A sermon preached on September 11th, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, based upon 2Corinthians 5: 16-21.
It is often said that the events of September 11th, 2001 changed everything. And from the point of view of our identity as Americans, that is certainly true. Since the Civil War, with the possible exception of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, we had not known until that day violence and bloodshed any where near as horrifying within our mainland. Our sense of personal security and safety will never be the same.
But one of the things that 9/11 does for us is to challenge us to clarify our deepest identities. We are Americans, yes, citizens of a great nation, with much to be proud of, with freedoms not enjoyed by the vast majority of people on this earth. But we who gather here in this building on Sunday morning also have another identity to contend with: our Christian identity. We may strongly identify ourselves as Christians, or we may be here more intentionally as “seekers”, contemplating this identity. But the Christian identity is not the same as our identity as Americans, though these two identities are often seen as going hand in hand.
As Americans every thing changed on September 11th. But as Christians, September 11th didn’t really change anything. The truths that were seen in the horror of that day were already apart of our Biblical faith, if we were paying attention.
What do I mean?
Well, what did the events of 9/11 reveal about human nature?
That we human beings are capable of great violence? That the innocent oftentimes suffer violence that they do not deserve? This is nothing new. It’s there in Cain slaying Abel. It’s there in the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s there in hundreds, perhaps thousands of other passages elsewhere throughout the Bible.
What else did 9/11 reveal about human beings?
That human beings compulsively stereotype other human beings, whether it be Islamic terrorists stereotyping Americans, or Americans stereotyping Moslems? Yep. That’s in the Bible too.
That human beings can turn religion into something that divides rather than unites – something that gives an unholy blessing to violence? Yep. That’s in the Bible too.
That we human beings typically live our lives on a very superficial level, taking for granted our lives and what we cherish most deeply, and that we chronically turn our attention to things that don’t really matter? Yep. That’s in the Bible too.
These are all aspects of what the Bible refers to when it speaks of sin, a destructive power that in various ways darkens the heart of every human being, expressed in that original story of the fall of Adam and Eve.
But the darkness of our hearts wasn’t the only thing that 9/11 revealed. It also revealed a profound capacity for good in countless people:
In the sacrificial love and courage of firefighters and policeman and countless other ordinary citizens… Of the generosity that is waiting within our souls (seen again, recently in the outpouring of concern following the recent floods.)… In the compassionate solidarity of grief that was seen not just in this country but in countries all over the world in the days following the terrible events of 9/11.
But this too, was nothing new in terms of our Biblical faith. Even as we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve who live in bondage to the power of sin, we are also – each one of us, creations of a loving God who made us in God’s own image and likeness.
We are paradoxical creatures, and so neither the evil nor the good of which we are capable should surprise us, if we have been paying attention to our Biblical faith.
So in a certain sense, from the standpoint of a Christian identity, nothing has changed. The world has seen it all before.
Well, if nothing truly new was revealed about human nature through the events of 9/11, was there something new revealed about the nature of God?
For many people, God took a serious beating when the planes crashed, their view of God permanently changed. Where were you, God? How could you let this happen?
Once again, if we had been paying attention to our Biblical faith, this sentiment is nothing new. It’s there in the psalms; it’s there in the prophets; it’s there in Job. And its especially there in Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Dr. Ernest Gordon was for many years the dean of the chapel at Princeton, but was more famous because of the book he wrote about his captivity on the River Kwai during World War II. In that Japanese prison camp, Ernest Gordon said that he and his fellow British who were captives were initially very religious, reading their Bibles, praying, singing hymns, witness and testifying to their faith, and hoping and expecting that God would reward them and fortify them for their faith by freeing them or at least mitigating their captivity. God didn’t deliver, however, and the men became both disillusioned and angry, and some even faithless.
They gave up on on the outer display of their faith; but after a while, Gordon says, the men, responding to the needs of their fellows—caring for them, protecting the weaker ones, and in some cases dying for one another, began to discern something of a spirit of God in their midst.
And they began paying attention to parts of the Bible they had overlooked.
That God was born among homeless refugees, in the midst of violence. Of Jesus saying things like, “When you’ve done it to one of the least of my brothers or sisters – you’ve done it unto me.” And indeed to the central mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.
For some, at least, the faith returned, on a deeper level, though less ostentatious level.
They discovered that their vulnerability was here to stay, but that in living out compassion, they could rise above their insecurities.
In terms of a Christian identity, nothing really changed on 9/11. From a Christian point of view, the world was inalterably changed two thousand years ago in the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
So we who are here this morning finding ourselves to some extent with at least two identities to contend with: that of being Americans and that of being Christians. Oftentimes the two can go hand in hand. More often than not, being a good citizen and being a good Christian lead us in similar directions.
But at certain points the paths these two identities take us on diverge. And we who are here today are compelled to ask ourselves, at that point, which path will we take?
There is this place in the Gospel of John where Jesus has been teaching and the things he’s been saying have been too hard too swallow – indeed, too demanding — for a majority of his listeners. The great crowds that had been following Jesus to hear him speak have dwindled away. A point is reached where the only ones left are the twelve disciples.
Jesus asks them, wondering perhaps whether he will be left completely alone, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-7)
It is hard for us to remember that Jesus did not come to make us safe, but rather he came to make us disciples. If we would follow him, he says, it means taking up a cross.
The Apostle Paul got this.
Christ, he realized, died not just for some, but for all persons. And if we are following this same Christ, then like it or not, every human being becomes precious. Not just our kind of human beings. Not just Americans. Not just Christians. Jesus considered every human being worth dying for.
So, says Paul in this morning’s lesson:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”
If we are in Christ, Paul says, we witness a new creation, a redeemed creation. For the most part, it is not a creation that the world has managed to embrace, but it is a creation that already exists in heaven, and which God intends to make one day exist here on earth.
If we are Christians, followers of Jesus, it is the new creation and not the old creation that will define us and shape our interactions with other human beings.
The old creation is one where might makes right, and it’s us against them, and never forget a trespass committed against us, but that’s not the way things function in the new creation.
“In Christ,” Paul declares, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” If following Christ gives us our deepest identity, then for us, this is the event that changed everything. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” We are “ambassadors of Christ.”
Embracing this identity over other identities isn’t easy. It is natural to prefer the way of the world. Who wants to get themselves crucified? It is quite understandable that we might turn away when Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you and forgive because they know not what they do.
So, the events of September 11th force us, in the end, to ask, who am I following?
If we choose to have our loyalty to our country come before our loyalty to Jesus, for the sake of honesty we shouldn’t call ourselves Christians. Not yet. Maybe we will yet come to a place on our journey where this becomes possible.
But if we can look from the viewpoint of the new creation groaning in travail to be born among us, we will hear Jesus calling to us in the events of September 11th. He weeps for those who died, and for those who continue to grieve, who continue to have their dreams tormented by what they experienced. He weeps for them just as he weeps for the thirty thousand human beings who die each day in this world from starvation, and for all the people who grieve on this earth for loved ones lost in wars.
If we’re seeing with the eyes of Jesus, all of this gets tied together for us. And together we wait for the hope of the resurrection – the new creation – to be fulfilled.