September 11th, 2011

Written by Joel on September 19th, 2011

Sep 11, 2011
Proper 19
Exodus 50:15-21 (The conclusion of Joseph’s story)

Unfortunately the mobile microphone lost power so I don’t have audio this week.

9/11 changed us.

Ten years ago, September 11th was a Tuesday. Most of you can remember where you were and what you were doing that day. I was sitting in sociology 101 at our local community college. Just a few minutes into class there was a knock at the door and an administrator spoke briefly to the teacher who shared the news with us: A plane flew into the World Trade Center, it might be a terrorist attack. Classed were cancelled that day. I went to pick up my little brother from middle school – something I’ve never done before, but knowing the world wasn’t right that day I had the inclination to gather with family. We sat by the television and we watched, in real time, the smoky tower fall to the ground right before our eyes. Already, I knew that the whole world had changed. I struggle to think of a day that hasn’t gone by in the last 10 years in which I haven’t heard some mention of 9/11. Ten years later we can’t help but reflect on how 9/11 has changed us, and changed the world.

Our first reading, from Genesis, is the end of Joseph’s story – when he confronts his brothers who committed evil against him. You may remember the Joseph story: He was Jacob’s favorite son because he was born to Jacob in old age. He was given a fancy coat because he was the favorite, and he dreamed dreams. He shared one of these dreams with in brothers; in the dream his brothers bowed down to him, and this was the last straw. It made Joseph’s brothers all the more jealous and vengeful. They decided to sell Joseph into slavery, and told their father that he was killed by wild animals. Joseph ended up in Egypt on the slave market, and his troubles grew. His owner’s wife plotted against him, lied saying that he made advances on her and Joseph was thrown into prison. In prison, Joseph continued to dream dreams, and they started to come true. Pharaoh took notice and took him as his personal servant. Joseph foresaw 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine and because of this vision he was able to help Egypt prepare and to save many across the entire region from starvation.

It was during this famine, when the brothers were in need, that they went to Egypt to get food – not knowing that is where their long lost brother who they sold into slavery ended up. In the food line, Joseph recognized his brothers. More happens here (I encourage you to read the whole story) but eventually we get to the confrontation we read today.

The brothers fear Joseph’s revenge, he certainly could have taken it if he wanted to because Joseph is the one in power now, just like his first vision. His brothers beg, in the name of their deceased father – please have mercy! Joseph wept. His brothers wept. Joseph calls his brother’s actions evil, but ultimately declares that he is not God and cannot take vengeance.

If forgiveness was offered in this story, it is done in a rather unclear way. Joseph never goes as far as to say “I forgive you.” But, he does weep with them, he does care for their needs by giving them the needed food. But he doesn’t seem to deny forgiveness either, he doesn’t say “What you did is too awful for forgiveness.” When confronted with his brothers and their evil he simply stated that he is not in the place of God. A rhetorical question: “Am I in the place of God?” No, of course not. Then, he seems to say then I am also not in the place for revenge, and perhaps even; I’m not in the place for forgiveness – that is between you and God.

Joseph goes on to realize the big picture in his personal tragedy: What you intended for evil, God intended for good. Yes, Joseph was sold into slavery, but because of that God was able to save many from famine.

The Joseph story may speak to our experience with 9/11. An evil committed that completely changed everything, with reflection years later and the choice with how to respond. The parallels don’t work perfectly of course – Joseph was a personal tragedy, 9/11 was a national one which affected the whole world and lead to war. I certainly don’t think that I could apply Joseph’s personal reflection to 9/11 that what some meant for evil, God meant for good – I really just don’t see the good in it. Maybe we will understand one day, but right now I can’t – what good has come of it? 9/11 was an act, but it also stems from an ideology of terror. There have been many realizations that have come out of our ten year 9/11 experience – that we are not as invincible as we may have thought. And that a war of ideologies cannot be won with guns.

It is certainly a challenge for us today when the readings assigned for today seem to focus so heavily on forgiveness. We can see how Joseph may have had the power to forgive the evil his brothers did him personally. But what does forgiveness mean in response to an act of terrorism against a nation? What does forgiveness mean when this evil affected so many? I cannot tell you that we ought to forgive, forget, and move on – that would be a rather superficial kind of forgiveness – the kind of forgiveness that does not have accountability, and the kind that means you no longer have to deal with the wrong; I don’t believe this is the true nature of forgiveness. Not for personal matters, and certainly not for national tragedies like 9/11.

Maybe it is helpful to consider what forgiveness is not. It does not cancel out the need for justice. Forgiveness is not being passive in the face of evil. Forgiveness does not mean that we do nothing.

No, instead for forgiveness to even be an option, evil must be called for what it is. What happened on 9/11 no matter the underlying reasons or rationalizations on the part of the terrorist, what they did that day was evil.

What happened that day 10 years ago changed us, but I believe, at least to some extent we do chose how it changes us. And that may be the difference between a genuine spirit of forgiveness versus a spirit of vengeance Both change you. But, it would seem that choosing an attitude of vengeance changes us in ways we might not like, ways that may even horrify us if we look closely enough in the mirror.

In the days following the attacks, Americans retaliated against fellow Americans of middle-Eastern decent simply because of the color of their skin, an accent, or their religion. Those were actions that came from a vengeful heart. We became a country that for the first time in our history invaded another preemptively. We entered into an 8-year long war, and counting; asking less than 1% of our nation to bear the full responsibility of combat deployments while zero sacrifice is asked of the rest of us. We have become a nation where war has become easy to wage. Our nation became willing to resort to torture. 10 years later, Osama Bin Laden was killed, justice served. But it causes me to pause and wonder, in this time have we become more safe? More prosperous? More free? What has been gained with a vengeful spirit?

But, a spirit of forgiveness frees us of the poison of revenge. This spirit of forgiveness stems from the fact that we are a forgiven people, and that forgiveness overflows like a spring. A spirit of forgiveness, however, is not a giving in to evil. No, having a spirit of forgiveness rejects the power of evil which breeds more evil. A spirit of forgiveness is a light shining in the shadow of darkness. That spirit of forgiveness is not passive in the face of evil, it is active: This is a time for prayer, that we might better walk with the Lord each day in this uncertain time. This is a time for fasting that we may recognize we need more than bread alone. This is a time for witness, that we may share the grace we have been given. This is a time to serve, like Joseph did when he stared down evil. Prayer, fasting, witness, and service in response to evil – It is this kind of spirit of forgiveness that good will triumph over evil.

On this anniversary we are again reminded that we live in a fallen world, evil seems to run free, and God seems silent. But we are a forgiven people, with abundant forgiveness that overflows. We are not in the place of God, vengeance or mercy are his to give. The 9/11 terrorist and Osama Bin Laden are dead and gone, and they will answer to the Lord at the judgment for their actions – whether it be mercy or vengeance – that is the Lord’s. We, however are left with how we will respond. Will we let evil win, embracing a spirit of vengeance which breeds more evil? Or will we offer a spirit of abundant forgiveness upon all we encounter that good may triumph even in the face of evil.


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