Once again I am pleased to host a sermon by my good friend Bruce Coggin. Enjoy.
Preached at Trinity Church, Fort Worth
September 11, 2011
The Rev. Bruce Coggin
I’m mighty grateful to Fr. Wright for the opportunity preach to you this morning—or I think I am. I’m away a lot of the time, sowing and reaping in other parts of the vineyard, and I’m always happy to be with you just to pray; but it’s special to get to preach to this congregation, so I readily accepted his offer.
Then I had a look at the lessons for today and began to wonder . . . Here we are commemorating the attack on our country that happened ten years ago this day, and the lessons are all about . . . forgiveness. That’s a conundrum, to put it gently. But he asked, and I said yes, so let’s see how we do.
You won’t find a stauncher defender of the separation of church and state, but there’s no way on earth what we’re doing here today is not part of a great national commemoration of a great calamity. Even the Star-Telegram had a leader, FW Clergy Looking for Words for 9/11 Services. I checked the article to see if there were some, but no such luck! This is the anniversary of one of those days people mark time with. When I was a baby, it was Pearl Harbor Day, then maybe V-E Day or V-J Day. Where were you when . . . ? Then the day President Kennedy was shot, then maybe when Challenger blew up. Now it’s September Eleventh. (I think 9/11 is kinda tacky. We don’t call the Fourth of July 7/4! Anyway.)
I hope that today, though the eucharist is a joyous thanksgiving—and this will be a joyous one—I hope that you’ll remember that at the very beating heart of our joyous gathering is a solemn, aching hurt, brought on by the cowardly attack on innocent people that happened ten years ago today. I’ve been told that the men flying those planes weren’t cowards. Why, after all, they flew right into those buildings! Yeah, right. Those men went up in a flash. They didn’t have to decide to jump off that collapsing building. They didn’t have to watch the fire come after them, choke on the smoke. They were cowards. But, oh, the people who faced it! I hope in your prayers you’ll hold up the souls of all those who died—although they’re now in Abraham’s bosom and praying for us, better off than we are. I hope you’ll hold up all those who didn’t die but still lost so much, whose lives were changed forever on that day, those who lost husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and children and and and. A lot of them aren’t healed yet, may never be. Pray for them. And for the brave, the unimaginably courageous fire fighters and police and medics and nurses and other responders who, God knows how, raced up those stairs straight into the maw of Hell. Pray too for this whole nation, still not healed, many of us still angry and thirsty for revenge. And as the Prayer Book teaches us, pray for our enemies that God may turn their hearts and give them better minds. All that pain is part of our offering today, a solemn lesion at the center to our joyous thanksgiving. Hold that up to God today.
Now. Having said that, I need to preach about forgiveness. That’s a big order, so pray for me too.
I don’t know if it’s just ironic circumstance or maybe even the work of the Holy Spirit that on the day we remember a great sin that all over this country Episcopalians and Catholics and Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and Disciples and just lots of others are hearing God’s word about forgiveness. The Old Testament lesson from Exodus, the Red Sea story, speaks of people freed from the toils of a wicked power from whose grip only by an act of God, divine intervention, could loose. That action is recalled in the first words of the thanksgiving over the water at Holy Baptism, the sacrament of forgiveness, the sign that we too are freed from a wicked power by a divine act, by God’s own eternal overcoming mercy. And in the gospel lesson, Jesus doubles down on what he said to St. Peter in the gospel two weeks ago and last week to all the disciples, to you: what you bind on earth is loosed in Heaven; what you loose on earth is loosed in Heaven. Three Sundays in a row and counting. It’ll come up again. The Word could hardly be more insistent. We need forgiveness on both ends of the stick, giving and receiving. And the two seem inextricably laced together.
Beyond that insistence, the very prayer that identifies us as the Lord’s people, the one everybody can say, asks God to forgive us as we forgive others. Give and get; get and give. Consider: the very fact that we mention forgiveness is a confession, an admission that there’s something wrong with us, that without a divine action we can never be whole, never attain the Kingdom prepared for us from before the foundations were laid. That’s a sweeping admission.
Think of it this way. Take puppies. What is cuter, more fun, sweeter, more oogledy-googledy wonderful than a puppy! I mean, I’m a cat lover and I love kittens, but they’re hardly even in it up aside of puppies! Well, what happens to puppies? They grow up and dig in flower beds and chase cars and do a good many more equally unattractive things. Next take babies. Lord, babies rule the world! Everybody with a drop of heart and soul loves babies, and nothing gets the oohs and aahs going in a church quicker than baptizing a baby. We baptized my last grandson right back there in that font, and it was yummy beyond description. Well, what happens to babies? They grow up to be just like you and me. Fact is, we can’t help it. We need help, and it’s gotta come from God.
Forgiveness is a word we often use fairly lightly, like when a favorite dog, say, roots up that flower bed. The gardener almost always says, “Oh, but I forgave him. He’s such a good boy!” And that’s the end of it. The dog’s more important than the uprooted nasturtiums. The flower bed, by the way, stays dug up until somebody redoes it. Or a good friends visits, and you’re showing him that beautiful new vase or some other wondrous object you just got, and dadgum! He drops it and it busts. Well, of course, you forgive him, maybe with tight jaws, but you do forgive him. The friendship is more important than the doodad. The vase stays busted nonetheless. Lots of examples offer themselves, but you get the point. We use the word so much we’re often in danger of forgetting how serious a matter forgiveness is.
Just as often we’re tempted to think of forgiveness in caricature. I grew up in a bigoted little town about an hour from here, where we didn’t have no dadgum kathlicks! They all lived up north in the county and had Eye-talian names and raised grapes and made wine! We all knew, and said smugly, they could just sin all week long and then go confess to a priest and be good as new! Of course, it was unfair and ignorant, but it’s a risk you run when you reduce forgiveness to merely righting the balance. You been puttin’ too much over here in the bad side, so you gotta put some in the good side for a while to even it all up. Forgiveness is more than a guilt management system.
And we’ve got plenty of things masquerading as forgiveness these days, too. Far be it from me to take away from the genius of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program, but it has spawned a whole litter of twelve step programs I’ve had experience of—and at least one I’ve been the victim of—that like to “rethink” the past, go back through your misfortunes, laying blame for this here and blame for that there, and when you come out the other end, why, you didn’t do anything bad at all! Not.
Now that I’m old enough to have a history, maybe a too colorful one at that, I think I’ve learned something about the past. You know I’m an English teacher, and one who’s taught me about the past is Faulkner. In his Nobel Prize speech he noted that the dead past is not dead, in fact is not even past, and the whole corpus of his writing shows how both the sins and the virtues of the Old South live right on in the New South. Another thing I think I know about the past, especially the bad past: you can’t make it unhappen. You did it. I did it. We did it. It hurt. It caused damage. It was horrible. We cannot undo it. But we can overcome it. With forgiveness.
At this point, I think we have to do a little theology. That word scares some people, but don’t make for the door. Theology is the attempt—attempt—to articulate our experience of the mystery of God, and it’s not definition. God cannot be defined, limited. Words can only try to open a way into the mystery. They never capture it entirely, though it captures us and our words. So don’t be scared. I don’t know how many of you watch Chris Matthews’ TV show Hardball—if you do you’re a Democrat, and I know the house is right down the middle today, but I think we all love the country, we love our home—where they talk about politics, but I like to say to a congregation, “Let’s play Godball!” Let’s try to talk about God.
Seems to me everything always comes back to the question, What is God up to? What does God want? What does God want me to do? What is God’s will, or as some say, God’s plan? If you were here a few Sundays ago at the Adult Forum, you know me on God as planner. It’s not a way I can think about God, and it’s not original with me. In seminary back in the last millennium, I listened to a conversation between one of the faculty and a student who’d asked, “But, Dr. Casserley, don’t you think God has a plan?” Dr. Casserley was a cockney and a lot of fun to mimic, but not today. He said, “I don’t know if God has plans. I do know that God has loves; and if God has a plan, it’s to incarnate that love in you and me and through you and me to show that love to the world.” God’s plan, according to Dr. Casserley, is for us to be a light to others, a sign that God is love, self-sacrificing, forgiving, merciful, overcoming love. That’s a tall enough order, seems to me, all by itself, no need to go any farther; and the working out of that order in our lives is the story of our journey with God and to God. The same with God’s will. God is eternal, not whimsical, not capricious. His will is always to love and incarnate that love in us (and who knows where else?), and living according to that will is not such much “bringing in the Kingdom” as it is living and trying to love and waiting to see the Kingdom revealed in us. At times we live that way, gloriously, joyously, and great wonders are revealed. At others, though, we bind right up, hanging onto hurts and offenses and injustices, even get to likin’ it. In either case, it’s not God holding up the game; it’s us.
Another way to get at it is to remember that God and God’s will are eternal, not ephemeral, not reactive. We don’t sit and wait for God to do something; rather we strive to get in synch with God’s will. The phrase whatever you bind, whatever you loose, might lead us to imagine the heavenly scorekeepers waiting for us to cross the goal line before they change the record. I think that’s backside front. God’s vision of you is eternal; forgiveness is one of God’s root attributes, changeth not. When you bind on earth, your link to God is blocked; when you loose, it’s open again. God is forgiveness; we must practice it. God gives us the model in Jesus who forgave, comforted and consoled, healed, invited, loved. Even the soldiers who nailed him up, who were really just doing their job and did not ask his forgiveness, he forgave. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” We often don’t know either. We’re either weak or dumb or wicked, or maybe it was just the fatal shake of the potter’s hand. It seems, nevertheless, crystal clear that not to forgive and not to accept forgiveness is to block the stairway to Heaven.
So now, that’s about enough speculative theology. Now some practical theology. How does forgiveness work then in your life and mine? How do we make it a habit? How do we do it when we do not even want to? Somebody in this congregation asked me that just today.
I’m gonna tell you a story about me and leave out all the details I can to protect the guilty, me included. Once a person did me a great mischief, a great offense, the kind of thing people sometimes get killed over. I got a letter asking for my forgiveness to which I snarled back, “I’ve forgiven you, but the next place I want to see you is in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Which meant I had not forgiven. Time and tide separated us, though we were aware of each other’s movements to some extent, and after a while I figured I was going to get my wish and forget about it. But. Not. Quite. Something was bound in earth that put a kink in my place in Heaven. Curiously enough, the next place we met was face to face and at a church doodah, in front of other people. My enemy says to me, “I think this must be a God thing.” What was I to do? Run away? And I learned next that my enemy was dying and that fairly soon, and I was who was wanted to do the laying away. I remember thinking, “God, this is over the line!” But somehow that tiny opening was all the Holy Spirit needed, because, by golly, I did it. Teeth gritted, but I did it. And you know what? I can hardly tell you how lifted I felt after that, not that I was such a great guy but rather that somehow all that load of junk was off my back. Give God the glory.
Now you. Some of you here have known forgiveness from both ends, I don’t doubt, and God bless it to you. Some of you also may be doing some binding right now, may have had it on your gut a long time, wish you could get rid of it but then maybe not. Well, believe me, if you’ve got grudges, you’ve gotta get rid of them. Bearing grudges will kill ya quicker than cream gravy! When your spiritual bowels are bound, you’re standing in the need of prayer. A way to start, even if you don’t want to forgive, even if you’re afraid of what you’ll lose if you do, is to pray to want to. Ask God to help you want to. That’s all. That may be, very likely will be, all the Holy Spirit needs, just a little opening where a little love . . . just a little love . . . can get through. After that, God’s love will eventually flood through, raging and roaring like the Red Sea waters, and heal and overcome and make you whole again. Or at least a lot wholer than ya were totin’ around a lot of old, nursed wounds. It can be scary, it may be right painful, but, oh, what a relief it is!! You don’t have to wait to be asked. You can get back in line all by yourself, and let God deal with the details. Vengeance is mine is just another way of saying it’s none of our business. And it’s likely not vengeance either, since God brings heavenly good from our worldly bads. Well, I recommend it to you.
Beyond that then, this day in our prayers—this day when we hold up in a kind of spluttering indignation a great great sin—in your prayers, pray for the grace of forgiveness, for our creator God’s overcoming, overpowering, overwhelming love to flood us and through us and out into the world. Yes, even the likes of you and me, we can pray that way. It’s God’s plan, God’s will. And pray that God the Holy Spirit will go before and behind us to nudge and shove and drag us into the narrow places of our souls and there find just enough space to wing through to victory. Above all pray to the Lord Jesus, who wept over our warring madness, pray to the sacred heart of his compassion, that we may find the courage to follow him and lay our burdens at the foot of the cross upon which all glorious hangs our only healing. Come, Prince of Peace. Make us whole!