“Where were you on September 11?” Christy and I were in our apartment on Henderson Avenue getting ready for work. We were watching the Today show. 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 to Oak Lawn near downtown Dallas, 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. That newly announced fetus is now the starting left tackle on the Sherman Bearcats freshman team.
When I arrived at the church, 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 our 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. The Music Director 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.
The two texts this morning speak to the character of God. The first, from Exodus 32, is a scene in the wilderness, following the Israelite's escape from Egypt. They have arrived at the mountain of God, where in Chapter 20 they received the Ten Commandments. The commandments are the foundation for a covenant relationship between God and God's people. The next eleven chapters are details of how the people will live out this covenant. In the meantime, Moses has climbed the mountain to be with God. The people, down in the valley, become restless without their leader. They say to Aaron, Moses' brother,:
People: "Hey, this guy who brought us out of Egypt.. we don't know what has become of him. Make for us a god, who will lead us."
Aaron: "OK. Bring me your shiny stuff."
The people bring their jewelry and give it to Aaron, who melts it down and forms a golden calf. Then the people say, "THIS is the god who brought us out of Egypt, and who will go before us!"
God is listening.
And is furious.
God says to Moses, "This people, whom YOU brought of Egypt, have done this terrible thing. I will destroy them and start over with you."
Moses, shocked: "No, this is YOUR PEOPLE, whom YOU brought up out of Egypt"-- he doesn't want them either-- "But do not destroy them. Remember the covenant you made with their ancestors to be their God and bring them to their own land."
And God changes God's mind.
In the parables, Jesus speaks of a lost sheep and a lost coin. A shepherd has 100 sheep in the flock. One gets lost in the wilderness. He leaves the 99 in order to find the one, and returns, carrying it on his shoulders. And there is a celebration. "Such is the celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents." A woman tears her house apart, looking for one coin in ten that is lost. When she kinds it she calls all of her friends and neighbors, throws a party, which probably cost more than the value of the coin, and there is a celebration. "Such is the celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents."
Following those attacks, many Christian leaders tried to explain what had happened. They blamed people they considered sinful, and decided God was punishing America for its sinfulness. Homosexuality, whatever. Wait-- haven't these people even read the Bible? Do they even know the character of God? Yes, God's anger burns against the Israelites in the wilderness, but God does not destroy them. God forgives. It is fundamental to God's character to be merciful. The parables tell us of the celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents. God does not punish or destroy. God forgives and offers grace. God saves. Jesus came to the world to offer salvation, not judgment. Here's the thing: scripture affirms that all of humanity is broken and in need of forgiving grace. It's not good people vs bad people thing. We all need mercy. And God celebrates when we accept it.
After 9/11 we responded with war-- in Afghanistan, still raging fifteen years later; and in Iraq, which has descended into chaos and given rise to ISIS or ISIL, whatever you want to call it. A Recent Pew research poll showed that Americans are more afraid of terrorism today than they were after 9/11. 40% of us are afraid for another attack. It's a major issue in the presidential campaign. I am offering this reflection on the character of God to remind each of us that God is merciful and just. Whatever evil we face, God's grace is stronger. The best response to bad theology is good theology.
So let us remember the nature of God, which is to forgive and offer grace. Let us remember the nature of humanity, which is broken and in need of mercy. And as people of faith who are experiencing the life saving grace of God, live your lives as those who are not afraid, who do not return evil for evil. Today we remember those lives taken fifteen years ago, as well as those who are grieving or suffering from related illness. And we give thanks to God, who offers us faith to overcome any challenge we face. Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.--