A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut  September 11, 2011.

I remember where I was on December 7, 1941  and where I was on November 22, 1964 and, of course, I remember where I was  on September 11, 2001 – even though, there, in New Zealand, it was already September 12.

September 11 is one of those dates  that marks us and changes us and it’s right to remember.  By now, ten years later, we have had some space and time  to recover a bit, to begin to put things in perspective  and to see what we have learned and can learn and should learn.  You remember that familiar saying perhaps that those who don’t learn their history  are condemned to repeat it.  No one, I’m sure, wants to repeat the dates I’ve mentioned.

So what have we learned? What do we need to learn?  I think it’s good that we spend so much time reading the Old Testament because it reminds us of our roots and a whole series of dates that are forgotten.  We remember the event, of course, and we can date it within a century or so but the exact date is long forgotten.  It’s the event that matters in the long run.   But when we read the Old Testament what we are doing is reading stories  and remembering the plan and purpose of God as it has been worked out in human history, and perhaps the most striking thing about it is that we can’t help seeing that the Bible is not what you might expect.

This central document of Christian faith,  the Word of God written, is not a book of good advice  or good teaching even – though it has that – so much as it is a story of human beings, people like ourselves, stumbling and failing, winning sometimes and losing probably more often, but in whose lives nevertheless God was at work. It’s not a book about good people doing good things  but about ordinary people doing ordinary things.  It’s the story of human families with distant fathers and scheming mothers and hostile brothers. We hear about treachery and rape and murder  and fear and envy and greed. And yet, in this story God was at work.  And that makes it possible, you see,  to look at our own stories and ask where and how is God at work here – even here?

Where and how is God at work in the event we call 9/11?  It’s disappointing, I think, that none of our political leaders have seemed to address that question, but to react in the classic human manner in terms of power and retaliation.  Has anyone asked not how have we been hurt and what can I do to prevent a recurrence but how best can we serve God  in these circumstances?

We are often advised to ask, “What would Jesus do?”   WWJD.   But we seem not to ask that as a country,  as if Christianity applies only to personal lives, what we do as individuals  not what we do together.  But the Bible is the story not just of individuals but also of a people, God’s people, Israel and the church.  And the Old Testament reading this morning shows us a disastrous confrontation  between two peoples – Hebrews and Egyptians –  that winds up with thousands dead and thousands of others free from slavery.  And the remarkable thing about it is that the Jews did not come away from Egypt saying “God is on our side” but that “God is a God of justice and God will set the enslaved free.”  The prophets hammered that point home centuries later: God is a God of justice and you, God’s chosen people, are acting unjustly and therefore you will be destroyed as the Egyptians were destroyed unless you change your ways.

In stained glass at the entrance to the Episcopal church in Canaan is the inscription, “God is not a respecter of persons.”  That’s a good thing to remember when you leave church.  God is a God of justice and it matters not who you are, you cannot act unjustly and escape God’s judgment.  We need to bear that in mind. God is a God of justice and it matters not at all who you are: you cannot act unjustly and escape God’s justice.  That‘s something to remember when we think about the tax code and the role of the government in our lives and the health code and our treatment of aliens.  God is a God of justice and plays no favorites.

But secondly it is God’s justice, not ours.  The Bible tells us that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And therefore Jesus taught his disciples,  “If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him something to drink.”  And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us when we are hit  to turn the other cheek. That’s hard counsel.  I have to admit, I don’t know exactly how to apply it. I’m never been able to be a pacifist.  Logic tells me I have to resist evil.  Maybe I do, but the gospel is still relevant because even if we see no alternative to the use of force,  we have to use it reluctantly and minimally and never out of blind anger and hatred.

It’s remarkable, it seems to me,  how careful the American response  to 9/11 has been;  how much effort there has been to avoid demonizing any particular  ethnic or religious group the way the Germans were demonized in WW I and the Japanese in World War II. Maybe we have learned something and have not needed to repeat past mistakes.  There’s been some  demonizing, but relatively little when you compare it to the past.

Judgment is God’s.  Judgment is also individual. And judgment is always with compassion. I’ve told the story before I think that the rabbis have told for centuries of how, after the events we just heard about at the Red Sea, when the Hebrew people were pursued by Pharaoh’s army and escaped  through the waters of the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army was drowned, the angels, seeing the Egyptians lying  dead on the sea shore, burst into applause and songs of praise. But God rebuked them, asking, “How can you rejoice, when my children are lying dead?”

The Egyptians too are “my children.” God created all of us,  loves all of us, died for all of us. Our enemies also are God’s children.  Every human life has value in God’s eyes: every human life.

The story of the Red Sea follows immediately on the description of the first Passover in which we are told, “This shall be a day of remembrance for you throughout your generations.” But what does Passover remember and celebrate?  Not the death of the Egyptians  but the freedom of God’s people  from slavery. We remember God’s justice  and God’s love for us and the value God places on every human life. That’s the second lesson the Bible has for us  that we need to learn and remember. Every human life has value.

I’ve never understood why a country like this  with the highest percentage of Christians, I think, of any country in the world has some of the most savage laws. We hold six times as many people in jail as Canada  and execute more people than any countries except China and Iraq and places like that. No other nominally Christian country  jails or kills as many as we. Why is that? Where have we gone wrong?

Every human life has value.  It’s not going to be easy to conduct a campaign against terrorism  and rogue states while holding fast our values and reserving judgment for God and respecting the value of human life, but it’s just because this country holds such values that we have such enormous influence in the world  and draw some many people to our shores who want the kind of life we have. If we lose our values along the way,  we’ve lost everything.

There’s one final lesson to hold in mind:  the Bible has a lot to say about suffering and pain. It teaches us that God can work through them.  They don’t need to be unredeemable evil. The crucifixion can lead to resurrection.  The death of martyrs is the seed of the church.  The old Prayer Book had an interesting rubric in the section for the visiting of the sick. It said the priest is to address the sick person  “on the meaning and use of sickness.” Think of that: “the meaning and use of sickness.”  Nothing in God’s providence is wasted. Everything is to be redeemed,  made use of, and that includes pain and suffering.  God is able to redeem them, to use them. And with God’s help, so can we.

9/11 is a dark day that will be forever remembered but from it there are lessons to be learned and the Bible has guidance for us in the lessons we take away and the shape and direction our national life takes as a result. Judgment is God’s, not ours.  Every life has value. Even suffering can be redeemed. Let us lay aside the works of darkness,  said St Paul, “and put on the armor of light, ” indeed, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and act in the power of his transforming Spirit.  What better evidence could we give the world of the truth of our faith  and the power of God’s redeeming love?

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