It was a beautiful fall day, not unlike today. It was my first year of seminary, and I was sitting in class trying to stay awake as the professor droned on about something. My mind was wandering to so many things, this being my first year of seminary and all. Class ended, and we were dismissed. I recall walking out of the building, the warm sun hitting my face, and noticed that the campus was still, not many students around. Usually, the place was a buzz of activity at this time of the morning but not this morning.
I walked to the parking lot and got in my car. I turned on the radio expecting to hear the usual laughter and banter that was morning radio but instead, I heard what sounded like War of the Worlds. It was September 11, 2001. I drove back to the seminary campus and ran across the parking lot and into the building where I was living and up three flights of stairs. My fellow seminarians had all gathered on the common room, and the television was on. As I sat down, in utter disbelief, the first of the towers came down. Our lives as ministers and our lives as Americans would never be the same again.
I am sure we all have stories like that, stories of remembrance of where we were when we first heard our country is under attack. As we sit here this morning, perhaps, we remember what we felt on that morning 19 years ago. What emotions did we feel? What did we do? Did we stand as if frozen in time? Did we call loved ones? Did we cry? Did we pray? Did we get angry?
This morning we heard the story of the Unmerciful Servant from the Gospel of Matthew. This story begins with Peter’s question about forgiveness and how many times we are to forgive someone who sins against us. Peter says to Jesus, “Should we forgive up to seven times?” Peter thought he was super spiritual by using the number seven, but Jesus replied, “Not seven but seventy-seven times.” Seventy times seven is 490, and this must have come as a shock to Peter. Jesus never wasted a word, so there must be a meaning to what he is saying here.
Hebrew is alphanumeric, which means that every word has a numerical value. Words that share the same numeric value are often connected somehow, and these connections frequently communicate deeper spiritual insights. And is this indeed the case here.
490 is the numerical value of the biblical Hebrew word “Tamim,” which means to “complete,” “perfect,” or “finished.” A person who can’t forgive will always live an imperfect and incomplete life that lacks a real understanding of the “finished” gracious work of the cross. 490 is also the value of the Hebrew phrase, “Let your heart be perfect” (1 Kings 8:61). Forgiving helps to make us complete and is key to perfecting our hearts.
Forgiveness is essential to the life as a Christian.
As you know, we are called to “love our neighbor,” and we are also called to “love our enemies.” Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “loving those who love us back is easy,” and this is very true it is easy to love those who love us back, but how about those who do not love us back? How about those who we do not like? How about those that perpetrate heinous acts of terrorism against our neighbors and us? It’s not easy, but for us, its where the rubber meets the road.
I think there is a lot of confusion about the nature of forgiveness, just like there is confusion about the idea of love. Before, I have told you that we have to love everyone, but we do not have to like them. Jesus calls us to love because we are loved, loved by God. We are called to love because each of us is created in God’s image and likeness, but Jesus is silent on liking people. Love and like and two vastly different emotions. We are required; actually, we are commanded to love just as we are commanded to forgive.
As I just said, there is confusion about this concept of forgiveness; Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive someone 490 times if they sin against us. It sounds as if Jesus is telling us that we have roll over and take whatever someone wants to doll out against us. Well, that is not truly the case. Just like there is a difference between like and love, there is a difference between forgiveness and forgetting.
It is true that Jesus commands that we forgive, but Jesus does not say we have to forget. Jesus commands that we forgive, but Jesus does not say that we cannot seek justice for what has been done against us. Last week Jesus told us that if someone sins against us, we are to seek reconciliation with them, and if that is impossible, we are to treat them as a pagan or a tax collector. We are to seek justice, but justice begins with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not for the person that has sinned against us; forgiveness is for us. When we withhold forgiveness, we are giving over a portion of ourselves to the person that has harmed us. When we withhold forgiveness, we give those who have injured us the power of a part of our lives. When we offer forgiveness, we regain control, and we take back the power that the other person has over us, and we begin the healing process.
But remember, forgives does not mean we forget. We do not forget what the person has done. We do not forget the pain they have caused. We do not give up the right to seek justice for what has been done. Forgiveness does not mean we have to ever have anything to do with them again. Forgiveness means we take back the power, and we begin to heal.
Another negative result of withholding forgiveness is that the anger we feel from being hurt and fester and turn from righteous anger. This anger wants to see justice done, to destructive anger that wants vengeance for what has been done against us. Justice is healthy, but vengeance is not.
But the goal of forgiveness is to restore us to love. Sure, we can choose to be angry and withhold forgives, and there are somethings that we may never be able to forgive others for, but what we do with that anger is the difference between love and hate.
I did not know anyone that was killed on that horrific day in September of 2001. I do know people who died as a result of that day. Several people I served with in Army have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the events of that day. I can choose, as so many have to turn my feelings of anger toward everyone who is Muslim or everyone who looks different than I do. Or, I can choose to turn that anger into justice and understanding, which places me on the road to love.
I was honored to participate in the 9/11 service of remembrance organized by the Quincy Fire Department. This is an annual gathering designed to remind us of what we lost on that day, friends, neighbors, and loved ones. We remember not to rekindle those feelings of anger from those days. We remember the lives that were lost, and we promise to be better people.
It was not religion that flew those planes into the towers in New York. It was not religion that flew that plane into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. It was not religion that drove those on that plane that crashed in that field in Pennsylvania. Hatred is what did that. Hatred against people they did not even know.
But we saw something else on that day; we saw love. Love was the reason those firefighters ran into those buildings when everyone else was running out. Love was why the police and EMT’s ran into those buildings when everyone else was running out. Love was why the people on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and forced that plane to crash into the field in Pennsylvania rather than it’s intended target. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but it was love that did all of that, and love won the day because love always wins!
I want to end with a quote from an article written on September 15, 2001, by the novelist Ian Mcewan that appeared in the Guardian Newspaper called “Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers”.
“A San Francisco husband slept through his wife’s call from the World Trade Centre. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow, he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing that there was no escape for her. The building was on fire, and there was no way down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs, and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you.
She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.”
Forgiveness is not easy. Love is not easy, but it is all we have.