A week ago no one among us could have predicted what an extraordinary week this would be. Tuesday's terrorist attack on New York City and Washington D.C. has sent repercussions both around the world and into our local community and homes -- indeed, into our very souls and consciences. I doubt there are many people here today who have not felt some effect from these tragic and incomprehensible events.
I had planned to preach today on selections from the book of Hosea, in the first of three sermons on Old Testament prophets this Fall, one sermon each month. As this week progressed, I sensed the Spirit directing me to other themes than what I had originally envisioned for today's sermon. However, I do believe the Biblical prophets speak God's word for us in times like this. They proclaimed judgment and hope in the midst of national and international events, addressing political, religious, and social issues relevant to their day. Today, I believe Hosea would speak to us of righteousness and idolatry. He would declare God's hot anger against individuals who plot mass-destruction and against nations that wield control through military force and economic power:
Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-14)
Hosea would also speak to us of God's passionate and tender love for hurting people, using metaphors of human relationship -- a husband's love for a wife, and a parent's love for a child -- to describe the covenant relationship of God with the people:
I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:18-20)
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.... How can I give you up, Ephraim,? How can I hand you over, O Israel?... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11:3-4, 8-9)
God's judgment and mercy are likely themes that will weave their way through our conversations in the coming weeks, as we seek to sort out what we are experiencing and what faithful living means in our context. But, instead of delving further into Hosea, I want to reflect back on the meaning of this week, as well as other words of scripture.
As the week unfolded, so did the focus of the news and our reactions to it:
First came shock and horror, denial and disbelief, a certain numbness and panicked confusion. Soon came an urgent concern for victims, emergency medical care, searching for survivors, protecting the living with heightened security measures. Next, questions arose: Who committed this atrocity? What exactly happened? How could it happen? Why did it happen? Meanwhile, we are impacted in ways beyond our choosing: mesmerized and overwhelmed by a relentless flow of news; anxious about family members, co-workers and friends who have connections to the destroyed buildings or are stranded in their travels, or -- worse yet -- who have lost their lives. We find ourselves disoriented in the midst of daily routines which suddenly seem trivial, yet are comforting in their normalcy; we are drawn towards gatherings, prayer vigils, conversations, shared moments of silence -- ways to acknowledge our need for God and for each other. A number of you participated in prayer services held here Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (I apologize for those of you who did not hear about these occasions in the very short time we had to get the word out).
It is now Sunday -- five long days since the attack -- and we are beginning to gain enough perspective to consider the significance of this event and what a faithful response might entail. I pondered the role of faith in our current context as I watched the religious service held in the national cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Friday, the day President Bush declared as a National Day of Mourning and Prayer. The service was a poignant and powerful experience for many, an important moment in the process of national mourning. One of the readings in that service was the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
God promises comfort for all who suffer, and this most certainly includes victims of last week's attack. As people of faith, we are compelled to show compassion for those who face enormous grief and loss. This is a time to join our community in solidarity and acts of caring. Let this also be a reminder that people all over the nation and the world suffer terror daily -- the terror of military occupation and the threat of military attack, extreme poverty and hunger, AIDS, environmental hazards. Does our compassion reach to them? Or does it take a crisis on American soil to activate sacrificial acts of caring? If God's blessing is reserved only for American victims of terrorism, then nationalism has replaced true compassion.
In the service at the national cathedral, religious and national symbols blurred together in subtle but powerful ways: The 23rd Psalm sung by a children's choir while images of the American flag were shown... Military and government leaders mouthing the words of the Lord's Prayer as it was sung... The hymn A mighty fortress is our God, accompanied by photos of the Pentagon, now scarred and damaged, and the rubble heap that once was the World Trade Center. What is the meaning in all this? We need conversation about national values and priorities, about the meaning of faith, worship, and symbols in post-modern culture. This is a time to once again clarify the relationship between church and state -- which, for Anabaptist Christians, is surely the separation between church and state. It is a time to declare our allegiance to God who loves people of all nations equally, and our commitment to the church that transcends all national boundaries.
As the nation seeks comfort and order in the midst of chaos, there is a drive to identify and destroy the "enemy" in order to make ourselves feel safer. National leaders have said that Tuesday¹s attack represents a battle between good and evil, and there is no doubt that this massive destruction of life and property was an act of evil. But this does not mean that the United States is therefore morally superior, just because it was attacked. In fact, the very buildings that were destroyed and damaged -- the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- represent affluence and weapons that have also caused poverty, death, and suffering in the world. The line between good and evil runs through every nation, every group of people, and every individual. This is a time to address the root causes of violence, not to perpetuate violence by seeking revenge and retaliation.
If the reading from the Gospel of Matthew had continued in Friday's service at the Cathedral in Washington, D.C., national leaders and millions of TV-watchers around the country would have heard what else Jesus had to say:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.... You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We are far from perfect; and so we have no choice but to fall before God in humility and confession: confession for our participation in institutions and lifestyles that perpetuate suffering, confession for the evil that we harbor in our own hearts, confession for our complacency in the face of violence, confession for our arrogance towards those who believe differently. It is only through such repentance that we will be able to love the world as God does, and to discover God's strength, wisdom and courage for the challenges ahead of us.
Rabbi Michael Lerner has written in response to this week's tragedy:
We should pray for the victims and the families of those who have been hurt or murdered in these crazy acts. Yet we should also pray that America does not return to "business as usual," but rather turns to a period of reflection, coming back into touch with our common humanity, asking ourselves how our institutions can best embody our highest values. We may need a global day of atonement and repentance dedicated to finding a way to turn the direction of our society at every level, a return to the most basic Biblical ideal: that every human life is sacred, that "the bottom line" should be the creation of a world of love and caring, and that the best way to prevent these kinds of acts is not to turn ourselves into a police state, but turn ourselves into a society in which social justice, love, and compassion are so prevalent that violence becomes only a distant memory. (Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN Magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco.)
Our nation stands on the brink of war, ready to meet terrorism with an even greater show of deadly force. May God grant us the grace to meet evil with love, terror with courage, and death with the life we have in Christ.