We Will Never Forget…But Will We Ever Forgive?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

September 12, 2021
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Lamentations 5:1-22 and Mark 8: 27-38

This has been an extremely difficult sermon to write.  It is next to impossible to think clearly as I have worked on it.  I have ignored conventional advice which tells preachers NOT to preach too often about secular events.  I have also made the mistake of watching the various news specials over the past few weeks that recount the horror of the events that occurred in this country twenty years ago yesterday.  I have finally come to this moment when I have to say something.  

So, I will begin with a question: 

What happened? 

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, what happened?

As near as I can determine, about 20 men who believed that our entire country was profoundly evil and needed to be attacked, boarded four airlines, murdered the flight crews, took over the four planes, and flew two of them into the Twin Towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon, and tried to fly a fourth one into the US Capitol.

What happened? 

On three of the planes, people didn’t react in time, didn’t understand what had happened.  They were told by the hijackers that there was a bomb onboard and their plane was being flown back to the airport.  They were lied to, and they believed it until it was too late.

What happened? 

On one plane, the passengers decided to try to take the plane back.  The hijackers held them off long enough for the pilot to nosedive the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

What else happened?

As the four planes were heading toward a crash, many of the passengers called their loved ones and told them they loved them.  Tender conversations were held with loving words and goodbyes that were never forgotten.

What else happened?

As the two towers burned and people were trapped above the flames with no hope of escape or rescue, many of them also called their loved ones and once again, they told them that they loved them, more tender conversations were held with loving words and goodbyes that were never forgotten.

What else happened?

Fire fighters went into the burning Twin Towers to try to rescue as many people as they could.  Many people who barely escaped the Towers’ collapse as they made their way down reported that they passed fire fighters heading up to see if they could rescue anyone else.

What else happened?

By the end of that terrible day, America knew it had been attacked and hit hard.  We knew that the word “terrorism” had taken on new understanding for each of us.  Government officials began to ask questions of themselves:

  1.  Was there anything we could have done to prevent this?
  2. Who is responsible?
  3. How will be respond?

We knew that life would never be the same for any of us.

What else happened?

In the hearts of many, a new battle emerged in which Christianity and Islam – two religions that share the ancient patriarch, Abraham, and two religions that claim to be based on love – now look suspiciously at each other.

But what didn’t happen?

We didn’t round up every Muslim in America and put them in camps; there were calls to do that, but we did not.  We had done a similar thing to this the last time we were attacked so ruthlessly and suddenly; when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, American citizens of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and held in wired camps for the duration of the war. 

We didn’t do that.  We learned from our previous mistakes.

What didn’t happen?

We didn’t attack Afghanistan with nuclear weapons.  We didn’t try to conquer the country.  Instead, we tried repeatedly to work with local native Afghans who also hated the Taliban government that had given sanctuary to the terrorists who attacked us.  After twenty years of war, we left that chaotic country, hoping against hope that they would stand up on their own and fight the same terrorists they once protected.  So far, that hope appears to be in vain.

What didn’t happen?

We didn’t turn on each other…at least, not at first.  Remember how the people of our country came together as a nation.  We helped each other, especially on that terrible day – but even as it began to fade from our memories.  We thanked all kinds of first responders: police officers, fire fighters, ambulance EMT’s, all those we once took for granted.  Football players from rival military academies stopped booing their military opponents. We let soldiers in uniform skip to the front of lines in restaurants, airports, banks, movie theaters, bus stations. 

We became more wary of danger – but we also became kinder to each other.  

Do you remember that time?  Do you remember how it felt?

What happened?

We dared to say, “I love you” to those that we loved – but maybe we didn’t say it often enough.  We hugged our children, our grandchildren, our spouses.  Many people went back to church.  

We remembered that lots of people lost their loved ones on that terrible day – and we imagined what they felt.  And our hearts broke for them all…every single one of them.

What happened?

For a long time, we stopped being entertained by and tolerating crazies and began speaking out against them, at least for a time.  Remember when that pastor of the church in Florida declared that he was going to sponsor a burning of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, Christians all across that county in Florida stood up to him and declared that they would have no part of it.  Christians didn’t hate.

We used to be that way…remember?

What did we forget?

Twenty years later, I forgot that there are now dozens and dozens and dozens of children who lost their fathers on that day – they never even got to meet their fathers.  Their mothers were pregnant, and their fathers died on that day.  All they have are pictures, stories, and second-hand memories.

What lessons from history did we conveniently forget?

This sort of thing has happened before.  

The American Revolution lasted seven years and divided our new country into those who were loyal to the King and those who advocated for a new country; when the Revolution ended, how long did it take for those two sides to come together?  

When the Civil War ended in 1865, brother had fought against brother for four long brutal years; how long did it take before we were really a country again?  

When Pearl Harbor occurred, the war didn’t really end until Japan surrendered after two atomic bombs were dropped on them; how long was it before the Japanese and the Americans were really allies?  

After we left Vietnam in 1975, how long did it take until we established diplomatic relations with our former enemy?

With the Cold War over, we had a years’ long opportunity to grow close to the Russians who were once our sworn enemies, didn’t we?

What did we forget?

We forgot how scared we felt.  We forgot how nowhere seemed safe anymore.  We forgot how flying on an airplane used to be something we could take for granted.  We forgot how if people looked different from us, it could be okay. 

But ask yourself one more dangerous question: 

What would Jesus tell us to do today?

Would Jesus tell us to forgive our enemies?  

Would Jesus expect us to live in peace?  

Would Jesus tell us to search our hearts and to do better than even Scripture tells us to do: forgive them seventy times seven?  

You know the uncomfortable answer to that.

But it’s probably easier when I don’t think about the people falling from those burning Twin Towers.

It’s probably easier to forgive when I don’t remember all those videos from Osama bin Laden through the years mocking us until a Navy Seal team took him out inside his own compound in neighboring Pakistan.

It’s probably easier to forgive when I don’t think of the 9/11 rescue workers who keep dying of cancer at a 20% higher than the general public.

It’s probably easier to forgive when I don’t think of all the good we could have done with the billions we spent on war during the past twenty years.

It’s probably easier to forgive if I don’t look for one or two or a handful of people in a certain group to blame.

I struggle to forgive and forget.  

I can barely handle forgiving and remembering.

Maybe if enough time passes, we will actually move past it.  

Fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg, old men who had fought on both sides were invited back to the battlefield for a day of remembrance.  When they actually tried to reenact one of the charges, both sides threw down their pretend rifles, embraced their former enemies on the other side, and wept unashamedly.

When the World War II Memorial was finally completed in Pearl Harbor, former members of the Japanese military were invited to meet with Pearl Harbor survivors; many refused to come; many came with great reservations; but when the day was over, both sides came together, shook hands, wept tears of regret and remembrance, shared photos of their fellow soldiers and friends, and came together in peace.

When Pope John Paul II passed away in 2005, the religious leaders of the Muslim world called for world-wide mourning for a man they considered to be their Godly brother.  Muslims in many countries that he had visited took to the streets with their Catholic neighbors to mourn together.

If they can do it, we can too.  No one is saying how long it needs to take for forgiveness to occur.  Perhaps we can never really get there – the horror of that day is just too great, and perhaps our loving and understanding God will give us a break on that.

And perhaps this is one of those sermons that my mother told me about the first time she ever heard me preach; she said it was as if I were having a conversation with myself – but I was inviting others to come and listen.

So, Mark Plunkett…can you forget the children who don’t have fathers?

Can you forget the planes hitting those buildings?

Can you forget the heroism of the people that day – and many days since?

Can you forget all the soldiers who aren’t coming home?  Or they are home but without part of themselves?

Can you forget how you felt that terrible day?

You know you can’t, Mark; but as you continue to remember, can you at least try to forgive?