I don’t know about you, but for me, one day blurs into another as we continue to deal with the pandemic. And I often have to remind myself: what day is it now?
But this past week, one date stood out, and I’m sure not only for me: 9/11.
9/11. This date has become synonymous with national shock and grief. I am certain that, right now, you have flashbacks to that day, that beautiful morning. You probably see images of burning and tumbling buildings in front of your inner eye, the charred scar in the Pentagon building, the remains of a plane in a field in Pennsylvania. Images of immense destruction and death on U.S. soil which we deemed to be so safe.
Most of us just couldn’t believe what was happening that morning. It just couldn’t be, it wasn’t supposed to be. The act of terrorism of that magnitude on U.S. ground was just unfathomable. This was the end of America as we knew it. This great nation was hit at its core.
People knew that things would never be the same. That the world had changed that morning. That their lives had changed that morning.
I was a pastor intern at here St. Matthew’s at that time. Pr. Pielhoop and I opened the sanctuary for silent prayer that day, and people came. People prayed. People cried. People tried to make sense out of this senseless act of violence, and people were looking for direction. I think it is quite remarkable that people turn to God in times when nothing seems to make sense anymore in life. That people instinctively know that God is a God who knows suffering and loss, and that God is a God who just waits for it to be turned to when our world is turned upside down.
I already talked about the horrible images of that day. But when I think of the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, I also remember another image. In the midst of destruction and chaos, a section of the cross beams that had helped hold up the WTC were found – a section that reminded many of the central symbol of the Christian faith: the cross.
Of course there were those who believed that this ‘cross’ was purposely placed by God in the ruins. Others, myself included, think it was merely a coincidence. But I don’t think it really matters. We SEE the cross – and this is, what counts. It is the symbol of the cross and all the cross stands for which touched responders and those who took on the sad and horrifying task of cleaning up the ruins. Placed there by God or not, those who saw the cross were reminded of God’s suffering and power. It gave strength and hope to many.
There is the story of the worker, who, after a day of searching for survivors and bodies in the rubble, needed a time out and stumbled over this cross. He reports how he broke down and cried when he saw it, and how it helped him carry on with his gruesome work.
At Ground Zero as much as in everyday Christian life, the cross was and is a symbol of death AND resurrection, a symbol of the good that eventually overcomes evil. There is a special power of the cross, the power to give hope, the power to transform and transcend.
But then there is yet another aspect to the cross which often is overlooked by culture at large, sometimes even by Christians. And that is the aspect of forgiveness and reconciliation. God died FOR a fallen humanity. God died for us. Christ’s death on the cross wasn’t just a random and senseless act, but Christ suffered for us and with us, and Christ died for us and with us, in solidarity with our human weaknesses, and in order to bring us back to God.
This is huge. An enormous debt has been paid by God. And this is what Jesus talks about in the parable we heard in today’s gospel. The king represents God, who forgives us our debt, our sin, our selfishness, our indifference, our shortcomings. The price is high. It was and is paid with God’s life.
Looking at the cross found at ground zero, looking at any cross for that matter, we are reminded that forgiveness and reconciliation is not only what God has done for us, but that forgiveness and reconciliation is something we are called to, each and every day, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. By the way, those numbers have deep symbolic meaning in Judaism. The number seven symbolizes wholeness, fullness, completion – think of the seven days of creation; seventy-seven times means over and over. Forgiveness never ends, Jesus says. And ain’t that true! But only through forgiveness can we experience true healing.
What a powerful message to remember as we commemorate the horrible events of 9/11. What a powerful message to remember as we in this country deal with so much division and contempt these days. What has happened to the unity we experienced across party lines, across any divides in the aftermath of 9/11?
We need to mend broken relationships. We need to heal. And in order to heal, we need to forgive.
God has paid an enormous, unfathomable price to set us free from sin and to make us truly live. By forgiving others, we don’t only set them free, but we free ourselves as well from feelings of grudge and resentment and hatred, feelings that tend to attack us like a growing cancer, keeping us from living the present instead of being trapped in some hell of the past.
And forgiving does not mean forgetting. How could we forget the atrocities, the pain, the deaths, the horror of 9/11? How could we forget the atrocities of NAZI Germany, of slavery and Jim Crow laws and redlining and continued systemic racism in this country, among many other things? No, we need to remember, in order to learn, in order to live in the here and now and to go into the future, as people transformed by the experiences of the past. Only if we remember the past and forgive and ask for forgiveness ourselves at the same time can we work for peace in the present – peace with others – peace with ourselves – peace with God.
How many times should we forgive? Forgiveness never ends, says Christ. God forgives you – God forgives us – each and every day.
This post is also available in: German