Sunday, September 11, 2011
Sermon for a Day of Supplication and Prayer on the 10th Anniversary of 9-11 (September 11, 2011)
Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35; Psalm 103
Friday night I watched Dateline on NBC. It was a two hour special remembering the events of September 11, 2001, told from the perspective of a number of people who were there in New York, Washington D.C., and those who received the phone calls from the plane that went down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Stories. Images. Tearfully relived moments of fear, agony, confusion, grief. Survivor guilt. Lost husbands, lost wives, lost fathers, lost mothers, lost children.
It’s been ten years. They say “time heals all wounds.” I’m not so sure. How do you heal from something so horrific? Maybe we’ve moved on as a nation … concerned more now about the economy than Al Qaeda. But the wounds are still there … and we are reminded of them on every visit to the airport, unable to accompany travelers to the gate like we used to; every time we take our shoes off going through airport security; every time we see an old picture of the Manhattan skyline and see two twin towers that aren’t there any longer.
Our nation experienced a collective trauma that day. It lasted for weeks and months. From Maine to Miami, from Seattle to San Diego, we were all in shock. Then followed fear, accompanied by anger and anxiety and uncertainty.
In the days following, the news gave us reports of the sacrifice, bravery, and heroism of both rescue workers and regular folks. We rallied around the flag. Christians rallied around the cross. September 11 brought out some of the more noble traits of humanity.
September 11 also brought out some of the more nasty things in humanity. Hatred. A desire for vengeance. The hopes that whoever was behind all this would rot in hell.
We know what the role of government should be. Protect the nation’s citizens. Do it in a moral, just fashion. If military action is necessary, so be it. We heard in last week’s Epistle lesson that the governing authority “does not bear the sword in vain. For [it] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). And oh, how we wanted to see God’s wrath poured out. We’ll leave it to history’s judgments to determine if our government’s actions were correct. We’ll leave it to God to decide if our government’s actions were and continue to be an instrument of his wrath.
But what do we do as individuals with the feelings that we have against our enemies who wish to do us harm? (And they are still out there.) Justice is one thing. Payback is another.
If anyone had the right to take vengeance upon someone, it would have been Joseph. Stripped of his fancy coat his father gave him by his jealous brothers. Hurled into a pit. Sold as a slave. Dragged down to Egypt. Assumed dead by his father. Accused of rape by his master’s wife. Thrown into prison. Lingers there for two years or more. The Pharoah, the king, has two strange dreams. He learns that a certain prisoner is good at interpreting dreams. He summons the prisoner Joseph and describes his dreams to him. Joseph explains that the two dreams foretell seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph is made second in command in Egypt and put in charge of storing up grain to alleviate the coming famine. Suffering the effects of the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph hasn’t seen his brothers for close 20 years. He recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. Now’s your chance, Joseph. Stick it to ‘em. Make them pay for what they did to you 20 years ago. Lay the hammer down.
Amazingly, Joseph acts quite contrary to how his brothers deserve. After a series of tests which he gives them, he finally reveals himself to his brothers … and forgives them. His entire family immigrates to Egypt – his father Jacob, his brothers and their wives and children, the whole kit and caboodle. Joseph provides for them and saves them.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. How would you have felt? You know what some of your family and friends have done to you. Are you letting it eat you up inside? We are often more inclined to act like the wicked servant in the parable that Jesus told (Matt. 18:21-35). How many times have we been unwilling to forgive someone even the smallest of debts, when we have been forgiven of all our debts to our gracious God? Yet Joseph had already forgiven his brothers. He held no grudges against them.
Seventeen years pass. Jacob dies. Joseph’s brothers think that, with dad out of the picture, Joseph will now give them what they deserve. He was only holding out until Jacob died so dad wouldn’t have to see his sons perhaps tortured and executed. They did not believe that Joseph had forgiven them. All those years of kindness and generosity? It was all an act, they figured. And so, seventeen years after Joseph received them with love and mercy, they come to him again, asking for his forgiveness. And Joseph wept. It hurt him deeply to think that his brothers were not able to receive and rest in his forgiveness all those years. So Joseph reassures his brothers. He “spoke kindly to them,” saying, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.”
Jesus is someone else who was treated contrary to how he deserved … but not like Joseph’s brothers. They deserved to die for what they did to their brother. Jesus deserved none of the treatment he received. Yet, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Is. 53:7) Jesus allowed himself to be treated as a criminal, mocked, spit upon, beaten, and crucified for us, suffering and dying with the world’s sin credited to his account. Joseph refused to act in the place of God and judge his brothers. Jesus as God had every right to act and pour out his wrath upon us and judge us for our sins. Instead, Jesus acted contrary to how we deserve so that we get what he earned for us … life, joy, peace, forgiveness, and a share in his resurrection on the Last Day.
It was an evil act, what Joseph’s brothers did to him. Yet Joseph acknowledged that God meant it for good. Many people were saved, including Joseph’s own family … including his brother Judah, through whose lineage the Savior would one day be born.
It was an evil act, the innocent Son of God being crucified. But God meant it for good. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the price has been paid for our sins, and you and I and all who believe and are baptized into Christ are saved.
It was an evil act, what happened ten years ago today. Did God mean it for good? How do we make sense out of evil acts perpetrated against us – both by those close to us or by those half-way around the world? I don’t know how to make sense out of those things, without a clear word from the Lord. But this much is clear from the inspired pen of St. Paul: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) Nothing happens beyond God’s watchful, merciful eyes. And he promises that, ultimately, his almighty hand will work for the good of his baptized children even when the circumstances are evil. “If we live,” Paul says in today’s Epistle, “we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
What about forgiving those who have done evil against us? Well, if God has forgiven us, then we are to offer forgiveness to others, no matter what the sin. Let God be the judge. That’s not our job. Joseph knew he was not “in the place of God,” and so he offered forgiveness to his brothers. You and I are not “in the place of God,” and so we offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us in any way … not “seven times, but seventy times seven” … as many times as is necessary (Matt. 18:22). It’s not the government’s job to forgive. It’s the government’s job to uphold the law and dole out justice. It is, however, the job of every Christian to forgive those who have wronged us.
Todd Beamer was on Flight 93, the one that crashed in that field in Pennsylvania. He was one of the passengers who overcame the hijackers to keep the plane from being the fourth to be used as a weapon of mass destruction that day. His words “Let’s roll” – heard from the phone he was using just before he and others stormed the cockpit – have become legendary. Just before that, Beamer tried to call his wife, but was routed to a phone company supervisor. He told her what was happening and about the plan to try to bring the plane down. He made her promise to contact his wife and kids and tell them that he loved them. Finally, he asked her to pray with him. Together they prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The rest is, as they say, history.
Todd’s wife, Lisa, later said, “You know, in the Lord's Prayer, it asks God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. [As he prayed that prayer, Todd] was forgiving those people for what they were doing, the most horrible thing you could ever do to someone.”
From a human standpoint, forgiveness is hard … both giving it and receiving it (we are often like Joseph’s brothers…we are just not sure that God or others have forgiven us). Forgiveness can, at times, be a process. We may still have to work through all kinds of emotions and hurts even after we’ve said the words “I forgive you” to someone. We need to ask the Lord to help us through that process, to rid our hearts of grudges and anger that our sinful nature may still cling to. I can imagine that, even ten years later, there are survivors of the 9-11 tragedy that are still working through some very deep-seated psychological and spiritual wounds. There are combat veterans of the war on terror and their families that are working through their own particular issues. In a similar way, you each have your own battles that you are dealing with, however great or small … ongoing fear and uncertainty in a world affected by sin and evil … the need to let go of grudges and to forgive … the need to receive and believe that you are forgiven, both by God and by others.
Remember this: the battle has already been fought and it is finished. The burden of sin has been lifted. You don’t need to settle any scores with anyone, because Jesus will take care of that on the Last Day. You are set free to receive God’s gifts and to distribute them to your neighbor. You can enjoy your life in Christ, filled with his joy that spills over into all that you say and do.