Time after Pentecost #24 (A)
September 11, 2001. It seems hard to believe, but it was exactly ten years ago today that our nation suffered the worst attack in its history. Ten years ago – manyamong us who are children and young teenagers either were not born yet or were too young to remember the day – but they certainly have been and are being shaped by what happened then. And the rest of us – those who are age fifteen and older – we will never forget the shock and horror that we felt on that day as we viewed images of planes being flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City – of people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames – and then of seeing the towers crashing to the ground into a heap of twisted steel and rubble. We remember seeing the Pentagon burning after a plane was crashed into it, and then hearing about the crash of United Airlines Flight #93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Yes, we will always remember the destructive “pillars of fire and cloud” of September 11, 2001 – symbols of an all-consuming hatred and evil that we are still struggling to understand and comprehend.
But where is God in all this? Where have we seen the power of God at work, as the Israelites did in a very different “pillar of fire and cloud” in today’s first reading? Are we able to forgive those who hate and hurt us? As we look for answers, perhaps today’s scripture readings can give us some guidance.
Today’s first scripture reading from Exodus 14 reports: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from into front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel.”(Ex. 14:19-20)
The power of God seems obvious in today’s first reading. God was powerfully present with the Israelite army, and he divided the waters of the sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground. Then in the middle of the Red Sea the LORD clogged the chariot wheels of the pursuing Egyptian forces – and finally, the LORD told Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea so that the waters would come back and drown their oppressors. And, as we heard, not one of them remained. The next day the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Yes, all the people saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians – and so they feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
But where was God’s power on 9/11 and afterwards? There certainly does not seem to have been any spectacular intervention and defining victory that God has wrought for us since that day. Ten years later, our world is still a fearful place. We know that there are still many who wish to do us harm.
But perhaps God’s power is being manifested in a different way. In it’s most profound sense, God’s power does not consist of his destroying the people who do evil. God’s greatest power is rather shown when we choose to forgive instead of seeking vengeance –just as Jesus did when he was nailed to the cross. And when the world sees this in action, it can be a powerful lesson – especially now in our post 9/11 world.
On September 16, 2001, the Sunday immediately after the terrorist attacks, I said the following in my sermon: “We need to know who our ultimate enemy is so that we do not succumb to his wiles. The greatest danger that our nation faces right now is not that we will suffer additional terrorist attacks, but rather that we will end up responding in the ways that the devil wants us to – and thus let ourselves be consumed by fear, prejudice, hatred, and despair. If we succumb to these emotions, the devil will win even if the terrorists and their organizations are destroyed.”
Ten years later, I still stand by what I said – and I am afraid that in a number of ways we as a nation have succumbed to and acted upon those emotions. But if God is to possibly bring about any good from the hatred and evil that was manifested on September 11, 2001 – it must come about through our willingness to forgive our enemies, and to seek justice and peace and reconciliation with all people – even with those who hate us.
In the midst of World War 2, the Russian philosopher Semyon Frank wrote in his notebook: “In this terrifying war, in the inhuman chaos which reigns in the world, the one who first starts to forgive will in the end be victorious.”
This seemed to be incredibly idealistic at the time, with bombs falling and millions dying, but in the end his words came true. At the close of the war, some members of the Allied camp wanted to pursue revenge against Germany, but others remembered how the punitive nature of the Versailles treaty after the First World War had created bitterness, and led to the rise of the Nazi party. So, instead of pursuing revenge, the Allies worked for reconciliation. Aid was given to help redevelop the economy of West Germany. And because the focus was on reconciliation, age-old enemies became friends – and that friendship has endured to the present day.
We know that there is a lot of evil in the world – and the events of 9/11 ten years ago is certainly evidence of that. And that evil is not going to go away anytime soon. Even the Israelites found that out after the destruction of the Egyptian army in today’s first reading – there were plenty of other “bad people” whom they soon encountered. And there was also plenty of evil within their midst as well.
But through it all, God was still with them – leading them by the pillar of fire and cloud. And likewise, God is still with us even during and after the events of 9/11/2001 – leading us by the cross of Jesus Christ.
And through that cross, God is showing his power – and his love – when he helps us to forgive as Jesus did. Even when people hate and hurt each other. Even when they may fly planes into buildings and kill hundreds and thousands of innocent people.
Yes, 9/11 is a day in history that we will always remember. But for us as Christians, it is not the day that ultimately defines us. For us as Christians, the most important day of days is Easter – when Jesus Christ triumphed over death and the grave and over all the forces of evil. Not by seeking vengeance, but solely by trusting in the love and power and forgiveness of God.
And so today we remember the horror and the evil of September 11, 2001 – but we also continue to pray that God’s kingdom will come. May it come to us and come to the world through us as we love, forgive, reconcile, and heal. For that is the power of God working through the cross that leads us. So may it be – in Jesus’ name. Amen!
Pastor George Karres
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270