“Where were you on September 11?” I don’t know how many times I have heard or seen that question asked over the past couple of weeks. Most of us can say exactly where we are when we heard the news of the attacks on our country. Christy and I were in our apartment on Henderson Avenue getting ready for work. We were watching the Today show, which was rare for me. We watched live, as most of here and billions around the world did, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. We were horrified, unsure what to do next. She drove to her job, near SMU, and I drove here, where I served as Associate Pastor. I remember driving along Turtle Creek listening to the radio and worrying about Dallas being attacked. It was doubly terrifying for me—Christy and I had just learned the day before, September 10, that she was pregnant with our first child, James. Throughout the day I struggled with guilt, watching and reading of great human suffering, while at the same time feeling joy about our own news.
When I arrived at the church, most of the staff was gathered in Wyndal’s office, where the TV was tuned in to ABC’s coverage. Peter Jennings gave updates as they came available. There was chaos all over the country, no one knew what was happening, what the extent of the attacks would be, what the next days would look like. We began to think: how should we respond as a church? We hastily organized a prayer service for that night. I went to my office and began sending out emails to every person I knew and asked them to forward it on. That night we gathered in this sacred space to pray. We were angry, confused, worried, vulnerable. We prayed for our country, its leaders, its people. We lifted up emergency workers in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. We thought of hundreds of Dallas folks who turned out to donate blood, seeking any way to offer help.
President Bush called for a time of national prayer Friday, September 14 at noon. Russ and I put together a service of prayer and healing. The Sanctuary was absolutely packed with people from the neighborhood on their lunch hour, many of whom without a church home. I remember walking to that pulpit with a profound feeling of inadequacy. I had no words to explain God’s will in this act of evil. I knew folk were struggling with existential questions of why God would allow such a thing, where was God, what had we done to deserve this. All I could think to offer were psalms of lament, the great tradition of laying out all our hurt and anguish before God in a desperate act of prayer and trust. So I read words from a psalm. And Russ played music. And I read more. And Russ played more. And somehow it worked, as far as I know. Maybe some of you here today attended one of those services.
A couple of weeks ago I sat with ten other pastors and we discussed what we were doing in worship today. One person said for much of her congregation she wasn’t sure it would be meaningful to commemorate September 11 at all, they are so busy with their own lives and needs. For those churches who do decide to have an observance this day, there will be a wide variety of offerings. Some will speak of national pride and patriotism. Others will repent of warmongering as a way of expressing grief and anger. We chose to offer a more meditative approach with music and prayer. It is interesting that the two texts we read for this service, Matthew 18 and Exodus 15, are assigned for this Sunday—not because of 9/11 but those texts are to be read this particular Sunday of the year, the Sunday between September 11 and 17, every third year. I rarely use the Lectionary myself, but with a special service like this I turned there first weeks ago as I began to pray about today. And I was astounded to find Jesus’ preaching about forgiveness transposed with the Hebrews’ songs of celebration as their enemies are defeated.
There has been much talk about the role of religion in America since 9/11. We have seen growth in interfaith observances and understanding by some. At the same time we have seen a distinctly American Protestant form of Christian patriotism by others—we are a Christian nation. We sing God Bless America with a little more pride. We speak of ourselves as good and our enemies as evil. We believe that because we are special God is on our side. The Exodus text speaks directly to this reality. One commentator urged churches to edit the Exodus text if they used it at all so worshipers would not think God still hates the Egyptians, but that’s ridiculous, and I’ll give you more credit than this guy did. A first impression of this text reeks of triumphalism, the idea that God favors one side over the other in a conflict. God saved the Hebrews by dividing the Red Sea and the people crossed. When Pharaoh’s army followed through the walls of water, God brought the waters down, drowning the Egyptian forces. And the Hebrews sang and celebrated. God brought us victory! Yes, they see God’s hand in their victory: Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew our adversaries; you sent your fury, it consumed them like stubble. And so on. When things work the way we need them to, it is easy to see God as on our side.
Ten years ago today, most people wanted vengeance, not forgiveness. We were hurt. We were scared. We were vulnerable. Americans do not like feeling this way. We had to respond swiftly and powerfully—sending a strong message to those who would hurt us. On Friday as I prepared for this message I watched a clip from David Letterman’s show from September 17, 2001 on YouTube. It was The Late Show’s first episode since the attacks and Dave was obviously upset, struggling with the same feelings of inadequacy as I did here in this pulpit and so many others with public responsibility felt in that first week. After several minutes he invited Dan Rather to speak about the attacks and he wanted to know why we had not yet responded. When were we going to get in there—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, wherever—and get even with Osama Bin Laden and the others who perpetrated such evil against us. I felt the same thing, and I am sure most of us here did too. Some people even took that need for vengeance to horrific extremes.
Weeks after the attacks, Mark Stroman entered a convenience store in Dallas. He shot three men he believed were Muslims, two of whom died. The third man, Rais Bhuiyan, survived, despite being shot in the face at close range. He is blind in one eye today. Mr. Stroman was arrested and charged with capital murder. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death. The execution was scheduled to take place earlier this summer. An amazing thing was happening as the usual appeals process was going on. The man Stroman injured for life, Mr. Bhuiyan, mounted an aggressive campaign to stop the execution. He had forgiven Stroman, as he understood his religion Islam commanded: “I decided that forgiveness was not enough. That what he did was out of ignorance. I decided I had to do something to save this person’s life. That killing someone in Dallas is not an answer for what happened on Sept. 11.” He did not want his state to return violence for violence. All the appeals, legal and otherwise, failed. Stroman was executed July 20.
Our country has fought two wars, first in Afghanistan and two years later in Iraq, because of 9/11. Ten years later we are still fighting in both places, the longest ongoing war our nation has ever fought. Thousands of American lives are lost, countless thousands of civilian lives were lost, families shattered, and for what? Please do not hear this as a criticism of our military folk who make such profound sacrifices—I have incredible respect for them and honor their service. It took us ten years, but the first of May we learned that we got Bin Laden. We’ve heard of other 9/11 masterminds killed over the years. Does that make us feel better, help ease the burden of grief? I am not sure it does. In our emotional rush to respond, we did not think to turn to the teachings of Jesus. Peter asks Jesus a question that perhaps we should have asked in those prayer services here at Oak Lawn that first week after the attacks: “If someone else hurts me, how many times should I forgive? Seven times?” Seven is a good number, right? Lucky number 7? It’s a minimum standard. If Peter was a negotiator, he would always low-ball people. But Jesus sets the bar incredibly high: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or, as others translate it: “Seventy times seven times.” Whoa. What if, in the days after 9/11, instead of singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…” we sang, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace”? What if, instead of searching the scriptures to justify our need for retribution we read, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)”?
We are all still hurting from that horrible day ten years ago. Some of us still cry out for vengeance. Some of us still look at others who are different with suspicion. We have tried to make ourselves feel more secure, more in control, more the masters of our own destiny. As we do so often, whether in our personal lives or as a community, we have drawn ourselves inward thinking it is a safer place to be. And that we can reclaim some of the “no one can get at us” mentality most of us shared September 10th. But if God is on our side, doesn’t that mean God must be against others? Bishop Will Willimon has said that in the days after 9/11 America missed a great spiritual opportunity. In our need to respond to our hurt, we wrapped ourselves in the flag instead of grasping the cross. The Exodus text begins with a “God is on our side!” and we could easily transfer that feeling to Iraq or Afghanistan or terrorism or anywhere else evil lives. But the Hebrews quickly moved on from triumphalism to a celebration of the faithfulness of God, meaning they realized that in the defeat of the Egyptians they were now truly a free people with a future for the first time. They really were no longer tied to their past of oppression and bondage. That reality brought such joy that they danced: The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
Exodus 15 ends with Miriam’s tambourine making joyful sounds to God: “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!” You know what happened next? A few days later the people complained about drinking bitter water. God freshened the water. Then they complained about being hungry. God sent them manna. Then they complained because it was manna every day. As they moved further and further away from the Red Sea, they forgot the faithfulness of God. The people were unchanged by such dramatic events. Eventually they crossed another body of water, the Jordan River, and entered the Promised Land. God delivered on the promise given to Abraham long ago. Over the next centuries the nation of Israel flourished, until it was overrun by other, more powerful nations, and the Israelites lost everything. For generations they lived under bondage, longing for the day when they would return to freedom. They took responsibility for their actions, not blaming God for their sufferings. They hoped for a new day. A future. The Book of Micah was written during such a time. Hear the words of Chapter 4:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.
There are two predominant clichés about 9/11: that America was brought into the global community in a new way, realizing we were not impervious to terrorism, and that we have been changed forever. I wonder how true that is. How much has the life of the average person changed as a result of 9/11? We have more inconveniences to deal with, particularly at the airport, where ID must be presented over and over again. Maybe there’s a lesson there: the ID confirms who we are—our identity. But do we really know who we are? Are we still growing in to God’s vision for us as a people? It took centuries for the Hebrews to realize who they are—and whose they are—and that learning accompanied a tremendous amount of hurt, loss, and anxiety. Maybe 9/11 revealed a hidden need for wholeness in our communities. Maybe the attacks on our country and the subsequent wars revealed a need for the sacred in our national character.
Ten years ago I was a 30 year old Associate Pastor and learned I would soon become a father for the first time. Now I am 40, serving here again, and that kid, James, is a fourth grader. Ten years ago the Oak Lawn staff gathered around a TV in Wyndal’s office to learn more about what was happening in our country. Now that office no longer exists as part of our ongoing renovations. Ten years ago we began conflicts in Afghanistan and later Iraq and our presence is still there. Ten years ago we gathered in this very sacred space, dealt with our grief, fear, anxiety, inadequacy, need for revenge, and came face to face with reality: without the strength of our faith we were utterly powerless. Ten years ago God cried with, and for, us. Just as God cries for human suffering everywhere.
The pain of 9/11 is real and may never go away. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Remembering the pain, even the thoughts of rage, can be a source of healing. Instead of calling for God to be some sort of cosmic bodyguard and defend us from whatever bully is out there, we can call upon God out of our fear and sense of loss to make us a people of hope, peace, and justice. Instead of returning violence for violence, let’s commit to being a nation that shall lead others to “not learn war anymoreNo one shall be afraid. We will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever. As followers of Jesus, the one we call Prince of Peace, we must forgive those who hurt us. How often should I forgive? Just a little bit? Enough to get through the day? Seven times? No. seventy-seven times. And not just a little. On this 10th anniversary of that horrible day, let us remember the 3000 innocent lives that were taken. Let us remember the families who grieve. Let us remember the lives of emergency workers who risked everything to help others. Let us honor those who fight on our behalf in the military and their families. Let us remember all the thousands of lives lost because of the evil intentions of a handful of megalomaniacs. Let us put aside our fear, our hate, and our vengeance. Instead of beating ploughshares into swords, let’s live in to Micah’s vision and beat our swords in ploughshares. Let's build instruments of creation rather than destruction. Instead of asking, “Where were you on September 11?”, meaning 2001, let’s ask: “Where are you today—September 11, 2011?” Let us join with Moses and Miriam and those ancient Israelites, who journeyed into a new freedom while singing and dancing: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will exalt him!” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.