9/11, Exodus 15:1-11/20-21, Matthew 18:21-35, Proper 19A, Sermons

The Hand of God

(a sermon for Proper 19A — September 11, 2011 — Exodus 15:1-11, 20-21; Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve all answered the question. Where were you that morning? Where were you when you heard the news about the planes hitting the buildings?

My story is not special or dramatic. I took my children to school. I first heard the news at the drug store. I drove the half-mile home thinking it must have been one of those little planes that sometimes hits a building, but by the time I turned on the Today Show the second plane had hit, and it was clear these were no small planes…and you know the rest.

Where were you? We told our stories over and over, who we called, who we knew in New York or Washington, what it was like the time we visited the World Trade Center.

And I asked another question, a lot, in those first few days: Where was God on September 11th? God seemed absent to me, a very different force from the God of Exodus praised in our reading this morning. It is a song of triumph.

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21, NRSV)

Yes, it’s Charlton Heston. You know the movie.

The Israelites have been living as slaves in Egypt, and God sends Moses to set them free. After attempting to negotiate with Pharaoh, Moses unleashes the plagues, among them locusts and frogs and lice and boils. It takes ten plagues, but finally they are allowed to leave, only to be chased by Pharaoh and his army to the edge of the Red Sea. There Moses uses a staff that wields God’s power to part the waters, so that the Israelites may cross to the other side.

And then he closes the water up again to drown the pursuing Egyptians.

“Horse and rider he has thrown them into the sea.”

It sounds so good, as long as we are the ones standing on dry land. It sounds so good, as long as the Hand of God is acting on our behalf. But it didn’t feel that way on September 11, 2001. We were the horse and the rider. We were the ones sunk like stones, thrown into the sea. It didn’t seem right.

Where was God on September 11th?  I remember I wanted a God who came down like Zeus from Mount Olympus, brandishing thunderbolts and setting everything right again. In my mind, I knew our loss and shock as a country had to do with our sense of invulnerability—remember when we had that? In my mind I knew that other countries lived with smaller-scale terrorism all the time.

But in my heart, I felt the horror, and I felt angry with God for not being made in my image, for not taking a hand in history when it suits my ideas of what’s right. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much more I wanted this event to be different than other events in the world. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I wanted to be the one shaking the tambourine and singing songs of praise because other people and their horses had been thrown into the sea.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the Bible is full of stories about people and characters just as unreasonable as I am, which might make us all feel both a little better and a little worse. In our gospel lesson, Jesus continues to talk with the disciples about how to live together in community. Last week we heard him say that if someone in the community wrongs us, we need to go to them and try to make it right. This week Peter asks him for some guidelines on how far to take the forgiveness exercise.  Will forgiving someone seven times be enough? Surely, he’s thinking, there’s a point when we give up, right?

Jesus MAFA — The Unforgiving Servant

Sadly, no, for Peter and for us, seven times is not enough. Seventy times seven is not enough, because the kingdom of heaven is like a king who settles accounts with his slaves, and in that elaborate scenario Jesus creates, the debt owed to the king is an absolutely unthinkably enormous amount of money. Even the amount owed between the slaves is impressively large, but it’s nothing compared to what the king is owed.

All the things we do to put ourselves out of relationship with each other are nothing compared to the debt we owe to God. And we cannot settle that debt when we go around strangling each other.

Ten years ago this morning, on a day just this beautiful, a group of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 realized their plane had been hijacked, and in their effort to call their loved ones, they discovered that other planes had been flown into the World Trade Center’s towers and into the Pentagon. Among themselves, they decided it would be better to die trying to get the plane back, even if that meant crashing it, than to let it go on to what they thought might be its ultimate target in Washington, D.C.

One of the passengers, Todd Beamer, had trouble using his credit card and ended up being re-routed to the call center, where his calm tone might have made the hijacking claim seem strange if the rest of the airline world hadn’t already known about the other three planes used as weapons that morning. The operator got a supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, on the line, and she later told the story of her conversation with Todd, who asked her to call his wife, and also asked her to pray with him.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” they prayed, “hallowed be thy name.” In a time of crisis, those familiar words are comforting, but they are also instructive. Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our transgressions, God. Please forgive us. But there is a second part. Forgive us the same way we forgive those who have done wrong to us.

Todd turned to this prayer and spoke these words, just before he turned to his fellow passengers and said, “Let’s roll.”

On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They did not know – and so often *we* do not know – the ways in which we run up an incalculable debt with God.

And sometimes we can’t get it right again until we forgive God –
not for things God has done, but for the things we blame God for doing –
or not doing.

All the things we do to put ourselves out of relationship with each other are nothing compared to the debt we owe to God, nor to the grace and mercy we receive in God’s forgiveness.

And this is what Jesus hoped to explain to his followers, as he tried to give them a new way to make a community with one another. They lived by a set of religious rules, and when the rules were broken, the breach could be mended with appropriate sacrifices. But Jesus came to set us free from the world’s way of keeping accounts. His life guides us into relationship with God and one another, to love of enemy as well as friend, and to forgiveness for the things we all do wrong, every one of us.

Sometimes I’m still tempted to complain that God is not parting the sea just the way I would direct it. So I try to remind myself that while tricks with water may seem impressive, it was no trick that Jesus died and was resurrected. There is no more powerful act of the Hand of God than to become one of us, to suffer and die, and to defeat death itself, all the time offering us grace and mercy, love and forgiveness. It is the truth of our faith, the parting of all seas, the way God let all people go from the slavery of disconnection and sin, inviting us into the kingdom of heaven.

“Sing to the Lord,” for God has triumphed gloriously. Amen.