Proper 19A, Genesis 50: 15-21; Matthew 18: 21-35
Grace and peace to you on this second Sunday now in September, and in the informal but ancient and venerable tradition here at St. Andrew’s, “Round Up Sunday,” a wonderful day of gathering the family, old friends and new, not quite fall really, but for us the beginning of the fall season, with all the energy and interest of new beginnings.
And all that complicated today very much in our awareness as well and as we have acknowledged in our prayers--this day the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon, and we here in Western Pennsylvania always have a special acknowledgment for the place where United Flight 93 came down out near Shanksville and Ligonier. A part of the story that comes especially close to home.
I remember where I was, a little bit before 9 a.m. on that morning. Probably you remember where you were. I was out on the front porch of the Old Rectory. I’d been for a long run and had breakfast and was getting ready to go upstairs for a shower before going to the office, when the first news bulletin came over the radio. I know I sat there listening for quite a long time—and then I finally did shower and go over to the office, though I think actually the radio wasn’t turned off for much of the day.
At one point along in there somewhere Pete Luley and I talked and made the decision to open the doors of the church that evening, and he started getting in touch with members of the choir, and I began to put together an order of service. And perhaps some of you were here that evening, I know quite a few of you were, as we did have a good crowd from the parish and also from the neighborhood. Music. Prayers. The quiet of silent reflection. Don’t know at that point if any of us really knew what to make of what had happened. Some kind of terroristic act, we knew that-- but what it was connected to, and of course what it would mean for the next days and months and years of this decade we had no idea.
The other related memory I associate with this day is of the afternoon I spent several months on, in the later fall of 2001, when I was with the board of the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations at a meeting in New York, and through the offices of a colleague we were given credentials to serve with the chaplains at St. Paul’s Chapel, which is right next to Ground Zero, and which had been converted as a place for rest and refreshment for workers at the site. I spoke during that afternoon to a couple of construction workers who were with crews clearing debris, and with a New York firefighter who was a part of a team of firefighters and police that remained there all through this period to provide escort whenever human remains would be found and removed.
I spent a lot of time chatting with other volunteers who were serving coffee or sandwiches, and with one of the priests from Trinity Wall Street, who was serving on the regular chaplaincy team. And at each hour there was a very brief time of prayer up at the altar in the Chapel, and we were able to participate in that. The altar and space around it all decorated with drawings and cards of encouragement and expressions of sympathy and affection from all over the country and all around the world. Just very sad and beautiful, and powerful, and it’s hard for me to think now that it was ten years ago. Seems like last month, in some ways, and in other ways it seems like a hundred years ago.
I know we all have our reflections and memories, and we offer them up in prayer today, as we come together for worship and as we celebrate the richness of the life God has blessed us with here at St. Andrew’s.
The readings appointed for this morning in our lectionary continue to explore the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation that we began to talk about last week with the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of the one who is lost and then with the instructions Jesus gives about how to deal with grievances and disputes and divisions in the church. This week all three of the lessons stay on the theme. In Genesis Joseph’s brothers worry that perhaps his apparent kindness for them has been for the sake of their father. And the anxiety-producing question: now that their father has died, will Joseph continue to maintain that good relationship?
In Romans, the lesson we didn’t read this morning at Morning Prayer but which you can find printed in the earlier part of our service leaflet from the 9 a.m. service, Paul talks about the kinds of divisions that have arisen between Christians who maintain many of the traditional Jewish practices and beliefs and those who come from the Gentile world and who don’t follow those practices. Paul really almost pleading with these Christians not by taking one side or the other but by calling them to a deeper sense of their unity in Christ. Again, pulling the flock back together, restoring it to a wholesome unity.
And then the gospel reading from St. Matthew, beginning with St. Peter’s question about how often to forgive, with the reply from Jesus: not seven times, but seventy times seven. And this parable about the servant who receives such a gift of forgiveness, but who is unwilling to pass that along to another. And clear and straightforward word from Jesus about the consequences of unforgiveness, in this life and in the life to come.
So forgiveness. Letting go of grievances, seeking reconciliation, really this sense of the urgency and priority of reconciliation, overcoming brokenness, restoring relationships and community, renewal, grace, generosity, new life. Something for us here perhaps especially on September 11. Jesus along this road to Jerusalem, planting seeds. A vision of the quality and character of the new life to begin in him, a word for his followers and friends. That what they and we come to know in him, the world would come to know in us.
I’m always struck by this wonderful phrase in Genesis 50, as Joseph speaks these words of care with his brothers. Looking back over the horrors of what they had done to him. Fuelled by jealousy and hatred, they plot his murder, then sell him into a life of slavery—a life that will in time include long years of imprisonment in a harsh Egyptian prison. Certainly we can understand what he has every right to feel about them. Why they are afraid. But Joseph steps back. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” And to remember how Joseph had to be thrown in the pit and left for dead, sold into slavery, languishing long years in prison, before he could meet another prisoner who would one day bring word about his spiritual gift of dream interpretation to the attention of the Pharaoh—and how as a result a much greater good was accomplished, and the nation was saved from mass starvation and famine. God is in charge. Joseph’s interpretation of the story.
The story is God’s story, not yours or mine. When we are faithful, and when we seek to know and to do his will in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, he will show a way in the wilderness. Perhaps sometimes in ways that will be obvious to all, and perhaps other times in ways that will be deeply hidden and known to him alone.
It’s not to be a Pollyanna. Not to diminish the horrors of the Trade Center and the Pentagon and United 93, and always to acknowledge all the hard work and pain and suffering that have followed in the decade since in so many ways. All that just one chapter in the long history of our lives and our world. So much a story of brokenness, hurt, loss. In small private corners of life, and on the great stage. But to say even in this, we need to see not simply how we would want to respond, but to listen carefully for him. To keep the main thing the main thing. So that we can break bread and enjoy chicken and chili and fun together this morning at the picnic, even on September 11, and to give thanks even in times of ruin and destruction, and to seek to know as perhaps we will all of us find ways to learn from one another what new thing God intends for each one of us, for our church, and for the nation and the world.
Blessings and peace, in the midst of so much messiness around us in our lives and in our world. That we would hear in every situation a call to respond faithfully, and to reflect in our words and our actions, with a spirit of hopeful confidence, the good news of our Savior.
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.