September 13, 2001
Last Tuesday morning I was looking forward to having breakfast with my family. Because we are rarely together it was to be a somewhat special occasion. My son was home to visit from out of town and I had arranged to get a flight back from Denver on Monday evening instead of Tuesday so that we could all be together. As we sat down we were suddenly transfixed by the scenes of horror that began playing out at the World Trade Center in New York. Like many of you we found ourselves in a state of disbelief as the horror of one incident after another was reported. Nothing in my lifetime – not the Kennedy assassination, Viet Nam, race riots, or the shuttle disaster – has come close to being as shocking. As we watched events unfold I found my heart and my head telling me different things. My heart held sadness for the many victims of this brutal crime. It also held anger for the cowards who would kill innocent people in some twisted and demented attempt to harm the United States. On the other hand, my head was reminding me that I am a Christian and thus my response should be that of a follower of Christ. Make no mistake. This act of war, as it is rightly being called, changed your life and the lives of all Americans in ways we do not yet even understand. Never in our history has an attack of such magnitude taken place on American soil. The way we respond will have long lasting effects on you and future generations.
This morning I still have those conflicted feelings and maybe you do to. Ultimately you will decide how you will respond and while I certainly do not have all the answers, I do want to share some brief thoughts with you.
In the Scripture that was read this morning, Jesus is reaching the highpoint of his ministry. He is about to enter Jerusalem for the Passover feast. All the efforts of his loving labor are coming to fruition. Throngs of people are lining the road in a scene of triumph. Such an outpouring of support should have moved our Lord to the heights of joy. However, Luke tells us that he looked down upon the Holy City and he wept openly. He wept because he knew that in forty years the Roman Empire would finally get so fed up with the quarrelsome Jews that they would come in and level Jerusalem. When they did they burned the city with such an intensity that the gold on the roof of the Temple melted and ran down among the ruins where the soldiers left no stone unturned in gathering up this precious plunder.
There are two things I want to point out about this Scripture.
First, here you have a Classic image of the God of the Bible and how he is related to His creation. Nowhere in any other religion do you have a God who would weep over the sins of humanity. You can find images of angry gods and indifferent gods and gods who would become so outraged by humanity that they would bring down fire and brimstone, but nowhere except in the Bible do you find a God who, instead of condemning or ignoring his creation, actually sheds tears of anguish over them. I must admit that I am completely perplexed at human beings who have such a low regard for human life that they would sacrifice themselves and others in the name of some holy quest. The God of Scripture is not like that. The entire Bible tells the story of the lengths to which divine love will go in seeking peace with sinful persons. II Cor. 5:18-19 says, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” To be sure God is not a compromiser or appeaser. The terms of his peace are absolute surrender but it is clear that for some strange, wonderful reason he does want us to serve him.
The second thing that I want to point out about this Scripture is that Jesus put His finger on one of our basic human struggles: namely, that we do not know the things that make for peace. The attack we witnessed on Tuesday was a direct assault on freedom, democracy, and peace. In the Bible the word peace stands for wholeness, completeness, fulfillment, well-being, satisfaction, and joy. Every human being in his or her right mind basically and urgently wants peace. The difficulty is in knowing how to achieve it. In light of what we are experiencing, the question of peace poses no problem. But the means by which we achieve it is where we run into trouble.
Harry Emerson Fosdick has a famous sermon that is based on the experience of a man in New York City who wants to take a trip to Detroit. He went to the bus station, bought a ticket, boarded a bus and rode it all day and into the next afternoon. However, when he arrived at his destination, he was not in Detroit, but in Kansas City. What happened? Quite simply, he got on the wrong bus. There was nothing wrong with his intentions. He knew where he wanted to go. There was no deficiency in his effort to make the journey. His problem was at the point of methodology.
Jerusalem was catching the wrong bus, and that is what moved Jesus to tears as he looked down on Jerusalem long ago. It is not that they did not have good intentions or that they were not clear on their destination. It was the problem of methodology. We really do want peace. In the midst of this tragedy, we want to experience peace within ourselves, peace at work and in the community, peace in the world at large. The question before us is how will we achieve this?
As I see it there are two notions that we have to overcome if we want to be on the correct bus. First, the idea that “looking out for number one” without regard to anyone else is the way to peace and fulfillment. Right now there are rescue workers who are attempting to find survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Towers. There have already been tales of human beings helping other human beings in a selfless manner, and there are sure to be others in the days to come. People who would pass by one another without making eye contact on Monday were offering help and support to one another in the aftermath of the tragedy. A Congress that was bitterly divided over issues that now seem far distant rallied to support our president and our country absent the usual partisan bickering. A country that heretofore has been preoccupied with concentrating on what it wanted when it wanted it, as it wanted it, with no consideration for other people and how it affected the larger context has been jolted into a spirit of cooperation and caring for others. Wherever there is a noticeable lack of peace upon this earth, the chances are that blind self-concern that is willing to run over anybody and everybody will not be far away. We have the opportunity to show the rest of the world what Jesus knew long ago when he said: “He who would save his own life will wind up losing it, but he who is willing to lose his life in sensitivity and concern for others, lo and behold, he will find his own deepest fulfillment as well.”
There will be a temptation to isolate ourselves, to withdraw, to have a me-first mentality. There are those who will want to blame others for what has happened from former presidents to airport security workers. That is what terrorists want to do, to shake your confidence, to undermine cooperation, to create fear. Resist that urge. Don’t get me wrong. I think those behind this crime should be brought to justice. Scripture says, “There is no peace for the wicked.” But we must fight against self- centeredness and isolation to reach beyond ourselves if we are to truly seek peace.
There is another notion that peace can somehow be brought about by the use of violent means. I admit that my anger makes me want to nuke into submission any country that harbors the evil minds that conceived of this attack on our country. When I think of those 266 men, women and children on those planes who perished in the most terrifying way imaginable, I am incensed. When I think of the people who got up and went to work on a beautiful day, minding their business, doing their jobs, only to have their lives snuffed out, some after terrifying efforts to escape, I am infuriated. When I see people from another country laughing and celebrating our country’s tragedy, I am enraged. Those are natural feelings but we must pray to God that we can somehow break this cycle of violence. Ghandi used to say “the means are the ends at an incipient stage,” that is, the kind of consequence you are going to produce is already imbedded in the means you employ. Jesus knew that. When they came to arrest him and one of the disciples drew his sword Jesus said, “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword.” Fire leads to more fire and violence leads to more violence.
So what do we do? Let me make some suggestions:
1. We should prize and support those who know how to make peace. Right now the leaders of our nation are struggling with how to respond. Those people who are rooted in peace will embrace a higher way. Whatever action is taken needs to have a long-term peace making effect. Pray for our leaders.
2. Resist the temptation to withdraw. Instead, reach out to others. Put aside the things that separate us. Demonstrate what it means to be Christian. Refuse to be drawn into evil by evil. Spend your energies helping others. Don’t stereotype. All Arab Americans are not evil. Most Muslims abhor violence as much as we do.
3. Remember that even though evil had its day, God is still in control, and nothing…not the cross, defeat, or death will stop him from achieving his purposes for the world. Every Christian is living, breathing testimony that God really does work wonders in the world.
4. Just as those who have evil intentions have banded together to foster their terrible deeds then we must pull together to foster love, peace, truth, and justice. America has withstood revolution, civil war, depression, world wars, and civil strife. We will withstand this and we will be stronger.
5. Never lose hope. We know the power that overcomes all darkness and fear. The One who is more committed to our peace and wholeness than we are has neither turned His back on us nor turned on us in rage. He weeps for us. He wants even yet to teach us the ways of peace.
The question is: Will we let Him do it?