Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 11 September 2011
11 September 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's
I was born in 1964, on a day when the most memorable thing was that the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company.
However, just a few months earlier, something happened which was to shape everyone’s recollection of the early 1960’s and on countless occasions in my childhood prompted people to say that they could remember where they were when it happened. Because it was in November of 1963 that a shot rang out across the Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, and John F Kennedy lay dying.
But I imagine that if I asked you this morning, ‘Where were you when it happened?’ your mind would almost certainly flash back to Tuesday, 11th September 2001.
In my mind’s eye, I still remember standing at the back of St Wilfrid’s Church, in Cowplain near Portsmouth that Tuesday lunchtime and talking to the administrator who was clearly distressed and couldn’t herself quite believe what she was saying. A terrible accident, she said, two planes, New York, towers, hundreds killed.
We each have that story to retell. Many of you here will have been touched far more closely than those of us who looked on in disbelief and horror from across the Atlantic. And to you I offer once again our deepest sympathy and prayers for God’s peace.
But today, on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, we should perhaps be reflecting not on ‘where were you?’ but ‘where have we been?’
It is almost impossible now to think ourselves back into the status quo ante, how things were in the time before 9/11. To recall a world which had emerged from decades of East – West conflict, both hidden and real. Decades of the Cold War, whose end we were remembering just a few weeks ago on the 20th Anniversary of the August coup in Russia and seemed to herald a new era when the world could turn its energy and attention to the ideals of the third Christian Millennium.
But those 10 intervening years have been marked out as ones of grief and anger beyond the nearly 3,000 people whose lives were cruelly torn from them that September.
Since the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, casualties have risen to the 100,000’s, with as many as 2/3 of them being among civilians rather than combatants.
In the United Kingdom, we have witnessed the painful but uplifting sight of the people of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire turning out to line the roadways as each fallen service person was repatriated. A ritual now ended, it was a small but poignant token of the military covenant the nation owes to the families of the 559 fallen on active service.
Indeed, if there has been a single identifiable change in our own country in the years since 9/11, it has been the overt expression of solidarity and respect for those who serve in the Armed Forces, with public parades and expressions of Remembrance growing year by year.
But in the journey of those years, the unanswered question is that which faced the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, when he was interviewed yesterday morning on the radio. Namely, have the military actions – based on political decisions made in Washington and Westminster – led to a safer, more secure, coherent and tolerant world? The arrival of Islamic terrorism here on the streets of London in July 2005 indicated that the answer to this was far from clear, though Blair’s argument is powerful – that to do nothing in the face of tyrants is to invite further 9/11s.
But I want this morning to turn to Scripture to ask a third question, ‘Where are we going?’ and to ask what place, if any, Christian forgiveness has in our reflections.
For those of you whose churches follow the international lectionary, you’ll be aware that for the past month we have been following Matthew’s gospel account of the nature of the church, both in the revelation of the true nature of Jesus in Matthew 16 and in the guidance to the Church found in Matthew 18.
Last week’s gospel considered how the church should deal with conflict in a corporate manner – if a brother offends you, talk to him privately, and only if he will not hear, take him before the Church.
And this Sunday’s gospel is about the nature of reconciliation and personal forgiveness:
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is the expansion of Jesus’ answer. The sums of money involved are mind-boggling – the first servant’s debt is in the millions, impossible for an ordinary person to repay. Despite the enormity of the debt he is released from, he treats his fellow servant with a harshness beyond reason. The Master’s judgement is as swift as his punishment.
The great war-time Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, points to the relational character of forgiveness. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, he says. It does not talk about forgiveness based on repentance, as if it were ‘Forgive us our trespasses, for we do truly repent of them’. Rather the words we use are: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.
The forgiveness for which we ask is for a debt that is impossible to repay. “We cannot repay; yet we ask for forgiveness. And the one condition is, not that we should be full of remorse, but that we should be ready to forgive others”.
That’s the point of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: the forgiveness granted by the Master was not on the basis of him being very sorry – but on exercising the same forgiveness with others. It is a matter of relationship, not the exercise of a legal code.
On this 10th Anniversary of 9/11, there are no glib or easy answers about ‘Where we are going’. The appalling losses suffered by innocent victims in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania have been repeated on the streets of London and Madrid, and in countless cities, towns and villages in Iraq, Afghanistan and further afield.
But if the Christian gospel tells us anything, it is that our being made one with God is bound up with a desire to be made one with our brother or sister who sins against us.
If this seems too hard to bear, let me end with an extraordinary story I told here some weeks ago.
In July, after a wait of nearly 10 years, a man was executed in Texas. He had murdered two men, and a third survived with serious injuries by pretending to be dead.
The astonishing thing is that what had kept him alive for so long was a campaign mounted by the victim who survived, who believed that the cycle of violence should be halted and so petitioned for the commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment. This supreme act of forgiveness arose out of the victim’s faith in God: ‘This campaign’, he said, ‘is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward’.
The man on death row was Mark Stroman, a Christian, white supremacist who was enraged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and went on a rampage against those he mistakenly assumed were Muslims.
It was his third victim, who was indeed a Muslim, Rais Bhuyian, who campaigned against the death penalty to give the families of the victims the opportunity to meet Stroman. Bhuiyan said he ‘believed that such a dialogue would be beneficial, given Stroman's evolution over the years from a hate-monger to a more thoughtful person filled with regret for his actions’.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, how often should I forgive?’