September 12 and Proper 19

So yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  There were memorials, speeches, forums, remembrances.  Plenty of people took part in the “Where were you when…” game, as we have each year on that date.  What I remembered most was something that took place a couple days later.

At the time, I took part in an online community of women, devoted to understanding and peace among social, ethnic, and religious groups.  One member of the community said that there was only one response that the U.S. could make that would bring healing, and that response was this:

We forgive you.

We could not try to negotiate.  We could not mobilize our troops and try to fight.  No, we could only stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and offer forgiveness.

This Sunday’s gospel – along similar lines to last week’s – talks about forgiveness.  And in this gospel, Jesus tells us it’s our job to forgive others not once, not twice, not even seven times, but more times than we can possibly imagine.  Forgive, Jesus says.  Let it be.  Love, and be at peace.

One problem we have in twenty-first century America is that we think there is only one response to an apology, and that is to say, “Oh, it’s okay,” even when it is not okay.  But saying “It’s okay” is not the same as forgiving.  Saying “It’s okay” is letting someone off the hook.  Not everything is okay, and not everything should be okay.  Intentionally punching someone and giving them a black eye – that is not okay.  The next day, when that person comes to you and says, “I’m sorry,” they’re not necessarily asking you to let them off the hook, to make everything be the way it was before the blow.  Everything won’t be the same – it can’t be the same.  And it wasn’t okay for them to strike you.  Forgiveness does not necessarily come right at this point.  You may still be angry, hurting.  You may not be ready to hear the apology; heck, you may not be able to hear the apology.

In these situations, I see the apology as opening up the door for conversation, for relationship, for forgiveness to begin.  Forgiveness does not have to be complete just yet, and it won’t be, for some of the bigger hurts we experience.  So what does one say, if one cannot truthfully say, “It’s okay” or “You are forgiven”?  In my mind, there is one very good and right response, if you can think of no other: thank you.  Thank you for your apology, for wanting to open the door back up.  I know you’re inviting me in, and I’m not quite ready to let go of my anger and hurt and fear yet.  But with God’s grace, I will be, and then we will be okay again.

Of course, there are things that just seem too huge to forgive.  How can a father forgive the murderer of his child?  How can a mother forgive her daughter’s classmate, the one who put rohypnol in her drink and raped her?  How can a sister forgive the drunk driver responsible for her brother’s death?  How can the people of America forgive the terrorists who turned jets full of people into missiles?  These are huge – huge – tasks of forgiveness, way beyond forgiving seventy-seven times or even beyond the seventy-times-seven in a different version of Sunday’s gospel story.  These things will never ever be okay again.  How is a Christian to forgive something this huge?

Jesus is our model, of course, asking God’s forgiveness for those who beat and tortured and crucified him.  And in that is the key – asking God.  As flawed and imperfect human beings, we may not be able to forgive these things, not on our own.  The good news is, we don’t have to do anything all on our own.  Jesus shows us the way, even from the cross – ask God.  Yes, it is good to ask God to forgive the murderer, the rapist, the drunk driver, the terrorists.  It is also good to ask God to help us to forgive them.  I believe – down to the very core of my being – that this is one of God’s most favorite prayers to hear.

God, please help me forgive this person.  I don’t know if I can do it on my own, but I know you want me to.  Please help.

I also believe that this prayer is never fruitless, that God always responds to this prayer with a delighted and unequivocal, YES! God wants us to forgive each other; God yearns for us to forgive each other.  God knows we aren’t able to do everything on our own, and God takes great delight when we ask God for help.

Of course, it is different for an individual to extend forgiveness than it is for a nation.  I know that there are political, social, and cultural ramifications to saying, We forgive you.  That there is fear that this would make the US appear weak.  But saying, We forgive you, is not the same as saying, It’s okay.  It was decidedly not okay for those individuals to use airplanes to kill thousands of people.  But we forget that Jesus taught us about opposites.  The place of forgiveness and love may appear weak, but only to those who are weak.  Forgiveness and love make us strong, strong in ways that are hard for those who are fearful to perceive.  It would have been weak to say, It’s okay.  But to say, We forgive you, that would have shown that the U.S. is big enough and strong enough to offer that forgiveness.  Yes, we mourn our losses.  We grieve that our fellow humans caused us this harm.  We hurt and we are angry – let the world see this.  And then let the world see compassion and love, strength in the face of adversity.  It’s not okay, tell the world, but we forgive you.

Sunday morning, we will pray that the Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.  And I will offer my own prayer that the Holy Spirit guide and direct us – each individual one of us, as well as our churches, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our nations – on the path of forgiveness.  It may not be okay.  But forgiveness is possible.