Je Suis Charlie – building walls of love in a dangerous world

Fourteen years ago I was asked to preach at a city-wide observance of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. What I said then has been very much on my mind as I’ve been following the news out of Paris and the murders of the journalists who worked at Charlie Hebdo. Essentially I argued that it was only by having strong, healthy and interdependent communities that we would be able to feel safe again. There was no military solution, no Homeland Security protocol that would be able to protect us as much as that.

Someone who heard the sermon that night wrote me this morning asking if I had a copy of it. I guess I wasn’t the only person thinking about what I had said 12 years ago…

So I’m posting it again – in large part because I still believe what I said then.

Sermon Delivered at Nativity Cathedral on the Occasion of the Requiem Mass for those who died or were wounded in the attacks on 9-11-01.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my God and my Redeemer.

I’ve developed a new habit over the last year. When I sit at my desk, working on my computer, I tend to always have a web browser open to news page. I click the refresh button on the web browser every ten minutes or so just to see if some new development or disaster has occurred since the last time I checked. I suppose it seems pretty silly now, but in the first couple of weeks after the attack happened a year ago, it seemed like there were constant new and breaking stories.

Last week I was sitting at my computer working on something and I did what has now become reflexive for me. I clicked the refresh button on the browser I had open and glanced up at the news page as it displayed. There was a breaking news bulleting that “another plane has been hijacked. The plane is reported south of Washington and turning back to the city. Evacuations are occurring and bedlam is breaking out on the ground and there are sirens heard everywhere.” I immediately leapt up from my desk and went out into the hallway to let the staff know what was happening. We all went right into emergency mode. The Sexton grabbed an AM radio and hurriedly tried to tune in a news station. Our Outreach Minister started to say a prayer and our Receptionist’s face completely drained of color. In a moment we were taken back to the same feelings we had experienced a year ago tonight.

I ran back down the hall to the computer and hit “reload” once more. Apparently someone had thought it would be “interesting” to repost the news stories as they had appeared from a year ago – and what I had read was year old news about the plane that ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania. I went out and reassured everyone that this was a mistake – but the strong emotions took time to disappear, and we realized with some surprise just how close our fears were to the surface. The fear and stress that we had felt a year ago has not vanished or been truly dealt with. At best the hole that the pain had left in our souls was merely papered over, and this “false alarm” had ripped that thin covering apart and we were left looking down into the abyss once again.

What is it about this attack on America that has left such strong feelings lingering in so many of us? The number of people who died on that day was horrible, but there have been worse moments and more frightening events in our history. More people die regularly in traffic accidents or died in the Blitz on London, but neither seems to have affected so many so deeply and so profoundly. Tens of thousands die yearly of AIDS in southern Africa but we haven’t had the same deep emotional response to their loss.

For a long time I thought that what we were really mourning when we returned to contemplate the loss of life in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania was the fact that we no longer felt safe. For so long we in America have felt secure and protected behind our two great oceanic moats. Wars happened, persecutions happened, terrorist attacks happened, but always someplace else, never here where we lived. This attack has struck us directly on the mainland of the United States, in two of it greatest cities and came seemingly out of the blue. It was an attack not against military forces or groups prepared to defend themselves, but upon civilians going about their everyday routine, never imagining the doom that hurtling toward them from out of a cloudless sky.

But I believe there is something more subtle happening here tonight – something more complicated causing the distress that we all feel. It isn’t so much that we were attacked – it more an issue of who attacked us. These 19 men who fiendishly killed so many so quickly are not the sort of attackers we’re used to thinking about. These are not terrorists in the strictest sense of the word. They made no demands, they presented no manifesto, and they took no credit on the world’s stage for their deed. They attacked us not to cause us to change our ways. The attacked us simply to kill us. Their deepest prayer was that their action would cause ignite a Third World War – a conflagration that would set peoples of different religions against each other. Out of the war they hoped they would start, a new radical militarily robust Islamic sect would stride forth and sweep all opposition away.

The implications of this are truly frightening. They don’t want to talk with us, they don’t want to reason with us – they want to kill us. In their minds we need to die. We need to die not because of our admittedly error prone ways – but because of the way we behave when we are at our best. They want to kill us because we are tolerant, because we encourage and try to embrace dissent – because we believe truth is elusive and only become apparent through hard, committed conversation and interaction between people who disagree. They hate the fact that we don’t believe there is a simple clear answer for every moral question. They hate the fact we tolerate in our midst those people they can not tolerate. They hate us for being the best the American ideal can be – diverse, a melting pot for all the world’s greatest hopes and dreams.

It is truly frightening to imagine that there is nothing that we can do to discuss this with people who seek our destruction. They offer us no quarter, no terms to accept or reject – only death and that because of who we are when we are at our best.

Who are these people?

It’s important that we be very very clear.

They are not people who follow the religion that was revealed by the Prophet Mohammed. The leaders of Islam have disowned these men and made clear that the submission to the Will of Allah does not ever include the willful taking of innocent life.

These are not the people of the Arab nations – many of whom reacted with horror at the acts that were supposedly perpetrated in their name.

These were not the people of the Arab street who curse us and argue with us. They engage us in conversation and attempt to get us to change our way – a disagreement with how we are American. Their disagreement is something that not only will we hear and engage, but whose very existence is sacred to the American ideals.

Who are these people? In truth they are a small group of men. Thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of whom have gathered around a wealthy man who’s family has rejected him, with a history of violence and who is a self declared religious leader of a small extremist sect of Islam. They represent no nation state, no broad consensus among honorable people – merely a focal point for a small number of men who have chosen to fill their hearts with hate in their attempt to hide from the light of God’s love.

If they are so few in number, how did they cause so much destruction? Thomas Friedman in his latest collection of essays Longitudes and Attitudes writes about the advent of a new person in history – the super-empowered individual. The nineteen men who managed to kill as many people as died in the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and in an hour or so rather than a 24 hour period, were able to do so because they perverted modern technology from its intended use. 150 years ago it took two great armies of more than 100,000 men on a broad field of battle an entire day to manage to kill more than 3000. It took 19 men moments to kill the same number of unarmed civilian men, women and children. These men used unarmed airplanes, built for peaceful commerce, for travel and for the good of many – and turned them into human guided missiles with warheads of innocent lives.

Friedman argues we are going to have deal with the fact that modern technology is going allow a single individual a greater ability to affect the whole of society than we’ve yet seen. This is the just the latest and more horrific example. We are most likely going to see more and more of this type of attack – a small group of men causing death and injury on a scale unimagined just a short time ago.

It seems so hopeless – but we are never without hope. We worship the living God – and with God there is always hope.

The Bible lessons that have heard read aloud this evening remind us that we are not the first people in history to suffer at the hands of a seemingly implacable enemy. The words of the Prophet Jeremiah remind us that God will never forsake God’s people forever – and that after a time, the promises made of old will be seen to be true of us again.

The Gospel lesson reminds us that Wars and Disasters surround us but do not overcome us. They are the remnants of old reality that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is replacing with new. In spite of the momentary fear we experience, the larger view is that God is with us in the midst of our loss leading into a deeper relationship with God and with each other.

But more than that: the small group of men who seeks to destroy us are not the only super-empowered individuals upon the stage. We are super-empowered individuals as well – but our power comes not from hydraulic lifts or electrical relay or network connections. We have the burning flame of the Holy Spirit that was placed within us at our baptism. If we have God within us – who can ever stand to truly harm us? The power we share in is the power of creation itself, a power that binds up the works of destructive chaos.

How can we use this power we share?

Some of us – those with heroic faith are probably already well on their way to forgiving those few who destroyed so many. They know what so many of want to know – that the true power of God is to love those who hate us, and by loving them, we can transform them.

But what of the rest of us whose faith is not of that quality just yet? What of people like me?

I may not now be able to truly love those who hate me, but I can love those around me.

I can love the people I meet day in and day out as I live my life here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I can love my neighbor right here, right now.

I can go outside tonight and sit on my front step and get to know the names of the people who live closest to me. I can work at finding ways to turn our group of homes into a real neighborhood whose inhabitants know and care for one another sharing the burdens of sorrows and the rewards of joys.

I can join Rotary or Lions or the Jaycees or any community based organization that works locally to make a stronger region. I can share in the important task of building up a region so hard hit by the aftermath of 9-11.

I can smile at the people I meet in line today. I can hold the door open for someone whose arms are full of packages. I can thank people as I go about my little everyday errands.

I can build a wall of love around this town. I can help to construct a wall of love that no plane, no missile, no hatred can ever breech let alone destroy. I can do this – we can do this because we are individuals beloved of God – the God of Love. With God’s love supporting our small efforts we can love the world back into a proper relationship with the one who made the world in the beginning. For we know and have Christ’s own promise, that nothing can ever destroy the works of Love co-created with God.

Is there an image of hope for us this evening?

Absolutely. There is an image from a year ago that has seared itself upon my mind. Two people, who in desperation chose to escape the flames of the Twin Towers by leaping out of a broken window to their death. But as they fell – they held hands. They knew in that moment of unimaginable terror that the simple act of relationship could make the unbearable bearable. Their act of hope in the moment of their death reminds each one of us this night that we are never without hope.

Let us pray that by God’s grace we can witness this truth to others in our daily lives.