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?
While I am furious that people would treat human life so casually in organizing such a catastrophic attack, I am also concerned that our leaders are planning to turn around and do exactly the same thing. Perhaps you remember our collective revulsion when Timothy McVeigh referred to the deaths of 19 children in the 1995 Oklahoma City blast as "collateral damage"? Well, one of our senators this week said, and I quote, "I say, bomb the hell out of them. If there's collateral damage [emphasis mine], so be it." (Senator Zell Miller, D-GA, quoted in an article by JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer, WASHINGTON (AP)) That kind of language, while understandable in the heat of the moment, scares me when it persists.
The black and white rhetoric of good and evil that we have heard this week is inviting us into our own version of a "holy war," not unlike that we have witnessed and criticized in places like Northern Ireland, Israel, the former Yugoslavia, and Nigeria.
And as if in answer to that invitation we hear these words from Paul to Christians in another time and place suffering unfair persecution: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, `Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, `if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Believe me, friends, I read these words to you with utter humility. When I was bemoaning to (my husband) Dave yesterday the direction my sermon was taking, he asked, "Are people going to be mad?" I said, "Yes, they're going to be mad. It's the gospel. And the gospel makes us all mad." It makes me mad. There is something inside me that wants to "bomb the hell out of them" as well. I want revenge. There is part of me that wants to personally be able to spit in the eye of those responsible. All of the movies I have watched-old westerns and World War II movies through the Terminator series and Alien and more recent films like ConAir-they are in my blood. I am furious and I want payback. I want firebombs and loud noises. And if you can find a place in the New Testament that tells us to respond in that way, let me know and I'll preach it!!
It is in the character of evil to beget evil. The greater the evil, the more evil it begets. That's what Satan intends. That's what keeps the cycle going. Darn it all, God calls me to a different way. God call us as a Christian community to a different way.
Remember (co-Pastor) Jim's questions to the children two weeks ago when I preached about domestic violence? "Is it ever ok to hit somebody? Is it ok to hit them when they take your stuff? Is it ok to hit them when they make fun of you? Is it ok to hit them if they hit you first?" And the answers: "no, no, no, no." None of us disagreed with those answers then. Now we are called to remember those answers. It's a little bit harder this week, isn't it? I don't presume to dictate what our national strategy should be, but if our actions are based on an attitude of retribution and revenge, we are sure to bring nothing but calamity upon our heads. Words like retribution and revenge are not part of God's vocabulary. If they were, we'd all be in bad shape.
I can't prescribe how we follow that way of God, that way of justice that acts in mercy. But I trust that somehow, by the grace of God working through the love and support of fellow Christians on this journey, we may just find strength to convert our alarm and human instincts into actions that embrace the ultimate cost of the cross.
"For it is there, at the cross, that the living God is finally revealed. Not in a firestorm raining down from heaven or in the anxiety of a tired heart. God comes as the suffering Kosovar, the sick Iraqi child, the wounded Serb, [the burned and crushed men and women and children in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania]. God comes in our own arms, outstretched in reconciliation and hope, and in a vision that reshapes our violent hearts in the way of love." (Lenore Yarger From The Other Side Online, c 1999 The Other Side, September-October 1999, Vol. 35, No.)
Psalm 46, which we read Tuesday night, begins, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult."
The mountains of our nation have shaken. As we weep and mourn the devastation that has been wrought upon our country and upon our people, can we put our hope and trust in God rather than in our own violent instincts? Can we rest in the arms of the God who comes in the still small voice? Can we act out of our confidence and hope in God rather than fear of our enemies? Can we walk the narrow tightrope between justice and revenge? May God help us as we struggle with what it means to be faithful in the face of terror.