Year C, Proper 19
September 11, 2016 is the 15th anniversary of the day in American history known as 9/11. America was attacked by terrorists from the extremist group al Quaeda who hi-jacked commercial airliners to use as weapons of mass destruction. That day the Twin Towers of World Trade Center in New York City were brought down and reduced to rubble by two jets. The Pentagon Building in Washington, DC was attacked by another jet as it crash landed into the side of the buillding. A fourth jet, most likely commandeered to target the US Capital Building, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Over 3000 people were killed including more than 400 police officers and fire fighters who were first responders to the attacks. It was a day of unspeakable horror and tragedy that ricocheted across the nation touching everyone. I know it touched people around the world as well.
It was like the “hot wind” Jeremiah prophesies, coming out of the bare heights in the desert toward the people, “not to winnow or cleanse–a wind too strong for that.” It was a wind that spawned seething anger that spilled over into revenge as the US later attacked Iraq and sought out the al Quaeda perpetrators one by one. It was also a wind that spawned much soul-searching among many of God’s people of all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The first scripture that came to my mind that bright Tuesday morning in 2001 as I watched the towers burning and collapsing was Isaiah 1:18. The words were carried to my memory by the tune of a song I learned in college composed by singer/songwriter, Ken Medema. “Come let us reason together, that’s what God says. Come let us reason together, says the Lord. Tho’ your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Tho’ they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool.”[i]
I wonder if we have learned anything about how to “reason together” or as the NRSV translates, to “argue it out” in the fifteen years since that day. As I look back and as I experience the daily news of ISIS and the plight of Syrian refugees, I am greatly disheartened. The agony continues in different forms. We lost over 3000 on American soil on 9/11/01. Yet this number is small in comparison to the tens of thousands killed in Syria and Iraq, and in attacks around the world, by the war with ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The numbers are quoted as upwards of 500,000 with over 3 million displaced as refugees. What is happening? Where is the Holy One in the midst of our human hate, revenge and destruction? Just as the horror ricocheted over America and around the world on 9/11…it continues as we hear the reports from Iraq and Syria, as we try to intervene to stop the violence, to negotiate and yet we are failing as humanity to reason with one another, to hear one another. Perhaps because we are failing to hear God?
God’s call, “come let us reason together”, comes to me in an echo behind the scathing words of Jeremiah, the laments of the psalmists in Psalms 14 and 51, and in Moses’ defense of the people to God in Exodus 32. And I am not sure how to respond. Yet it is always time for God’s people to respond, to return and argue it out with God. To seek justice from one another and from God for those who have been oppressed. Are there those who are desperate after centuries oppression that they can only imagine being heard through violence? How do we listen to them? How do we, as ordinary church-going people, listen deeply to God’s cry for relationship and obedience in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and in the Koran? How do we keep our faith, learn to forgive ourselves and others, seek peace in these times?
It occurs to me that we, as God’s people, those who claim this title and those who may not, are the lost sheep and the lost coin in the parables of Jesus. In this time Jesus’ stories do not speak just to the individual who has gone astray from God’s ways. The stories speak to us as a world so divided. We are lost in so many ways. And may not even know we can cry out to God – in the languages of all faiths – to be found. These are my questions, reflections and prayers as I approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11 here in the US in the midst of a highly contentious election year. I know that those of you around the world are watching to see how we will choose a new leaders as American people. No matter who our next president will be….we are being called to reason with God’s ways of justice, mercy, and forgiveness so we may know and offer God’s love and peace. May God grant us the humility and wisdom to be found by God’s grace so we may reason together.
God’s anger is evident in the texts this week. But it never completely covers God’s forgiveness. Even in Jeremiah where it seems all is lost for God’s people the Lord says through the prophet, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:27). There is no recompense in Psalm 14 for “all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD” (Psalm 14:4). Yet if we but turn and ask God as in Psalm 51 to “create in us a clean heart” God will restore the fortunes of God’s people. It seems there is a symbiotic relationship between God and the God’s people, in fact all of creation. Both thrive in right relationship. It is the covenant that Moses reminds God about in Exodus 32. What stories do you know, have you lived, that reveal God’s forgiveness?
Paul’s confessional “story” in 1 Timothy is an eloquent expression of the covenant, of the healing power of being in right relationship with God and therefore with God’s people. Building upon your knowledge of Paul, of his situation at the writing of 1 Timothy, and of his conversion you might be led to construct a story for your sermon from the first person voice of Paul. Put yourselves in Paul’s heart and mind as he writes to his young protégé. Remember with sensory detail your participation in stoning Stephan and your deep anger at the disciples of Jesus who seemed to preach blasphemy. What was the day like when the stoning took place – the temperature, the sun shining or not, the color of your cloak as you laid it aside to pick up a rock? What were the sounds of the crowd, the smells? Ask your self similar questions about the road to Damascus. What had the day been like as you started on your journey? What were you thinking as you walked along? Was the sun hot? Were you hungry? Thirsty? After exploring scenes of Paul’s persecution of Jesus’ early followers, his own conversion and blindness, and other scenes of his ministry, then go back to the words he writes to Timothy. What have you learned by creating the back story? Can you tell this text as story now?
I explored stories of anger for our texts this week. Are there stories you know of about being anger, about the power of anger and its genesis in hurt? What are the stories you know about people who have every right to be very angry because they have been wronged and yet choose to use the power of that emotion to seek healing and forgiveness? I found one such story titled, “The Good Points” at the website, “Stories For Preaching, http://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/anger/. There is another such story about the Buddha that can be found at http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/loveguide/session12/anger.
Jesus presents us with some of his most well-known stories in our Luke text, the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. They are powerful and they are there for the telling straight from scripture. You might explore them in different translations and paraphrases such as Eugene Peterson’s The Message (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15%3A1-10&version=MSG ) and Clarence Jordan’s The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts (http://www.westminster.edu/staff/nak/courses/CottonLk15.htm). There can be some humor in their telling as well as great poignancy.
Two of my favorite stories about being lost and found is from the Sufi tradition. It is the story of Nasrudin and the Lost Key. You can find it many places on the internet. Here is one, http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/the-lost-key-a-mulla-nasrudin-story . The story asks the question about where do we search when we have lost something precious to us and vital to our well-being. Another story of the wise and holy fool, Nasrudin, tells of his lost train ticket, https://courseofmirrors.wordpress.com/tag/nasrudin/ . Again the question is asked of us as listeners/readers of the tale, where do we look for what we have lost?
Blessings, my friends, on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please tell the stories!
[i] You can hear some wonderful versions of this song on YouTube. Here is one with pictures that evoke the search for peace between the faith traditions of Abraham, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tIwMkOsg6I . And you can hear the composer, Ken Medema’s rendition at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoPTU3e0WKE .