St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church, Little Falls NJ
September 11, 2011
Year A: Proper 19 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Ten years ago I was a history teacher at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, just beginning to explore what I thought might be a call to be a priest.
At Prep, my classroom was on the top floor with large windows that offered a spectacular view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, just across the Hudson River.
Ten years ago today, as that horrific morning unfolded I felt fear like I had never felt before – fear for myself and fear for my students sitting at their desks, stunned and confused. While some teachers continued to conduct their classes in an effort to keep some semblance of normalcy, I decided to turn on the radio so my students and I could listen to the history that was being scorched into our lives just across the Hudson and at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.
Later that day, after school had been dismissed, a friend and I walked, trying to get as close to the river as we could. From my classroom windows I had seen the towers fall, yet as I turned the corner onto Montgomery Street somehow I imagined that the towers would still be standing – burned out husks maybe – but still standing.
Getting my first good look at the smoldering and brutalized skyline I felt absence – the absence of the towers and the absence of the thousands of people who just a few hours earlier had been going about their business on a beautiful late summer morning.
Later that day, I mourned the absence of seemingly ordinary World Trade Center places that I would never see again: the PATH Station, the newsstands, the Borders Book Store, the Krispy Kreme donut shop. I remembered when I was a kid seeing workers laying the bricks in the floor of the mall that was under the towers. Now that pavement and so many other familiar sights were all gone.
And on that terrible day I mourned what felt like the absence of God.
Like me, lots of people felt God’s seeming absence that morning.
But, not everyone.
Certainly the people responsible for these evil acts mistakenly felt that God was on their side. For them, the proof of God’s presence and support was in their successful strikes at symbols of American power and wealth.
And there were some in our own country who saw the attacks as signs of God’s punishing hand or as a lifting of God’s protection.
But, as the days went on, others of us felt what I’d say was a more authentic sense of God’s presence.
We felt God’s presence in the excruciatingly beautiful phone messages left by doomed men and women trapped in the burning towers to those they loved.
We felt God’s presence in the stories of heroism – the story of two men carrying a handicapped woman down the 68 flights of stairs in the North Tower, further risking their lives in an act of compassion – and the story of the firefighters bravely marching up the stairs through intense heat and poisonous smoke, overcoming their fears through a profound sense of duty.
We felt God’s presence in the story of the passengers of United Flight 93 who gave their lives to prevent even greater tragedies on that terrible day.
We felt God’s presence in the short “Portraits of Grief” the New York Times published for each 9/11 victim – the stories of dads who loved coaching their kids’ little league teams, the immigrants who were washing dishes in a humble start to the American dream, the recent college graduates beginning their first real jobs, all those firefighters and cops from the outer boroughs, and on and on.
Ten years ago we were terrified and brokenhearted and furious – and I know those feelings are still raw in us.
It’s been a time when a lot of us have turned to God, looked for God, raged at God, pleaded with God, bargained with God, or just wondered about God.
For some of us God has seemed achingly absent. For some of us God has felt powerfully present. And for most of us, I think, somehow God has felt both absent and present.
Which raises the basic but essential question: Who exactly is this God who can seem both achingly absent and powerfully present?
Reflecting on who God is has been on my mind more than usual because I just finished reading a provocative book that came out a couple of years ago called The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, who is skeptical but respectful of religion. In his book, he traces how our perception of God has evolved in fits and starts over thousands of years.
Wright makes the point that the only hope for the world is if our perception of God continues to evolve.
Today’s lessons illustrate beautifully how our perception of God has evolved. Today’s lessons also challenge us to take the next evolutionary step in our perception of God.
From Exodus we heard the familiar and yet still powerful story of the parting of the Red Sea. Israel’s God manipulates nature so that his people might escape from the Egyptians who were in hot pursuit.
It’s a great story of God’s liberating power – a story that still inspires people yearning for freedom. It’s also a story that’s told entirely from Israel’s perspective – reflecting Israel’s perception that their national god was acting to protect and liberate them.
But, our perception of God has evolved from a national god to a loving God of all. Our perception of God has evolved to the point that today we wonder about all those drowned Egyptian soldiers. Our perception of God has evolved so we might recognize that while God could rejoice in Israel’s liberation, at the same time God’s heart could also break for the dead Egyptian soldiers and for the families and friends who would soon be pained by grief.
Our perception of God has evolved from a national god to a loving God of all.
The greatest evolutionary leap in our perception of God is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, we see most clearly what God is really like.
Over the past weeks we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew. Out of the four gospels Matthew is often considered the most Jewish and it is certainly the gospel most concerned with life in the Christian community, life in the church.
Last week, you may remember we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus telling the disciples what to do if someone seems to be in danger of falling away from the community or if someone actually does break with the community.
Essentially, Jesus tells the disciples that no one is to be excluded. We Christians are meant to go to bend over backwards to hold the community together.
Peter, maybe thinking this is crazy, asks for a clarification. Just to be clear, Peter asks how often he should forgive a church member who sins against him. Seven times?
Now, seven was a special number meaning perfection or completeness but just so there’s no confusion Jesus goes totally overboard and says, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Yes, we are to hold people accountable for their actions. Yes, we are to strive for justice. And, yes, we are to forgive and forgive and forgive.
In its original context the gospel message of infinite forgiveness is clearly meant for life within the church.
And, let’s be honest, that’s hard enough. Forgiveness isn’t so easy in the church where too often relationships get broken and too often we hold on to our grudges for dear life.
But, what if the next evolutionary step in our perception of God is the hardest step of all?
What if we perceive that God is calling us to break the cycle of violence and revenge once and for all?
What if we perceive that the loving God of all is calling us to extend infinite forgiveness out into all the world?
Anne Lamott once wrote, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”
Today of all days we remember that we’ve had a terrible past and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
The only hope for a better future is taking the next evolutionary step in our perception of the loving God of all, who offers infinite forgiveness to all.
The next evolutionary step in our perception of God won’t happen on the battlefield or in the chambers of Congress. The next evolutionary step in our perception of God won’t happen on cable news channels or out on the presidential campaign trail.
The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we hold people accountable for their actions, strive for justice, and, most of all, are truly willing to forgive seventy-seven times – to forgive and forgive and forgive.
The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we break the cycle of violence and revenge. The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we give up all hope of having had a better past and dedicate ourselves to building the kingdom of God here on earth – the kingdom where all of God’s people – all of us - will finally live in peace.