This is the sermon I delivered to the congregation at Cottage Way Christian Church the Sunday following the events of September 11 and its aftermath. It is unchanged — even down to the misspelling of bin Laden’s first name. I think it was one of my best. September 11 started with my wife Lynne coming into the bedroom to tell me a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I was still half-asleep and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the news. When she told me a second plane had crashed I sat straight up and knew America was under attack. We debated whether to stay home or go to work but both us — Lynne a teacher and I the pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation — recognized the need to minister to ”our people” and made the tense journey to our sites.
As the day went on, people gathered at the church and we watched the news together. On Friday morning, a worship service was held to a packed sanctuary, but the most important incident of the day for me was the phone call I received from the woman whose wedding rehearsal was scheduled for that evening and wedding the next day. The bride and groom were Chinese nationals studying in the United States and the bride to be asked whether it was ”safe” to proceed with the wedding. I told her, ”absolutely, you come on down.”
Most of the wedding guests were in the midst of traveling to the United States from China on Tuesday the 11th. Some were not able to leave China, others were forced to land at airports around the country, some had just made it to Sacramento, and still others were unaccounted for. In any event, with the bilingual aspect of the ceremony itself, with my words being translated into both Mandarin and Taiwanese, the wedding was both challenging and exhilarating; the events of the week made for a backdrop that was simply unforgetable.
A Time to Stand Up and Be Counted
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 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. 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; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
He was born to a well-to-do family in the early part of the century. The family had made its fortune in the construction business. One of his earliest memories is of a disaster, a tragedy that struck the city in which he lived. Late in life he wrote, “The impressions of confusion during the following days and, above all, the differences in daily life, are still very much with me.”
He never much cared for religion. In fact he was an agnostic, believing neither in the existence of God or in the denial of such existence. When one of his private school teachers called the science of evolution rubbish, he asked him, “How do you explain the fossils in the rocks?,” to which the teacher replied, “My dear boy, God put them there to tempt our faith.” After that revelation he could no longer return to that teacher: “His cold blue eyes in the ruddy, white-whiskered face, his pronouncement of rigid faith, and his implications of what would happen to me on Judgment Day,” he wrote, “All were at huge variance with the luminance of music, the revelations of philosophy and poetry, the freedom of the rolling hills and the ocean.” And yet, the stark black and white images he created that remain in our hearts and our minds reveal a deep spiritual connection with God’s creation, a testament to the beauty and grace that God has given us.
He was born in the middle of the last century. He came from a well-to-do family that had made its fortune, too, in the construction business. Those who have met him describe him as modest, almost shy. A deeply religious man, he left his native country to fight against an invasion of a neighboring, weaker country by a much greater power, a freedom fighter with the blessing of his native government and backed by American money and, some say, security training from the CIA itself. When it was over he returned home to the family business until things changed, and the images for which he is responsible that remain in our hearts and our minds reveal in all their color unspeakable evil, done in the name of the same God to which we pray.
This past week has been a difficult one for all of us. By Wednesday evening Lynne and I had had enough of the week’s events for a while and we searched the television channels for a diversion. We ended up watching a rerun of The Brady Bunch, but that didn’t quite do it. On Thursday I needed a break, and I went to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco to see a couple of photography exhibits I had been wanting to get to but just hadn’t had the time. On Thursday I made the time. Apparently others felt the same way because when I got there the general admission line stretched all the way out the door and half way down the block. Fortunately, I am a member and I was able to walk right in the member’s door.
The museum was celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ansel Adams, the photographer who, working almost always in black and white, created world- famous images, notably in Yosemite National Park and other spots around the American West. There was one wall of the exhibit that was devoted to his photographs of the stumps and branches of dead trees. And even though they were pictures of things that no longer were growing or changing, there was more life in those photographs, more evidence of the existence of a loving and gracious God than ever.
What is it that makes an agnostic like Ansel Adams reveal the beauty of God and a religious believer like Osana bin Laden demonstrate such hatred and misguided zealotry. I don’t know. It’s a question I can’t answer. It is a mystery that will be revealed to us in the next life, but I’m afraid there is no answer here today.
All I can offer in response to the questions of “why” and “what do we do now” is the advice of the apostle Paul in the passage from Philippians we heard this morning: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, pleasing or commendable, these are the things that matter. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in Christ Jesus, and the God of peace will be with you.
There is a wave of patriotism spreading around the country. The American flag has been flying at our home since Tuesday afternoon. On an Interstate 80 overpass in Dixon the other day there was a man dressed in red, white and blue and one of those triangular Minutemen hats waving a large flag, and we have seen similar displays throughout this area and the country as a whole. And I know this may not come off as politically correct right now, but I have to admit to being a bit uneasy about the whole thing. The Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson the other day laid the blame for the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on God being angry at the American Civil Liberties Union, at gays and lesbians, and feminists, among others, and in listening to talk radio hosts and callers I wonder just what part of America some of the most zealot patriots are seeking to protect and preserve and defend.
I am uneasy at the willingness of many zealots to give up their constitutionally- protected rights in the name of preserving freedom.
I am uneasy at those who would close the borders of this country in the name of security and deny to others the same opportunities for peace and prosperity that their own immigrant parents and grandparents enjoyed.
I am uneasy with those who seek to profit economically at the expense of others in the name of necessity.
I am uneasy with those who seek to use the events of this last week for political purposes in the name of expedience.
I am uneasy at those who draw labels on the basis of the color of one’s skin, their ethnic background, or on the foundations of their religious beliefs in the name of purity.
I am uneasy at those who are forced to display the flag not as an expression of the allegiance they already possess but in fear of reprisals in the name of loyalty.
I am uneasy at those who urge the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction on other nations in the name of simplicity.
I am uneasy at those who would blindly refuse to consider the moral or ethical implications of their own actions in the name of righteousness.
I am uneasy at the naiveté of those in the highest levels of government who now suddenly proclaim the elimination of evil to be the focus of their administration when the elimination of evil, including the evils of poverty and prejudice and oppression and ignorance and the protection of its citizens be it from terrorists or common burglars has always, always been the very purpose of government and should have been the focus of the government all along.
I am uneasy.
We all share the deep anger toward those who so callously and massively destroy innocent lives, no matter what the grievances or injustices invoked and in the name of God, we too demand that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice. But we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life.
There is no question that we are at war, but until we can agree on who the enemy is and what price we are willing to pay to defeat it, I am uneasy.
It is okay to be patriotic and to answer the cries of those who demand that we stand up for this country, but not at the expense of that higher calling to which we are called and for which we gather here today as people of the God who is our refuge and our strength and for the Christ that is our rock, our hope and our salvation. There are many of you here this morning who have attended this church for quite some time, some for many years without having come forward to make your confession of faith in Jesus Christ as your savior or to transfer your membership. For those of you, now is the time to stand up, to come forward in solidarity with your brothers and sisters and be counted, to be counted among the community of faith that surrounds you with Christ’s love. The task to which we are called is described simply: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Let this church continue to be a safe place to grieve and to weep and to begin rebuilding our shattered lives and communities. Let this house of worship become a public arena for common prayer, community discussion, eventual healing, and forgiveness. Stand up and be counted.
They tell us that they already have enough blood and supplies for the time being. For those of you looking for ways to help in some tangible way, stand up and be counted among those who are contributing to the Week of Compassion fund that provides necessary supplies and resources to those in need, both in New York City, Washington DC, and elsewhere. Stand up and be counted.
Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. For those of you looking for ways to respond to this oppression in the days and weeks ahead, stand up and be counted and deny terrorists their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Do not allow this terror to drive you away from being the person God has called us to be. Assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. Let America be a safe place for all people in all their diversity. Stand up and be counted.
She was born in the early part of this century, at 8:10 Thursday morning to be exact. She’s a healthy baby, weighing 8 pounds, 11 ounces. Her mother says she has a part of her father’s name along with his nose. “But his is bigger,” she said. And like the photographer Ansel Adams, she too does not yet understand that she is an image of God’s loving grace and beauty. “I feel happy that she’s here, but I wish more than anything that he was here, too,” for Daniel Lee, the father of little Allison Danielle was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it slammed into the World Trade Center.
I wonder what kind of world Allison Danielle Lee will grow up in, for that world she entered is a new one. Our illusion of invulnerability has been shattered. From now on, we will look at the world in a different way, and this attack on our life as a nation will become a test of our collective character. Let us make the right choices in this crisis – to pray, act, and unite against the bitter fruits of division, hatred, and violence. Let us rededicate ourselves to global peace, human dignity and the eradication of injustice that breeds rage and vengeance.
As we gather in this house of worship, let us begin the process of seeking the healing and grace of God. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, pleasing or commendable, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in Christ Jesus, and the God of peace will be with you.
And all God’s people said, Amen.
All rights reserved. © 2001 Gregory Hile