(I preached this sermon on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks. In it I said: “Let us not dignify this event with the term ‘war.’ These terrorists are not soldiers, but criminals and murderers and should be dealt with as such by the constitutional processes of sovereign states and international law. What we need here is not revenge, but justice.” I wonder what the world would look like today if our leaders had not thought of it as a war?)
This is the third time I have been called upon to speak this week, to try to put into words what we are thinking and feeling in response to the extraordinary events of last Tuesday. We had an ecumenical service Tuesday evening at First Baptist Church sponsored by the Pittsfield Area Council of Churches, and on Friday we had a service of prayer and mourning at noon here at First Church in response to President Bush’s declaration of that day as a national day of remembrance. I will say today what I have said on both those occasions, that it is good you are here! It is good to be together with our neighbors and fellow citizens at a time like this, and it is good to be quite intentionally in the presence of God in public worship.
To be together in community and before God is a healthy response. Abraham Lincoln once spoke of the “better angels of our nature.” I think being together before God is responding to the better angels of our nature, and it is my fervent prayer that we Americans will continue to respond to what is best in us, as opposed to what is worst.
We have seen extraordinary acts of courage and heroism in these days. But we have also seen acts of cowardice and mean–spiritedness. Since Tuesday New York City firefighters and police have responded to over ninety false alarms and bomb scares a day in contrast to the typical seven. Throughout our country mosques have been stoned and vandalized. Our Arab–American neighbors fear for their security and safety.
It is often true in history that evil begets evil, and I worry about that now. Hate can spawn more hate. A time such as this is a critical time for us all, individually and as a nation. It is, among other things, a holy time, in that it is a time when we can be in touch with what is deepest and most abiding in our lives. We are at a tipping point that can determine both the path and the direction we will go. Billy Graham at the service on Friday at the National Cathedral said that we can either implode as a nation our show strength. I think that is the choice. And I trust as people of faith we will have the resources that can help us choose the good and not the evil, and to be on the side of life and not death.
We have looked evil in the face this week. We have seen the slaughter of innocents in the thousands. As Mayor Guiliani said on Tuesday night, when the death toll is finally counted “it will be more than we can bear.” It is hard to take in the damage that this act of terrorism has caused, and hard as well, to accept the impetus behind it. It is hard to accept that there are people out there who hate us and want to kill us.
I don’t know about you, but I found it difficult to get much done this week. I found myself in a daze. I kept returning again and again to the TV. I was both repulsed and transfixed by the unfolding events. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. How many times have we seen the pictures of that second plane crashing into the World Trade Center? There have been times when I find myself suddenly choked up, or silently weeping. Wednesday night on TV I saw the changing of the guard a Buckingham Palace, and the British military band was playing the Star Spangled Banner. I completely lost it.
So before we do much else, we all have to somehow take in this act of terror, and acknowledge it and the feelings that go with it. It will require some time, but unless we do take time to absorb the shock of it, we will not be able to do what we are called to do next, whatever that is.
Nancy Taylor, our new Conference Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference, wrote to all the clergy on Tuesday. Among her reassuring words were these: “I encourage you to pause in the face of the enormity of what our country and our world is just now trying to comprehend. Take time to talk to each other about your feelings; to share how you will address the events of this day with your children; and to allow yourself to cry, pray, and cling to each other and to the God whose heart was the first to break when the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City . . . and whose heart is breaking still.”
Take time, she says, and she is wise in saying this. I want to tell you how much her new ministry has meant to me this week. I have never met her, but within hours of the first crash, I had from her a thoughtful pastoral letter, with scripture and prayer. She has been a parish minister and brings those good pastoral instincts to her new position. So I share with you what she shared with me, the admonition to take the time to really face what has happened, and to do it in the context of faith, with scripture and prayer as resources. The scripture Nancy Taylor sent me was the 46th Psalm, which I had already been reading. It is one of my favorites.
“God is our refuge and strength,” it begins, and then it goes on to say, that because God is our refuge and our strength, “we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” Well, the earth has changed, the strong towers have fallen, the nations are in an uproar . . . but WE WILL NOT FEAR!
How can we say that? Only faith can say, “We will not fear.” This is not wooly–headed optimism, or denial of harsh reality, but faith. The reality is that the world is a dangerous place, bad things not only do but have happened to innocent people, the ordinary rhythms of life have been shattered by an extraordinary act of evil, and it is not over. So fear is the sane, natural and honest response to such earth–shattering and life–changing events, and we have known fear, and we have felt fear, felt it in our gut along with anger, sadness, and pain.
So how can faith say, “we will not fear?” We can only say “we will not fear,” if we can say “God is our refuge and our strength” Therefore! We will not fear. The setting of Psalm 46 is a world turned upside down:
“Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
This is not just trouble, this is TROUBLE with a capital T. The language of the psalm is the language of cosmic upheaval. The waters are the waters of the firmament above and beneath the earth; they are the primordial waters, the symbol of chaos, the tohu wabohu of nothingness. And the mountains that shake into the heart of the sea are not just any mountains, but the thresholds and foundations that hold up the world. In the psalm’s vision the waters above and the waters below, the waters that God pushed back on the third day of creation, threaten to flood back in. The roaring and foaming waters are more than a storm, they are chaos, a sign of all that threatens God’s order.
Many Biblical scholars think Psalm 46 may have been written when the Assyrian King Sennacherib came to conquer Jerusalem in 701, but it hardly matters what the original catastrophe was, the psalm speaks to every catastrophe which is earth-shattering and fear–inducing. The mythologized cosmic TROUBLE of the Psalm is of a kind with all the trouble we see, whether it is Sennacherib at your gates with his whole army or terrorists flying jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Trouble is often where faith is born. We find faith in a God who is our refuge and strength, because only in trouble do we need a God who is our refuge and strength. Frequently it is only when we have our confidence knocked out from under us, that we are we ready for the Word of God.
And so it is that the therefore that comes before “we will not fear” refers to God our refuge and strength. Our lack of fear is conditional; it is trust in God alone, rather than some easy calm of our own devising. It is not the false security of walls or weapons. No missile shield defense system can give us this kind of confidence.
This confidence in God is captured in Martin Luther’s hymn based on Psalm 46: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” which was then put into English by Thomas Carlyle as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and, better known in America, as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” by Frederick Hedge. In any version of the hymn, God the fortress stands in contrast to all strongholds built with human hands. Listen to this: “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us. We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him, His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”
We see in Psalm 46 another vivid contrast, that between the roaring, tumultuous waters of chaos and the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Where before God restrains the water, here God sends the water for a life–giving purpose. God tames the waters of chaos and makes them bring forth life and peace.
What is the alternative vision to chaos, disruption and desolation? Listen with me: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” How like John the Divine’s vision of the river of life describes it as flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Revelation 22:1, 2a)
Nancy Taylor writes, “It seems to me that we Christians, above all other people, are equipped to face the evil and the terror that have befallen us, because we know that there is another world beyond this world, where all weeping and pain shall cease, where evil does not reign, and where we will find ourselves in the warm embrace of our God.”
But God does not ignore evil. At the center of our faith is the symbol of the cross. How significant that our most important Christian symbol is not the scales of justice, nor the tablets of the law, but the cross on which we human beings crucified the Lord of Glory. And it is at the foot of the cross that we can best understand this evil act, for the cross addresses human beings not at our best but at our worst. There, at the cross human evil collided with divine love. There, Jesus stretched out his arms and died, with forgiveness on his lips, that the whole world might come into his loving embrace.
And there, at the cross of Christ, is the power that created and sustains the universe. A power more powerful than evil and hate. Evil and hate killed Jesus, but he didn’t stay dead! Osama bin Laden is a formidable adversary, a rich powerful man bent on evil, but as Luther said of the evil one, “we tremble not for him,” nor for any other terrorist.
Let us be clear about what happened on Tuesday. Terrorists committed mass murder on innocent civilians. There is a lot of talk about war, and it feels like war, and the pictures from the devastation look like war, and it may take the resolve of war to address terrorism. But if this is a war it is only a war in the metaphorical sense of say, the war on poverty or the war on drugs. Let us not dignify this event with the term “war.” These terrorists are not soldiers, but criminals and murderers and should be dealt with as such by the constitutional processes of sovereign states and international law. What we need here is not revenge, but justice.
Their intention was to create terror, to destroy our way of life. And their act of evil can only threaten our way of life, our free institutions, our capacity to travel and meet, and go about our business without fear, if we let them! If we let them make us hate and fear they win. But we will not let them. Because “God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved.” God is with the innocent victims in New York and Washington, God is with the relief workers, and God is with us, right here, right now, with you and me in our broken-heartedness, as we face a world forever changed. But we can face it, and we will face it, with character and courage and faith, for God is in the midst of us, our refuge and strength; therefore we will not fear.” Amen.
A sermon preached at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on September 16, 2001. This sermon was also published in “He Comes, the Broken Heart to Bind:” Reflections on September 11, 2001. Edited by Frederick R. Trost, Confessing Christ. 2001.