September 16, 2001

Jeremiah 9:17-24; Romans 12:9-21

Friends, I must admit that this is one of the most difficult days I have ever had to stand before you.

The days since the terrorist attacks on Tuesday have been horrible for all of us. Tuesday and Wednesday, many of us experienced a sensation of having been kicked in the stomach-a very common reaction to sudden loss and/or betrayal. Personally, it was hard to eat, sleep or concentrate. By Thursday, I felt like I was walking around in a cloud of lethargy and depression. On Friday, I fell asleep twice. And I was not affected by personal loss in this tragedy. Imagine the state of those who have lost parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends and co-workers.

The only times this week when the load of grief and sorrow has lifted for me has been when listening to words of scripture. The words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" were certainly written by someone who knew the experience of having your known world collapse.

Today, we hear Jeremiah say, "death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares . . . human corpses shall fall like dung upon the open field . . . and no one shall gather them."

We know that experience. New York City and Washington, D.C., are our Zions, our "holy cities." For better or for worse, they represent the heart and soul of America. They are our alabaster cities gleaming; they contain our temples of honor and history. And they have been struck with a deadly vengeance that has resulted in horrific images that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

And Jeremiah says, "call for the mourning women to come . . . let them quickly raise a dirge over us so that our eyes may run down with tears . . . For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: `How we are ruined!'"

We, like the people of Israel suffering the destruction of their homeland, cry and weep and sing dirges. And while we are not completely ruined, we will never be the same. We have been terribly, grievously hurt-each and every one of us. We have lost not only lives, we have lost, irrevocably, I think, our innocence and our sense of invulnerability. We have lost our carefully constructed cushion and padding that has protected us from the reality of violence that is the daily fare of so many in the world.

We need to wail and mourn. Bring in the professionals to help us do it. We need to cry and yell and scream because all of those feelings are normal and appropriate. It is horrifying. It is tragic. It is terribly unfair.

The grieving process will be different for all of us, but we must all honor those feelings and allow our psyches and our bodies to recoil, to retreat, and when the time is right, to begin to be restored.

And as we turn that corner into healing, we are called to take a deeper look at what has happened and why, and to be careful about our response.

Some very angry people have attacked us. We have to be careful when we call them "terrorists" because by doing so, we run the risk of forgetting that they are also human beings. The people responsible for the actions on Tuesday are angry at the United States. They are angry to the point of hatred and revenge, and even suicide. They have acted in extreme and indefensible ways.

But here's the thing I've been thinking about. I've learned in my personal life that when someone is angry with me, I need to look at myself and find out what piece of truth that person sees in me that I don't want to see. Their anger may be completely out of proportion to what I did or said, or their picture may be terribly incomplete and unfair, but usually there is a gnawing sense that I may have given them, perhaps unconsciously, a hook for their anger. They are responsible for how they express their anger, but I am responsible to look inside and pay attention to the truth of what I find there.

In the case of the attacks on our country on Tuesday, the actions of these people are absolutely deplorable. There is no excuse for wreaking the kind of unmitigated devastation on innocent people that they unleashed on Tuesday. None at all. I want to be clear about that.

But let's look at the end of our passage from Jeremiah, for it is the same text the youth read for the service they led last week: "Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord." Isn't that a sobering passage for this very proud American culture? Is it at all possible that we have been guilty of boasting in the wrong things? That we have put our trust in wealth and might instead of in the steadfast love, justice and righteousness of God? That in our arrogance we have stepped on other people in the world and they are justifiably angry? Can we look at that? And if found guilty, can we repent?