Exodus 14: 19-31; Matthew 18: 21-35
September 11, 2011
There was a special worship service held in this sanctuary on the evening of Wednesday, September 12, 2001. It was called the “Trust In God Service,” and I have a copy of the bulletin right here. You may recall that, at the time, this church didn’t have a minister – Bob Bruce had departed in June, and interim minister Benjamin Williams wasn’t due to arrive until October. So this service was put together by Shasta, David Beal and Lynn Rigney in the office.
Around 50 people gathered here at 7:00 that evening. There was a lot of music in the service. The congregation sang the national anthem and hymns like “Blessed Assurance” and “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.” Mark Brown gave a personal interpretation of Hymn #289, “O God Of Every Nation” – which we’ll sing in a bit. Legh Beal offered up “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” a song that speaks to any age. A love offering was collected for the Red Cross, and Shasta led the lighting of the Christian Unity Candles. The late Sandy Beam played the organ.
There was scripture read that evening, of course. David Beal shared the 27th Psalm:
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me, they shall stumble and fall.
Though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord,
To live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
He will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
He will set me high on a rock.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
Be gracious to me and answer me!
Your face, Lord, do I seek – do not hide your face from me.
Teach me your ways, O Lord,
And lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
For false witnesses have risen against me,
And they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Lord!
Perhaps no other psalm could capture more eloquently what God’s people were going through back then. Because we were living in fear in those days and weeks following 9-11. We were living in fear. Those malicious pilots and the planes they flew did more than cut through glass and steel and concrete and flesh and bone. They cut through our very soul. And they made us afraid – afraid of flying, afraid of going to big cities, afraid of people who looked different, afraid of what we knew and what we didn’t know. It’s been debated in the ten years since, but something felt like it changed after 9-11 – how we see ourselves, our country, our world, our God.
A "watershed moment" is what some call it. A point in time when everything that follows is categorically different from what came before. The phrase itself speaks to a river or stream where, at some point, the waters diverge and will not intersect again. Time, like the water’s current, flows in the same direction always. There is no going back.
Our scripture today is about a watershed event – literally and figuratively. In an odd twist of fate, today’s lectionary passage was the same one my minister in Lexington preached on on at our church’s day-after-9-11 worship service. It’s a powerful example of God’s presence even in the most devastating circumstances. Those Israelites were on the verge of something catastrophic; caught between the vast and un-crossable Red Sea in front, and the powerful, vengeful Egyptian army behind. You know the story. Moses raised his hands and during the night the waters parted to the side – a clear path across. God’s people made their way to the Promised Land. And when all of Israel was safe on the other side, the waters receded and the Egyptian army drowned.
It was Israel’s “watershed moment” – an undeniable testimony to God’s deliverance in the face of terrible circumstances. And we keep running into it throughout the Old Testament – in the Psalms, in the voice of the prophets, even in the laws themselves. They all speak to a God who parted the waters and delivered the people. And just like the 27th Psalm that talks about “taking courage” and calling on God to “defeat our enemies that breathe out violence,” this was what we needed to hear in those days and weeks after 9-11. We needed to know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that God would be with us. We needed to know that evil would never have the last word.
We still need to know those things, of course. We always will. But on this tenth anniversary of our country’s most recent watershed moment, I wonder if it is time for us to hear another message. I wonder if it’s time for us, descendants of those who walked through parted waters long ago, to greet the 11th day of September every year with a new sense of God’s presence.
Because, contrary to much of the vitriol that surrounded that day and still rears its ugly head every now and then, our faith is not one which preaches and teaches an “us-versus-them” mentality. Our faith is not one which dares to claim that God is always on “our side.” And our faith is not one where the “enemy” is to be forever shunned and hated. That’s because our faith is grounded in Jesus Christ, who did none of those things.
Jesus excelled at creating watershed moments, not only in his actions but in the stories he shared. Jai read one to us earlier. Some claim it’s nothing more than a parable on forgiveness. But I’m thinking it’s much more than that. Jesus tells us: there’s this man, and this man owes a tremendous debt to the king. Ten thousand talents, we are told – which means nothing to you and me, because the only kind of “talent” we’re familiar with is the talent we see on “America’s Got Talent,” which is questionable talent at best.
But back in Jesus’ day, a talent was a large sum of money, equal to a typical labor’s earnings over ten to fifteen years. Which means this guy in Jesus’ story owes the king an absolutely ridiculous amount of money that’ll take him some 100,000 years to pay off! It can never be paid back – which is exactly the point. The man does the only thing he can – he begs the king for mercy; begs the king to cancel the debt outright, all of it. And the king does. No more debt – grace abounds!
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Jesus goes on to tell that immediately after this amazing act – immediately – that same man goes and finds another person who owed him a much smaller sum. Something that could be repaid. He can’t pay it right now, he tells him, and asks for mercy. But our man throws him into prison. No grace is coming his way; no grace from the one who was the recipient of immeasurable grace himself.
The story goes on for a bit longer, but honestly, I think Jesus meant for us to stop here. I think he wanted us to get stuck for a bit in this uncomfortable place, in this little quandary of faith; where a man who received so much could fail to return even a small portion of it. It leaves you and me asking the obvious: why the disconnect? Why had that man experienced nothing of the benefit of grace – nothing? It hadn’t changed him one bit. He was untouched by the grace. Why?
Living in a post 9-11 world has certainly tested the limits of our forgiveness, no doubt. But it’s done something else, too. As recipients of an amazing grace from our God – a 10,000-talent grace – we live in light of the transformation of Jesus Christ; a transformation of our very hearts. And this cannot help but affect how we interact and work and live with all people in this big world of ours – not just those who still cling to hate and fear over love, but those in our lives right now from whom we feel distant and unattached. And if God’s grace doesn’t affect how we treat those people in our world, then we’re making the same mistake as our man in Jesus’ story – so disconnected from God’s 10,000-talent grace that we can’t be grace-filled ourselves.
The story of the Red Sea drills it into our heads: God delivers us. But y’all, God delivers us to something; God delivers us for something. Deliverance is never without a destination or a purpose. It’s not just about escaping the clutches of the army behind us. It’s about getting to the other side as delivered, grace-filled people, and then working to deliver and fill with grace our very world!
And sad to say, I don’t think we’ve done that yet. Sometimes it feels like you and I are still standing there on the other side of the Red Sea, still clutching close that amazing grace. Still living scared – in our communities, in our religion, in our politics, in our families, in our world. Biblical scholar Peter Gomes hit the nail on the head when he said this years ago:
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of September 11th, 2001…..is not the loss of the human lives or the buildings, tragic as those losses were and painful as they are to recall. The greatest tragedy may be that we have since been programmed to live by our fears and not by our hopes. Once we were a people defined by our compassions; today we are more and more a people defined by our fears. And to be defined by our fears is to accept the lowest possible level of emotional intelligence. (from The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Peter Gomes - New York: HarperOne, 2007, 10).
Somehow, my friends, we’ve got to get beyond that. Somehow we’ve got to understand that we have been delivered in order to deliver and fill with grace everyone around us. On this tenth anniversary of 9-11, we need to mark today not just with glorious monuments and memorial services and documentaries, but with changed lives.
I love it when someone rises to the surface with their changed life so we all can take notice. Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha el-Wafi are two such people. Both women lost sons in the aftermath of 9-11, but for very different reasons. Phyllis had a son in one the Twin Towers that morning as it crumbled to the ground. Aicha’s son is Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of playing a major role in the attacks. These would be the last two people on earth you think would come together. But in an amazing testimony to the power of love over hate and fear, these women met and forged a powerful friendship born out of unthinkable loss.
I want to play a recording of a keynote that Phyllis and Aicha gave together at a conference last year, where they talk about what brought them together. Please take a moment to listen:
(Click HERE if you don't see media player)
In the words of Aicha:
We have to know “the other” -
We have to be generous in our hearts -
We have to fight against violence -
And someday we will all live together in peace.
Go, then, and fill the world with a 10,000-talent grace. Because love is always – always – greater than hate and fear. Thanks be to God. AMEN.