Service of Remembrance and Peace
9/11 Memorial Service Sermon Transcript
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
September 10, 2006
As a minister, of course, I’ve spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question — the Why question — in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate — and that’s not going to be any different today. But we can’t shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we’ve lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won’t get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need three ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future.
First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God — and you’re right — and you say, “How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?”
But it’s a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” says that if there was no higher divine law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural — the strong eating the weak. And yet somehow, we still feel this isn’t the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I’m not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I’m just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God — for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. Okay, then what will?
Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I’d like to freely acknowledge that every faith — and we are an interfaith gathering today — every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith’s resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I’ve got. When people ask the big question, “Why would God allow this or that to happen?” there are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don’t question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don’t question. The other answer is: I don’t know what God’s up to — I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There’s no way to make any sense of it at all.
Now, I’d like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don’t have the full answer, we do have an idea — an incredibly powerful idea.
One of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to — and involved in — suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.
But it is on the cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock, that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore, the cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Okay, it’s only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength.
And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian scriptures, we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake. … [They] … will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and … like the stars forever and ever.” And in John 11 we hear Jesus say, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones — restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us!
In the year after 9/11, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time, I read about the future resurrection, and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost, and discovering instead that all his friends were around him. He cries out, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer is Yes. And the answer of the Bible is Yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.
Oh, I know many of you are saying, “I wish I could believe that.” And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. 1 John 3:2-3: “Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure.” Even to have a hope in this is purifying.
Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.”
That is strong and that last sentence is particularly strong … but if the resurrection is true, it’s absolutely right. Amen.