Retrospective on 9/11

As I prepare for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve re-read what I preached on the first Sunday after the terrorist bombings in 2001.  What I said then is just as true now, so I’m sharing it with you.  It’s a little long, but I hope you read it to the end and find it helpful. 

September 16, 2001                                                                           Dr. Barbara A. Anderson

“I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
The Lord executes justice for the oppressed and
gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
he Lord loves the righteous;
The Lord watches over the strangers;
The Lord upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin” (Psalm 146, excerpts).

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

 One week ago, as I worked on this morning’s sermon, I intended to begin with the affirmation that I have the best job in the world: Every week I get to proclaim hope! There is no better job than that.

After four planes crashed on Tuesday morning, I set aside that sermon. But I begin at the same point I had planned – in spite of and because of – the events of this week: I have the best job in the world because, week after week, I get to proclaim hope.

I stand before you today, and we gather this day, because as followers of Jesus Christ, it is our high calling even in a time such as this – particularly in a time such as this – to proclaim hope to a world torn apart by grief and anger, injustice and evil. As people of faith, we have the highest calling in the world: to proclaim in word and deed that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it.

Yet what can we say at such a time? There is much that longs to be said and needs to be said, and much that is beyond words. Thousands of innocent people were murdered on Tuesday in an act of evil beyond our comprehension. Shock waves of grief and horror have pounded our heart and rippled into the farthest reaches of our soul. The magnitude of this evil tragedy is so enormous as to seem, even today, surreal, as though we could turn on the news tonight and discover that the New York skyline is intact, all those lives are whole, and this was all just a very, very, very bad dream.

Our souls ache because we know it is not a bad dream from which we can awaken, it is part of the reality in which we now live.

Many of you know people who died, or their family members, or who might have died but for some circumstance that saved their life. And so many mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, wives, husbands, partners, friends, and acquaintances died in a short time on Tuesday that even those of us who know none of them directly are still torn apart by grief.

Firefighters, police and rescue workers died by the hundreds as they did what they do on our behalf every day: risked their life that we might live.

Feelings of grief and shock, anger and vulnerability, fear and resolve are palpable across the country–in every restaurant, every office, every school, and every prayer service. We entrust the dead to the loving arms of our merciful God. Our hearts and prayers go out to all whose loss is personal and whose lives are forever changed.

Just as the mix of feelings seems overwhelming so, too, the questions: questions of who we are as persons, as Christians, as a nation. What can we say about good and evil and God in the light of such horror? How do we respond – justly, appropriately and faithfully, working towards safety and peace in the world – without resorting to the evils we deplore?

As God is the beginning and end of all things, so, too, we shall begin and end with God. Within the first hour of the first plane’s crashing into the World Trade Center, the questions were already on people’s lips: Where is God? How could God let this happen? Fair questions. Questions God has faced from the beginning of the human race, ever since we have known the difference between Good and Evil.

Where was God? God did not want those jets to crash. God did not want thousands of people to die under such heinous circumstances. God did not want hundreds of thousands of people to be grief-stricken and their lives changed in such tragic ways.

Where was God on Tuesday morning? As surely I stand here today, I believe God was present on those airplanes, trying to change the minds of those terrorists until the final moment, giving courage to those who resisted, and peace to those who knew they were dying. God was present at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, giving courage and grace to the thousands who helped others to safety, even at the cost of their own life, giving courage and strength to emergency crews who entered doomed buildings to save others. God was present in each phone call to a loved one to say good-bye. God was not only with each person who walked through the valley of the shadow of death and survived, but also with each one walked or crashed or jumped through the valley of the shadow to the other side. God was and is present in every act of heroism and kindness, of strength and solidarity, of faith and unity that occurred this week and will continue into the future.

The hijackers and those who planned this atrocity believed God wants to punish the United States. I regret to say that even two of the most well-known fundamentalist Christians in the United States said this week on the 700 Club that this tragedy is the will of God punishing us for the work of our federal courts, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights activists. Both groups are wrong.

I do not believe in a God who takes the lives of innocents to teach a lesson to the rest of us. And neither did Jesus. God is a god not of terror and destruction, but of justice and mercy, compassion and love. We worship a god whose love is known not in military or economic might, but in the feeding of 5,000 people, the forgiveness of sinners, death on a cross, and resurrection on Easter. The Book of Genesis says that we are created in the image of God. The ache we feel in our hearts for those who died, for their loved ones, and for those who have been injured echoes the ache in God’s heart.

If God did not want this atrocity to happen, why did it? Because we are not puppets whom God controls from afar. When humanity was given the knowledge of Good and Evil, we were given free will to choose between them.

We have within us the capacity for great good and great evil. We do not understand why some people come through suffering, even torture, abuse and violence and give their life to God’s purposes of good, while others turn towards evil and become perpetrators themselves. We struggle to understand the minds of people who chose evil, but when evil reaches a certain magnitude, it becomes incomprehensible to the rest of us. Who can understand a Hitler or Mengele, the massacres in Rwanda or Armenia, the death squads of Central America and the genocide of people of color in this country, the abuse and torture of little children? At some point it is beyond our understanding.

People of faith are called by God every day to turn from the evil, destructive, sinful tendencies within us and turn towards God, no matter what our life has brought us. The people who perpetrated this tragedy chose to bring not good but evil from their suffering. Innocent people died because the terrible pain and injustice certain groups and individuals have suffered in this world became so twisted in their minds and hearts as for them to believe that a heinous act of terrorism could ever be pleasing to God.

Terrorism is not now nor could it ever be pleasing to God. The Koran, the Torah, the Bible, and the sacred texts of all faiths teach that the killing of innocents is sinful in the eyes of God. Faithful Muslims and people of all faiths are as outraged as we that such acts would occur at all, and even more so that someone would claim to do them in God’s name.

Because it is so incomprehensible that anyone could do such a thing as happened this week, it is tempting to see the terrorists and the people behind them as completely evil and not human, and ourselves as good. After all, has not the United States helped nation after nation, welcomed millions of immigrants, rebuilt Europe and Japan after wars, and sent massive aid to help victims of hurricanes, famine and floods? Have we not shared the fruits of our fields, factories and laboratories readily with the world? Have we not championed freedom and democracy around the world? As one e-mail circulating on the internet points out, the United States is vastly under-appreciated. It is hard for many to imagine that anyone could hate people as good-hearted and helpful as we know ourselves to be.

And yet, in the words of the Apostle Paul, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is so very much that is good about the United States, so much that we have done for other nations of the world, so much that we have upheld in our traditions of justice, democracy, freedom and tolerance; that we are apt to ignore and forget we have also supported despots, overturned legitimate governments, desecrated the earth and other peoples, and supported systems of commerce and government that perpetuate abject poverty. Just as there is goodness within us, so too, there is sinfulness and the capacity for evil, not only in others, but within us too.

None of this can ever justify what happened this week, yet as Ernie Campbell said, quoting someone else, “terrorism is the edge not of revolution but of desperation.” Therefore, as we ask why this happened and what we need to do to keep it from happening again, we must look not only to retaliatory strikes and greater security measures. We must look also into our soul as Americans and move closer to the ideals upon which this country was founded, the ideals of justice and equality, liberty and freedom to which we have returned in each of this nation’s greatest hours.

The terrorists brought down the Twin Towers because they saw them as the ultimate symbol of American wealth and might. Without them, the New York skyline looks empty, small, and rather ordinary. But I want to say this: The World Trade Center is not the ultimate symbol of America. That symbol still stands. The symbol of which I speak still stands and the light of her torch was visible through the smoke of devastation. The towers symbolized our economic, technological and world leadership. But the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the core of who we are as Americans and she still stands in the harbor, her torch held high in the darkness and at her feet the words still speak, “Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This is who this country is called to be and what we are called to dedicate ourselves to once again.

Finally, we speak of anger and outrage, appropriate God-given responses to injustice, violence and evil. This too, is part of being created in the image of God, for as the Psalmist says, “God executes justice for the oppressed . . . and brings the way of the wicked to ruin.” Such anger comes from tremendous pain, pain for those who died and those who love them, pain for this violation of our nation and our psyche, pain for the turmoil, chaos and trauma that continues. Anger is an appropriate response. Our anger comes from a well of pain. And beneath that well of pain is a river of hope to sustain us, a river of hope that springs from God. Here too, our scripture gives us guidance: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Be angry, but do not turn to vengeance. Be angry, but do not let our hearts be overcome with rage such that we stoop to the evils we deplore.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, we did not assume that all Christians, all Anglo men, all former Marines, all Gulf War veterans were terrorists. We separated the man and his evil act from the larger portion of humanity of which he was a part. Let us not demonize people who look Middle Eastern to us, or those with Arabic sounding names, or those who call God by the name of Allah. Let us separate the men and their evil act from the larger portion of humanity of which they are a part. Let our anger stir us to action, but let us not rush to kill innocent people in other lands in the name of the innocents who died here this week. Let us do that which will make the world safer for all and make it known that such acts will not be tolerated anywhere. And let us do all we can to shrink the pockets of despair in the world so that all may live with the freedom and fullness of life we take for granted in this great country.

As we strengthen our security, as we seek to execute justice upon the perpetrators of this heinous act, as we seek to communicate that such terrorism will not be tolerated in the international community, as we live with a new state of vulnerability, we need also to remember that none of us, not even our President, can rid the world of evil. God has been trying to rid the world of evil ever since creating humanity. And still atrocities happen.

I have worn my clerical collar nearly every day this week, not only because of my role in prayer services, but because of its importance as a symbol of the high calling to which we are called – in church, at work and school, with neighbors and even at traffic lights. On sidewalks and in restaurants, from friends and strangers, I have received thanks this week for the presence of the collar because it has symbolically taken the hope of this cross into the nooks and crannies and highways of our community when we have desperately needed to hold onto that hope.

God has been here before. It was into such a world as this that Christ was born in Bethlehem – into a world of violence and hate, uncertainty and evil. It was into a world such as this, filled with love and heroism, compassion and hope that Christ was born. In such a world as this, Christ was crucified and is crucified, dead and buried. For a moment, evil thinks it has won. But Evil shall never win. Christ was raised on Easter. God and Good will ultimately overcome all Evil in the human heart and human history. This is the Truth we know in terror, this is the Truth on which we stand, hand in hand, and dare to look Evil in the eye.

We do have the highest calling in the world, you and I: to proclaim hope every day in word and deed. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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