For days now as this tenth anniversary has approached, we Americans have been inundated with images and recollections from 9/11. In one way or another I suspect we’ve found ourselves recalling that deep-blue-sky-morning on the East Coast that in a matter of a few moments became the background to a towering inferno of flame and smoke.

And we’ve been hearing testimonies of those who lost someone they loved in the attacks, as well as reading reams of commentary analyzing what 9/11 has meant to us over the past decade. Of course, two of the earliest lessons of 9/11 remain clear. One, that human beings can be brilliantly and brutally evil, and that hatred, pride, and intolerance can wreak terrible destruction. But also, that human beings have a breathtaking capacity for courage and self-sacrifice. For all of the evil committed by the terrorists, we still can be awed by the bravery and self-sacrifice of the first responders, the police officers and firefighters, by Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers on Flight 93, and of course by the men and women in our military of whom we have asked so much in this past decade.

And what you can’t miss in the whole saga of 9/11 is the immense power of religion for evil and for good. We saw on that terrible Tuesday morning how fanatical, uncritical love for one’s religion, nation, or culture can easily became hatred for those of another. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr believed that the worst human sin is religious sin, when people’s actions grow out of an absolute certainty about what is true, which becomes the dangerous intolerance of the religious fundamentalist.

The last ten years have been a strange kind of spiritual pilgrimage for our country that has taken us into hard but maybe in some ways hopeful new territory. Do you remember the sense of togetherness we Americans felt in those early days, even weeks after the attacks? The church pews filled again, families were grateful to have each other and were having more meals together, people were swearing to stop honking horns in traffic tie-ups and to stop getting irritated in the grocery checkout line. (Unfortunately none of those lasted very long!)

But at the same time fear, anger, and concern for self-defense were rising too. And so began ten years of war, of drastically increased security, and of deepening divisions among ourselves. It has been a long decade. I’ve wondered in my own mind whether we as Americans have had to go through some of what psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called stages of grief. When a patient learns that she is going to die, she will often go through phases of response—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then finally acceptance. Clearly we Americans experienced trauma at 9/11, and that trauma led to a wide range of reactions, but after a decade maybe it is time for us to draw some lessons and begin to lay this tragedy to rest.

I can’t imagine a more important text for us today than the one from Matthew’s gospel we just heard. Peter, it seems, hasn’t been much taken with his Lord’s notion that forgiveness was at the heart of being a disciple, so he decides to put some limits on it. “Lord, if another member of the church should sin against me how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter must have thought that was pretty impressive. ‘How much is enough?’ he wants to know. ‘When do I get to say that’s it, I’m not going to try any more?’

But Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven”—which is his way of saying it never ends. Forgiveness isn’t an isolated act but a way of life that comes straight from a God whose nature is to forgive. It’s the only action Jesus called for in the prayer he taught his disciples, the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Much of the worst cruelty of the last century has been caused by people who have been unwilling to forgive—Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Croatians, Sunnis and Shias. The Israelis and Palestinians have been locked for decades in a bitter conflict, and the violent attacks and reprisals seem endless. Both sides have been damaged immeasurably and yet remain locked in past resentments that continues to make a peaceful future impossible.

It reminds me of the account of a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp who visited a friend who had gone through the ordeal with him and asked, “Have you forgiven the Nazis?” “Yes,” his friend said. “Well, I haven’t,” the man said. “ I’m still consumed by hatred for them.” “In that case,” his friend said, “they still have you in prison.”

Into this bitter cycle of recrimination comes Jesus calling us to the hard work of forgiveness. Forgiveness has its own clear message: “I am furious at you for what you have done. It has hurt me and continues to. But I refuse to stay trapped in my anger. I am going to forgive you because I know you are more than what you have done to me. And I know that we both need God’s forgiveness. I want to let go of this and begin again with a clean slate, and leave the rest in God’s hands.”

Forgiveness, Jesus is saying, begins not with an act but a recognition—that at our depths we are flawed human beings, that all of us need mercy. It’s what Jesus was getting at in the parable in our lesson this morning when a palace servant is forgiven a vast debt but then refuses to forgive a much smaller one. We’re all in over our heads in debts for the ways we’ve hurt others.

I have to say that I do not know what exactly forgiveness would mean as we look back at the evil of 9/11. We can be grateful that our government has vigorously pursued the terrorist cells that carried out the attack. And thanks be to God Osama bin Laden is no longer able to attempt new attacks. But we Americans have work to do in our relationships with the Muslim world.

9/11 opened us to one of the greatest challenges our human race faces: to be able to see the face of God in those who are profoundly different from us and whose, language, culture, and way of life we don’t understand. The world shrank for us Americans that bright fall morning. We saw how inter-connected the world really is, that our lives are intertwined with factory workers in Shanghai, customer service operators in India, and terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

And one of the most disturbing dimensions of the events of 9/ll was the fact that the terrorists who attacked that day were doing it in the name of their god. Killing for God’s sake has been one of the ugliest parts of the human story. The stakes could not be higher for Americans, for Christians, and for the whole human race to embrace a new humility, that we learn to recognize the image of God in a stranger whose language, heritage, culture, and traditions are foreign to anything we know. We must learn to find the face of God in our Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish brothers and sisters.

Amid all the devastation of 9/11, I believe God was inviting us to step into a larger, more complex and mysterious world. Even in the face of all the grave threats to American security, we are being called to a new humility in understanding those who are different from us. Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet who was born under Nazism and lived his life amid the brutal conflicts of the Middle East, wrote a simple poem that seems to me to be for our time:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
and a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

We human beings, and we Americans, need to embrace the reality that we are finite creatures and only God is absolute. It is through a humble living of our convictions, including our doubts and uncertainties, and a determined effort to respect and even love people different from us, that our world will find its way forward. Karen Armstrong, our Forum guest today, calls that love “compassion,” and she has found this compassion at the center of every great religion. It is the key, the goal, even as our nation continues to deal with an extremely dangerous world.

Forgiveness, humility, and compassion—those are the hope for our world’s future. And we’re beginning to see new glimpses of these qualities at work. Signs such as the interfaith vigil this morning, one of I suspect hundreds across the country. Signs such as the Unity Walk that will depart from this place this afternoon—a tradition launched in response to the divisions of 9/11. Signs such as Heartsong Community Church just outside Memphis, Tennessee, where the pastor, when he heard a local mosque had bought property across the street from the church immediately worked with his church to put up a sign in front of the church saying “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.” And soon the church began a series of gestures of friendship and support, including allowing them to use their auditorium worship space while construction was underway. That church lost some members, and the pastor received plenty of outrage in his inbox, but what a grace-filled response to the other communities in this country that have resisted having a mosque at all.

In a recent interview columnist David Ignatius described the creative transformation that has happened in the U.S. Army in recent years as it has learned to build relationships with the local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan—to listen to them, learn from them, work with them. It’s a fresh new approach—call it a humble approach, a sign of a new day.

Ten years after that terrible day people are being called to live out their faith in a new global context, plumbing the depths of their own tradition while embracing with humility the vast variety of God’s world. And they are being challenged to live by the deepest convictions in all their traditions that compassion, peace, and caring for the other at the heart of what it means to be human.

You see,

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow….
But doubts and loves
dig up the world like mole, a plough,
and a whisper [of hope] will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

As this post-9/11 decade closes, my prayer is that we Americans will find new possibilities of hope, healing, and compassion as we live out not only our convictions but our doubts, not only our duties but our loves.

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