, seven people died and many more were hospitalized. Over half of the town's population became ill.
As the chairperson of the local ministerial association, Rev. Conroy was interviewed by several print and broadcast journalists. A favorite question had to do with forgiveness. Conroy says, "I talked about forgiving as Christ had forgiven us. I also talked about Jesus teaching Peter that we are to forgive not once or twice or even seven times, but 77 times.
"Public reaction to the interviews about forgiveness was varied. One of my colleagues who belonged to the ministerial group told me that people found God's peace when I talked about forgiveness. Several people wrote letters to various newspapers, some supporting the Christian viewpoint of forgiveness and some saying that surely no one could be so naive in this day and age as to actually believe that forgiveness should be a way of life. Still others wrote angry letters addressed to me suggesting in foul language that I had no business talking about forgiveness. One person whom I had never met even parked in front of the church and then followed me home. He began his conversation by saying that when he stood at heaven's gates and looked at the workers from the public utilities commission who had been responsible for the water, he would take great pleasure in hearing their cries for forgiveness ignored and seeing them sent into hell."
* * *
Self-righteousness kills, not only those who are bludgeoned by it but those who wield it as well. Sometimes it kills them softly with gossip and cruel humor. Sometimes it works systemically, consigning some people to live in grim buildings with broken plumbing while others stroll neighborhoods full of thick green lawns. And sometimes it works violently, getting people in the middle of the night to light torches and break windows.
Jesus does not preach humility because modesty is becoming. He preaches it because it is the only cure for the deadly pride and arrogance that make us want to kill each other, whether the murder is as subtle as purging someone from our circle of friends or as bloody as nailing someone to a tree. The only cure is to recognize each other as kin, united by the only one who was ever right. "Why do you call me good?" even he protested. "No one is good but God alone."
-- Barbara Brown Taylor, commenting on Luke 18:19 in The Living Pulpit, October/December 1992
* * *
Bruce Wilson is an Anglican theologian from Australia who has a little experiment he likes to try out on groups when he's asked to give a lecture. "First," he says, "I ask people to say what comes immediately to their minds when they are asked to think of someone who is very religious. The answers I receive most often are 'churchy,' 'rigid,' 'pious,' 'otherworldly,' 'judgmental,' 'Bible-basher'... The next part of the exercise is to ask people the first thing that comes into their minds when they think of someone who could be described as very human."
Here's what Wilson typically hears: "Once again, the answers I receive are always similar. People say 'caring,' 'understanding,' 'warm,' 'kind,' 'forgiving,' 'helpful.' "
Not a very flattering comparison for us church folk, is it? It's like Dana Carvey's old comic character "the Church Lady." What makes the Church Lady so funny is the stereotype she embodies: rigid, judgmental, unforgiving -- even nasty.
Sinclair Lewis, in his novel Elmer Gantry, tells how the young evangelist met plenty of this sort of Christian: "solemn and whiskery persons whose only pleasure aside from not doing agreeable things was keeping others from doing them."
Now here's what's really surprising. Bruce Wilson says he's tried this little two-question quiz on all kinds of groups, both within the church and in completely secular settings. The answers he gets -- comparing those who are "very religious" to those who are "very human" -- are pretty much the same, whether his audience is composed of church folk or of those who rarely darken the door. The church people, he says -- the ones you'd expect to be comfortable with the label "very religious" -- typically express surprise when they hear this. If anything, we who profess to follow Jesus Christ ought to fit the mold of being deeply human: kindly, caring, understanding. So why do we, just as much as those outside the church, tend to link judgmentalism with being "very religious"?
-- cited by Joseph G. Donders in Risen Life: Healing a Broken World (Orbis, 1990), p. 92
by George Reed
Call to Worship
Leader: When Israel went out from Egypt,
People: the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Leader: Judah became God's sanctuary, Israel God's dominion.
People: The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.
Leader: Tremble, O earth, at the presence of our God,
People: who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.
Leader: Come and worship the God of all creation.
People: We come to praise the God who made us all.
Leader: God's reign is over all the earth.
People: We are all part of God's great nation.
Leader: We are called to live in peace with God and one another.
People: We are disciples of Jesus, people of peace and forgiveness.
Hymns and Sacred Songs
"From All That Dwell Below the Skies"
"I Sing the Almighty Power of God"
"Help Us Accept Each Other"
"Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive"
"There's a Wideness in God's Mercy"
"This Is My Song"
"Let There Be Peace on Earth"
"For the Healing of the Nations"
"Create in Me a Clean Heart"
"Only by Grace"
Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982 (The Episcopal Church)
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship
Prayer for the Day / Collect
O God who freely forgives the foulest of sinners: Grant us the grace to fully reflect your image and as your children forgive those who have hurt us; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
We come into your presence, O God, because you have forgiven us and cleansed us from our sin. Your grace invites even sinners into your holy place. Help us to be so grateful for your forgiveness that we will never begrudge forgiveness to others. Amen.
O God who looks with sorrow on the violence of your children: Grant us in our mourning the grace to move from retribution to forgiveness, from revenge to compassion; through Jesus our Savior. Amen.
Prayer of Illumination
Send the light of your Spirit upon us so that as your gospel is proclaimed we may hear your word of forgiveness and speak it to others. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially the ways we justify not forgiving those who have hurt us.
People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We gladly accept your forgiveness for our sins and mistakes. We are willing, sometimes, to forgive the mistakes of others. But, we confess, we find it very hard to forgive people who have intentionally hurt us. We talk about people not deserving to be forgiven. We say they must first repent and apologize in order to be forgiven. We forget that Jesus forgave many who never asked for it -- or that he forgave those who were in the very act of executing him. Somehow we judge ourselves as worthy of forgiveness but others as being unworthy. We really are like the unjust steward in Jesus' story. Forgive us so that we may forgive others. Help us to forgive others so that we can accept your forgiveness. Amen.
Leader: God desires to forgive us and for us to forgive others. God is always ready to help with both.
Prayers of the People (and the Lord's Prayer)
We worship and praise your Name, O God, the creator and ruler of all worlds and all people.
(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)
We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We gladly accept your forgiveness for our sins and mistakes. We are willing, sometimes, to forgive the mistakes of others. But, we confess, we find it very hard to forgive people who have intentionally hurt us. We talk about people not deserving to be forgiven. We say they must first repent and apologize in order to be forgiven. We forget that Jesus forgave many who never asked for it -- or that he forgave those who were in the very act of executing him. Somehow we judge ourselves as worthy of forgiveness but others as being unworthy. We really are like the unjust steward in Jesus' story. Forgive us so that we may forgive others. Help us to forgive others so that we can accept your forgiveness.
We thank you for creating us as one people united in our creation and in your works of salvation. We thank you for your forgiveness and for the ability you have given us to reflect your image and to be forgiving of others.
(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)
We offer up to you those who are caught in the webs of violence and revenge. We know how powerful these emotions can be and how easy it is to justify them in ourselves. We pray for our enemies. We know they are more like us than we would like to admit. We pray for ourselves that we may be true to our Savior as we forgive those who misuse us.
(Other intercessions may be offered.)
All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together, saying:
Our Father... Amen.
(or if the Lord's Prayer is not used at this point in the service)
All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.
Children's Sermon Starter
It may be a good time to have a difficult talk with the children. One could begin by talking about what it is like when someone accidently bumps into you and immediately apologizes. It is easy to forgive them then. Even if it is an accident, it is harder to forgive them if we spill something because they bumped us. If we are hurt or drop something we really like, it is even harder to forgive. If someone calls us names or punches us or trips us, we really find it hard to forgive. But Jesus tells us to forgive always, not just when it is easy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, and he tells us we need to forgive everyone because we are God's children and that is what the family of God is like.
LITANY OF REMEMBRANCE FOR 9/11
by Dean Feldmeyer
This litany was designed for a community time of remembrance and not for a worship service. It is included here for those who might be leading such a service or who wish to adapt it to worship.
FIRST VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance, a day when we stop to give a moment, thought, a thank you, to all who have served:
To all who left home and family to travel far away in times of peace and times of war, to take up arms, to confront and challenge the oppressor, to protect the innocent, to rescue the endangered, to give aid to the sick and injured, food to the hungry, life to the dying, hope to the hopeless.
To all of those who, in or out of uniform, have given of themselves to protect their friends and family, to serve the ideals upon which this country was founded, and to bring this world another step closer to its full potential.
This is a day of solemn remembrance.
SECOND VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance, a day when we give because others have given. We remember the broken:
Those who went and did not come back, who gave their lives, their last full measure of devotion; those who went away whole and came back in part, who were wounded in body, or broken in heart, or fractured in spirit.
Those who went away as one of us but found when they returned that they did not fit in anymore, that they were changed, made different by a pain to which they could not put words, and a way of seeing and knowing which they could not make others understand.
We remember all who bear the scars of sacrifice on their bodies and on their souls.
This is a day of remembrance.
THIRD VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance, a day when we reach out to those who gave their sons, their daughters, their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers:
Those whose nights are haunted by the memories of loved ones lost;
those who smile bravely for the cameras and cry silently into their pillows;
those who long for the voice they will never hear again, the touch they will never feel, the presence they will know again only in their dreams and memories.
This is a day of remembrance.
FOURTH VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance -- of tragedy and sacrifice, of villainy and heroism, of cruelty and kindness.
On this day we remember the 2,977 souls who perished ten years ago today:
United Airlines Flight 93, Shanksville, Pennsylvania: 40 souls.
American Airlines Flight 77, Arlington, Virginia: 59 souls.
The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia: 125 souls.
United Airlines Flight 175, New York, New York: 60 souls.
American Airlines Flight 11, New York, New York: 87 souls.
The World Trade Center, New York, New York: 2,606 souls.
This is a day of remembrance.
FIFTH VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance when we grieve for all that we have lost since that day:
The loss of our friends, our neighbors, our relatives who died;
the loss of our innocence and our trust of those others who look and sound and act and dress and pray differently from us;
the loss of our security and the sure knowledge that we were safe from attack, invulnerable, and utterly free from threat;
the loss of that dignity we felt when we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, free from random searches or the seizure of our personal property.
This is a day when we grieve for all that we have lost -- the lost souls, the lost knowledge, the lost freedoms, the lost illusions.
This is a day of solemn remembrance.
SIXTH VOICE: This is a day of solemn remembrance when we remember with dignity and humility exactly who we are:
We are the children of a dream, an idea, a grand experiment called America;
we are the privileged of the earth, in a land where we must advertise to sell bread;
we are dreamers of dreams, builders of tomorrow, tillers of soil, solvers of problems.
FIRST VOICE: We are visionaries and prophets and entrepreneurs and artists. We dance to jazz and we sing the blues and we rap our rage in rhyme.
SECOND VOICE: We stand in the shadow of Jefferson and Adams, of Madison and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Eisenhower. We are the progeny of Kennedy, the sons and daughters of King, the children of the Greatest Generation, and the grandchildren of the Forty-niners.
THIRD VOICE: We are America.
FOURTH VOICE: We are America.
FIFTH VOICE: We are America.
SIXTH VOICE: We are America.
ALL: This is a day of solemn remembrance.
Good morning, boys and girls! Are any of you old enough to remember the 9/11 attack? (let the children answer) If not, have you seen things on television about it or had people tell you about it? (let them answer) When you hear about what happened, does it make you afraid? (let them answer) I think everyone was afraid that day because nothing like that had ever really happened to America before. Our country's military had been in many battles with other countries but something like 9/11 was really different.
Does it make you angry when you think about it today? (let them answer) How do you think we should remember 9/11? (let them answer)
Let me ask you a few more questions. What do you do when someone hurts you? Do you try to hurt them the way they hurt you? (let them answer) What do your parents teach you to do when someone hurts you? Do they ask you to fight the people that hurt you? Do they tell you just to ignore them? Do they tell you not to have anything to do with them? (let them answer)
Finally, I have just a couple more questions: What does your Sunday school teacher teach you about getting even? What do you think Jesus would say to you or me if someone hurt us and we wanted to know what to do? And what would Jesus say about 9/11? (let them answer)
Thank you for your answers. Jesus knew what it was like to be hurt and hated. There were a lot of people who wanted to hurt not only him but also anyone who liked him or worked with him. Being a friend of Jesus took a lot of courage. Finally, they actually killed him after beating him and making fun of him. But Jesus always remained the same. He listened, he forgave, and he loved his enemies and his friends. This is what it is like to be a Christian.
September 11th ten years ago was a horrible day, and the people who do horrible things should be punished. But as Christians we are taught to love people, not hate them. Some people are really different when compared to us. They believe different things. They look different. They eat different foods and wear different clothes. Some of them do not like us and a few of them will try to harm us. But Jesus tells us even to love people who hate us. It is a hard thing to do, but I believe in Jesus and I ask you to believe in Jesus. Love! Love! Love!
Forgiving our enemies is often a really difficult thing to do, but Jesus teaches us to think of everyone -- even those who try to hurt us -- as neighbors. Who are our neighbors? Our neighbors are not just those who live next door to us; Jesus says our neighbors are those who live in another part of our town or somewhere in our country or even in different countries across the world. Our neighbor might be someone we will never meet. He or she could live in a strange country, dress in a strange way, have a different language or a different religion, eat different food -- and maybe even hate us. But we must still love him or her.
Jesus teaches us that love is the only way to be to our neighbors. Not just one of the ways -- it is the only way. That's a tough choice, but it is what Jesus did and what he asks us to do.
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The Immediate Word, September 11, 2011, issue.
Copyright 2011 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.
All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.