(This is the sermon I preached on September 16, 2001,
the Sunday after 9/11.)
"When these things begin to take place,
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near."
The Scripture reading is actually an advent text in our lectionary. It is also a Holy Week text, since it comes from the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. He is talking about the second coming. I chose it for today because it speaks of disaster and catastrophe, and I believe it is useful to remind ourselves that this is not the first time that people of faith have faced such things. It is useful to remind ourselves that such catastrophe was not unknown or unanticipated in biblical times.
The events of this week have been tragic and catastrophic. The pain endured has been immense. Our lives have been shaken. there is a real sense in which this kind of war in our global village has changed our world forever. What Jesus tells his disciples is that in times such as these, precisely in this kind of situation, we are called to respond with faith and courage. In the last verse, he tells them, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
This is a time for people to stand up; to stand up and think; to stand up and question; to stand up and pray. People have a lot of questions. Obviously, there are a host of questions. There are questions of security and politics, but I am thinking about theological questions. I hear people asking, “How could this happen?”
That question has been asked of many religious leaders in television interviews this week, and most of the answers have been awful. I understand that Billy Graham did a great job at the service in Washington, and I thought the Roman Catholic Bishop of New York was wonderful, but most of the responses were poor.
The low point for me came when Ann Graham Lotz, Billy Graham's daughter, was asked how God could let this happen, and she said, “You have to understand, we have spent years driving God out of our lives,” and she went on to talk about taking prayer out of our schools. Apparently, she believes that God killed three thousand innocent people to teach us that we ought to make kids pray in school. I don’t know what kind of barbarian god she worships, but that is not the God that I know.
Some of us wish that God would work the way King Kong did in the old movie. Do you remember King Kong on the Empire State Building, grabbing the planes out of the air and smashing them on the ground? Some of us wish that God had done something like that last Tuesday, perhaps snatching the planes out of the air and then setting them gently on the ground. But God simply does not work that way.
As I contemplated the events of last Tuesday and began to think about coming together on Sunday morning, I asked myself, “What can I possibly say? And what difference does it make anyway? After something like this, what’s the point?” And then I remembered that this is not the first time that something like this has happened. Twenty-six hundred years ago, when Jerusalem fell and many of the people were carried into captivity in Babylon, the people of Israel still gathered to sing and pray and worship. The faithful gathered for worship after Gettysburg and during the London Blitz. We can think of dozens of examples. People of faith have gathered for prayer and worship in crises large and small all across the centuries.
For many years, we Americans have enjoyed an unprecedented sense of personal and national security. For more than twenty-five years we have been almost untouched by the threat of war. Desert Storm happened far away and with few American casualties. The threat of nuclear war has been almost non-existent for more than a decade. This week we have suffered a huge loss in that sense of security. And some of us have been tempted to equate that loss of personal and national security with a loss of God’s presence. But that is not the security that God provides. At the end of his life, Moses blessed the people of Israel with the promise that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The promise is not that God will protect us from every evil deed, but that God will always be there.
The reality is that God gives freedom to human beings, and we can use that in a variety of ways. Today I wore my “Palm Sunday” tie. You can see the handprints or palm prints of children. I wore it in part because it feels to me like Palm Sunday. I feel that somber sense that I experience in Holy Week. I also wore it because I have been thinking about what hands do. God gave us hands, and we can use them to do good things or evil things. We have seen both this week.
And Raise Your Heads
"When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads . . . ." This week we have seen human beings at their best and at their worst. Obviously, what the terrorists did on Tuesday was beyond the scope of what most people had contemplated. When I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, I immediately assumed it was a tragic accident. Even after the second plane, my mind was searching for an explanation. It was literally incomprehensible.
We have also seen people at their best. What amazing courage it must have taken for people to crash that plane near Pittsburgh, rather than let it go on toward a major population center. The heroism of the rescue workers was magnificent. And was it not a minor miracle that the evacuation of the towers was as orderly as it was. In the face of imminent danger, reports say that people were polite and brave. If even a small number had panicked, the death toll might have been doubled or tripled. One man fell and broke his ankle, and four strangers picked him up and carried him down fifteen flights to safety. Seldom have we seen so many individual acts of caring and kindness in such a small space and time.
We have seen people at their best in our nation, but we have also seen them at their worst. There have been hundreds of attacks on Arab-Americans and on people who looked like Arabs. Molotov cocktails have been thrown into business, guns have been fired, threats and epithets have been shouted.
That is not who we are and that can never be who we are. To put it crudely, we are not them. (To be grammatically correct, I should say, “We are not they,” but it doesn’t sound right.) We are not terrorists and we must not let this tragedy turn us into something less than what we are called to be, as Christians and as Americans. We have an obligation to raise our heads, to lift our vision, and to raise our standards.
The Apostle Paul said that we must “hate what is evil and love what is good.” And he’s right. If we only love the good and do not hate the evil, we become merely sentimental. But William Sloan Coffin was also right when he said that we must love the good more than we hate the evil. If we do not love the good more than we hate the evil, we will simply become good haters. We must not become good haters. We must love the good more than we hate the evil.
Because Your Redemption Is Drawing Near."When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." After describing a great crisis in the most vivid language, Jesus then tells them that the time of crisis will also be a time of redemption. He can speak with confidence about the future because he knows this has happened in the past.
When Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity, the prophets and great religious thinkers asked themselves, “How could this happen? How can it be that the holiest city of the very people God has chosen to bring his message to the world has fallen? If this can happen, then how can we trust God?”
This was the greatest challenge that Israel had ever faced. And Israel responded to this theological crisis with some of the most brilliant and beautiful literature that human beings have ever produced. The wisdom and depth of thought were amazing. Israel responded, in the words of Professor Walter Brueggemann, “precisely against the data.” It was out of this crisis, says Brueggemann, that Israel gave birth to the concept of hope. It was in these great reflections on the crisis of exile that the concept of hope was first introduced to the world. Hope was Israel’s gift to the world.
Hope is always “against the data.” It is not an analysis which says that things will get better. It is not the cheerful assertion that every cloud has a silver lining. Hope says we trust in God, regardless of the data; regardless of the presence or absence of a silver lining.
You and I are called to reaffirm our hope: our hope in human beings, our hope in our nation, and underneath it all, our hope in God. One of the many posters placed near the destruction at ground zero quoted Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”
This is a time for people of faith to stand up and raise our heads. This is a time for people of faith to raise our standards higher than they have ever been. This is a time for us to reaffirm the gift of hope and this is a time for us to love the good.
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