9/11 sermon reflections

UPDATED 9/15: 9/11 sermons from bloggers Nick Knisley and Kurt Wiesner are now available online.

Monday morning often brings new light to yesterday’s sermon, both for the preacher and the listener. Then, for the preacher, inevitable wonderment about the coming week’s lessons begins, and the cycle starts over, while the listener-participant can keep chewing on a substantial homily.


As chatter on the interwebs attested, yesterday’s sermon was no small source of energy on the draw of preachers all last week in advance of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Preachers had to fight hard not to “say it all,” but rather to focus down on the scriptures on offer. Last night we linked to both of yesterday’s sermons by our Presiding Bishop – two very different but faithfully rendered homilies appropriate to their time and place.

Some Episcopal Café bloggers took to the pulpit yesterday morning.

In Phoenix, at Trinity Cathedral, Saturday blogger Nick Knisley chose the optional RCL text from Genesis 50 – Joseph and his brothers, concentrating on the logic that what some intend for evil, God can use for good. Knisley said that while we don’t think we have enough perspective yet to decide the full meaning of 9/11, we know by hope that God is in the midst of the event and its ramifications working to redeem it and us. (Audio of the sermon will be available in a few days.)

Virginia based Café blogger Peter Carey’s sermon was a silence-punctuated meditation ranging over the idea that life is short, and our response to that fact will frame our lives.

We are socially constructed beings, and we are lovingly made by God, and lovingly nurtured and grown by God and by our fellow travelers along the way. We are called into a deep awareness that we are not islands, but deeply connected to one another. We are members of one body, one Spirit. As Turtullian said, “one Christian is no Christian.” We are made to be teammates, not individuals in a dog eat dog kennel. As William Sloan Coffin said, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat. We have been empowered to be humans, bound to one another in love, and made to be in unity with one another.

A person is a person through other persons.

~Tutu

We are to Be holy, we are to welcome the stranger, to embody the forgiveness of God. And we are empowered to remember that “Life is a team sport.”

It is a vision that God has set for us, it is a vision that is hard to see, especially as we recall the pain and the fear and the tragedies of our lives. It is a vision that is cloudy and unclear. It is a vision that I, for one, would like to have God make a bit more clear. But it is a vision that is dim, and required our faith, and hope, and the support of our “team,” our companions along the way.

At Trinity Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, Friday blogger Andrew Gerns asked, “How many Muslims will have to say ‘I’m sorry’ before we forgive?” Here the words of Jesus from the Gospel According to Matthew – concentrating on the need for forgiveness within community – were front and center.

You see we have a choice: we can organize our whole lives around the injury, we can build our own existence around either re-living or avoiding past hurts. We can live under a constant state of threat. Or we can face the truth of the injury, walk through the pain and the grief together, hear our conflicting and over-lapping stories and we can build our lives around reconciliation. That may mean facing the person who has injured us, not letting them off the hook, but doing whatever we can to seek out reconciliation.

Nation-states and communities will do what they do to keep us safe, but at the end of the day peace does not rest on safety. It rests on reconciliation. And because we cannot do what God requires of us without God’s help, we have to rest on that extravagant mercy, that extravagant forgiveness to shape us, changes us and direct to bring that same realistic, sharp-eyed forgiveness to each other.

As we once again look at the image of the burning towers and the towering smoke of their collapse, we have the same choice as our forebears did in the desert as they followed that flaming pillar of God’s presence. We can walk the path of revenge and retribution, holding to ourselves the right to judge and inviting God to do things our way. Or we can journey into the desert, repent of our own need to exact vengeance and enter God’s way, God’s kingdom.

Christ brings us a different covenant. Not a land to be conquered, but a life to be lived and a creation reconciled to God. Jesus forgives. And to do that he walked into the maw of human sin and darkness, all so that we might know the extravagance of God’s generous love and share that mercy as extravagantly with all God’s people.

Tuesday Café blogger Ann Fontaine has posted her sermon notes at What the Tide Brings In. She says briefly,

I wrestle often with the question Peter asks about forgiveness. My experience is that people expect instant results if one forgives. The church makes one feel guilty if a person cannot forgive. Psychologists (pros and amateurs) tell us we will be the ones to benefit. But for me this just does not work. I need the acknowledgement of the wound and a time with my rage once I discover the depth of the wound to bring me back to myself and to give me strength to even move.

Today I read Jesus reply in a new way — that the 77 times is not for 77 offenses but 77 times it may take before I can let the offense go and fully live into the future. Now I am reflecting on that and what it means for me. I know that the first step is acknowledging that the past cannot be changed, that the event happened and it was terrible for me and others. It was wrong and there is no changing that either. But with the idea that I can continue to let go even 77 times – somehow gives me hope that there is a day when it will no longer be fresh nor affecting my life. Like a broken bone – it may only ache when the weather changes – but I will be able to walk and run again.

As for me, I spent the week thinking about the enormity of the commandment of Jesus, and I thought, Well, what if we just made an honest start by trying to forgive seven times? Then I suppose we’d have to keep going after that, if indeed we claim Jesus as Lord. I told a few stories gleaned from the week’s readings along the way. This one was particularly striking when I discovered it.

One night in February 1993, Oshea Israel, who lived in Minneapolis, was at a party. He got into an argument with Laramiun Byrd, just 20 years old, and shot and killed him. Oshea went into Stillwater Prison for seventeen years,and eventually, while still in prison, he agreed to meet with Mary Johnson, Laramiun’s mother.

Mary didn’t ask to meet Oshea at first; it took her a while, better than a decade; she wanted justice for the death of her only son; she thought Oshea “was an animal who deserved to be caged.” But the more she thought about it, the more compelled she felt that her faith in Jesus demanded that she find some way to forgive.

So she sat down across from Oshea at Stillwater, and she said, “Look, you don’t know me; I don’t know you; let’s just start with right now.” When the meeting was over, she stood up, and she hugged him! She says, “Instantly [I] knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years … – I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven.” And she kept coming back, and they just kept trying to understand each other.

He was eventually released; and now – no lie – his Minneapolis apartment is next door to hers. He lives in number 902; she lives at number 904. They look after each other now, keep each other out of trouble.

In the news reports, he looks at her and says, “You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you – it’s amazing.” And then she looks at him and she says, “I know it’s not an easy thing, to be able to share our story together. Even with us sitting here together right now, I know it’s not an easy thing.”

And they tell one another that they love each other. Not in some fake moment for the cameras, but in real sincerity, and with Christly charity.

We may have more from our pulpit experiences for you in the coming days, and other Café writers who heard sermons are invited to chime in, too.

And you? What did you hear? What did you say? What’s resonating? Is any of it sitting differently with you now than it was yesterday?

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