1 Timothy 1:12-17
A lot of preachers have been wondering what to say this morning about September 11th. There are those who believe that it’s best to say nothing, but most of us believe that this particular anniversary can’t pass by unnoticed. That day is seared into our memories, and many among us have found it difficult to move on. Fear remains. Anger remains. Grief remains. In the days after 9-11 the word rang out: “Never Forget.” But does this mean that we can’t move into the future?
As we wonder about how to move on, the past remains vivid. Have you pondered the question of where you were when you first heard the news about the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and then the news about another jet crashing into a field in Pennsylvania? This event question ranks with the news about Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the assassination of John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King. These kinds of events can be defining moments in one’s life, and so it is appropriate for us to stop and consider that day ten years ago when the “normalcy” of our lives was shattered by this set of attacks. And as we reflect on that day, we face questions about how our lives have changed as a result. Am I different? Is the nation different? Is the world different? And the answers are likely to be both positive and negative.
Let me tell you my story, because ten years ago today, I was the pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara, which is three hours later than the east coast. Back then Cheryl was teaching and would wake up early to get ready for work, but at 6:30 A.M. she would turn on the radio as a signal for Brett and me to wake up. On that morning the usual morning show banter was replaced by news of this attack. Cheryl called me to the TV, where we watched as the two towers were engulfed in smoke. What looked like a made-for-TV disaster film had become a deadly reality. And soon after we heard news of the attacks on the Pentagon and then the crash of a plane in a Pennsylvania field.
As the day wore on, we watched as the buildings in New York imploded, burying fire crews, police, rescue workers, and people who had yet to evacuate the buildings. The nation was alarmed and fearful, as the FAA ordered all flights canceled across the nation. None of us knew what to expect next, and so we all began to ask the question: Could this happen in my community? We also began to wonder who was responsible.
Of course, we also wondered when life would return to normal. Ten years later, life hasn’t returned to a pre-911 normal, and so we wonder. So, is this the new normal?
But that was only the beginning of the day. After getting Brett off to school, I went to breakfast with three men from the church. It was our Tuesday morning ritual to have breakfast at Cajun Kitchen. I had to break the news, because none of them had yet heard what had happened.
When I got to the office at around 9:00 A.M., which was noon here in the East – I got a call from my Methodist colleague LLoyd Saatjian. He called because I was the President of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association, and LLoyd, who was wise in such matters, asked: What are we going to do?
That question led to a powerful community interfaith service of remembrance on Sunday evening. The Methodist Church overflowed with people, and when the clergy processed into the sanctuary the community rose in applause, and we knew why – for in the company of the clergy was the Imam, who spoke to the gathered congregation, together with the Rabbi, and a Christian clergywoman. We also shared prayers and music. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
Before we gathered that evening, however, we worshiped at First Christian, and I shared my own thoughts in a sermon that took as its text the passage we read from 1 Timothy. As has been my habit, I had planned the Sunday service on Monday, and except for the sermon I left things as they were, but this passage from I Timothy did have something to say to us, because in it we find a word of grace and mercy.
When I preached that sermon ten years ago, it came in the midst of feelings of shock, of despair, and calls for revenge and retaliation. There were those who were already taking matters into their own hands. Therefore, Muslims and Arabs across the country received death threats, and many were concerned that they might be rounded up and thrown into detention camps. Police in Rhode Island stopped a train and arrested Sikh passengers because they were wearing turbans. Later we would launch two wars that continue to this day, while airport security has made flying an ordeal rather than an adventure.
We’ve heard read the text for September 16, 2001, but a similar message to this word about grace is found in the gospel reading for this week. I’d like to share this reading from Matthew 18:21-35.
As you listened to this reading, what did you hear? Do you hear Peter’s question about forgiveness? How many times Lord? Isn’t seven times enough? Depending on your translation, Jesus multiplies Peter’s 7 by either 11 or 77. Whatever the number, it’s hard to keep count!
Then Jesus tells a parable about the king who called in his slaves so as to settle accounts, and one of these people owed more money than Warren Buffett has in his bank account. When the king demanded payment, this slave begged forgiveness, and received it. Oh, what joy he must have felt, because the alternative was prison!
But, as this one who’d been forgiven much exited the court, he saw a fellow slave and he ran over and demanded immediate payment of a debt that amounted to about three months’ wages. This debtor asked for the same grace period as the first, but though the first man had been forgiven much, he was unwilling to extend grace to the other, and so had him thrown into prison. Of course, as you would expect, when the king found out, he angrily threw this unforgiving hypocrite into prison. And Jesus said: “So my heavenly father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brothers or sisters from your heart.”
As we wonder about the future, with our memories formed by those events of ten years ago, where does forgiveness come into play?
In the letter to Timothy, written in the name of Paul, the author confesses to be a "blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence." Such was Paul’s story, prior to his conversion. He understood the attraction of violence in the name of religion, and therefore could claim to be "a man of violence." But he had tasted grace, and unlike the man forgiven much, he took to heart this word of grace and chose to embrace a call to reach out to others with a word of grace.
John Newton knew something of violence. He had been a slave trader before his conversion. His own confession is written in words we have all sung in worship, and the hymn I had chosen for that service ten years ago: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." And – "'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed."
Ten years have passed, and the question remains – can we move to something different? Is not the answer to be found in the grace of God that heals our wounds and allows us to forgive others. The memories will not die, the pain may not subside completely, but the message of the gospel is this: Grace is sufficient. Yes, "the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."
In a moment we will come to the table, and at this table we will taste the signs of our own inhumanity to each other. There we will also find the emblems of peace and our reconciliation.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
13th Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2011