Mike Sweitzer-Beckman's Reflection on the Gospel from September 11, 2011

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Mike Sweitzer-Beckman delivered the following reflection on the Gospel on September 11, 2011, the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The lectionary readings for the day included Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.

Today, President Barack Obama and George W. Bush have gathered in Lower Manhattan for a solemn remembrance of the attacks ten years ago today.  The past couple weeks, I have been so saturated with commemorations of September 11, 2001 – ten years ago today.  It’s been all over the newspapers, email alerts from socially conscious organizations, and on NPR.  So coming up with something new to share with all of you might be impossible at best, and perhaps listening to bagpipes played by members of the New York Police and Fire Departments and having a silent, solemn remembrance would do just as well. (Silence)

We all have our memories of where we were that day.  For my generation, it has become the moment that is similar to where my parents’ generation was when JFK was assassinated, or my grandparents’ generation when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.

I was just beginning my last year of college at DePaul, living about a 3 mile bike ride north of campus in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  I had my normal routine of eating Special K and watching SportsCenter when every station was flooded with the news.

I biked to campus that day, holding my breath as I passed Wrigley Field – at that moment, it seemed plausible that any major landmark could be struck.  I made it to campus to find out classes were canceled.  I checked in on Ayman, a roommate from the previous year who is from Palestine.  In hindsight, his country of origin is as intertwined with the events of September 11, 2001 as my countries of origin are, but he was playing it safe and holing up in his basement apartment.  There was no way he would be doing his side gig for a couple weeks until things cooled down,  driving a taxi with his skin color was not the best way to interact with people under these circumstances.  The verbal abuse and assumptions from others was too much.  I don’t think he left that apartment for a week.

I felt bad for people like Ayman on such a cosmopolitan campus like DePaul.  My female Muslim classmates, dressed in their hijab head coverings, had to be escorted to their cars by supportive white classmates.  There was a certain chaos caused not just by planes crashing into buildings that day, but a whole new level of fear and misunderstanding in our social relationships was in play.

Parts of today’s readings lend themselves for dealing with such a complicated global situation that September 11, 2001 brought to us.  Other parts of today’s readings will probably challenge our concept of forgiveness.

The reading from Genesis about Joseph forgiving his brothers for burying him as the result of a family feud is filled with irony in that God’s grace befuddles the worst actions by Joseph’s brothers.  God is paying attention to this family feud, which Luther saw in this narrative the figure of a betrayed, buried and risen Christ.  For Joseph, the actions of his brothers were meant to serve the good of God.

Today’s Gospel reading gets into the “arithmetic of forgiveness.”  Peter is wondering if forgiving a brother or a sister seven times is enough.  Jesus challenges Peter and tells him to forgive not just seven times, but 77 times!  Seven is a biblical perfect number, and I suppose 77 is a really big biblical perfect number.  It might as well be an infinite amount of forgiveness that Jesus is encouraging us to lend.

And then we have this story of the slave who had his lifetime of debts forgiven by the king.  But then the same slave isn’t able to forgive a fellow slave for just owing a few months of wages.

I think one way of cracking open this reading is to imagine that we are the king, able to forgive in one moment and hand out a certain type of harsh justice in another moment.

There are probably many varieties of messages of forgiveness being passed around in Christian congregations around the country and around the globe today with the lectionary readings we are blessed with today.  We probably all have that in common with other Christians.  One message might be focused on the forgiveness that we need to offer the terrorists.  There is some validity to this, for how do we move on?  Of course, forgiveness does not mean absolving someone of their sins.

The practice of forgiveness is to be able to have a real dialogue about hurt and pain that still permeates in many parts of our eclectic country, and to be able to recognize when we make mistakes in judgment and when others make mistakes in judgment.  On a day-to-day basis, that’s one of the most important forms of forgiveness that I can think of in order for us to build the world that we want to have.  Making someone else feel what the 3,000 people felt on September 11, 2001 is not going to truly heal any wounds.

Perhaps the Episocpalian Archbishop of New York Rowan Williams, summed up today’s Gospel reading about forgiveness best during his reflection at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on September 12, 2001:

“I’m sure in the city and the country in the days ahead, the pressure to do something, anything, is going to be greater and greater. The rhetoric will become more and more intense. There is something I want to say to that. One very simple personal observation. Quite simply: I wouldn’t want what we experienced to happen to anybody. I wouldn’t want to see another room of preschool children hurried out of a building under threat. I wouldn’t want to see thousands of corpses given over to the justification of some principle. And very simply: I don’t want anyone to feel what others and I were feeling at about 10:30 yesterday morning. I’ve been there.”

And yet, our country is still engaged in two wars in which 6,000 members of our military have given their lives – double the number of lives lost ten years ago.  Are we further along?  Osama bin Laden is gone.  But the fear of more terrorist attacks still permeates, and our culture of fear, misunderstanding and scapegoating others is about as bad as it was ten years ago.

Back at DePaul, the incoming freshman class was eight years old in 2001.  Father Dennis Holtschneider, the Vincentian priest who serves as President at DePaul, wrote the following in an email to the DePaul community on Friday:

For some, this will be the first time they are in class with a Muslim woman in a hijab or have a roommate of a different color. For others, it may be the first time they share a cafeteria table with older students who served in the military and now are returning to school. And for many others, this will be the first time their ingrained beliefs are shaken by the persuasive arguments of a classmate they have just met. We have to reassure our newcomers and constantly remind ourselves that our diversity binds and strengthens us as a community of educated men and women.

I am reminded that in our community, we have those who weren’t alive ten years ago for that horrific day.  We are blessed to have three new members of our congregation.  I heard word that Colleen Mahoney and Joe Andrews returned on Friday evening from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with their new adopted children: Zenebework, the 8-year-old boy; Fantu, a 6-year-old girl; and Biniam, a 4-year-old boy.  What a blessing we have on our hands – especially on a day like this, September 11.

It’s a blessing for us to get to know not just a new culture and new customs that have been brought to us from Ethiopia.  But we are challenged to try to grasp what it’s like to come halfway around the globe, to live in a community in Madison where the majority of population doesn’t share the same skin color.  I’m sure that their psyches will be challenged at times, and because they are now members of our community, ours should be as well.  The challenge on us is to learn not just about a new culture, but to also learn the personal stories of those around us.  For the generation that didn’t experience the attacks ten years ago today, there is a greater opportunity to find the greater good of God, as Joseph pointed out to his brothers.

I urge everyone this weekend to spend some time reflecting on the lessons of 9/11.  Today at noon Central Standard Time, there will be a one-minute moment of remembrance across the nation.  The United States Senate unanimously passed the resolution calling for this moment of remembrance in which everyone is asked to stop what they are doing and to ring bells and sound sirens as we honor the victims of that day and the victims and survivors since.  I trust that the bells and sirens of this community will always reverberate in the spirit of forgiveness so that we can build the world we want to see.

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