Forgive us our trespasses, as we
forgive those who trespass against us
Good morning. Remembering the date, many of you are probably thinking "What's so good about it?" Remembering the date, aren't I supposed to ask "Where were you this morning ten years ago?" But, didn't we do that last year? Didn't I tell you where I was? Where my niece was in lower Manhattan? Didn't you think about where you were…and perhaps try to forget? Another year's gone by, a decade now. Have you been able to forget? To forgive? Do you want to? To forgive? To forget?
Today's Gospel is incredibly simple, but, oh, so hard. How simple? We are called to forgive…not once, not twice, not seven times, but, Jesus tells us, seventy-seven times…infinitely…always…every time. And how are we to forgive? We are to forgive as we would wish to be forgiven, as we need to be forgiven, as we pray to be forgiven: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
That passage of the Lord's Prayer, our prayer to our Father, has various wordings. In one, our "trespasses" become "debts" and, no matter the version, refer to sins. And, in today's Gospel, Jesus uses the debt analogy – an analogy those of us in this money-obsessed twenty-first century might especially understand. He turns those words from his prayer to his father into a parable…as if to say "Do you get it now?" It is a parable that can be understood in the nine little words from that prayer: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
Simple? Have you ever had to forgive someone who raped your daughter…like Tracy Dugard's parents? Someone who killed your brother…or mom or dad… some drunken driver on I-80, some faceless fighter in Afghanistan or Kurdistan? Then, there are those anger-crazed fanatics who drove three planes into three buildings and another into the ground…and killed three thousand of our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. Have you forgiven them? Can you? And what if the three thousand had been six million? What if you were a Jew? What if one of the six million had been your mom or dad? What if you had been in one of those death camps and survived? Could you forgive the German…the "Christian"…who pulled the trigger…or mindlessly opened the gas spigot?
For me, these are not academic questions that I studied in some seminary. They are questions that I've lived. For three years, I lived in Krakow, Poland…an hour from Auschwitz. I've walked that awful railroad track. I've peered into the ovens…and swear I could smell the stench of death. And, in Krakow 's old ghetto, I met the few survivors – a thousand of once a hundred thousand - and talked with them of those who hadn't survived. And later, I lived in Munich, the place Hitler called the Hauptstadt der Bewegung, the capital of the Nazi movement…a stone's throw from Dachau. There, I met many good Germans who resisted Hitler, some who may have survived with a wounded conscience, and, perhaps, more than one of the killers, survivors of another sort…the Murderers among Us that the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote about.
But today I'd like to talk about another book by Wiesenthal – The Sunflower. The first half of the book is a powerful parable on the "possibilities and limits of forgiveness." It relates a tale about Wiesenthal's time as a prisoner orderly in an SS hospital in Lvov in western Ukraine. There - alone in a hospital room - he encounters, Karl, a blinded, horribly burned German. The dying SS man, a lapsed Roman Catholic, summons Wiesenthal to his side and insists that he hear his confession…a graphic recitation of the hundreds of Jews he has killed. He begs for Wiesenthal's hand, his forgiveness. It is the German's final hope for atonement. Wiesenthal leaves the room in silence, withholding that forgiveness – a non-act that haunts Wiesenthal the rest of his life. And we are left to struggle with the question posed on the cover of the book: "What would you do?"
Again, it all seems sooo simple. Some of us, fingering perhaps the "WWJD" on some rubber bracelet, would confidently pose another question: "What would Jesus do?" Of course, he'd forgive the dying murderer. Didn't he forgive his own killers? Of course, he'd forgive the terrorist, shouting his "Allah u Ahkba," as he flew his plane into the 82nd floor. Wouldn't he say again: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?" Of course, he would.
But that's the wrong question. The proper question, the one we're asked today is: What would Jesus have us do…in our imperfections, with our limitations, with our lust for vengeance? That's a much harder question. And the answer is nowhere near as certain.
In The Sunflower, the question on the cover of the book becomes the stuff of a symposium that is the second half of the book. It becomes the question that more than forty leaders of the faith and moral community – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and non-believers – are called to grapple with – "What would you do?"
It is a question I've grappled with over a long lifetime, as I've contemplated the words of Jesus, the reflections in The Sunflower, and real life situations that have challenged me to give and to seek forgiveness. It is a question we all grapple with again this morning as we consider – perhaps for the first time in a long time - the events of September 11, our reactions to them, and what Jesus would have us do in their wake. As we do, let me share some random thoughts from my own struggle with this question of giving and seeking forgiveness.
First, there is the matter of perspective. Jesus draws our attention to it in today's parable in terms of dollars and cents…or talents and denarii. It's no accident that here the one who owes ten thousand talents – an impossible sum to repay, since one talent was tantamount to fifteen years' wages – is unwilling to forgive the debt of a fellow slave who owed but a hundred denarii or three months' wages. Were he to rephrase this as a parable, not on debts, but on deaths - deaths visited on one another from the sky - might not Jesus ask us, as we pray in our sorrow for the 3,000 dead of September 11, also to mourn - if just silently - the 6,000 killed in Baghdad's "shock and awe," the 25,000 in Dresden, the 50,000 in the fire raids on Hamburg, the 90,000 in the fire raids on Tokyo, and the 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If we have sought and received forgiveness for 300,000 such deaths from a merciful God, can we not find it in our hearts to forgive those who killed 3,000 of our kinfolk? Do we really mean it, when we pray "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive who trespass against us?"
This is not to put human lives in the same category as debts measured in talents and denarii, dollars and cents, or any numbers…nor to place those lives on some perverse scales that value one of ours as a hundred of theirs. No, each life is infinitely valuable…to God and to us. Just as some among us may mourn the death of an individual friend or family member who died on September 11, so, too, there are Afghanis and Iraqis who mourn someone they love who died since then. There was a rabbi who said "If you take one life, you kill all mankind." And to do that is profoundly evil.
And, make no mistake about it, what happened on 9/11 was profoundly evil. If, in working for the Kingdom of God, we seek to usher in God's heaven on earth, those who steered those planes into the World Trade Center opened the gates of hell; they loosed hell on earth. What is hell? Consider those people on the 102nd floor – the waiters at Windows on the World, the brokers at Cantor Fitzgerald, the janitors – unable to breathe the black smoke, the flames licking at their backs, holding hands in a last act of human solidarity…and leaping – willfully, courageously – to their deaths, hoping perhaps to wake up in heaven. I have no doubt, however, that, for one excruciating moment, they experienced all the pain of hell for all the eternity that is in a moment.
But, even if we're inclined to forgive such horror, is it within our power to do so? Some in The Sunflower discussion think not. Wiesenthal himself says he could not forgive the SS-man, because his were not crimes committed against Wiesenthal personally, but against others. Eva Fleischner, another Jew, agrees, pointing out that the Lord's Prayer says "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," not, she adds, "those who trespass against others." And, according to the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel, no one can forgive crimes committed against other people by other people. "It is," he says, "therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished." Or, one might add, the three thousand who died on September 11th.
Heschel goes one step further, citing Jewish tradition that "even God himself can only forgive sins against himself not against man"….to which Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest, adds that "no one had appointed Simon to forgive in God's name." But Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president emeritus of Notre Dame, disagrees: "My whole instinct is to forgive. Perhaps that is because I am a Catholic priest. In a sense, I am in the forgiving business….Of course, the sin here is monumental. It is still finite and God's mercy is infinite. If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive."
So would I. I'm a Christian. And, we, too, are in the forgiving business.
I would also question the line Fleischner so crisply, so simply draws between "us" and "others" in dissecting the Lord's Prayer. For neither does it say "Forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me." Who, I would ask, do we understand as "us," as "we," in the context of the Holocaust, September 11, the Lord's Prayer? Was the Holocaust a crime only against those killed…or against all Jews, dead and alive? Did the hijackers of September 11 seek only to kill three thousand or to instill a crippling fear in the hearts of all Americans? And when crimes of such magnitude are committed against anyone anywhere, are they not crimes against us all in our shared humanity. I've said it again and again. Let me say it once more: We find our salvation, not in solitude, but in community.
But, why forgive? What's in it for us…to make easier our journey together through this life, toward salvation? In forgiving, Jesus tells us, we heap coals upon the heads of our enemies. But, think about it, isn't that a form of vengeance, of passive aggression? Is that sufficient motive forgiving? But, think also of the obverse – withholding our forgiveness. When we do not forgive, do we not heap coals upon our own heads? Do we not allow our pain, our hurt, our sense of victimhood, to fester, to grow, and eventually explode in some self-defeating act of violence? In doing so, do we not allow our fears and anger to drive out our hopes and dreams? Do we not allow our dreams to become our worst nightmares? Listen to Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Isn't that what happened after 9/11? Didn't we allow our fear and anger to drive out our hopes and dreams, our better spirits…to explode in the paroxysm of violence that has marked the last decade? Didn't we choose vengeance over forgiveness? Didn't we close our eyes to the words of Paul from just two weeks ago – "Do not repay anyone evil for evil….never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine'….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good?"
And, in choosing vengeance, didn't we allow a dozen dead terrorists to heap coals on our heads – two wars, two and three times longer than World War II; two wars that have resulted in more dead young Americans than were killed on September 11; many tens of thousands of families dealing with the life-altering wounds of battle; hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis and millions more who hate us for killing their brothers and sisters; six trillion dollars mindlessly squandered on all the killing; an economy in shambles; our ostracism of the vulnerable Other; the endemic fear that paralyzes. Are these not also trespasses for which we should seek the forgiveness of millions of faceless strangers? Are they not debts for which we need seek forgiveness from our children and our generations as yet unborn? Are they not sins for which we must seek forgiveness from God?
If we are to find such forgiveness, if we are to live together - perpetrators and victims - in a peaceful present, we must break free of the cycle of violence that holds us in its thrall. And, that requires facing the sometimes hard truths that must precede reconciliation. Such remembrance, thoughtfully embraced, can yield remarkable reconciliation, as it has in South Africa, Chile, and post-communist Europe. When, however, the truth of past injustice is swept under the rug – as in the former Yugoslavia, in Israel/Palestine, or pre-1960s America – it produces the sorts of explosions Langston Hughes had so very much in mind.
No, forgiveness does not mean forgetting. We are called, rather, to remember…to never forget the sting of the pain and the injustice visited upon us… so that we do not visit it upon others. Jews, in particular, have been called to remember the Exodus we have been recalling these many weeks and again this morning…to remember that they – that we - were once slaves in Egypt, to remember to be hospitable to the fellow sojourners in our midst. And, in remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, they and we are all called to live into the meaning of those two words – Never again! Never again…not for us…or anyone.
It is a vow that is being sorely tested in the Holy Land this very week as Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims confront yet another round in the seemingly unending tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth cycle of violence. It is a situation that cries to heaven for mutual forgiveness, for justice, reconciliation, and peace.
In a few minutes, we will add our voices to that cry, that rising prayer, as we place this tiny dove of peace on our altar and light its flame of olive oil from the hills of Ephraim that offered Jesus refuge in another time of strife.
As we do so, on this somber anniversary, let us seize this moment as the "opportunity for reflection" that Katharine, our Presiding Bishop has called us to. "Have we become," she asks, "more effective reconcilers as a result? Are we more committed to peace-making?" "The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago," she says, "will be a world more inclined toward peace." "What, she asks, "are you doing to build a living memorial like that?"
To Katharine's question, to those of Simon Wiesenthal, of Langston Hughes, of that silent voice in your heart this morning, let me add, let me close, with just one more…from a drunken driver beaten senseless beside a Los Angeles Freeway. In the wake of the acquittal of his attackers, in the midst of the riots that had already taken thirty-five lives, a bewildered, tearful Rodney King asked: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It's just not right. It's not right. It's not…."