Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sermon for 9/11, Proper 19, What You Did Ten Years Ago

(photos by Hugh Crawford)

See Louise Crawford's Park Slope Patch report on the service.
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Let me tell you what you did ten years ago, Old First, let me tell you and remind you. Ten years ago, on that Tuesday morning, when the smoke was over Brooklyn and the paper raining down, some of you knew right away that you had to open the doors of the church for sanctuary and shelter. You kept the doors open all week, every day, until the following Sunday afternoon. You did this for everyone, no matter what religion or no religion. And the people came, they sat in here in shock and grief and many came to pray. You hosted them, you gave them music for their souls. You hung up sheets of newsprint, and you put out markers, and people wrote their thoughts and prayers. The people responded with gratitude.

The sheets are up there on the walls and in the narthex. You should read them. They are part of you. Even if you were not here then, if you only came here recently, they are now a part of you, of this community of soul on soul and spirit touching spirit back through three-and-a-half centuries, you today are still the hosts and the stewards of these real prayers of real people in their time of need.

Some of the prayers were written on that first afternoon, for people known to be working on the 73th floor of building 2, for example, or in the Windows On The World. It was not yet known how many had been killed. There are prayers from later in the day, from survivors just come home, prayers of thanksgiving for having gotten out alive, but also prayers for the cops and the firemen, for Squad One, name by name, as the rumors came that they were lost. There are prayers from Wednesday and Thursday, prayers for those still missing, prayers for those who were trapped in the rubble and for those who were toiling on it, prayers of hope and prayers of grief, many statements of love and a couple words of hate, prayers by Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus. Prayers in French and Spanish and Hebrew and Hindi and Japanese. Prayers for the President and prayers for peace, very many prayers for peace, prayers for an end to the cycle of violence and prayers for no more war—which in the next ten years we did not listen to.

Few of the prayers are signed. But we don’t have to know the names of those who wrote them, because they prayed for all of us, not only for you who lived here then, but also for us who lived beyond New York, around the world. These prayers were personal at first, but over the decade they have become more universal, and when we read them now they blend into a great, thick prayer, a single prayer of many different voices.

A couple years ago these sheets were damaged. We had stored them up in the steeple, and then the tornado blew a window in, and it threw these sheets around and some of them got soaking wet, and the ink and colors ran together and the words were blurred. They look like abstract water color paintings, with random broken phrases legible. It seems right somehow, and fitting, that the thoughts and prayers have blended into each other, and have blended into the choruses of heaven.

On that first Friday evening, I came here too, with Melody. We had just driven here from Michigan. We saw the people sitting in the narthex and in the sanctuary, with their candles and their flowers, sitting in small groups or alone, and we saw all these sheets, still new and fresh. We walked down Seventh Avenue, and every other church was closed up tight. But you were open. You had discovered your mission to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope. That’s why you are being blessed by God, Old First, even in your struggles and your weaknesses.

None of those sheets have prayers of victory, like in our reading this morning from Exodus 15. Maybe the members of Al Qaeda were praying like that, but no one here was praying like that. It might have been different if the pillars of smoke and fire were pillars of salvation, like for the Israelites at the Red Sea, but the fiery pillars here were of destruction and of loss. In Exodus 14:31 it says that the Israelites saw the great work that God had done, and “they feared the Lord and believed in the Lord.” Well, those prayer sheets reveal that many Brooklynites who saw the great evil those terrorists had done were able still to fear the Lord and believe in the Lord. The record is there, and we are the witnesses.

So now what? At least two things. First, you have to keep on doing what you did then, Old First, this mission given you by God, to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope. You did it this summer too with the respite shelter. You can learn new ways to practice this, with our building, with our small groups, and in your personal relationships.

Second, you have to make another kind of sanctuary in the midst of human sin and violence, and you do this by forgiveness. Forgiveness not just as a single act, but forgiveness as a system, a cycle, which goes the opposite direction of the cycle of vengeance and violence. Violence generates further violence, and you oppose that cycle with the cycle of forgiveness generating more forgiveness. That’s what Jesus means when he says that his Father will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others. It’s not that God is punishing for not forgiving, it’s that God has built the world this way, that forgiveness is a cycle which you have to enter into in order to receive from it.

Forgiveness is not easy, especially the ones who wronged you don’t deserve forgiveness and and they don’t repent. This takes work. When the Lord Jesus says seventy-seven times, he means a single evil that someone does to you can be so hurtful and destructive that every day you have to forgive him all over again. You did forgive him yesterday, but then today you see how much your life is still affected by his sin, and you have to forgive him once again. It’s about remembering and forgiving, not forgiving and forgetting. It’s not even about accepting. And forgiving might include non-violent resistance. Seventy-seven times, remembering and forgiving again.

You need to remember what they did ten years ago, and tell the awful truth of it, for another sixty-seven years, and then forgive them, for, as Jesus said upon the cross, they didn’t know what they were doing. To forgive means to be free of it, to not let your freedom and your future be determined by their sin. You make a space of freedom in the world of human misery and suffering, you make a space of love and justice in the world of human violence, you make a sanctuary of peace.

This is what you did, Old First, and this is what you are called to do, in partnership with all your friends in the community. And you can do it because you love God who first loved you.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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