Recently, for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Rev. Erin Thomas preached this sermon, and Rev Lee Ireland thought it would be important to share.
Everyone has a story about 911. Where we were the moment we heard the news. How it affected us. If we knew someone who perished or knew someone who knew someone. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime global events that you could not easily escape, even if you didn’t own a TV at the time. The horror and the trauma have stayed with us all these years. Weighed heavy on our hearts. It was an experience that has been hard to shake, to file away, to simply be done with it. Much like Pearl Harbor for our elders’ generation, It was Violent. Unexpected. Shocking. Earth-shattering. Life-altering. It upended everything we knew about the world. About good and evil. About love and hate. It ripped apart our sense of normalcy, dismantling any sense of control we thought we had in our lives. 911 tore our world to shreds.
The Coronavirus did a similar thing. Coming seemingly out of the blue, it hit us hard in a most personal way, taking loved ones down before the experts could figure out what this terrible variant was. Before we could create weapons and fight back. Our comfortable lives were rearranged, priorities reordered. In the blink of an eye, we had to adapt, shift, and change in order to survive. Our movements in time and space were restricted and in our churches, we had to recreate our worship services and our ministries as well as our ways of interacting with people. We had no choice but to stop meeting in person and go exclusively online. It left us stunned, angry, and confused. Until the vaccine, we were left without defenses, raw and naked as never before. We were deeply grieved and we had no idea when the restrictions—or the pandemic—would end.
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matt. 27:50-51, NRSV)
The sacred curtain in the temple that separated God from humanity was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’ death. The ripple effect became a global event that echoed throughout history. The focus is not on an earthquake dividing the temple but on the curtain of the temple being torn from top to bottom, coming from the heavens themselves. The symbolism is powerful: this curtain, this separation from God was obliterated because of the death (and coming) resurrection of Christ. William Barclay said it best, “This was the curtain which shut off the Holy of Holies, into which no one might go. Into the Holy of Holies, only the high priest could go, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But now, the curtain was torn and the way to God was wide open to everyone. For within the Holy of Holies was the very essence of God. Now, with the death of Jesus, God could be seen face to face. No longer was God hidden. No longer the need to guess and grope. Anyone who looked at Jesus could say, ‘That is what God is like. God loves me like that.”
In the midst of the most tragic moment in human history, God made a way. Jesus came to bridge the gap between humankind and God. Jesus came to be the way, the truth and the light. To show us, up close and personal, the God of the Universe who came to save us. Sometimes, the very things that we cling to, that we idolize, need to be destroyed, torn asunder in order for them to be rebuilt in the image of God.
The Greek word for crisis is Krisis and it means, quite literally, the turning point in a disease. It is that moment, when the fever breaks, when things begin to turn, it is that critical moment when things could go either way, up or down. It is in the pain and struggle of a crisis that the epiphany is revealed. The new way, the new understanding, the new course is chartered and that terrible moment is reborn, reshaped, remade into something good.
It is said that those who have a clear purpose live their lives differently with more joy, more enthusiasm, more focus. We have been called as Christians to a different purpose than the siren song of the world.
Turning to the words of the prophet Isaiah chapter 58, we find the core of that purpose:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in. (Isaiah 58:1-6 NRSV)
There is great hope in that calling. And purpose. For us to turn from the ways of the world and to rise up into the sacred call for social justice. To help our Creator to remake and reform the brokenness of the world around us and be transformed in the process. To respond to the needy by sharing what we have. To care for others in new ways. And in this calling, we will never be alone. We will have brothers and sisters who rise up with us. To work side by side in the Holy calling of the One who came to save us.
For it is God alone who can redeem our trauma and our pain and remake it into something more beautiful than we could ever imagine. Our suffering carves us deep so that we are able to be in solidarity with those who suffer. And in a meaningful way, we can come alongside those who are hurting. We are not meant to be in this work alone and given over to exhaustion.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Psalm 91)
God does not ignore the suffering, nor should we. It is woven into the tapestry of our lives forever. But God can remake it and use it for good as only God can. And we will remain faithful. Trusting in the God Eternal who can pull us out of the dark abyss and into the light. I don’t know all your stories of pain and suffering just as you may not know mine. But our God knows every hair on our head and will guide us towards that purpose if we keep our eyes on him. Sing with me…
Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full, in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of his glory and grace.
May we live toward a future Where love will conquer hate.
God, give us faith and wisdom To be your healing hands;
Give us open minds that listen To truth from all your lands.
Give us strength to work for justice; Grant us love that casts out fear.
Then peace and not destruction Will be the victor here.
AMEN (excerpt from Carolyn Gillette’s hymn text written for the 10th anniversary)