St. Paul’s – Proper 19 – 9/12/21
Since 2001, September brings a heavy memorial: the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on September 11. As Christians, people of faith, and moral conscious, we believe that peace is not only the destination, but peace is every step of the way. Looking back twenty years we see a monumental moment of violence, followed by decades of war. We see a renewed call to work for peace in this world, where terror and violence are far too prevalent. We remember all who lost their lives in the attacks on September 11 as well as nearly 1 million people killed and 38 million people displaced as a result of this 20 year war on terror.
September 11 is a day of the greatest horror most of us can imagine. But underlying that horror is a host of metaphors, associations and narratives that are commonly used to characterize the shocking events, to make them somehow comprehensible. I want to talk briefly about three of the most commonly-used words in the conversations surrounding this day, and I want to comment on each one from a theological point of view.
The first word is sacrifice. September 11 brings us face to face with two notions of sacrifice. The first is sacrifice as a transitive verb – something one does to others. This is what a suicide bomber means by sacrifice. Obscuring from his or her imagination any personal details that would make mass murder grotesque and unimaginable, the suicide bomber coldly and deliberately sacrifices dozens or thousands of strangers in some kind of offering to a ghastly deity. It is a sacrifice that is prepared to lay down its life that others may die. The fireball, the trembling, and the overwhelming dust of Ground Zero are all part of this notion of sacrifice.
The other kind of sacrifice is an intransitive verb. It is an offering one makes, not of others, but of oneself. It is the sacrifice of the firefighter, the honest bystander, the selfless colleague. It is a sacrifice that is prepared to lay down its life that others may live. It is a gesture that takes us back to the root meaning of the word sacrifice – to make holy. That most hideous day in contemporary history was in part made holy by those saints who laid down their lives that others might live.
If we wish to retain the word sacrifice in our language, this is what we must learn from 9/11. Sacrifice is not something one can make another person do. It cannot be imposed. Sacrifice is something only you can do yourself. We have a name for those who are determined to take others with them to an early violent death. We call those people murderers. We have a name for those who are prepared to risk their own death in order to free others from an early violent death. We call them martyrs. We call them martyrs because a martyr is a witness, and holding onto a person or a principle up to one’s last breath is the greatest witness a person can make. And those who offered their lives in this way held on to both a person and a principle. That’s what makes them so special.
The second word is tragedy. We loosely use the word tragedy when we want to refer to a sad event, but don’t want to get into the details of blame or perspective. More precisely we refer to the heritage of Greek tragedy, a genre of theatre that concentrated on exposing the deep workings of fate and the folly of human presumption in supposing to stand above or beyond such workings. I don’t believe it is right to call September 11th a tragedy. I do suggest there are two other words we should use instead. The first, secular, word is crime. September 11 was mass murder on a colossal scale. I don’t think it is helpful to talk about it as an act of war. Terrorism is not a place, or even a person or a group of persons. Terror itself is an abstract noun. Flying planes into buildings is a crime. Calling it evil doesn’t help. It is simply wrong. Evil is simply saying wrong with a loud voice. It raises the rhetorical temperature, but it correspondingly makes clarity more difficult. September 11 was a crime. Those who plan to do similar things again to any individual or group of people must be prevented from causing such death and damage.. To call this process a war simply allows the perpetrators of the crime a moral credibility they don’t deserve.
The other word, besides crime, we should use in place of tragedy, is a theological one. It is heresy, or, to use a more emotive word, blasphemy. The one who kills for the sake of faith is a blasphemer, because he or she desecrates the one thing on which God has set his image, human life itself. September 11 destroyed that which does not belong to us – the myriad detail of the lives of strangers. It claimed to do so in service of God, but a god who would delight in such service is nothing but a monster. So September 11 is not a tragedy. It is a crime and a blasphemy.
And the final word is suffering. It would be wrong to dwell too long today on the perpetrators and their ghastly parody of martyrdom, faith and glory. Today is centrally about those who woke up one morning to a sky of azure blue, and whose lives a short while later had been turned to dust and ashes by horror, death, or loss. And people of faith are bound to ask where God is in all this. For Christians, God is never a far away deity twiddling his thumbs while we suffer. God is centrally revealed in a suffering man dying in agony. On September 11, the God of Jesus Christ is at Ground Zero. But while Jesus is the heart of God, he is not the whole of God. God the Holy Spirit was present on September 11 in those very gestures of self-sacrificial love of which we have already spoken. And God the Father’s heart is broken by a mixture of unending love for his creation and hatred against the sin that defiles it. Hence the Christian belief in a day of judgement when those who suffer are vindicated, evil is buried, and all tears are dried.
In the face of suffering I have only one piece of pastoral advice, and it is this. If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful. There are many things that we can never be happy about, and September 11 is one of them. But we can still make this day beautiful. And that is what we are doing together at this present moment. I believe that is the best way to express our sadness and honor the lost.
September 11 is a witness to the untold damage perverted religion can do. But the answer is not to renounce one’s faith. Even those who seek secular answers find themselves using religious language much of the time. The only answer is to seek a truer faith, one that does not involve the sacrifice of others, one that does not become powerless in the face of apparent fate, and one that transcends suffering with the promise of final reconciliation and peace with God.
But how can we heal when future threats loom? How can we move forward? How can we continue to work toward peace, in our own lives and peace in the world?
We begin by answering the question and following what Jesus tells us to do in our Gospel reading for today. In chapter eight (8:27-38), dead center in a gospel that begins with the answer to the question, Who do you say that I am?You have heard all the evidence. You have heard what the demons and the Scribes and the Pharisees and Pilate and all the others have had to say. Now it is up to you. Who do you say that I am? Which question in the end is really, Who am I? Who are we?
We do well to note how tricky answering this fundamental question really is when we see Peter answer correctly, You are the Christ – the Anointed, the Messiah. Jesus then outlines what being the Christ really means: he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the scribes, the chief priests and the elders, and killed, and then rise again on the third day. And then to double down on this he says to all who are within hearing distance, If you want to become one of my followers, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me!
In today’s gospel, there is a great misunderstanding and the Church has encouraged such thinking. The misunderstanding is that we think we need to pick up Jesus’ cross. Whereas he says you are to pick up your cross. Much damage has been done when the Church urges us to share in his sufferings when in fact all four gospels declare that he comes to share in ours. He is with us in our sufferings. This is the good news. Which is why the question, Who do you say that I am? is so important for us each to ponder, because our answer to his question tells us everything we need to know about ourselves.
I am forever grateful to a young girl named Eleanor for helping me to grasp that my cross, the cross we are asked to pick up and embrace, is the cross that is traced on our forehead in Holy Baptism sealing us and marking us as Christ’s own forever. Eleanor, who was a young girl when baptized, would ask me several times, Can you still see the cross on my forehead? Finally, it struck me, like a 2×4 right between the eyes: that is the question for all of us. Can the people we meet still see the cross on our foreheads that says we will love our neighbor as ourselves, and seek justice and peace for all people, while respecting the dignity of every human being? Will we get behind Jesus and join in his radical challenge and overthrow of human views and values that hold us captive to the demonic in this world so that we can get on with the work he calls us to do in response to 9/11: to repair and heal a broken and sinful world?–Tikkun Olam….. In doing that, we can answer the question people need to ask about us….the church….Who do we say that we are?