“Finding Closure”

Rom 14/Mt 18

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

On the first Sunday after the World Trade Center attacks, I preached a sermon that was entitled, “Finding the Right Words.”

I don’t have a text of that sermon because I preached from notes, but as I remember, I was trying to figure out the best way to express the shock and grief and anger that we Christian New Yorkers felt.

At the time I was preaching, convoys of police and National Guard troops were rolling through the streets of Murray Hill. Bomb threats were called in to the Empire State Building; twice, my wife and I were ordered to evacuate the parish house. And while many precautions were being taken to prevent further attacks, members of our parish and neighbors were planning funerals for their loved ones who had died when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed.

In retrospect, I don’t think that it mattered much what I said. I don’t think that anyone could find the right words at that time. We were still numb with shock.

We were clearly right to perceive that 9/11 was a momentous event in history. In its wake, thousands of soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in military actions – actions that continue to this day.

Ordinary Americans have been affected by intrusive security at airports. When we go outside, every move we make is recorded by the video cameras that have appeared in virtually every public place. In New York City, increased subway fares and bridge and tunnel tolls help to pay the monetary burden of the attacks.

All that said, I think that we do have a better idea, ten years later, of how to speak of our feelings about 9/11. For example, we are more aware of our Christian duty to forgive our enemies. It is fortuitous that all the lessons assigned for our worship on this anniversary Sunday happen to touch on the need for forgiveness—including Christ’s famous advice to forgive 70 times 7.

Yet, for many Americans, forgiveness remains a touchy subject. Many of us are afraid, for example, even to discuss vengeful feelings we might have toward Islam.

We are well-aware that hundreds of millions of Muslims are peaceful men and women of faith. But the tiny minority that seeks to harm or destroy Western nations —that minority whom we call “fanatics”- still threatens us. Many of us really struggle to forgive these Islamic extremists.

Nor have we found “closure” as citizens of New York City. Take, for example, the many issues that emerged in the course of rebuilding the World Trade Center.

We asked, how do we mourn the victims? How can we help to heal the wounds of families who lost members in the attacks? Well, memorials are supposed to honor as well as remember, yet most of the dead were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any memorial to workers and bystanders is bound to be regarded differently from the tribute we construct for the police and firefighters who chose to be at the site.

In general, we may have reached some closure. Bin Laden is dead. The memorial is completed. In general, we may feel less anxious and fearful. If so, we should be grateful.

But most of us, I suspect, still feel unable to forgive the successors to the 9/11 terrorists. And, we still harbor resentment toward radical Islam and its adherents. Forgiving remains elusive.

And, the most tragic of all our conflicts about 9/11 may be the fact that we have built a memorial to a day we really don’t want to remember…

Such ambivalence suggests why it is so difficult for many of us to reach “closure” regarding the attacks. We don’t want to recall our thoughts and feelings during that dreadful time. Yet we know that we need to remember—we need to remember in order to forgive.

And we also must admit how difficult it is to forgive. Think of a time when a friend of yours disappointed you. You had to let the event pass so you could get on with your life and your friendship.

Yet how hard it was for you to say, “I forgive you.” And this was just to one person—a person who was a friend of yours! How painful it was to offer the pardon you knew that you had to offer in order for your relationship to survive.

In the aftermath of the attacks, millions of Americans sang, “O God, our help in ages past…” People who couldn’t recall the last time they had been in church found comfort in this venerable hymn.

While the future looked bleak, the God who protected our nation so many times in the past could still be called upon for help.

Indeed, as Scripture suggests, God must play an essential part in the process of forgiveness. Only God can help us to rid ourselves of vengeful emotions that we would like to get rid of. Only the Holy Spirit of God can guide us to put what we feel into words that we can be proud of.

Still, while many commentators have called for “closure,” it’s not at all clear that we will ever arrive at that goal. Jesus required his disciples to forgive not once; not seven times. 490 acts of forgiveness were needed. Christ might as well have said the disciples’ forgiveness must to go on and on until they lose count.

And that may be where we find ourselves today, when we consider our emotions surrounding 9/11. Closure remains elusive, and we may have to resign ourselves to live with anger and guilt and a continuing search for the right words.

That means we need to cut a lot of slack for those directly affected by the tragedy; if we have trouble forgiving, surely they can be expected to have trouble, too.

And it means that we will continue to need to search for tolerance, remembering the words of St. Paul that we heard in the Second Lesson—remembering that, “We do not live unto ourselves…”

But because we don’t “live unto ourselves,” we are able to face the future together—looking to the same God who has helped us in past ages and who gives us strength for days and months and years to come.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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