the practice of peace

Note: On this 16th anniversary of 9/11, I post the text, in the main, of the sermon, referencing, in the end, John 14.25-29, that I preached at A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, September 16, 2001.

I apologize for the length. However, in the course of the days between Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and that following Sunday, there was much on my mind and heart and in my soul and spirit that took shape in many words.

This morning, as I reread and reflected on what I wrote and preached on that day, I discern that much of what I thought and felt and said then about the quest for peace through the active labor of reaching across barriers not only remains true for me, but is at the heart of my life’s calling as a human and as a Christian.

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September 11. Ninth month. Eleventh day.  9-1-1. Emergency. One need not put stock in numerology, the science or pseudo-science of finding sense in or of making sense of numbers, to see a sickening coincidence.

September 11. The day of a massive, coordinated, sophisticated terrorist assault. Targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A towering New York City skyline and that ultra-familiar pentagonal shape, both boldly distinctive and unmistakable, in an instant, tragically transformed.

September 11. An assault that targeted, more greatly still, before and beyond buildings, human lives. Thousands killed and injured. Families and communities torn asunder.

September 11. An assault long predicted, long prophesied by military and civil intelligence communities, ethnic fundamentalists and religious zealots the world o’er, homegrown groups of disaffected extremists and insurrectionists. A prediction, a prophecy now terribly fulfilled…

But who could have foreseen its form? Nothing – not the murderous bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the World Trade Center eight years ago, the Oklahoma City federal building, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole[1] – could have prepared us. Hijacked passenger planes pointed as assassin’s arrows, again, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of economic strength and military might. As the targets were symbols, then these were arrows aimed at the heart of a people, perhaps, in an attempt, to strip us of our sense of economic stability and personal and national security.

Although this tragedy is characterized as our national crisis, termed by the news media and others as an “Assault on America” or “America under Assault”, I do not agree. The magnitude of the violence and the breadth of the barbarism make it an assault not on the heart of America alone, but on the soul of humanity. All humanity, whether of good or ill will, is touched by this tragedy.  And all who long to live in that good creation, described by Howard Thurman,[2] and oft quoted by our own beloved Verna Dozier,[3] of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky”,[4] by this tragedy, once again, rudely have been roused from a dream of God into a waking, living nightmare. We are left to imagine, at least for us on these American shores, previously unimaginable terrorist possibilities – walk-in individual suicide bombings and biological weaponry. We are left to reflect on our history and to rethink, perhaps, to repent of what we as a nation have done to provoke such unrestrained hostility. Our psyche is wounded deeply. We yearn for healing. We search for peace.

In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions, those simultaneous and powerful counter pulls-and-pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves, abound.

On one side, anguish and anger will evolve into action. Our President, George W. Bush, in his September 11 address to the nation, directed our national resources “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Yesterday, signaling our country’s preparation for retaliation, he said, “We’re at war…and we will respond accordingly.” A normally partisan Congress and much of the country stand in accord with the pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators of this heinous act. On another side, fearing how anger and action can ripen into rage and revenge, how vengeance can perpetuate the very violence we hate, others advocate a different course. Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, in a September 11 statement, while affirming that justice must be done, declared that “people of faith…are called to another way…(a way of)…transformation…where swords can become plowshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.”

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer, if it ever was, only in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we desire to get to the other side of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven to be so in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion?  Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or perhaps what is this very human hubris that fashions so vengeful a face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I am not looking to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times. Hence, I look for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within. This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference. Around barriers and across boundaries internal and external, between our faith and our fears, between our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond the reach of our control. Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world. Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity.

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[5] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion. Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable, in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”[6]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Occurring in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, respectively.

[2] Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981), African American author, civil rights leaders, educator, philosopher, theologian, and mystic

[3] Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), African American biblical scholar, theologian, teacher, and writer.

[4] The Dream of God – A Call to Return (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991), page 31

[5] Philippians 4.7

[6] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee; words by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942)

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God’s wrath and our deliverance

preaching a sermon, based on Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

the-prophet-jeremiah-lamenting-the-coming-destruction-rembrandt-1606-1669

It would be easy for the sake of spiritual security and emotional sanity to ignore Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction, dismissing it as an ancient word, which it is, directed at the people Judah, thus not…never at us. Yet it has an ageless quality. There is much we in our time can glean from these terrifying words that remarkably parallel a better known story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,”[1] calling into being light, firmament, sea and earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, creatures of all kinds and humankind[2] “and God saw that” everything “was good.”[3]

Sadly, according to Jeremiah, God “looked on the earth” seeing only “waste and void, and to the heavens, and they had no light,” no sun, moon, or stars. Because of the malfeasance of humans who “do not know” God, “have no understanding…skilled in doing evil, not knowing how to do good,” squandering the stewardship of dominion God granted at creation,[4] God’s handiwork has reverted, regressed to the primeval state with which God began when “the earth was a formless void.” Therefore, that same “wind from God,” in the Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit, that created all things now blows “hot…from the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse (but to judge) against them.”

Jeremiah prophesies nothing less than the destruction, the deconstruction, the de-creation of the cosmos by a God of wrath. But suppose we think of God’s wrath not as an emotion, a divine feeling of fury, God being upset with us and desiring to do us harm (though, yes, the English text speaks of God’s “fierce anger”[5]). Rather as the sun rises, giving light, then sets and darkness falls, so God’s wrath is a metaphor for an inherent (that is, written into the code of the universe) cosmic reactivity to a creation gone bad. In that light or perhaps shadow, let us read Jeremiah’s prophecy as less about what God does and more about what we over time have done.

I think of climate change. Despite the deniers who believe talk of climate change comes from the chirping lips of Chicken Little pseudo-scientific pessimists who think the sky is falling, I believe it’s real, too real to ignore and that humans, with our ages-old obsession with fossil fuels, are principal culprits. We have upset our Mother Earth and she is reacting. The symptoms of her distress? Rising temperatures and sea levels, mounting winds and waves, scorched earth, the erosion of seacoasts, and evaporating water resources, all affecting arable lands and agricultural production, and human habitation. All making terribly real that petition in The Great Litany: From lightning and tempest, from earthquake, fire, and flood, from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us![6]

In addition to climatic forces, I think of destruction wrought by human hands. Today, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when terrorists at the controls of hijacked airliners brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, causing billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Since that day of this generation’s mega-event, akin to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Watergate, we have witnessed the horrifying rise of incidents of terror and hate crimes. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun about human cruelty in whatever name, for whatever cause.

We might react to all that befalls our world and us with immobilizing dismay and active fear, save for our faith, our trust and confidence in God. Jesus, in response to the religious authorities grumbling that he “welcomes sinners,” tells parables of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep, seeking, finding the lost one…

the-good-shepherd-le-bon-pasteur-james-tissot

and a woman searching her home for one lost coin.

the-lost-drachma-la-drachme-perdue-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Immediately following these stories, Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons”; the Parable of the Prodigal Son making clear the point that God always is in the redemption-business. God always seeks the lost. God always is never done with us. Surely, one faithful response to God’s unconditional, unconquerable love…one faithful response to God Who is love is our repentance, turning away from our abuse of our world, turning away from our abuse of others and ourselves.

In 1989, September 1 was proclaimed by the Orthodox Church as the World Day of Prayer for the Creation. Now, September 1 through October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is observed ecumenically and globally as the Season of Creation. Again, today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In the spirit of these commemorations, one aspect of divine deliverance is our contemplation and taking action, communally and individually regarding our daily behaviors in relation to our struggling planet and one another. What can you and I do to make the world a safer, saner, sounder place?

 

Illustrations: The Prophet Jeremiah (lamenting the coming destruction), Rembrandt (1606-1669); The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum; The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1.1, 2

[2] Genesis 1.3, 6-7, 9-10, 11-12, 14-16, 20-25, 26-27

[3] Genesis 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

[4] Genesis 1.26

[5] Jeremiah 4.26

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, page 148

a 14th anniversary reflection

Today, 9/11, many are the official commemorations and personal observances.

I value the purpose, the power of remembrance to draw us together in solidarity. And therein, I think, is an inherent problem with remembrance. In the renewal of our unity, particularly in response to tragedy, we may be tempted to overlook an essential historical and ethical question: What have we learned? After 14 years, I pray something about forgiveness.

Forgiving. Not forgetting. For who can erase the memory of a grievous wrong? Rather, forgiving as commemoration’s higher art – seeing clearly the wrong and, in enlightened self-interest (knowing the corrosive power of resentment), choosing to forsake the natural human desire for vengeance and the generational nurturance of prejudice.

Remembering the offense and our anguish clarifies for me the necessity of forgiveness and makes forgiveness, when offered, no feeble sentimentality, but a bold deed of mercy toward others and a true act of kindness to ourselves.

Still, forgiveness is easy to say, harder to do, and, at times, impossible. But today, I pray, not unthinkable. For our soul’s health as individuals, a nation, a world is at stake.

Today, as my personal existential and spiritual work, I contemplate repenting and forgiving my excesses. At one extreme, my human susceptibility to the blinding fear and burning anger that demonizes “the other.” At another extreme, the flaccid romanticism that idealizes a universal humanity, encouraging me to ignore the undeniable cultural, ethnic and racial, and religious differences that divide us.

In repenting and forgiving myself, I, with wide-eyed honesty, recognize anew that ours is a dangerous world and I, with a revived heart of hope, will continue to strive to understand “the other” – always seeking to be alert to every opportunity, with open eyes and an open heart, to unfold my arms and unclench my fists and open my hands to all.

a 13th anniversary reflection

I remember. Nearly 9.00 o’clock on that Tuesday morning 13 years ago. I lay in bed half awake contemplating the coming day; my musings interrupted by a WTOP (Washington, DC) radio news flash that an airplane had smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

I remember. A bit after nine, in shock listening to the report of a second plane crash.

I remember. Swiftly showering and dressing, then barreling down the stairs and through the door.

I remember driving to Capitol Hill, continuing to listen, hearing that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon. (Hours later we would learn, a fourth had crashed in a Pennsylvania field.) As I got closer, I beheld droves of people flooding the streets, walking, running away from the once seemingly secure marble buildings of government.

I remember a parishioner, a government worker, on her way home, stopping by the church office, asking: “Paul, what does it mean?” Desperately wanting to share a word of comfort, I mustered only a murmured, “I…don’t…know.”

I remember standing on the church office stoop looking out at an empty Pennsylvania Avenue. At a distance, two people walked down the street. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, yet, through the eerie sepulchral quiet, I could hear them.

I remember sending an email to my St. Mark’s community, beginning: There are no words to capture our shock and sadness, fear and anger, helplessness and, perhaps hopelessness…

And ending: In the midst of much we cannot understand, may we do what we can, praying for those who have died, those who have suffered grievous injury, their families and friends, and those who care for the suffering and the dying, and hold in our hearts those we love, remembering that we always only have today.

Today, September 11, 2014, we remember thirteen years ago. Perhaps where we were, what we did, what we said. 9/11 remains this generation’s mega-event indelibly branded on the psychic flesh of human consciousness (like December 7, 1941, in FDR’s famous phrase, the “date which will live in infamy” when Japanese war planes bombed Pearl Harbor or the November 22, 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the April 4, 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Today, as a part of my morning meditation, I reflected on the final words of the mission statement of New York’s Ground Zero memorial, Reflecting Absence: “May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.”

Today, in a world still rife, at times, it seems, more greatly enraged with hatred, ignorance, and intolerance, these words enthuse my soul that I, in my time and space, can and will do all I can, when I can, and where I can to do, to be love and justice unconditional for all.