Grappling with Tuesday's Terrorist Attacks

Grappling with Tuesday's Terrorist Attacks

A Sermon for September 16, 2001
The Very Rev'd Thomas C.H. Scott, D. Min.

All of us have been grappling with the events of Tuesday's terrorist attacks. It has reordered every priority in our national life, and dominates conversation everywhere. Each of us is searching for reasons and responses with an energy exceeded only, perhaps, by the dedication of the demolition and rescue workers who search through and clean up the devastation in New York City and Washington, DC. The horror of what we have seen has scarred us. We have joined the community of nations in a new way. We now share some experiences reported by survivors of the great wars in the last century. We no longer believe we are sheltered by our geography, wealth, or power.

We are looking for some way to understand what has happened. In examining my own feelings and listening to and reading many other people's accounts, I liken these events to being the victim of assault and rape. It was an unexpected and total violation at a time when we felt safe and ordinary and were busy about other things. It is this which devastates us as much as the actual death and destruction. Moreover, our experience is not confined to one incident. The assault went on and on throughout Tuesday morning and the evidence is mounting that things could have been worse. Frighteningly, we do not know if we have seen the last of the attacks.

The comprehensive reporting, so necessary to getting the news out, has a double edge. We are all brought close to events that occurred far away, and we are put through them again and again, so that there is a kind of psychic bruising that we have not known before, not even in the days of Vietnam film reports on the evening news or the Gulf War video snippets shown round the clock. There is so much now that we can see and see and see, and what we are looking at are the ruins of great American symbols of power and glory.

We are also beginning to realize that the people who planned the events of Tuesday and those who carried them out were not and are not crazy. That is, these people are not dis-functional denizens of a fantasy land. These people have a cause to which they are committed and a world view which calls for great sacrifice and a religious view that supports their willingness to die for their cause. We make a grave error in dismissing as crazy the ideas that motivated the people who took over the planes. It is easy to say these men were just crazy: easy and wrong. We must summon the courage to see that the hijackers understood themselves to be warriors for a worthy cause and saw us as a great enemy. They have confederates and leaders who even now are reveling in their victory.

So, it is no surprise that our souls are deeply wounded. All of us are feeling the pain and stress in some fashion and we need to acknowledge that and face it appropriately. I want to assure you that everyone on the staff here is ready and willing to talk and to be of help. It appears for now that we are fortunate enough at St. Mark's not to have lost members or any immediate family members or friends. But we all are touched by these events. In many congregations in my former diocese of Newark, there are families fearfully damaged by the terrible events of September 11. As a fire department and rescue team chaplain for 4+ years before coming to St. Mark's, I also feel the loss of hundreds of firefighters quite personally.

There are no easy answers to give to some of the questions I am being asked. The sheer arbitrariness of what kept some people from certain death and put others in harm's way seems to undercut any sense of divine design that we would very much like to find. In preparing for today, I decided that my focus must be on two religious questions: How can a loving God let this horror happen, and what does a faithful person do now?

To begin with: I utterly reject the notion that the attacks and the thwarted attack were somehow an expression of God's judgment upon America, as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said on the 700 Club, Robertson's daily TV show. The God of Jesus Christ, who gave His only begotten Son to be lifted high upon the cross that He might draw all people to Himself, is not a God who destroys people for their faith, their doubts, their liberal politics, their race, their sexuality or the ethical choices they make about abortion. It is an obscene misrepresentation of the teachings of Jesus Christ to even suggest such a thing, especially since we know there are hundreds and hundreds of Muslims and Jews among the dead and missing, as well as those of other faiths or no faith. There were nationals of dozens of countries in those buildings, and, of course, children. To believe Messers Falwell and Robertson is to say that God would outdo Herod's slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. Such talk dirties the faith of the Church and promotes vicious prejudices. I decry all such talk and ask you to do the same.

I further reject the idea that there is any larger, controlling purpose to the fact that some particular people died and some particular people survived. This makes our human worth and our moral freedom a mockery. My oldest friend's sister works in the shadow of the WTC -- but she just happened to have been told on Monday to report at noon on Tuesday instead of the usual 9 am. What spared her, a single person, while a married man with two small children who knew he had only moments to live, got to call home to tell his wife to remember he loved her as death approached? Another person I know of was to have been in a meeting at 9 am in the North Tower of the WTC, but the meeting was moved back shortly before she left to cross town. What calculus saved her and obliterated brave firefighters going up the stairs toward the fire and into danger as fleeing people streamed down and out to safety? Or what of my friend who, a dozen years ago, decided not to manage the legal department of a bond trading firm in the South Tower, but instead to sell real estate in Indianapolis? When I spoke to him yesterday, he was stunned by the outcome of a decision he made long ago that cost him a lot of money in the interim, but ultimately saved his life. Has his preservation been in the works for more than a decade at the expense of the person who took the job he declined?

If these events were not God's will and God did not appoint some people to die and others not, where is God in events like this? Some will say this proves God is either powerless or a sadist. In either case, not worthy of our attention. Such sweeping statements have a certain appeal to some who are bowed with grief and rage. But that is not the Christian affirmation we make. We say something even harder to accept at times like this, but is something we can believe, take strength from and build on and live with and which will stand the test of time: God allows us our freedom and stays with us actively, but not overwhelmingly, inviting us to choose moment to moment the way of peace, community, and compassion in the name of our creator.

What the terrible events of Tuesday tell us is not new: life is fragile, fleeting, uncertain. Think of it! No one but the hijackers woke up on Tuesday knowing they would die that day. No one could say why some would live and some would die, and no one could have predicted some of what we know happened.

If, then, life is fragile, what is the meaning of it? If life has a gossamer quality to it, what value then do we place on it? Is life precious, each day a gift to be treasured? Or is it of no importance, a meaningless phenomenon to do with as we wish? If our existence is tenuous and transient, how does God have any way to work in it? Was Macbeth right to say, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

This view is compelling for many, but wrong -- it is compelling because it is forthright and sweeping in its judgment, but it is wrong because it focuses on only a part of the evidence and draws a false conclusion. Yes, people can make terrible things happen, and we have seen it again in the events of last Tuesday as we have throughout history; and let us not forget in the midst of our own shock and grief the horrors of the last century, which beggar even our present circumstance. Nor let us fail to recall that people make great and good things happen, too.

Christians teach and believe that we are made free, free to do evil if we will and to do good if we choose. God is in our midst now as the continuing Spirit, just as God was once among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ to strengthen and uphold us in choosing the next right thing to do in every moment of our lives. If evil may have its witnesses and purpose, so does God. Part of the very meaning and purpose of human life is found in choosing the good and opposing evil wherever we may find it. The testimony to the holy things of love, compassion and courage we know abounded in those hellish moments when mass murder was unfolding outweighs the evil of that day and brought glory out before us. There were those whose deaths were utterly unseen; a flash of circumstance and they were gone. God has taken them up, they are not lost. Others had time to know they had no more than moments to call loved ones to say those simple words, others had time to chose to stay and die with a paraplegic coworker who would otherwise die alone. God has received them. Then there were those who gave their lives in their plane over Pennsylvania that others might live. It took years to turn 19 men into suicidal soldiers for their cause, it took only a moment of opportunity to turn ordinary people unknown to one another into a band of self-sacrificing comrades. They thwarted a long planned secret purpose through that democratic mechanism of modern culture that no one has despised this week -- the cell phone -- doing what Jesus said of himself in John's Gospel, "I lay down my life, no one takes it from me". God has welcomed them. As the book of Revelation says to us:

"Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come? I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7:13-17) I know the area where the plane was driven into the earth by its passengers so that it would not be used as a weapon. I have driven through that part of Pennsylvania more times than I can count. I have served congregations in that region. It is a high, wooded plain with good farm land amid the oldest mountains in the world. It is beautiful and peaceful there. It is a good place to die for the sake of others, and a fitting place to make a memorial to remember them. And it was just on the eastern side of those mountains that Abraham Lincoln said all of this much better than I long ago:

"In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, ‘we cannot hallow this ground. The brave (ones) who struggled here, have consecrated it, far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it cannot forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us the living to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us." (Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863)

There is a great task remaining before us. It is to choose life as it is, a gift with possibilities that give us power to chose how we will live each day. We can treasure each new day granted to us, showing and saying the love we have for others, giving ourselves to our callings and our possibilities, accepting our challenges and our duties. Just as there is a great work for us each to do, so also we have a teacher, companion and guide who has gone before us and now walks along with us in all the moments of our lives. We must not hold back from life, we must not withdraw from the deepest engagement with one another and the fullest exploration of our talents and capabilities. That would be to say that because life is fragile it is futile. We do not say so about the flowers that we nurture in our gardens; how can we say it about ourselves?

Where do we find the encouragement and hope for this? One place is history. Human beings have endured worse from ourselves and have triumphed over it. Another place is in the courage and capacity to make life meaningful shown in a moment of decision over and over again as death approached so many people. If we look, we shall see that sacrificial love was everywhere, courage was on broad parade. We have much to be grateful for and a great legacy of trust to live up to that was given us by people who were willing to die to stop the terrorist plot, who helped those around them at peril to themselves, who stayed with the disabled or the injured so that they would not be abandoned to die alone, who are digging in the streets now, who are working to rebuild financial markets and shore up our nation's industries and to protect us all from more horror. It is not enough to say we must have courage and persistence and focus--the terrorists, in their way, had all of these things. It is our commitment to the work of Christ as the reconciler, the peace-maker, the community builder who calls us onward.

So I grieve for our losses but I am not despondent nor uncertain about the future. The Lord's presence is palpable in our midst, leading us into the days ahead as witnesses to God's purposes now if we choose. And we have the gospel as our guide and comfort.

John wrote, as though for our day, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word ws with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

So may we have light within us and shine in our generation. Amen.


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