Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19A) September 11, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Blame Game
Today is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which once again we’ve been shocked by images of extraordinary violence and suffering on American soil. This time it wasn’t New York but New Orleans. This time it wasn’t crashing airplanes and falling towers but crashing waves and falling levees. This time is wasn’t an act of terrorism but a natural disaster compounded by human failure and incompetence. These two events – what we now call 9/11 and a hurricane named Katrina – are in some ways very different but both of them shake us to the core. They leave us disoriented and dismayed, groping for meaning. They are a stark reminder of human vulnerability and mortality, of how quickly an ordinary life, an ordinary day, can be up-ended. They raise far-reaching questions about basic aspects of American society and our national priorities. And they are tragedies whose aftermath will be felt for years.
As I thought about all this, I did some wandering on the Internet and came across a video clip that was made after 9/11. It’s short, lasting no more than 60 seconds, and its graphics are simple, just a line tracing a circle that closes on itself. Here’s its message:
Terrorism is bred in
The recent attacks on America have instilled
in otherwise peaceful people.
Vengeful retaliation will also instill
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks
Terrorism is bred in
Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle. (1)
A Chinese proverb puts it even more succinctly: “The one who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”
Today’s Scripture readings convey the same urgent message: stop the cycle of revenge. Break the long, bloody chain of recrimination and retaliation. Relinquish fear, anger and hatred. Have mercy. Extend forgiveness. “The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance,” we hear in Ecclesiasticus. “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?… Set enmity aside .Do not be angry with your neighbor” (Ecclesiasticus 28: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7). The psalm lifts up the length and breadth of God’s mercy, and if divine forgiveness is that extravagant, shouldn’t human forgiveness seek to be as generous, too? The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans exhorts us not to despise or pass judgment on our brother or sister, “for each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12).
Or take today’s Gospel reading: “How often should I forgive?” Peter asks Jesus. “As many as seven times?” No doubt Peter thought seven a lavish number – after all, rabbinic tradition counseled forgiving three times. But Jesus says no – we shouldn’t forgive once, or twice, or seven times, but seventy-seven times – in other words, a number without limit, a number beyond calculation. Some scholars interpret the forgiveness that Jesus proclaims as a reversal of Lamech’s malicious boast way back in the fourth chapter of Genesis that “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:24). In other words, in Jesus we come to the end of the path of violence and blood revenge. That path leads only to death and to the soul’s destruction. Jesus opens up another way.
In case we missed the point, he tells a parable of an unmerciful servant who is forgiven a ridiculously large amount of money and then turns around and refuses to forgive a tiny debt that amounts to no more than a small coin. The man’s refusal to show mercy provokes the anger of the king, who hands him over to be tortured until he pays off the original debt. And then comes the kicker: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Are you still with me? Forgive from the heart – that is what Jesus insists on this morning. That is what all today’s readings proclaim. But how do we take in that message against the backdrop of the double catastrophes of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina? I’m going to put this bluntly. Most of us are in no mood to forgive. Forgive the suffering we’ve witnessed in the last two weeks, the sudden revelation to this country’s astonished eyes and to the eyes of the whole world that large groups of Americans are living in abject poverty? That in this rich country of ours, there are millions who live as if they inhabited the so-called Third World? Are we to forgive the racism that plagues the land, the desperate neglect of our African-American brothers and sisters? Twenty-eight percent of the residents of New Orleans lived in poverty, and 84% of them were African-American. Surely poverty and racism killed many of the victims of Hurricane Katrina just as surely as did the wind and waves, for it was the black and the poor who had no means to escape. Are we to forgive the government for the inadequacy of its planning for the hurricane, or for the ineptitude and delay in its response? Are we to forgive its appalling complacency about global warming, which scientists have long predicted will increase the intensity of hurricanes and storms? Surely we should be angry. We should be ashamed. What can it possibly mean that Jesus also urges us to forgive? What might forgiveness look like in this situation? Let me sketch a few possibilities.
Forgiveness is a process that includes accountability. Forgiveness doesn’t mean permitting abuse or violence to continue. It’s worth remembering that the passage we heard in today’s Gospel about forgiving seventy-seven times is placed after the passage we heard in last week’s Gospel, which invites us first to confront what must be changed. If, after a disaster, political leaders quickly urge critics not to play “the blame game,” we have to wonder whether the process of forgiveness has been co-opted. If the causes of suffering are not confronted, the suffering is all too likely to be repeated. (2)
At the same time, genuine forgiveness means relinquishing a habit of blame. It means refusing to find fault endlessly and to point fingers at everyone but ourselves. Forgiving seventy-seven times means renouncing the delicious itch to judge and criticize, the insidious thrill of playing “Gotcha!” When we maintain the discipline of a forgiving heart, we refuse to demonize our antagonists or to triumph in their mistakes. We recognize with humility that they are as human as we are, and that, as St. Paul puts it, “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10b).
Genuine forgiveness takes our anger and channels it to creative use. Feeling outrage over poverty, racism, and war, over shortsighted or selfish policies, over all the forces that diminish life, is a splendid thing when it gives us the energy to notice injustice and to change what should be changed.
So I see forgiveness in the campaign launched by Sojourners this week inviting Americans to sign the “Katrina Pledge,” a declaration that the poverty we’ve witnessed because of the hurricane is morally unacceptable, along with a pledge to renew our personal commitment to overcoming poverty in the United States.
I see forgiveness in the campaign sponsored by Sojourners, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, and other groups, to fast and pray for bold U.S. leadership to overcome global poverty during this week’s World Summit gathering at the United Nations.
I see forgiveness closer to home, in the efforts of this parish to help mobilize and coordinate hurricane relief in the Pioneer Valley.
I see forgiveness in the piles of donated supplies now rising up in the Connector, the growing stacks of diapers and toothbrushes, garbage bags and soap.
I see forgiveness in this parish’s interest in exploring a possible work trip to the Diocese of Mississippi to volunteer some help, and in the checks that so many of you have sent to Episcopal Relief and Development, to the Red Cross, and to other agencies.
Through the grace of God, forgiveness can be born at the very center of our outrage and sorrow, our repentance and compassion. We don’t “forgive and forget” as if nothing wrong happened. We “forgive and go forward,” building on what we’ve learned from mistakes made in the past and using the energy generated by reconciliation to create a new future. (3)
Forgiveness takes guts. It takes work. It takes commitment. And it has the power to change lives. I will close with a true story about forgiveness that is told by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield (4):
Once on a train from Washington to Philadelphia, [he writes,] I found myself seated next to an African-American man who [was running] a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia. Most of the youths he worked with were gang members who had committed homicide.
One fourteen-year-old boy in his program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I am going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. Near the end of his three-year sentence she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home.
For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started.
“Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?”
“I sure do,” he replied.
“Well, I did,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had.
Now that’s a story of what it means, and what it costs, to forgive seventy-seven times. Where in your life is Jesus inviting you today to take a bold step and to forgive from the heart?
(2) Robert J. Schreiter, Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003, p. 19.
(3) Carolyn Osiek, Beyond Anger: On Being a Feminist in the Church, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986.
(4) Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, New York: Bantam Books, 2002, pp. 44-46.