Like most Americans, I can remember precisely where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001. I had been the Senior Pastor of University UMC in San Antonio for just five and a half weeks. That morning, I was preparing for a staff meeting when someone burst into to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. We set up a computer screen in the sanctuary and gather in shocked silence as we watched, listened and prayed while the rest of the day’s tragedy unfolded.
The Sunday before 9/11, I had preached the second in a series of sermons entitled Core Teachings of Jesus on the Great Commandment from Luke 10:25-37, “love the Lord your God….. and love your neighbor as yourself.” With people around the world, the destruction of the twin towers, the assault on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field washed over us all. During the week that followed, we had held a series of services of prayer and submission together, calling upon God. I shared some of our personal connections with victims of the twin towers (one of Jolynn’s nursing students lost both her parents) and commented “…while the immediate victims are those who died and their families, there is a larger sense in which we are all victims of this assault.”
Twenty years later, it is more than appropriate, it is necessary that we pause, remember and recommit. The fourth verse of the great hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” settles again in my heart and mind:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
Even in remembrance, the chaos of grief’s emotions can sweep over us. The passage of time alone does not heal. God alone can heal, redeem and renew. In this seething caldron of our wounded and bleeding world, the word of God is spoken again to us through the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1) In this fire of emotions, our hearts cry out “where is God?” Faith’s answer is straightforward and unvarnished.
God (not time) Heals Our Wounds
God is here with us.
He who hung on the cross knows and shares our agony. God did not do this. This is the face of evil and hatred. God gives us the gift of free will, and its abuse haunts us. With good comes the possibility of evil; with love, hate. The challenge of faith is the challenge to remain faithful. Our national motto has it right, as at our very best “In God We Trust.” This is more than a quaint slogan slapped on a dollar bill. It is a statement of conviction and belief; if you will, a core value of our nation at its greatest. Hear the words of Proverbs as the Word of God to us this day. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Let us pause, rightly to remember, and in remembering, recommit to the way of faith, the way of Jesus. Let the words of Holy Scripture once again bathe our response.
Mercy without justice is empty, and justice without mercy is cruel. Genuine love, the great commandment to which Christ calls us to account, holds people accountable without stooping to sin in doing so.
“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.” (Romans 12:19-21)
The test of faith before us again in this time of remembrance is to let the greater word of God be our guide over the cacophony of human words and sounds. Now, more than ever, we need a better way of responding and a holier way of living. We need the way of faith found ultimately and only in following Jesus Christ.
A Prisoner of Hope“The Hebrew word for hope has the root meaning of ‘to twist’ or ‘to twine,’ and is related to the word kiven for a spider web. So much of our hoping has this spider web quality to it – this quality of incredible strength out of weakness, of spectacular beauty from the tiny, insignificant, even petty strands of our daily living.” (from The Christian Century circa 1978)
Scholars think 1 Peter may well be a baptismal address originally given to Christians undergoing persecution. Twenty years ago, I used 1 Peter 3:8-16a (along with Proverbs 3:5-6) as my text. Twenty years later this Word of God is divine advice that would lead us to a recommitment of faith.
A good number of years back when South Africa was still caught in the terrifying grip of apartheid and violence swirled over that country, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. The situation appeared hopeless, so Koppel asked the Archbishop if there was any reason for hope. His answer was a classic witness of faith. Bishop Tutu responded, “As a Christian, I am a prisoner of hope.”
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. . . . Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:8-9, 15-16a)
Evil may have had its day, but it will not triumph! In God we trust! We live in a time between the ages. A great New Testament scholar likened it to the time after D-Day and the Allied troops breakout in Europe but before the end of World War II. (Hans Conzelmann) With the advent of Christ, the Lord dwells among us but the final consummation of God’s glory is not yet. The conflict between good and evil still rages. The casualties will still be great, but we do know the final outcome! In faith, may we remember and recommit to the way of Jesus. We are followers of the risen, reigning, and ruling Lord.
God will triumph!