Today, as we know, is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. What a blessing that this anniversary falls on a Sunday! The anniversary of this national tragedy raises questions of faith. One of those questions is, After painful or traumatic experiences, how do we move forward? The bedrock of our faith points to an answer found in today’s gospel: forgiveness.
Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Peter asks Jesus, As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” You have to love Peter. He just wants to know what the rules are. And Peter thinks his rules on forgiveness are pretty generous! Well, Give Peter credit. He’s assuming forgiveness! He’s not relying on the old teaching of “eye for an eye.”
But no–Jesus answers, your rules are not God’s rules. God’s rule on forgiveness is: Never stop. And if you want to follow me you have to follow God’s rules. Never stop forgiving.
What better teaching could there be for the tenth anniversary of 9/11? The cover for Time magazine’s special issue for the anniversary is titled, Beyond 9/11. It’s a good title because whether it’s 9/11, some other national tragedy or some more personal trauma, the question is, again, “How do we move forward? How do we move beyond that trauma? For people of faith, the most important answer to that question is forgiveness—because to forgive means not to be stuck—not to ignore our woundedness or pretend it doesn’t exist–but to move beyond the anger, the hurt and the pain.
And yet, we know from experience that practicing forgiveness can be difficult. Sometimes it’s hard even to start forgiving. Ten years after 9/11, on the one hand, we hear many stories of hope in which people are no longer enslaved to their desire for vengeance, no longer enslaved to anger and fear. On the other hand we find examples of lingering bitterness in which it’s not clear that people have moved beyond 9/11.
We don’t blame them for that. In fact, at our best we might recognize in the anger and bitterness of others something of ourselves. If we think we forgive easily or quickly or consistently we make the mistake Peter made: We set limits to our forgiveness. Forgiveness for the deep wounds we experience rarely comes quickly. Real and lasting forgiveness often takes years. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. We are, after all, still trying to work through not only 9/11 but Vietnam, and Korea, and even WWII. It’s pretty clear to me that there’s a lot of forgiveness that hasn’t happened because there’s a lot of unfinished emotional business even about traumas that ended over sixty-five years ago!
No, forgiveness for deep wounds is never easy and often takes a lot of time. So—what do we do in the meantime? What if we can’t forgive? Do we allow ourselves to become slaves to strong emotions about our disappointments and wounds from the past? When we find that we simply are unable to practice the perfect forgiveness that Jesus holds up as the example to follow, what do we do?
The August 29th issue of Time magazine’s cover story is called, The New Greatest Generation. This is a wonderful issue, full of hope, because it features young people who know first-hand the trauma of war. Some have lost body parts, some have lost friends, some are haunted by nightmares, and some have lost their mental health. How do people who have lost so much move beyond the trauma and loss?
According to the magazine article the answer in each of these cases is: service. Once discharged from the military service these individuals have continued to serve. They have chosen to channel their God-given gifts into service of others, often for the sake of others who have lost as much or more than they have.
What do you think? Do these veterans returning from war struggle with forgiveness? If they’re like the rest of us—and I believe they are— forgiveness of others, and maybe even themselves, is very difficult. Maybe they can’t forgive. If forgiveness is often a long process instead of an event, then there’s probably a lot of unfinished forgiveness among them.
But these same people have discovered life beyond 9/11, beyond their trauma, and beyond war. They are veterans who, for example, returned home to found an organization that builds homes for handicapped veterans. There are the vets who have organized relief in earthquake and other disaster relief zones. There’s the vet who organized a mentoring program for first- time offenders between the ages of eight and twelve. These are examples of people who have invested in other lives and other generations. Having been wounded themselves, they return home, see the wounds of people around them, and serve. In the process, they find that healing begins for themselves.
These are people who have found that although forgiveness takes time, serving others is something they could choose to do immediately, and with immediate results. They have discovered an important truth of our faith. Forgiveness is the goal. But when we can’t forgive, at least in the short term, we can serve!
What can we learn from these examples?
Peter asked Jesus, If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter is sincere–but he asks the wrong question. “How many times should I forgive?” is the question of a scorekeeper, a “bean counter”—which is different from a disciple. At our best we remember that our church community is the place we practice what Jesus teaches. And as we do we acknowledge that we fail a lot of the time!
Does God judge us for our failure to forgive? No! We remember that God is patient with our imperfect efforts at forgiveness. When we fail to forgive it’s not God who suffers—it’s we who suffer! But while we work toward forgiveness, God gives us countless opportunities right now to begin healing from disappointments, traumas and injustices. We begin to heal as we shift attention from ourselves to the needs of others, to something bigger than ourselves.
And it all begins here. Christians use the experience of life in a community of faith to practice what we apply in the rest of our lives beyond these walls. Can we really expect to move past the big traumas like 9/11 if we can’t work at forgiveness among ourselves? Or, in the absence of complete forgiveness, can we not at least practice serving our fellow human beings? I’m glad to say that you are doing that service in so many ways!
With grateful hearts we acknowledge that we are forgiven people. Following Jesus’ example, we in turn strive to practice forgiveness toward one another. Our failures are not the final word. In the absence of perfect forgiveness, still there is hope for healing. Jesus gave us an example of daily service. May we re-commit ourselves—here and beyond– to go and do likewise. AMEN