I preached this sermon in Fort Bragg, CA, a town that was suffering from a far more recent trauma in the murder of a city councilman. [The suspected murderer was himself killed last Sunday.] The service started at 10, the time when all the churches, police, and fire stations in town were requested to ring bells or sound sirens to mark the day. The following is an abridged version of what I preached, as best I can remember it, piecing it together from my notes.
To prepare for this sermon, I read the Archbishop of Canterbury's reflections on 9/11, Writing in the Dust. He was actually there when the towers were hit, preparing to give a presentation at Trinity Wall Street, so he's not writing about this from a distant perspective.
One of the things he said that I liked very much is that he is "very suspicious of any action that brings a sense of release, irrespective of what it achieves; [he's] very wary of doing something so that it looks as if something is getting done."
I think that includes forgiveness.
The gospel for today is a particularly tough one, I think, made more difficult because we in the church want to jump to forgiveness, sometimes before either party is ready. Too often this passage is used as an excuse for people to hurt others over and over. Too often those injured receive no repentence and yet are told if they do not forgive, they will be punished.
But the phrase that leaps out at me is the one at the very end of Jesus' lesson: the three words "from your heart." And once I focused on that, I started seeing the heart everywhere I turned. Starting in the collect where we ask God to "direct and rule our hearts" to the collect for purity in which we concede from the outset that "all hearts are open" to God to the post-communion prayer in which we ask "to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart," it's clear that our heart needs to be in the right place.
And so it seems to me that our first task is to ask ourselves, Where is your heart? Not where you think it ought to be, or where other people tell you it ought to be, or where you would like it to be: Where is it really?
Another theme that Rowan Williams kept returning to in his book was the need for breathing room. It's strange to say, but even after 10 years, I'm not sure we've ever allowed ourselves any breathing room around 9/11. What would happen if we did? If we didn't need to fix it or understand it or resolve it?
And so I would suggest that our second task is to give ourselves time, to give ourselves breathing space. It may be that time itself will allow us to move on more than we may think. After any momentous event--good or bad--, it simply takes time to absorb what happened and adjust to the new reality. The Israelites left slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, and then spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Give yourself some breathing space.
Whether it's 9/11, or the death of a friend and neighbor, or some personal slight that has rocked your world, breathe; uncover your heart; and only then, without force or compulsion, and as you find it in your heart, forgive.
Addendum: Reflecting on this, the one thing I wish I'd thought to add was a section about how we can trust and believe that God will lead our hearts to a place of forgiveness, if that is what we desire. That's why we don't need to provide forgiveness under compulsion; God is working in our hearts and so we can be at peace, even knowing that we are not where we want to be. I believe God will lead us there.