In fact, hold now in your hearts the departed, their friends, families, and colleagues. Do ask for the healing of the physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually injured. And do pray for yourself, for all of us, that our compassion and understanding will exceed our fear, our anger, and our desire for revenge.
Silence would also loudly tell the truth that there is so much more we need to know. Silence before the great mysteries is an act of spiritual honesty.
But I know that I can't remain silent, because that could add to the dangers of the hour. The President called Friday a day of remembrance, and we ourselves have called our liturgy today a Service of Remembrance and Hope. There is a risk in that name, a risk well known to our tradition, because while memory can be a sign of respect and love, it can also be the fuel for terror. Religious people do well to confess that risk before they say or do anything truly religious.
A man they called St. John of Sinai, who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 7th century, warned his friends in these words:
"Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, the hatred of righteousness, the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul . . . You will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself."
This weekend, on their respective holy days and in their own holy ways the great faith families of this land have gone to their places of worship, as we have come here. How powerful that is, how beautiful in God's eyes is our prayer and this praise, our vulnerability, our willing admission that we are not our own creators and sources of our own power. But God so respects what he has made, so loves us children, that he has made us to live in a sacred and wonderful freedom. And there, too, comes the danger. Since we are free, we are free to pervert the faith, free to remember and to feel only on the pain, and, yes, free even to strike out and do evil to God's children.
Even now, with oceans of tears yet to be shed, we want to know, What next? What shall we, what can we, do? If remembrance is not enough or is dangerous; love of country, even as welcome and wonderfully and widely shared in these days, is not enough; if all the force of the richest and most powerful nation on earth is not enough, then what?
A wise person once said that Christianity is good news, not good advice. So I presume to give you no advice, but to suggest that out of the goodness of this news, there are at least three places where we can begin the next steps in our lives.
We can go back to the very sources of our faith.
Religion defiled and perverted need not and must not rule our hearts. If there is anything like a religious claim in suicidal terror, it is a departure from God and God's truth. You know and I know that that can happen on all sides, including ours. The determined destroyer has constructed his own dark reality, decided that there is only one, and one self-justified way, to relieve his pain. The determined religious fanatic can also look like us. The President rightly corrected one American preacher who presumed to put the blame for this disaster on the vulnerability of this country caused, he claimed, by those with whom he happens to disagree. Our own kind can hijack the truth. Let us admit that.
I am sick at heart to those who tell me what my Bible says, and who tell the world that their reading is the only reading. The very thought that God would allow this or order pain and death must be not be allowed to stand. Against that, consider today's reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a book of beauty and honest pathos from the 6th century BC.:
"The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, [God's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.... For the Lord will not reject forever.... God will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;"--and you can underline this, or as the prophet said, Write it on your hearts--"for God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone." (Lamentations 3:22 ff.)
And we must do what the scripture says and learn to live what we read.
Yesterday's [New York] Times reports that Salmah, a 17-year-old student at John Adams High School in Queens, was poked and taunted on Friday with the words, "There are terrorists at our school." Salmah is a native-born American and is a Muslim of Guyanese descent. In fear, she ducked into a classroom, where a teacher suggested she remove her Muslim head scarf "for her own safety." The final response of the school was to recommend that she stay away from school until Monday.
If you believe in God, you may wish with me that the teacher or even a fellow student had had a better idea. Now, I know we are all under stress, they were frazzled, I don't know all of the circumstances. Yes, I know all of that-but that's just the point. If you don't have something that you've already taken in and written on your heart, something that you've practiced and tried, you're not going to think of it when it's most needed, when things have gone bad, and when you're under stress. I just wish that somebody, some teacher, some student had taken Salmah by the hand, walked quietly and bravely down the hall with her, and said, "Salmah is my friend. And not only that. She is a child of God and therefore my sister."
For Christians particularly, that is the way it is done.
One of the most powerful images of Jesus comes from our second reading today: Jesus the Good Shepherd. It's far more than a pretty picture. It's a model we can live:
"I am the good shepherd," Jesus said. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away."
That's what we do in our fear and confusion, when we don't know how to stand up for what is loving and right. What Salmah needed is the Good Shepherd to take her hand.
"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
Those words-"one flock"-ring with love and inclusion. Could it be any clearer? What part of that do we not understand?
We can promise ourselves to learn about the faith traditions of others.I'm proud to be part of a congregation that sponsors learning about those traditions. Of course, those who secure in their own traditions have nothing to fear and have only to gain from the hope and even excitement of learning the insights of others. Our Center for Religious Inquiry, for example, will offer again this semester a highly popular course in the basics of Islam. I know it's a small thing, and we have our own sins and shortcomings, but seeing people sit together in love and respect and put their minds to the task seems to me the least we can do for God. This, too, is work, requiring a commitment of time, heart and mind. But what seemed like a luxury last week looks like a necessity now.
Three beginning responses to terror: