September 16, 2001

Proper 19: Ex. 32: 1,7-14; Lk.15:1-10

As the ashes are slowly moved away from the city of New York, as the remains of buildings, cars and bodies are slowly cleared, there is left behind very little. In the pain of it all, it is a time for us to ask again as a nation and as individuals, just what is the core of our life? When all the rubble in our lives is removed, what is it that will remain steadfast?

This morning I simply want to share a few thoughts with you following our experience as a nation this week:

1) We discover again that there is a part of humanity that really is fallen. There is within the human person the ability to uphold a principle which has absolutely no regard for human life. Men and women have suffered the most painful deaths, whether that was on one of the airplanes which was hijacked and forcefully crashed, whether it was one of thousands of people in the World Trade Center in New York or the Pentagon in Washington DC, or whether it was one of the faithful people seeking to offer support when all of a sudden another building collapsed and they were trapped for the rest of their life. The stories and the tragedies go on and on and on& five thousand times over and over again.

For the Islamic sect of Osama bin Laden, whom at this point we assume are responsible, their principle overrides the significance of human life. Their basic belief is that the Muslim world is being poisoned and desecrated by infidels, people who do not believe and support them. These include outsiders such as the United States and Israel, and governments of Muslim states --such as Egypt and Jordan-- that have committed apostasy, in their terms. But what is clear, is that Bin Laden and his followers don't want anything from us. They don't want our sympathy. There is no material thing we can offer them. They don't want to participate in the community of nations. (They don't really believe in the nation-state.) They are motivated by religion, not politics. They answer to no one but their god, so they certainly won't answer to us. This is what we are confronting.

The issue goes beyond just good vs. bad people. There is a fundamental religious split. I do not in any way believe that God is such that he supports this kind of violence. There is within the human person whom God has made, the ability to turn away and to distort and deny the heart of who he is and what this life is about, sometimes they are even couched in the terms of religion.

Yet, inasmuch as we believe that the decisions that were made were fundamentally wrong and evil, so too this is a time when we need to look back at our own lives and acknowledge how easy it is to actually slip away from our calling. How finally any one of us can move in the same direction, be it Bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, students at Columbine High School, and on throughout our history. The essence of turning away from God is present within every one of us and we need to ensure that we both acknowledge that and be willing to do something about it, as minor as it might seem right now, both in our own lives and the people close to us. Every one of us is a sinful person able to move more and more in the wrong direction. We need to come back.

2) There is also a hope. In the midst of the incredible loss and pain which has impacted our country there is also a hope. As we have watched the support and the strength of people to not give up but to continue to look and search and try to find those who are lost, we just give thanks. Instead of being crushed by the experience the people of this country have rallied together and said: "We will not give up at all. We will not give up. We will stand together and we will walk forward." There has been such an incredibly strong unity among our people and it is in these moments that God is able to work and direct and unite us. The people have just rallied together in such a powerful way. Political parties are totally irrelevant, the people in New York City and throughout our country have just come together in a statement that through all of the pain and struggle which we have been through, this is not the end. We will walk forward in hope.

3) There is a rediscovery of faith. Through days of prayer, through moments and experiences of feeling hopeless, people have realized again that without faith in a living God, life is incredibly futile. There can be so much searching for simply getting bigger and better in the comfort of all the things' that are around us. We so often want what we want when we want it, and God does not work like that at all. In our scripture reading this morning from Exodus, what has taken place is that Moses and Aaron went up the mountain to spend time with God. Aaron has come done but Moses is still up there. The people below are getting incredibly impatient and are just wanting to head off to the promised land. For them, Moses is simply delaying them and they want to move. And so while waiting they begin to explore other alternatives. This waiting has gone on too long. Let us look for something else.

And the people begin to cast the image of the golden calf. They begin to seek other alternatives for worship. They forget their faith in their God and instead worship another alternative. When God doesn't fit into our timing we begin to look for something else. It is a time for us to reflect and ask ourselves the questions: To what extent have we allowed ourselves to focus more upon a golden calf? To what extent have we got frustrated with the timing of God and begun to seek other alternatives rather than retaining our primary focus upon our Lord? What has been incredible is that people throughout our country, people within the financial world, have begun to ask faith questions once again. It is in these moments that our Lord is able to step in and enable us to realize how much we really, really need him and also how much he really is there for us.

Where do we go from here?

1) We realize how fragile everyone of us really is.

We cannot simply assume that everything is OK. We realize that we need to be very clear about what our values are within this world. For so many people there has never been an experience of death and horror in this way before. There is such fragility with who we are. Yet it is also something which we appropriately put aside for our daily living. And there are moments like this time, when we need to remember once more that we cannot simply assume everything will simply carry on as it always has been. Both you and I are vulnerable people and we need to really acknowledge that truth and the ways it affects our lives.

2) We reclaim what is really important for us in our lives.

Those last minute phone calls from people will be held forever by those who heard them. Suddenly when it came to the end, the issue of having better stock, better buildings, better cars, better clothes, were totally irrelevant. It was the people whom they loved who were so important. We all need to remember and reclaim what and who is really important in our lives. If you really love your spouse, your children, your parents, others close to you, then tell them and show them that love. Let us not, in the pace of everything about us, forget our priorities in our lives.

3) We need to reach out to others not only in crises, but daily.

What has been so moving is seeing the people within New York and Washington DC gather together and be with one another. No matter who you are, you are important. People have crossed over racial, economic and class lines simply to support each other. It is an incredible statement of who we really are as people and I pray that it does not end when the crises subside. I pray that all of us recall how much we need to really reach out to other people and to offer them our love and our support. We don't have to wait for tragedies for this to happen. We are called to do it all the time, and what is clear from our nation's experience, is that it is right.

4) We pray deeply for the many, many people who will suffer loss and grief for many, many years.

As we all know, there are so many people who are suffering at this time with the loss that has taken place. For some it is still not real. The person they know and love has simply been taken away in such a violent way. Their pain will continue for many years and we need to offer our love and support if we know anyone, and we need to offer the depths of our prayers, if we don't. Really pray for them. Spend time remembering them and lifting them up to God. For all of us it is a time to rediscover compassion.

5) We acknowledge that God has not left us but is with us always.

Our reading this morning from Luke is the passage of Jesus leaving the 99 sheep and going out to find the lost one. The very nature of our God is not one who seeks obliteration but one who will search desperately for every single person. Inasmuch as those fireman have gone through again and again to try to discover the lost person, so does our Lord. He wants us to truly come back to him. He will not leave us alone.

Two final statements:

Last night I was doing a rehearsal for a wedding which is going to take place later today. The couple had spent several years in New York City, and many of their friends are not able to be at the wedding. And yet as I looked at this couple and the fact that we were going ahead with it all I thought, "This is what God wants us to do." They were like a symbol of new birth. In the context of the ashes and the pain and the death, there was a sparkle of new life. We have to move forward and God is with us.

The second thing is that as I walked in from the rehearsal last night I received a call from one of our people telling me of a Psalm. Psalm 77 had been present with her and with other people through this week. The words had been a source of comfort to her and to many others. And then one morning as she was reflecting on the words, there was a sudden awareness: One of the four flights was AA77. Our Lord God will not leave us but seek to come to us again and again, no matter where we are, and He will offer us hope. You may want to look at the Psalms for all of the flights: Psalm 77, Psalm 93, Psalm 11 and instead of Psalm 175--which doesn't exist--look at Psalm 17:5 "My steps have held to your paths, my feet have not slipped."

Finally, I want to say: We have a great country. God bless America.

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