Sermon for September 8, 2002
Craig Collin's Reflections on September 11, 2001
God's peace and love and grace be with you.
This week, we will be remembering the events of September 11, 2001 in many ways. Our country will experience a moment of silence on Wednesday morning. There will be an event just two blocks away at the Capitol. And of course, our media will provide story after story about the events of last year and those that were affected. Dare I say, but all of us were affected by those events last year. I suspect that this event will be remembered by individuals just like they remember where they were when they heard of Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination. I know I'll never forget September 11, 2001 and I'd like to share my story with you.
I was at a class in Manhattan on the morning of September 11. After class I planned on going to the World Trade Center to sightsee. As class began, someone walked in and told us a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We scurried for news on the Internet and eventually found out what was going on. They closed the building shortly thereafter and I went back to my hotel fighting through the crowds of people that were on the streets fleeing north. I was scared; scared for my life, scared for my family, and scared for my friends. I paced my room watching the news coverage, trying to figure out what was going to happen next, and how I could protect myself. I was able to make contact with my family by telephone and tried to tell them I was alright, but I wasn't. I was falling apart, feeling alone, feeling helpless.
And then I remembered that God was with me. I knelt and prayed for about ten minutes. I prayed for safety. I prayed for my family. I prayed for survivors and for survival. But most of all, I prayed that God stay with me and comfort me. I prayed for God to embrace me. And I asked God why this happened.
Why? That's a question we all struggle with when bad things happen. Christian Theology has many different answers to this question. Some say that bad things happen as a punishment from God for our sin, but we live in God's gift of grace, so this doesn't fit for me. As shown through Jesus, God is not punishing but embracing and forgiving. Some say that God is not all powerful, that there is an equally powerful evil force. However, this contradicts the final victory that Jesus won for us by conquering death. Some would say that we are meant to learn from evil and grow as people. But the personal growth doesn't seem to justify the loss of life, and isn't this another way of saying that God punishes us until we get better?
So why does God let these things happen? God tried to protect humanity in the Garden of Eden, but we disobeyed. And so God let us out of the idyllic garden into the rest of creation. God gave us the wonderful gift of experiencing all that life has to offer, which means both pain and joy, love and sorrow. God has asked us to be stewards of creation, to live in God's love and grace, to build communities and help others. I don't think that the evil of September 11, or war in Afganistan, or disease are God's fault, it is ours. We are the ones who live in sin in our own quests to control events, in our own way of trying to be God. We as humanity fight our brothers and sisters in the name of protecting ourselves. We create the evil. Incredibly, God loves us even through our accusations and our turning away, even in our inability to trust God instead of relying on ourselves.
The Reverend Bradley Hanson, in his book An Introduction to Christian
Theology, contends that there are three affirmations we can make as Christians
in the face of evil:
1. God shares the world's suffering;
2. While opposing evil, God is able to bring good out of evil;
3. God will ultimately triumph over evil.
While this doesn't provide us with an answer as to why evil occurs, it does help us to see God's presence when bad things happen.
Back to my story. As I prayed, I felt God's presence with me. I encountered God and knew that I was called to serve others in this tragedy. This was a very special moment for me. I knew God was with me, at that moment, in my suffering, and I knew God was with others in their suffering on this day as well.
God shares the world's suffering. In John chapter 11, Jesus experiences the loss of his friend Lazarus and the mourning of Mary, Martha, and the others that were gathered there. He had already told his disciples that Lazarus would be raised, but eventhough he knew the outcome, he shared in their suffering as we hear in verse 35 where it says "Jesus began to weep." We also know that Jesus suffered through rejection and a painful death, for us. God shares our suffering.
When I found out where the blood donation centers were, I went to give blood, but I was turned away. Given the state of the city at that time, I was not sure how I was to serve in light of this tragedy.
Called to Serve. By God's grace we are freed to serve others, even in the face of disaster. It is said that Martin Luther once commented that if he knew the world was to end tomorrow he would go plant a tree. In his book, Where God Meets Man, Gerhard Forde asserts that Luther married during the Peasants Revolt, when it appeared to him the world was unraveling, in part because of God's call for us to be in relationship and be stewards of God's creation. When bad things happen, God provides us many opportunities to serve and be in relationship with others. In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus is telling us how important it is to be in relationship with one another. Jesus tells us to try time and again to rebuild our relationships with one another. And if it doesn't work, treat them as a Gentile or a Tax Collector. But wait, didn't Jesus minister to Gentiles, and include Matthew the tax collectors among his friends and disciples? This Gospel message says we should not give up on relationships and finding common ground. This is a way we can be stewards of God's creation, by finding community with others.
When I went to give blood, the line had people of all walks and creeds, of all races, wanting to provide help. Interestingly enough, tragedy brought us all together and in line we participated in a relationship with one another. We were able to console one another. If I had still been trembling in fear, detached from my relationship with God, I would still have been in my hotel room and missed that moment. In addition, that night, here in Madison, the Grub and Gospel small group met. I knew that even through I was in New York, my wife Ronda would be cared for as part of that group, and it comforted me. These were part of God's gift of comfort and relationship to me that day; as was the church service I attended that night. While opposing evil, God is able to bring good out of evil.
In the following days, as I tried to find a way home, I encountered people being more friendly, being more giving, in New York. I saw people react with respect and thanksgiving as we rode the subways with rescue workers on their way to or from the site. Time and again, people would walk up to them and just say 'Thank You.' What a wonderful thing to see in light of this event. It changed people in New York. It changed people here in Madison as it did all over the country. People made commitments to focus more on their family, or spend more time serving others after this event. I know some people who have followed through on that commitment. Did you make a promise, and are you keeping it? Have we all continued to let those we love know it on a regular basis even as the months have passed since this event? If not, we can start again today.
In April of this year, Ronda and I went to New York for a wedding. While we were there, we went to the viewing platform for the World Trade Center site. All we could really see is a hole where these buildings once stood, a place where over 2500 people lost their lives one morning. I was concerned that this would be a strange version of rubber necking, like when you see an accident on the road and just have to look. But instead I found a reverence hanging over the area. Notes, pictures, dolls, teddy bears, hats and t-shirts made up a rag-tag memorial. But it was beautiful. While we stood in line, some firefighters from another city left a t-shirt from their firehouse along the fence. People were quiet as they looked at everything, realizing all of the mourning, and the outpouring of love that these items symbolized. For some of us, this may have brought the whole event into reality. For me, it was when a woman placed an obituary on the large poster of names of people that were missing next to the name of someone she knew. She even corrected the spelling of the name. She wept and her family hurried to her side. But once again, it was community and relationships that mattered. We could see that in their faces, even in their grief.
I have a friend, Linda, who leads a youth ministry group at another church. It brought tears to my eyes when I learned that her high school teenagers had been praying for me since September 11. She knew I was in New York. She did not know I was fine. The teenagers didn't know me at all. And yet, they prayed. While opposing evil, God is able to bring good out of evil. One of these teenagers shared with the group that praying for another gave her hope, that she felt she was giving in a very real way. The faith of these teens still astounds me. Praying for another does help. It helped me, and it helped them. I'm honored and humbled to be meeting them for the first time next week.
So what about the affirmation that God will ultimately triumph over evil? We know the end of the story. Jesus is risen. Death no longer has the final word. We know that God is working to bring the kingdom into being. We know that God works through us to bring grace and justice into this world, that we can serve God in this way.
Which brings me to hope. Linda asked me a few months back where I find hope in my story. I find hope in the thought of people who didn't know me praying for me, and in our prayers for families we did not know in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I find hope in the community of people after an event like this such as I found at the blood donation center, or around the streets of New York that week. I see hope in the outpouring of love and support at the World Trace Center viewing point. And I find hope in my relationship with God, whose spirit freed me at my point of collapse to go out and serve. This message today is part of the service God freed me to do. I think I was called to share this message with people so that you can see some of the light that can overcome the darkness of September 11. God is with us.
God shares the world's suffering; While opposing evil, God is able to bring good out of evil; God will ultimately triumph over evil.