Never Forget

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
September 11, 2011 – Ordinary (24 A)
Psalm 23
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 18:21-35

“Never forget!” These are two words that have taken on a whole new meaning in our country in the last ten years. It seems unlikely that anyone ever could forget a tragedy like the attacks of September 11, 2011, yet there are still so many stories longing to be told. Even so, the admonition by itself raises questions for me.

What is it that we must remember and why? Is it the fact that some warped individuals with sin sick souls were manipulated by cowards to crash planes into buildings? Is it the fact that the relative peace and prosperity of our United States was challenged by an outside force that we used to think of as weak and fearful in our presence? Is it the stories of ordinary people becoming extraordinary heroes in the face of tragedy?

Yes. All of these things must be remembered, but why? We remember to honor the dead and to give a sense of purpose and meaning to senseless violence. We remember because it helps us to appreciate our limitations. And we remember because the attacks of September 11, 2001 are a part of the fiber of our being. Our memories hold a shared experiential knowledge that effects the care we offer our children, the way we treat strangers, and 
our understanding of what it means to follow God.

The really important thing about shared memories, though, is the way by which they define us as a people.  Of course our tendency is to remember the glory days and the good things without considering the bad. I do not mean to suggest that there was anything glorious about these attacks. Nor do I mean to dismiss the efforts of those who have given their lives since then.

What I am saying is that focusing on the attacks from every camera angle possible and every gory detail can be paralyzing – and often is. So we must remember the events of September 11, but we must not become trapped in the pain and fear of that terrible day. We must not let the pain and the fear of that day dictate what we are able to do and to say in response to the opportunities of the present.

I believe that is the central message to the scripture lessons we have for today. Never forget that you have been loved beyond reason. Never forget that God is at work in the world in and through you. Never forget that God is with you in tragedy and in triumph.

It would be easy to ask if we have, at times, forgotten these things over the last ten years. It would be easy to say that we have forgotten, or even dismissed, Paul’s promise that God will avenge us in the end. It would be even easier to compare the number of innocent civilians who died on September 11 with those who have died as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For that matter it would be easy to compare the losses of children in poverty or those sold into slavery and bondage. It would be easy to compare the number of people who die homeless in our nation and to ask why is one tragedy worse than the other. But of course, human tragedy and suffering are never easy.

I think that is why Jesus tells Peter to be so forgiving. Not just seven times, but seventy times seven - in other words, never forget to forgive! Now, I’ll admit that there are some problems here right off. First off, Jesus is talking to Peter about “a brother” who sins. Second, how on earth are we expected to forgive something so terrible as the September 11 attacks? And beyond that, the king Jesus refers to in the parable seems to be the one who is owed the most, or at least his forgiveness seems greater. Is the slave really the one we find the most common ground with?

Here’s the thing that I think trumps all of those concerns. The King’s response to the slave is to torture him until the debt is paid. So the real motivation that Jesus is offering here is not to become debt free, but to be relieved from torture!

The real motivation for me to forgive is not to release someone else – it is to release me! Over and over again in my life I have come to this same conclusion. When I refuse to forgive, when I respond to hatred or bitterness with equal force, then I become what I am fighting against.

I think that is why this passage in Romans is so important to us today, even though it seems impossible to believe in or to follow.  It exists to remind us who we are, and where we place our trust. This command to be loving, and to be a blessing to even those that hurt us, seems to shout, “Never forget that I am God!”

Of course, the question that is still left open here is the question of evil. Do we not still have a responsibility in restraining evil? Isn’t it just as important to remember the bad things so that we can keep them from happening again? Doesn’t forgiveness, in some way, equal permission?

In light of today’s texts I think the answer to all of these questions is yes. Yes, we have a responsibility to restrain evil, but we can only overcome it with good. For those who place their trust in human strength alone will find themselves in a position of weakness.  Yes, it is only through our memory of God’s activity during tragedy that we can have hope to overcome the next time we face it - for calamity falls on the just and the wicked alike. And finally, yes, forgiveness does equal permission – but not for the bad things that have happened. Forgiveness only offers permission to move forward without being controlled by the past.

And so as we gather together across this land in bands of bleeding hearts and artists, pro war hawks and peace-nic doves, activists and proponents of the status quo, and even members of differing faiths and nationalities, we must never forget that we have the greatest power of all in the ability to forgive. We must never forget that the events of the past are not the force that shapes and determines our future. It is nothing other than the very presence of God in our midst urging us to forgive as we have been forgiven, to become free from the prison of resentment, and to witness to a perfect love that casts out fear and darkness through the light of Christ! And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!
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