Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/11/2011

Ten years ago, right about now, the numbing significance of what was happening in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania on that Tuesday morning was starting to sink in.  I’m sure, if you’re old enough and most of you are, that you remember where you were when you heard the news; you remember an eerie combination of emotions that probably included shock, fear, confusion, sadness, anger and who knows what else as most of us spent a lot of time in front of the television trying to sort it out.

One of the things I remember thinking that day as it became clear that what was happening was pretty significant was that whatever I had in mind for a sermon that week probably wasn’t going to work.  Come Sunday I would be expected to have something to say about what had happened.  As I’m sure was the case here, the church was pretty full on that Sunday.  In the town in Massachusetts where I served one young man from there, a former high school football star had been killed in the towers.  Also in the congregation that morning was a young lady who worked in lower Manhattan and had been there to see the buildings crumble and was part of the crowd running in that cloud of dust and smoke and debris that filled the area.

Faced with the horror of Tuesday though, a lot of people did feel like church was where they needed to be on that Sunday, as part of a collective grieving process perhaps or maybe looking for words of comfort and hope, maybe wondering what a proper Christian response should be.  I’m sure churches won’t be as full today, but as was the case ten years ago it feels like I would be remiss if I didn’t have some kind of reflection on those events and how things have played out from a faith perspective which mind you isn’t the only possible approach to this day, but it’s the only approach I feel qualified to take.

One of the things I did on that Tuesday ten years ago when I was tired of looking at the images on TV and wasn’t getting much done anyway, was to just go sit in the church with the devotional book I was using at the time, a book which includes all the Psalms.  I was thumbing through the Psalms and came to Psalm 59 which is one of the bad ones that never shows up in the lectionary on Sunday morning.  The Psalms cover the full range of human emotions, both good and bad, one of which is anger toward one’s enemies and that’s where this one goes.  It doesn’t start so bad, mostly a call for rescue, but when you get verse 11 it moves beyond what most of us would consider to be proper prayer. 

“Slay them O God, lest my people forget; send them reeling by your might and put them down, O Lord our shield.”  Verse 13, “Make an end of them in your wrath; make an end of them, and they shall be no more.”  It’s not the prayer of a nice Christian, but who of us hasn’t had those kinds of thoughts?  We just wouldn’t feel right praying that way; it doesn’t feel like a proper Christian response but for many of us there was a part of us that felt that way so I used that psalm on that Sunday. 

Walter Brueggemann calls these psalms and this kind of honesty in prayer “leaving it on God’s desk.”  In other words, we don’t act on these feelings nor do we keep them inside and let them fester, but instead we unload them and in essence say to God, “I can’t handle this, we can’t handle this; you have to deal with it.”  In doing this, in addition to getting it off of our desk, with the psalmist we also affirm God’s presence and we affirm a reality in which God does rule.

Psalm 59 is instructive for us at times when it feels like things are out of control, when it feels like the forces of evil are winning, as it ends with praise and proclamation of God’s steadfast love.  It doesn’t fixate on vengeance; it acknowledges those feelings, but having left them on God’s desk, it moves back to steadfast love.  That move doesn’t fix everything or make the evil go away; it’s still there; but it reminds us of and keeps us oriented to God’s rule and God’s love.  It’s a reminder that the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, ruled by love, will ultimately prevail as hard as that can be to see sometimes. 

Contrast that though, with Psalm 149, which I think is an example of religion gone bad.  It was last week’s psalm and it moves very quickly from several verses of unabashed, abundant praise of the Lord to a call for vengeance. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.”  Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The psalms are honest in their portrayal of human emotion, but in response to attack, this psalm represents honesty that we ought not emulate but take as a caution against executing vengeance in praise of God.  It’s not that there shouldn’t be a response to evil, but you have to be careful in how that response is talked about, particularly careful in the temptation to invoke God’s name in vengeful ways which just reduces us to the level of those who attacked us.

Ten years after though, where are we?  Was our response as a nation one that can be considered God pleasing?  Not surprisingly, in my opinion anyway and it seems to be true of much of the commentary I’ve seen and heard these past couple of weeks, the reviews are mixed.  What first comes to mind is the bravery of the firemen and policemen and many civilians as the events were unfolding that day.  In the coverage of this tenth anniversary we’ve been reminded of some of their stories and they really are moving.  One is reminded of John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and that day friend was defined very broadly by those first responders; it was defined the way Jesus would define it. 

That kind of response continued in the days and weeks after as there were so many people trying to do whatever they could to be of help whether it was with financial offerings, donating blood, whatever.  It has also continued in much of the work of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in trying to rebuild and bring peace and order to places where there are people who seem to be set on resisting peace and order no matter what.   Progress has been made and that needs to be emphasized, but it’s unfortunate that ten years later, our soldiers still have to be there for fear of what will happen if they leave.

More unfortunate than that though, is that the possibility of a resurrection moment seems to have been lost.  Our core story as Christians is forgiveness out of sin, second chances out of brokenness, new life out of death.  9/11 was an awful, broken moment in our history.  But remember how it brought everyone together for awhile?  In some fashion we were all wounded; we all grieved and the world grieved with us.  Except for the crazies, everyone was with us, everyone was an American.  For an even briefer moment, the question of why they hate us was raised and there was an effort to better understand Muslims and not to profile all of them as terrorists.  There was a sense that there could be a need for repentance on our part too.

With all that, it feels like there was an opportunity for resurrection, an opportunity for new life, an opportunity to change the course of history, to come closer to the peace Christians have prayed for, for 2000 years.  But where are we today?  From being united, this country is more divided than ever to the point where the government is so ineffective that it barely functions, it can’t agree to do anything.  Our relations with other countries in many cases have been strained by an unwillingness to work together.  The fear of further attacks is still there.  There has been some of that Psalm 149 mentality reflected in the idea that we can win the war on terror by killing all the terrorists and also in how Muslims have been profiled and treated in this country.  Efforts to understand why they hate us seemed to quickly be reduced to “because we’re good and they’re bad.”  A lot of the barriers to peace and understanding are higher than ever and as Christians that should bother us because Jesus spent a lot of time trying to break down the barriers that separate people.

Still, we are Christians.  That means that we are people of hope, we do believe in new life out of death.  We do believe that God can and will do something new out of brokenness, so we don’t lose hope.

It is interesting that the focus of today’s gospel lesson is forgiveness with the question “How often should I forgive?”  Ten years ago I preached about forgiveness as being necessary, but not sufficient in a case like 9/11.  It is necessary for us as it frees us from hatred and vindictiveness and enables us to move forward in service and compassion for others.  But in a world afflicted by sin, while being necessary, sometimes forgiveness isn’t sufficient.  For an ordered, God pleasing society there is a need for law; that’s why the Lord gave Moses the commandments.  When the law is violated, there are consequences. 

Ten years ago I said, “We ought to pray for the leaders of this country and for world leaders that those consequences may be carried out, but also that they be appropriate in that they ultimately further the cause of world peace rather than created further division and hatred leading to further violence.” 

Ten years is not a long time; the blink of an eye for God.  I’ve heard a number of people say, “I can’t believe it’s been ten years.  It doesn’t seem that long.”  It’s not.  But it makes us look forward to a time when we can mark this day not just remembering the loss and the sacrifice and the heroism, but also to celebrate it as an event that moved us toward a resurrection moment of peace and understanding, a time when the fear is gone, a time when God’s steadfast love proclaimed by the psalmist does rule.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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