2016-06-30
What I would really like to do now is simply to call for a profound silence. No televisions with their necessary but compulsively talking heads. No horrifying images. No sounds of explosions. No cries of the dying, the frightened, the bereft and grieving. It might be holier just now simply to light a candle and say a prayer.

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.)

Yes, we can't deny it, the Bible does have colorful, and even violent language, attributing direct human emotions and actions to the Creator. But even a tenth-grader with elementary critical skills knows how to get beneath literalism and into the deeper truth. In our new world, we must each learn anew that the whole story of the holy scriptures is one of love not hate; of salvation, not destruction. That will be work for many of us. But that's the first thing we should do: go back to those sources.

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:
  • We can go to our sources and learn the traditions of our own faith.
  • We can practice what we preach, shepherding those who are in danger.
  • And we can learn the beliefs of others, with others. Small steps, given the enormity of the attack. But they become elements of real hope. It is not hopeful to live in this world without faith. It is not hopeful to bring children into the world without a sense of free inquiry into truth, without a chance to have a spiritual life and practice as the terra firma of that free journey of faith.

  • Now about New York, the city we love.

    This city will rebuild. It will be strong. It will be the place we love and many of us choose to live. But when things rise again, and we begin to feel better, when they play baseball again, will we remember what we've been through? Will we remember purposefully to take that interior soul journey? Will we do the hard work of finding a mature faith? Will we pay the steady, daily cost of building communities of faith, and reaching out to serve others in God's name?

    I think we will. We've been here before. The people of the Bible have been through all of this, and remember: God the Creator who moves with love and power on the first page is still standing and loving at the last page.

    In 1949, the celebrated New Yorker writer E.B. White, having decided at last to give up his New York apartment and live full time in Maine, came back to the city. The war was over, but the atomic age had begun. New York was familiar, but it was also in an economic and building boom, including the construction of the United Nations a couple of blocks from his home in Turtle Bay, just steps from where we are now.


    Even in the melancholy of packing up, White couldn't help but step back and admire New York : "It is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village-the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up."

    That sentence is a favorite of mine, one I've used to explain to myself and others why I love this dizzying and sometimes dangerous place. A friend, Tom Bethell, remembering how often I used it, and in fact himself in Maine last week when the terror struck, went back to White's whole essay, Here is New York. Some of you will remember it, but do you remember what Tom reminded me about the end of the piece? It was, he said "so troubling and so reassuring at the same time that I wanted to send it along."

    Listen to this. Remember, it was written in 1949:

    "The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges... The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition . . . Of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm....

    "A block or two west of the new City of Man [he meant the UN] in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long-suffering and much-climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: `This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.' If it were to go, all would go-this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."

    From Maine, my friend Tom e-mailed, "Looking upon New York this week from this distant village, still shaken and appalled by things seen and unseen and no longer seen, the one thing I know is I've never loved New York more than at this moment, and would wrap my arms around the entire city if only I could, as around the trunk of the willow. If the whole nation feels the same way, and I think it must, we are strong indeed and still reaching for the sun."

    With infinite respect for E.B. White, and gratitude to my friend Tom Bethell for finding those uncanny words, I must tell you one more thing.

    I believe it is God who has his arms wrapped around New York. And I believe that God is living, and that God is weeping with us and for us And think of it: if God is living, that means God is learning and growing, more every day. And that God knows that aspiration and hope are not just up in the sun, where the buildings reach; not just creations in concrete and steel. God is now teaching us once again to look deep, to wander around in our own souls, saying, "Look what is already written on your heart, carved there long ago. It's ready for you again to live the truth that `The Lord's mercies...are new every morning...[God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.' "

    And, for those who come with the eyes of the heart, there is Jesus, the one who stands as the word after death-the Good Shepherd, who knows your name, who rejects the rejecters, and who stands as God's reminder that all are welcome in this human family. And who said, "There will be one flock."

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