Sermons That Work

Daily Television Images…, Proper 19 (A) – 2002

September 15, 2002

Daily television images flood our imaginations with pictures of suffering and destruction. On September 11th, 2001, the world witnessed events that blew away any remaining sense of security. Death, destruction, loss, innocent suffering, and grief have seemed constant companions for many of us. The remembrance of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon continue to bring into our consciousness vivid, horrifying pictures. Some still feel the pain, agony, fear, and anger. Vengeance and revenge stand as ready tempters that promise quick fixes to complex and profound problems.

Therapists for years have known that hearing the pain and perplexities of others can surface unresolved, suffering that the listener had pushed away and hoped to have forgotten. “Skeletons in the closet” experiences return like tormenting spirits. These people identify with Ground Zero for they have experienced a similar private terror in their lives.

Others feel a numbness setting in and they no longer feel anything. It’s as if the constant stream of reminders of human suffering, terror, and death have created a spiritual callus that seemingly protects them from pain and covers their fear.

Christians, in the midst of all this complexity, chaos, and confusion, ache for answers that bring healing and hope to us and to those among whom we live and work and worship. People of faith must resist their need to try to say something merely to stop the pain. A premature proclamation usually produces glibness and pat, saccharine platitudes that are meaningless and ineffective. The call to serve may well be a call to continue feeling the pain and loss, to grieve with one another and to carry both the pain and grief into our praying.

We pray today that the “Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” The apostle Paul wrote in the Epistle to the Romans about deep, struggling prayer. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (NRSV Romans 8:26-27.) Praying our struggles means bringing the full mixture of thoughts and feelings into our prayers. In addition to speaking directly to God, such praying consists of struggling with ourselves in the presence of God. Like Jacob who wrestled with an angel, we too are called to wrestle with God even as we struggle with ourselves.

As Christians, we also struggle with Scripture. The lessons for this Sunday were set when the Prayer Book Lectionary was approved in 1979. Years ago we knew that on September 15, 2002, a portion of Ecclesiastes, Psalm 103, a passage from Romans, and particular verses from St. Matthew’s Gospel would be read. The themes present in the lessons appointed for this Sunday speak of the dangers of vengeance and anger to our souls. They call for forgiveness as an ongoing discipline. They remind us that everyone is accountable to God. While theses challenges are not new, they take on added significance when we hear them against the backdrop of 9/11.

From Ecclesiastes we hear: “Anger and wrath, these are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them. The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?” Into our perplexity is thrown the notion that we endanger our souls when we are vengeful. Anger and wrath are considered an outrage. Yet, we feel in our rage the desire for revenge. We must bring those perilous desires into our prayer-filled struggle with God.

The 103rd Psalm sings of God’s graces of forgiveness and healing. In it we hear of God’s compassion and mercy. Its poetry sublimely tells of how deeply God cares for God’s people. Then, the imagery of verse 14 takes our breath away: “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.” A thick, gray blanket of dust covered everything in Lower Manhattan. The heart-wrenching knowledge comes in knowing that in the dust were also the ashes of hundreds of innocent people. “Our days are like grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; /When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.” The power of this poetry reverberates a chilling truth of our nature. That truth we bring into our prayerful struggle.

The passage from Romans carries a bittersweet message. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” These verses, which are also used in the Burial Office, proclaim that we humans have our life and being grounded in God. That is sweet, indeed! Then, comes the uncomfortable edge: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Try as we will to divide ourselves into “we” and “they,” the truth remains that we humans all are related-like brothers and sisters of God. Hate and bitterness have no room in God’s family. We cannot deny that we hold others with hatred or bitterness. That, too, is to be added to our inner, prayerful struggle.

Peter knew that we are a forgiven people. His question resonates within us: “how often should I forgive?” Jesus’ answer comes in the form of an idiom, “seventy-seven” which means that at all times and in all places we are to embody God’s forgiving grace. Forgiveness involves more than absolution of guilt. It involves reconciliation of our past and the healing of our brokenness. It involves intentional work to heal and reconcile with one another. Such forgiveness remains troublesome until we allow ourselves to bring that brokenness into our struggle where the Spirit will intercede with us. God creates us and we then participate in God’s creating. God heals and reconciles us to God, one another, and ourselves and then, we participate in that healing reconciliation. God awakens wholeness that invites us to share in that holiness. Healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness together sketch an embodied way of life of an ever-deepening friendship with God and with one another.

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Christopher Sikkema