Contemplative Life

Choosing the Redemptive Response: A Sermon in the Wake of 9/11

This is the transcript of a sermon delivered to the Kairos Community at The Falls Church Anglican on September 23rd, 2001.

We’ll always remember where we were when we first heard the news.    The World Trade Center was hit by an airplane.  The other World Trade Center was just hit.   The Pentagon was hit by a plane.  The Trade Center collapsed.  A plane went down in Pennsylvania.  The other World Trade Center just imploded.  And everything stopped.

In an hour and a half, everything that didn’t matter simply stopped.   Sports, work, business, the stock market, normal TV programs, shopping, movies, airline travel… It all simply stopped, and we did the important things.  We contacted our loved ones and stayed with our communities, we cried, we prayed to God, and we started looking for something redemptive to do.  For a few days, everything that didn’t matter was made clear.  That which remained was vindicated to be all-important.  The only things left standing were the things that mattered most.

It is natural to ask when we will be able to return to our “normal lives.”  But I wonder what opportunity we’re missing to reorient our lives to the things that matter most.

It is a time of upheaval and tumult.  The greatest questions the human race can ask are on many minds.  

Where was God on September 11?  Why did he allow this to happen?
Does what I’m doing with my life matter?
What do I actually believe?
Why is there such evil in the world?
Why would anyone do such a thing?
What cultivates the kind of heroism and character displayed by so many New Yorkers and others?
How can justice be accomplished?
What is justice anyway?
Am I safe?
How vulnerable is America?  

Many people are asking how America can exact revenge against those responsible and ensure that it never happens again.  Thoughtful Christians are asking some of these same questions and I hope a few more.   

How does the justice we seek now include the broader pursuit of justice like protecting the human rights and religious freedom of all people, and providing what humans need for basic survival?
How much is anger a part of my own response?
Are there any non-violent responses to this situation?
What is Biblical pacifism, what is Just War theory, and what do I believe?
How can I mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those in pain?
What does it mean when Jesus calls me to be a peace-maker?
Why did America ever think we were exempt from the fear of threat that millions experience every day?
How have we forgotten the suffering of the world that leads to such desperation?
How can I be an agent of redemption?
What is my social responsibility as America goes to war?   

I hope we are asking this ultimate question for the follower of Jesus, with our eyes set firmly on him, what would love do?   We should be asking, in silence and deep reflection, what is God saying to our country in this time?  

It is important to be wrestling with these questions.  It’s been decades since many Americans asked them.  But now, our answers are tremendously relevant according to our sphere of responsibility.  Our answers directly impact how we will conduct our lives and relationships and how we respond when we’ve been wronged.  Our answers will dictate how we lead our families and communities.  Our answers will impact our conversations with others and what they end up thinking.  Those on Capitol Hill and in the military must wrestle with these questions, as do those who occupy the highest positions of power in our land.  Right now a window is open, for who knows how long, to ask these questions, find answers, and make decisions that will fundamentally set the tone of our lives.

It truly is a kairos moment, a profound moment of reckoning and decision.  For the next few months, millions of Americans will be making decisions about how they are going to live their lives in light of 9/11.  

There are at least three choices.   The first choice is to get back to normalcy– to be content with sports, TV, shopping, and taking care of my own needs.  This normalcy is to live and pursue the American dream as we’ve inherited it.  This is the choice I am afraid most people will make.   

The second choice is worse, to become consumed with anger and rage that not only finds itself directed at those who are different but at any who hurt me in the future.  It is the choice of revenge, and revenge is never satisfied in a world where hurt is inevitable.   

The third response is redemptive.  The redemptive response is to know God more deeply and follow God more closely.  It is to choose, from this day out, to follow Jesus for the first time or walk with him more intimately than ever before.  This road calls those who are on it to live their lives for the sake of other people.  It is to live sacrificially for the benefit of those around us.  It is to live with eyes wide open to the reality that was revealed on 9/11—that there is evil in the world, but love is stronger than hate.  It is to live like Jesus, willing to suffer and unafraid of those who endanger us.  It is to be an agent of God’s grace in a very broken world that bleeds and heal the wounds that surround us every day.

What life will you lead after Tuesday?  Normalcy, revenge, or redemption?

The redemptive response to Tuesday’s horror requires that we search the Scripture more earnestly than we have for a long time in hope of gaining guidance for a Christ-like reaction in these days.  So many voices are calling for so many actions… which ones are right?  Which ones will stop the cycles of hatred?  These are days when we must read the Bible closely to see what it actually is saying, and then pray for the grace to respond in kind to God’s guidance.

Several months ago, Romans 12 was chosen as the passage for tonight.  God wanted us to be looking at this chapter tonight.  And so we will.  There are many ways we are urged to live, and we will look at only three of them.

Paul urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.    

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship…” (Rom 12:1) 

How ironic that we should be given 19 twisted and vibrant illlustrations of this verse.  While there is so much to be reviled in the actions of the hijackers, there is one question they force us to ask.  How much am I willing to sacrifice for what I believe?  While the God of the Bible never calls people to sacrifice themselves for an evil cause, he does call us to give our lives completely to him to be used for good.  Mother Teresa used to say, “I am just a pencil in the hand of God,” writing love notes to the world.  God takes our very bodies– our hands and feet and hearts and heads– and he uses them to bring light to places of darkness and grace to places of deep despair.   

Jesus came into the world to intentionally confront the effects of the Fall, to take on the suffering of the world upon himself, and by the power of God redeem it, his body being a conduit of God’s grace and the revelation of his character.  And that is the clear calling of the true Christian.  

As followers of Jesus and his very body on earth, we too are to intentionally confront the effects of the fall, take on the suffering of the world upon ourselves, and by the power of God redeem it, our very bodies being a conduit of God’s grace and the revelation of his character.  This is what it means to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, to allow the spirit of Jesus to inhabit our flesh so that we can be the incarnation of the Incarnation and give our lives for others.  Figuratively, we do this every day.  Sometimes, the opportunity comes to give our lives for others literally.

The name Todd Beamer has become famous as the name of a hero.  I hope that in the popular mind his heroism is connected to his faith in Jesus, which was present all the way back in junior high, when we were friends and teammates at Wheaton Christian Grammar School.  Back then, he was the kind of guy that a guy like me would hope to be like- good looking, athletic, but still kind and genuine, just a good guy with a real junior high kind of faith.  His faith obviously became mature.  

On Tuesday, Todd was on the flight that went down in Pennsylvania.  He was one of the men who fought the hijackers and ensured that the plane would go into the ground and not into another building in Washington DC.  Todd spoke to an operator for 15 minutes from an air phone, giving his love and last words to his wife and boys.  Then he said the Lord’s Prayer, asked Jesus to be with him, and laid down his life.

Todd had long ago given his life to Jesus.  On September 11th, he gave his life again, perhaps for some of us.  God wants to use us in the world.  How much am I willing to sacrifice?  What kind of hero will I be?  True heroism is to be a living sacrifice for God, day after day laying down our lives for those around us.  May none of us ever have to face that literally, but someday, some of us might.

Paul urges us toBless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another.”  (Rom 12:14-16)

I want to focus on mourning.  I would guess, and the number is probably low, that at least 75,000 people directly lost a loved one on September 11.  There is so much pain, so much grief.  Our tendency is to want to run away from it, to get over it.  But for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, they cannot run away, and will not get over this for years, if ever.  We must continue to grieve as long as there is grief surrounding us.  Mourning with those who mourn far from us looks like praying for God to bring comfort and peace to them.  Let us not forget too quickly in our prayers that there are so many who will be hurting for so very long.  Our job as people who have access to God through Christ is to use that access to bring comfort to others through his answers to our prayer. 

The pain we feel because of Tuesday has dropped the blinders from our eyes about the presence of pain in the world.  Every day about 30,000 children die around the world from starvation.  Every day thousands of people die from preventable illnesses.  Oh, there is pain and grief in the world!  9/11 gives us an opportunity to remember that, and to mourn with the millions who mourn.  As we go to war, thousands and thousands of innocents in Afghanistan, who are already struggling, will plunge deeper into a grief that has been present for decades.  We must not forget them.   

I’m not suggesting we wear a black veil around our hearts every moment, but I am suggesting that part of the redemptive response to 9/11 is to feel the pain of the victims and the world so that we can pray.  As we have seen around our country, there is nothing like grief to put us on our knees in the presence of God.  If we can remember that there are many who are in mourning every day, we will be quicker to pray on their behalf, for we too have felt their pain.

Finally, Paul, who was beaten and beheaded in Rome urges us to leave revenge for God. 

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  (Rom 12:17-19)

There is a phrase, “blind rage.”  Rage clouds one’s mind and makes clear thinking impossible.  Afghanistan is not Pakistan, but revenge doesn’t make that distinction.  You may have heard of the man in California who was arrested for beating a Pakistani.  He was led away shouting “But I’m doing it for my country!!”  9/11 was the most violent day America has ever seen.  More American lives were lost that day than in the American Revolution, War of 1812, Antietam, Pearl Harbor, and D-Day.  But will equal violence in return bring redemption?   

Martin Luther King, Jr., a victim of so much abuse and the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom, said so well in his day and so prophetically for our own, 

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.  Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.  In fact, violence merely increases hate… Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

So we cry out not for revenge, but for justice.  Justice is to appropriately punish wrong and to make things right.  In matters like 9/11, true justice can only be carried out by God.  This is the weakness of the term, “Operation Infinite Justice,” which I trust will be changed soon.  How could the death of one man, or ten men, or one hundred, somehow pay for the lives of over six thousand and the untold grief that has been unleashed?   How will that be made actually right?   Will the death of more innocent people bring justice?  Will even the death of the guilty make things right?  God’s promise to repay evil what it deserves is not an escapist thought but a comforting promise.  Those responsible for the attack on America will be punished, incompletely in this life and in the life to come, absolutely.

That is not to say that there ought not to be any strong response to those who did this crime or others who are plotting the same.  In the following chapter Romans 13, Paul goes on to say in vv 1-4 “The authorities that exist have been established by God… [The one in authority] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”  God has instituted government so that people can live in peace and protection, to administer justice and to punish wrong.

So at this time, as the American war machine is revving up into high gear, I believe that we ought to pursue those who committed this crime, and take them into custody even if it is costly.  If they do not come willingly, then they have chosen to be taken by force.  Highest regard needs to be placed on ensuring that more innocent lives are not lost in the pursuit.  I’m hoping and praying that President Bush and his cabinet will rightly balance strength and restraint over these next years.  I’m praying that they will see themselves more as surgeons than butchers.  And I’m praying for justice to be done– not only justice in this situation, but justice in the world. 

If war is necessary, then at the same time we must wage compassion.    If we are concerned about justice for us, we must be concerned about justice for all.  If we use our power to defend ourselves, we must be quick to use it to defend those who have no power at all. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:20-21)  Would America be so hated by so many if we gave more that 0.5% of our annual budget to foreign humanitarian aid?

So what do we do on Sunday, September 23, and Monday, September 24, and in the days, months, and years ahead?

Alone, with God, and in community, we must wrestle with the questions that are facing us.  We can be content with neither our natural response, pat answers, or the paralysis of analysis.  Rather, we must pray and read and think until we have strong and deep and discerned answers to the questions of this new day.  

I plead with you to choose a redemptive response to Tuesday’s tragedy.   Succumb neither to normalcy or revenge, but take this kairos moment as the opportunity that it is, to choose your life, a life that matters.   We never know what day our life will end, and when it does, we want to be able to look back and say, “Throughout my days I brought God’s grace to a broken world.”  Get involved with the hurting world, whether in Falls Church, DC, or somewhere in the world.  Spend your money on things that have lasting value.

Let us consider our lives as a living sacrifice to Jesus, day in and day out, being willing to lay down our lives for other people as Jesus did.  This manifests itself in the little things—being willing to forgive when we’ve been hurt, asking awkward questions when you know someone is in pain, being available to a friend in need when your schedule is full, sharing Christ with someone who needs him.  The list of a sacrificial lifestyle is long.  The ability to offer the ultimate sacrifice is built on a foundation of a thousand little sacrifices made with Christ in view.

Remember those who mourn, and let us mourn with them.  Let’s all try to read the newspaper and not put it down until we’ve taken a moment to pray for God to comfort the hurting people we’ve read about.  Let’s not turn off the news until we’ve asked God to bring comfort.

Let us pursue and encourage justice in the broadest possible terms.  Right now, I think that means simply raising the idea of what true justice is in our conversations.  Our conversations amongst friends, in our workplace, and with leaders need to turn from “Justice for the attack on America” to “Justice for the inequities of the world”.

And finally, brothers and sisters, let us pray.  Let us keep praying for our leaders, let us keep praying for our enemies, let us keep praying “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” and may God use us, even us, to answer that prayer.

Let us close together with the prayer our Lord Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, 
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, 
for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.

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