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Dr. Courtney Cowart Dr. Courtney Cowart
Dr. Courtney Cowart is Director of Congregational Learning for The Fund for Theological Education in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE)


An Exhortation to Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19(24) - 13th Sunday after Pentecost (A)

September 11, 2011

People of every faith throughout the world are gathering today to mark the passage of a decade since the acts of 9-11. Each of us has our memories. Where we were. How we felt. Who we lost. What we found. 

Today we honor these memories and their lessons and with the perspective of time ask God, "To what would you have us re-commit, given what we saw and learned that day? How might we say again today with the fervor we prayed that terrible morning, a cosmic thank you, God, for your mercy, your presence, your healing in our lives?"  

I invite you to join me in reflecting on today's gospel lesson in light of this tragic episode in human history, and these prayerful questions, and to search with me for the wisdom scripture offers all of us who yearn to build a future distinct from the past.

It was 8:46 a.m. when literally out of the clear blue sky the indiscriminate slaughter began. That day I was among the over three hundred thousand people who converge on the World Trade Center complex each morning.

For us the inconceivable took place in plain sight. We felt the low flying approach of American Airlines flight 11 directly overhead. From the large plate glass windows on the second floor of Trinity Church's office tower surrounded by a group of twenty-five spiritual leaders from around the world, I saw things none of us can forget. 

The impact of the second plane rocked our building. When the first tower came down a block and a half away, it sounded and felt like a hundred bombs were dropping on us as fast as machine gun fire. Our bodies were thrown to the floor. We choked on our words because there wasn't air. We tasted burning steel.

We were suffocating. So we began to move down stairwells and through the church's day care, evacuating children as we went. When we stepped out onto Greenwich Street, sidewalks, streets, cars, windows, ledges were deep in powdery ash.

As the trauma deepened, time warped. Our limbs were heavy. Walking felt like moving under water. There was an eerie vacancy and stillness. Only signs of an earlier stampede lay scattered on the ground.

There was a man on the street barking at us. His voice was fast and jarring. I remember how it was blaring in my ear, "Go south. Go south. Go as fast as you can. Go faster. Go faster!" He was screaming, "Go faster!" I was just too fragile to take it. It hurt.

So I turned to him with tears in my eyes and said, "Why do we have to go faster?"

He said, "Lady, when that second tower comes down, you'll know why." Minutes later, everything started to shake. There was nothing you could do.

Moments later, barreling down, 1,368 feet high, the black cloud engulfed us all and everything disappeared.  It was by far the most terrifying moment of my life.

I offer this to you as a faithful account of an experience of the sanctioned practice of violent retribution.

The next day, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who was one of the spiritual leaders with us at Trinity throughout that morning, offered this reflection at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine:

"I'm sure in the city and the country in the days ahead, the pressure to do something, anything, is going to be greater and greater. The rhetoric will become more and more intense. There is something I want to say to that. One very simple personal observation. Quite simply: I wouldn't want what we experienced to happen to anybody. I wouldn't want to see another room of preschool children hurried out of a building under threat. I wouldn't want to see thousands of corpses given over to the justification of some principle. And very simply: I don't want anyone to feel what others and I were feeling at about 10:30 yesterday morning. I've been there."

In a sense in this morning's gospel, Jesus is saying the same thing. I don't want anyone to feel that. And so Jesus teaches Peter, and teaches us, another way, a better way, of dealing with human strife. A way that has the power to create a future distinct from the past.

Today's lesson is arresting, particularly in the context of this anniversary. Taken from the eighteenth chapter of St. Matthew, it is one of the sternest passages of the gospels; and it teaches forgiveness as the only faithful Christian practice for settling moral debts. 

In it, we hear the famous response of Jesus to Peter's timeless question, "Lord, how many times should my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."

Seventy times seven. Jesus uses an ancient figure of speech that means uncountable numbers of times. This word choice points us to another biblical figure who also used the term, but used it to revel in a morality the opposite of Christ's. This was Lemech, descendent of the murderer, Cain. Lemech, a tribesman who lived by blood revenge. It is Lemech who boasts in the book of Genesis of the moral warrant to avenge wrongdoing with unlimited violence. In the "Song of Swords" Lemech sings, "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Truly Lemech seventy-sevenfold." 

Lemech's practice of settling disputes is that of seventy-sevenfold or unlimited vengeance toward ones who have wronged a life.

It is this kind of belief about the justification of violence for the settling of moral grievances that leads to mornings like 9-11.

In polar contrast, if we were to tease out the full meaning of Jesus' response to Peter's question, it would go something like this.

When it comes to conflict and to moral offenses, forgiveness is to Christians as vengeance was to Lemech. As unlimited and unrestrained as Lemech was in wielding violence as a way to right wrong, so will the Christian wield forgiveness in unlimited, unrestrained, and even indiscriminate fashion. For this is God's way of curbing the lethal tendency in us all.

Lemech vowed to avenge unlimited times. Jesus commanded his followers to forgive unlimited times. This is to be our practice, our way of being in the world. We are to spread it wherever we go. The power of God is in love and forgiveness, not in vengeance and bloodshed.

If September 11th was the day we came face to face with the horror of a morality of vengeance, so was it also the day that those of us who were there and later served in the recovery began to learn how real the astounding beauty of unlimited mercy and love really is.

For many of us the witness to its power is embodied in the first responders and the recovery workers who served tirelessly on their hands and knees for nearly a year inside the pile to reclaim the remains of every life lost.

Days after the attacks thousands upon thousands of strangers, recovery workers and volunteers came together in a little church called St. Paul's Chapel and formed an alliance that practiced the extraordinarily demanding spirituality of forgiveness 24/7 for 9 months. In the chapel these practices poured out of us with an intensity and passion that actually surpassed the intensity of hate, even as enormous as hate's smoldering presence and sickening stench still was. As real and vivid as the horror of vengeance, so became for us the truth Jesus teaches in our lesson today. Unlimited acts of mercy free us all.

Safety, dignity, our precious web of relationship--all those human necessities violence and trauma destroy--regenerated in this chapel, in this fellowship, so rapidly and to such an extraordinary degree that being in the sanctuary was likened to touching the face of God. The thickness of the loving energy was a field force that hit you physically when you entered. By the grace of God, these blessings we desperately needed multiplied through the practice of one thing: thousands upon thousands of acts of mercy. The chapel's atmosphere worked on us, formed us, healed us and, eventually, as its reputation spread throughout the world, drew many of the great survivors of trauma, whose devastating experience made them peacemakers for life.

Most moving for me was a day in the springtime of the recovery when a delegation of survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original Ground Zero, came to St. Paul's as guests of Colleen Kelley and the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. There they stood in an American church, having traveled across the world to say to us how sorry they were for our losses. In their message of condolence, they offered to us the healing balm that absolves and forgives, renewing their own humanity and making us all one once more.

"What you have done here is the perfect expression of the spirit of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where so many survivors renounced revenge forever. Instead they worked ceaselessly against violence and for the world as a whole."

In my mind's eye, I can see Michael Lapsley, another wounded healer, celebrating the noon Eucharist at the altar. Lifting the chalice to God with two prosthetic hooks for hands and praying:

Drink you all of this. This is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you shall drink it in remembrance of me.

And I hear the prayer of dismissal prayed at the national service of mourning at the Washington National Cathedral immediately after the attacks.

Go forth into the world in peace; Be of good courage; Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor everyone. Love and serve the Lord.

Perhaps this is a prayer we can hold in our hearts on this day as we sift our lives to find the part of the world that is within our reach to mend with acts of kindness, forgiveness and mercy. For as Jesus said, it is an accumulation of acts--seven times seventy--an unlimited number of acts, repeated without ceasing by those who will not give up, that creates a future distinct from the past. That incarnates the kingdom of God.

For more 9/11 resources from Day1, click here.


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