A sermon for St. Luke's and St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The readings for the day are these: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10.
War should feel different from not being at war. You should know war when you’re in it. But for the last thirteen years, at least, this country has been at war (by various congressional definitions), which means there’s a good chance you and I have forgotten what it feels like not to be at war. It’s like when the electricity goes out in your home, and the buzzing of all the electric appliances stops and you hear a silence more silent than what you had grown to call silence - and you discover you’d forgotten that a silence like this one was possible. For thirteen years, though, the buzzing hasn’t stopped.
Truthfully, it has felt like war for longer. At least since 9/11. Fifteen years ago today. A friend reminded me the other day that this year’s freshmen were three when it happened. So much for exchanging “Where were you when?” stories. Of course, 9/11 was murder, not war. But one Christian thinker suggests that we called it “war” to normalize the chaos. Because Americans are good at war. We can do war. War gives us confidence.
My children were born into war. They have never not known it. They have no memories of landing at the airport and exiting the plane while craning their necks to find loved ones come early to meet them at the gate. The letters “TSA” dominated our family’s first travel experiences. Bedlam over stuffed animals forcibly relinquished and run through the requisite scanners. I am not one of those who thinks the added security steps are unnecessary. I appreciate the visible interest in our security. Still, when I was traveling through a crowded Chicago airport a couple of years ago and the security guard yelled out, “Keep your shoes on! Your government trust you! Your country trusts you! I don’t trust you, but your government trusts you. Keep your shoes on!” I felt uncontrollable tears fill my eyes. You can be shaped by war even when the wars are fought far away.
I believe we can say we want the buzzing to stop without dishonoring this country’s military, many of whom pray the prayer for lasting peace with an intensity I’ll never know. In fact, I think defending war with appeals to this country’s military personnel is worse than dishonest because it obscures the conflicts our servicemen and women carry. My grandfather served as a lieutenant colonel in the United States army. He fought in World War II and Korea. He would have fought in Vietnam, but my Granny said she’d leave him. He retired, reluctantly, and sold used cars, frequently to members of the great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s, scoring occasional autographed souvenirs for my dad. My grandfather never talked about war. He drank about war. And carried the stories alone. He died of liver disease two years before I was born.
Today, the global movement “22Kill” is raising awareness toward the twenty-two veterans who take their own lives every day, suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. Nevertheless, war remains the last, great bipartisan commitment.
But we are not here today to be partisan, or even bi-partisan. We are here to be a part of the kingdom of God. Shortly after 9/11, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote,
…if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than for the world to be redeemed by violence. Moreover, the defeat of death through resurrection makes possible as well as necessary that Christians live nonviolently in a world of violence. Christian nonviolence is not a strategy to rid the world of violence, but rather the way Christians must live in a world of violence. In short Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.
Hauerwas thinks that peace is not just the absence of war but, for Christians, the presence of friendships that God, in Christ, has made possible. It’s not a bad summary for the whole salvation story: God in Christ makes us friends of God and one another. That’s short enough to tweet!
I’m willing to wager that each of us, in our lives, has at some point felt provoked to battle - literal or metaphorical; has felt flushed with emotion and triggered in the way of all creatures toward either fight or flight. And maybe it was comforting to call it war, to see no other way. The betrayal of a friend. The colleague or student who advances faster than we do, the resentments and obsessions that follow. The loss of a loved one. The allure of power. The prospect of failure. A break up. Impending uncertainty. Insecurity of all kinds. Financial distress. Even prosperity. And whatever it is, here, at this juncture, is our opportunity to choose the alternative to desperation and violence: to walk with Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” And those sentences aren't together by accident. For Paul, where war and violence forget the nearness of God, gentleness and vulnerable engagement with the powers profess that Christ is at hand. Patience becomes the confession that God is present and can be trusted to act, even in the midst of disappointment and things we do not control. Finally then, for Paul, worship and prayer become the most truthful things Christians can do.
Which leads us at last to our gospel. In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus describes God’s faithfulness to God’s promise. It’s the same promise Moses holds up to God in our reading from Exodus, which is the same promise God made to Abraham: y’all are gonna be my children, are gonna flourish and shine like a light that’s gonna keep your neighbors up at night. Y’all are gonna be like the stars and shine in the sky and people will see things they didn’t see before you came along by your light. Beautiful things that will bless them. “God,” Moses interrupts, generations later, “We, no, they, um, your children, how do I say this? They built a cow out of grandma’s wedding band and some other stuff and said that was just as good as your promise of stars, just as shiny, but, um, before you smash us all to pieces, let me humbly remind you that, even so, you made a promise to bless, keep, and flourish them.” And so, more centuries later, Jesus describes God as a widow with a broom in her hand, scouring the floor for the one that got away; as a shepherd who, just as he’s about to call it a night, counts the sheep one more time. One’s missing. In an instant, he’s back in the hills.
The biggest thing about faithfulness in Luke’s gospel is that it doesn’t primarily refer to the faithfulness of Jesus’ followers. Faithfulness describes God’s commitment to God’s people, no matter what else they do or don’t do. God is the shepherd. God is a widow with a broom in her hand. You are a coin. Me, too! And it’s assumed we sometimes get spun on our heads; that we need help; that repentance and forgiveness and new life and mercy and the pursuit of these things are vital to what the life of the kingdom, with God, will mean.
And maybe you’ve already felt it. I’m almost sure you have. One day, some day, recently or long ago, you looked up, and heard a strange sound, a sound you would later call broom bristles against the tile. Maybe you felt the surprising and initially uncomfortable push of the straw on your back, only to find yourself, moments later, swept up in awe. Into the hands of the One who sought you and loves you, whose love makes you lovely. Who came after you. Who found you. Maybe you’ve felt the pull, the gravity, of God’s reconciling work in your life: you, even you, swept up and gathered into the purposes of God. Maybe you have tasted the forgiveness that comes from the prayer when the psalmist sings, “Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.”
God in Christ makes us friends of God and one another. Friends are those people who are learning to care about the things the people they care about care about. We are friends of God! He’s found us. Thanks be to God.
Lord, trusting your friendship, make us gentle toward ourselves, gentle toward one another, and gentle toward you. Show us where we do not yet trust you as we could, and then show us your joy, that we may share it generously for your sake and be surprised. Finally, give us your peace, still the buzzing in our hearts, that we may be your peace in this world. We ask these things in Jesus’ Name.