September 11th, 2016
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Fifteen years ago, Clare and I were in Berlin, visiting a palace called the Schloss Charlottenburg. We were in college, we had rail passes, and we were working our way down to Spain, where Clare was going to stay for a quarter to take Spanish. It was a great day—but of course, I don’t remember the palace. I remember walking out of the palace, down a street and looking into one of the kebab places, and seeing a television screen with the World Trade Center on fire. And I thought to myself, “What movie is that? I haven’t seen any previews like that.” And then we saw another kebab place, and the same thing on the screen. And we stopped and I saw the German news channel logo, and shot of a plane flying straight into the tower. “Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center,” I said to Clare. “What?” she said. “Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
Today is September 11th, but also Rally Day here at OSA. Sunday School is back. Our choir is back after what I feel is a far, far too great of an absence. We welcome Allison Dilyard as she begins her field education requirement with us. We are going to have pancakes at coffee hour. It’s a beautiful day, and for most of us the troubles of the world will seem far away.
But the repercussions of 9/11 still course through our lives. Our troops remain committed in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. The men who come home from those wars continue to kill themselves in horrifying numbers. Since 9/11, we have seen the images of men and women tortured in Abu Gharib at our hand, we have heard the rumors of black sites throughout the world where deeds done in the dark would shame anyone with a conscience. We have seen the power of our nation’s military, and its professionalism, but also its powerlessness—the powerlessness of the world’s greatest fighting force to remake other nations in our image. The legacy of 9/11 is complicated: it was a horror, a tragedy, an excuse. It’s good to go to the 9/11 memorial, to see the fountains, to go to the museum. It’s good to remember, to never forget what happened that day. But more and more it will become a tourist stop, a memorial like the ones in Europe, to wars that have somehow shaped our world, but whose horror has faded, the sacrifice of people forgotten except in the shadows of statues, in which teenagers will pose and smile for photographs. I have photos of Napoleon’s tomb—surely the shape he gave to history, the devastation he brought to Europe cannot be overstated. But for me, his tomb is a curiosity, a photo op. It is an image of the past.
When Moses came down from the mountain, he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. The absurdity of this is so astounding, but yet exactly what we do. Let me just refresh your memory about what happened—God, with signs and wonders, humbled the Pharaoh, freed the enslaved Hebrews, parted the Red Sea so they could escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing armies, and then closed the sea so it swallowed the oppressors, and then fed the Israelites with bread from heaven when there was nothing to eat, and finally, brought them to Sinai, where the presence of God gathered in thunder and lightning. Moses went to speak with this god, who crushed the Pharoah, and because he was away for a while, the people said, “Make gods for us, who shall go before us.” And Aaron and the others made a god of gold for the people to worship. And so the people gave up signs and wonders, freedom, and daily experience of the creator of the universe for something as cheap and dead as gold. God wanted to wipe them out, but they were already dead.
It’s easy to think that Israelites are absurd. How, in such close proximity to God, having witnessed all the signs and wonders God, could they turn to a golden calf? But they wanted to be honored among the nations. I think God was too much for them. There is a terror in the immortal, invisible, God only wise—God, unknowable in his essence, is beyond our comprehension and therefore, beyond our control.
But there is also nothing more natural to human beings, captive and in bondage, as we are, to sin. We have suffered attacks: 9/11 was particularly horrible, and so was Pearl Harbor. We have wonderful triumphs: the defeat of the Axis powers, the Bill of Rights, a history of arts and culture that rivals any in the world, the oldest republic in the world. But we have also attacked, have we not: this continent did not just yield itself to a brand new nation called the United States of America because we were virtuous and had a really beautiful flag. That flag does not fly from sea to shining sea because the people who lived here invited us to rule them and take their territory. The history of our nation, as great as it truly is, is also the history of con men and connivers, slavers and conquerors, liars and oathbreakers. That history is not yet past—just talk to the Sioux as they battle the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Historically we are both victim and villain, hero and perpetrator. And now, fifteen years after 9/11, a year in which people who were born that day are starting high school, perhaps we can begin to be free enough to put that day in its proper context.
In the letter to Timothy, Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Paul might be bragging here, but I know that I, in my dark days, have thought of myself as the foremost sinner. Paul says this not to flagellate himself, but to show just how powerful God’s grace through Christ Jesus really is. Precisely because he was the foremost sinner, Jesus redeemed him to show how wide that grace truly is.
I am not one to flagellate our nation, either. I love this country. But I love it like I love my family, which, God knows is flawed and imperfect. As an image of justice, our country is marred. It is striving and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. As a Christian, I know my life is not weighed on its merits, which will be all too few at my death, but rather on the grace that Christ has given me. That grace is more than any bad thing I have done, and does more than any good I could ever do.
Our nation will pass away. It will become history. Its tragedies and triumphs will bore high school students to tears in some far-off future. If we are the sheep of Christ’s parable, the old widow searching for a coin, I believe that we who have heard the shepherd’s voice, who have come here today to seek Jesus, will find that he calls us on a different path. There is no vengeance on this path. If we find that we have tortured or killed or maimed in the name of something else, we have left Jesus behind. But there is no distance too great for this good shepherd. The grace of God reaches us even when we think we are too far gone. It is for sinners that Christ came, and Christ makes disciples out of the unworthy.
I am happy to celebrate this day with you. I am happy to be here, where the word of truth comes to our ears, where the invisible God shows up in all of us, at this table. You are all like me and like Paul, the foremost of sinners, but somehow, by some wondrous grace, believing in the God none of us can see. I see so many signs and wonders among us—your dedicated giving of time and money to God as God works among us in this community, your faith in the midst of doubt, your fervent prayers for this world you love and the people you love in it. This, for me, is the right way to face history—as the church, gathered peacefully around the truth, the truth that sets us free not just from history, but also from ourselves. Welcome home. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack