Dear Working Preacher,
Ten years seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. With little to no effort, I can remember the frantic call from my wife on my then new (and first) cell phone that preceded dashing into a nearby classroom to gather with others to watch the wreckage, flames, and destruction. In an instant, everything seemed different, like the world as we knew it would never be the same.
At the same time, September 11, 2001, feels like a lifetime ago. My children, then toddlers, are now in middle school. This post-9/11 world is all they’ve ever known. Calamities may provide major historical dividers, but they are too big to wrap our arms around and use to make sense of our daily lives. And so perhaps out of necessity we find other markers — birthdays, graduations, milestones of various sorts — to chart the passage of time, and we look to the mundane events of everyday life for the fleeting evidences of grace that sustain us in the here and now.
There’s some wisdom in that observation, I think, to help us both mark the 10th anniversary of 9-11-2001 and to hear the gospel inherent in the passages appointed for this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. We are called, indeed, to look back, to remember, to give pause to grieve the violence, destruction and death as well as to rejoice the acts of courage, mercy, and solidarity the day and those that followed called forth. But we are also called to look forward, to see and lean into a future that is not defined by the calamity of that day but instead is shaped by hope, possibility, and the grace of God.
That is the essence of forgiveness: the lifting of a burden, the releasing of a debt, the refusal to allow past actions and failures to define the future. Both the first reading and gospel speak to these matters and may serve well on a day like this. The first passage, from Genesis, comes at the close of the tumultuous story of Joseph, and so a quick replay of his relationship with his brothers, their betrayal, his rise to fortune in Egypt, and his recent acts of mercy toward them will be in order. The scene before us today is as complicated as it is dramatic. It’s unclear, frankly, whether his brothers, fearing that Joseph’s mercy was only guaranteed by his love for his now-departed father, are telling the truth. Similarly, it’s unclear whether Joseph actually forgives them; at least, he never says so directly.
Ultimately, however, neither of those complications rules the day, as Joseph recognizes two things critical to living into the open future God desires for all of us. First, it is God’s place to judge. That is not to say that our actions are uninformed by the behaviors and character of others, and this passage is not a call to remain in abusive relationships or suffering injustice in the name of piety. Rather, Joseph’s question — “Am I in the place of God?” — is the recognition that final judgment is God’s. In the meantime, we are called to remain open to the possibility of redemption, both in others and ourselves.
Second, Joseph perceives that God can weave from whatever strands of brokenness, heartache, or calamity we have suffered a future that is, in the end, good. Care needs to be taken with these potent words — “what you intended for harm, God intended for good” — as they have too often been used to relativize evil or suffering in light of some larger “plan.” That is not, however, what I think this scene — or certainly the whole of Scripture — advocates. The betrayal and treachery of Joseph’s brothers is real. But so also is God’s relentless intent to wring redemption and healing even from the most difficult of circumstances. (See Margaret Odell’s fine commentary for additional insight into this passage.)
The appointed gospel reading also speaks of forgiveness. After Jesus teaches his disciples about how to deal with those who offend you, Peter asks how many times he should forgive an offender before, presumably, initiating this kind of process and then suggests the biblically prescribed answer: seven. Jesus, however, stretches the legal requirement to breaking: not seven but seventy-seven or, in common parlance, always. He then goes on to tell a story, a parable, about one who has just been forgiven an unimaginable amount yet cannot forgive another what is a trifling sum by comparison.
Again, take care: our attention — shaped by a popular religious culture more interested in hell than healing — is likely to get fixated on the end, where God’s response to the unforgiving heart is compared to the unrelenting punishment of an angry overlord. This is hyperbolic exaggeration characteristic of a parable — as absolutely no one lives up the moral demanded — meant to underscore the importance of forgiveness. Why? Because, as the rhetorical force of the parable makes clear, those who are unable to extend to others the mercy they have received from God are already ensnared, trapped, and doomed to a life of relentless calculations and emotional scarcity.
The parable also implies, I think, that while forgiveness can be called for, it can’t be forced. It can be hard to understand why some of those who lost loved ones on 9-11 have been able move to forgiveness while others who suffered no personal loss struggle to do the same. Nor is the mystery of forgiveness limited to the enormity of 9-11; I know that I — and I suspect that each of you — have at one time or another gotten “stuck” by some offense or personal slight and overlooked the manifold grace extended to me by countless others. Perhaps Jesus commands such extravagant forgiveness because he knows it may take some of us that long for it to really sink home. For this reason, this is a parable that speaks most powerfully when we address it first to ourselves rather than using it as a standard by which to judge others.
This Sunday many of our congregations will take time to remember the events of September 11 a decade ago when four hijacked airplanes wreaked such destruction and woe. But will also remember the events of 2000 years ago when God’s own Son, surveying a field of broken lives and desolate hearts, chose to call down from heaven forgiveness, not vengeance, and in this way opened a future marked not by judgment but by mercy, not by calculations but trust, not by despair but hope, not by fear but courage, not by violence but healing, not by scarcity but abundance, not by hate but love, and not by death but by new life. That’s what forgiveness can do. May God give to all of us a palpable sense of the forgiveness in which — and by which — we live and grant us the faith and courage to walk into the future such forgiveness creates.
Blessings on your proclamation, dear Working Preacher, this week and always, as through you God is creating and extending the future we declare.
Yours in Christ,
PS: Don’t underestimate the power of prayer, litany, and other elements of worship to address the day as well as or better than the sermon can. For a variety of resources, see Jenee Woodard’s helpful list at TextWeek.com.