Between Memory and Hope

On this day of remembrance I offer the text of the sermon I preached at Carmel Christian Church in Carmel, Indiana on September 11, 2011. 

Chances are good that no one will forget where you were on September 11, 2001 around 8:45 AM Eastern Time.

Take a moment, just about 30 seconds or so and turn to someone and tell them where you were, what you were feeling

I was at work, at the office in North Atlanta. I had settled into my cubicle, returned email from the previous day and began to prepare for several appointments that I had scheduled for that day, when all of a sudden, people came running into the sales area of the building, telling us to come to the break room, to see what was happening in New York City. We had this break room in our office that held a foosball table, air hockey table and a big screen television. We had about 50 people crammed into this break room, watching what was going on, smoke billowing out of the towers

About an hour later, it was reported that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. It was at the point that people felt pretty sure that the United States was under some sort of attack.

I remember standing there with my coworkers, some in tears, many of us angry, all of us in shock. We probably all stayed in that break room until about 11 AM. We didn’t know what to do. We knew that work would not go on as planned that day. By about noon, most of the office had cleared out, had gone home to be with family and loved ones.

We have a good family friend who was in New York City for work on that day. She was in a cab heading to the office before heading to the airport to fly home that evening. She recalls being in this cab and looking back and seeing smoke coming out of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. She could not get a cell phone call out to anyone for nearly four days and her family knew she was in New York. She recalls the smoke, everywhere you went, you smelled smoke. She recalls how strange, two days later it was to hear an airplane overhead. There were no cars really moving around Manhattan, and it was so strange and scary to hear that airplane flying over NYC.

The other thing that sticks out in her mind is the sense of community, the sense of being united together in the midst of this tragedy. No one was talking about what was happening because they were each living it. There were a certain calmness, a definite sense of being united together.

September 11th, 2001 was a day that changed the course of history, not only for the United States but for the world. It is now ten years later and we are somewhere between memory and hope.

Our sense of security was shattered on that day. Try telling a twelve year old that it wasn’t that long ago that anyone was allowed to randomly wander all over an airport. I remember flying about three weeks after the attacks, and it was a different world

A good friend of mine, a very wise person has made this observation. It was on September 11th when the United States learned about the fear that a good portion of the world lives with in terms of violence and feeling threatened.

We also were confronted with the seemingly random nature of life. In the days and weeks following the attacks, we heard the stories of the woman whose life was spared because she overslept and was late for work. We heard the story of one who lost their life because they came to work early. The story of the brave firefighter, first responder who lost their life because they rushed into a most dangerous situation without blinking because that is what they do. The person whose life was spared because they were bumped from a flight.

It was also a day when most of us hear the term Al Queda and the name Osama Bin Laden for the first time, but certainly not the last. We realized just how small the world had become, although not neccsarrily the way in which we would have wanted to find out.

On the Sunday after September 11th, Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, and other houses of worship were filled as people gathered to mourn, to pray, and to hope, to gather in our shared and fragile humanity.

We saw and experienced the best and the worst of the human condition

We saw the worst in those who flew planes into buildings who believed they were doing the will of God.

We saw the best in those who gave of themselves in self-less service, those who showed enormous love, compassion, and mercy to those in need.

We saw the world unified in a way in which we had not seen in some time- You may remember the headline from the French newspaper Le Monde “We are all Americans now”

I daresay in the moments and days that followed the attacks we saw many glimpses of the kingdom of God.

10 years later, a lot has happened. We as people of faith are somewhere between memory and hope.

The will of God is a tricky thing for throughout history many horrible acts have been committed because a particular group of people with a particular ideology believe they were doing the will of God

In 1995, in the midst of the Bosnian War, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in the border town of Srebrenica. They were killed by Serbian Orthdox Christians, who were part of the Serbian army. They were killed because they believed their way of life was superior. I suspect they believed they were doing the will of God.

For many of us, our introduction to Islam came 10 years ago. It is one of three religions that come from what is called the Abrahamic tradition, coming from the family of Abraham. These are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What all three have in common is that all three believed that God was revealed to Abraham in a unique way. All three believe in one way or another that God is the creator of the world.

To be sure, each religion has distinct theological differences. The major one for Christians is that we believe that God is incarnate in the life of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior.

Just as in our scriptures, there are some beautiful words in the Koran:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of this light is, as it were, that of a niche, containing a lamp; the lamp is enclosed in glass, shining like a radiant star; a lamp lit from the oil of a blessed tree ~ an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west ~ its oil is so bright that it would almost give light of itself, even if it was not lit by fire. Light upon light.”

Sounds familiar to some words of Jesus: You are the light of the world, a city on a hill cannot be hid.

I say this because I think it is important for us to recognize that to truly move forward in creating the world that God dreams for us, we must learn to work together with people of different faiths. We must learn to see what unites us rather than what divides us.

There is a truth that transcends all religious lines and that truth is that God’s will is always life. That is a truth that is firmly rooted in the eternal love and grace of God. Death never has the final word.

This is the overarching word of the scriptures. Two examples for today

The Psalmist recognizes this. At its very heart , Psalm 103 is an exhortation to be thankful for the character of God. It celebrates the character of God, the God who sits at a place with a view of the world, a view of creation like nothing else. God’s heart is always the first to break when any human being does harm with another and God is always the first to weep with us when we weep.

Lewis Smedes once said that the grace of God is the most wonderful thing in the world, that God has the hold world in God’s hands and grace for the whole world in God’s heart.

The Hebrew people are in a pivotal place in their history, standing on the edge of the promised land. They have been a nation who has been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses has led them out of slavery and into this place, through national calamities and very difficult times.

Moses will not enter the promised land, however and he is giving what has become known as his farewell speech

His people are struggling greatly with fear. What will happen to us in this new place, what will happen to us without our leader? Moses says that before you has been placed life and death, and you need to choose life. God has chosen life, you choose life

For us as Christians, the life of Jesus is a reminder that God’s will is life. 2000 years ago he gave of his own life for the kingdom of God that he was so passionate about. He gave of his life for a world that would be steeped in:









And finally a world marked by new life.

It is the call placed upon us to a hopeful people, to be a kingdom people to choose life, to bring about new life together.

10th Anniversary we have heard some of the wonderful stories of people breaking down barriers to bring about new life. In these stories we see glimpses of the kingdom of God

When Betsy Wiggins opened her front door and saw the woman in a full black face veil coming up her flower-lined walkway, she wondered if she had done the right thing.

It was 11 days after 9/11, and Mrs. Wiggins, a speech pathologist and the wife of a Methodist minister in Syracuse, had called the local mosque and invited a Muslim woman she did not know over for coffee.

She and the Muslim woman, Danya Wellmon, a medical lab technician, sat in the Wigginses’ breakfast nook for hours and talked about their faith, their careers, their children — and their mutual despair over the terrorist attacks. They bonded that day, and decided that they should start a broader discussion. As a next step, Ms. Wellmon invited nine Muslim women, and Ms. Wiggins invited nine others (Christians, Jews, one Buddhist and an Ismaili Muslim) to join them for a potluck dinner by the big stone fireplace in the living room.

In Syracuse, as in countless other communities, 9/11 set off a phenomenon that may seem counterintuitive in an era of increasingly vocal Islamophobia. A terrorist attack that provoked widespread distrust and hostility toward Muslims also brought Muslims in from the margins of American religious life — into living rooms, churches, synagogues and offices where they had never set foot before.

American Christians and Jews reached out to better understand Islam and — they will admit — to find out firsthand whether the Muslims in their midst were friends or foes. Muslims also reached out, newly conscious of their insularity, aware of the suspicions of their neighbors, determined that the ambassadors of Islam should not be the terrorists.

“Before 9/11 we were somewhat timid,” said Saad Sahraoui, president of the Islamic Society of Central New York, the largest mosque in Syracuse, when the attacks occurred in 2001. “We just kept to ourselves, just concerned with our families and our children.

“Sept. 11 changed the whole thing,” he said, and hesitated before adding, worried it could be misconstrued, “but the change was in some ways positive.”

In the months and years after 9/11, in communities large and small, mosques opened their doors for Friday prayers and iftar dinners to break the Ramadan fast. Churches and synagogues deluged imams with speaking requests. Muslim, Jewish and Christian performers hit the clubs on comedy tours.

“There are so many interfaith councils and projects now, we can’t even keep track,” said Bettina Gray, chairwoman of the North American Interfaith Network. “From the Muslim side, there’s more incentive to work with the broader community, and there’s more receptiveness from the Christian and Jewish side.”

In Syracuse, like most other places, the road to interfaith understanding was full of bumps. When Ms. Wellmon tried finding nine Muslim women to join her, she said she had to “browbeat” some of them into it. As a white convert, Ms. Wellmon did not find it a stretch to have coffee with Mrs. Wiggins. But the other women in the mosque were immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and were not accustomed to speaking with outsiders about their religion.

Also, they were scared. After 9/11, Muslims in head scarves were harassed on the streets. The Islamic Society in Syracuse received threatening telephone messages. Thirty miles to the north, an eclectic Sikh temple called Gobind Sadan was burned down by four teenagers who thought that the turbaned worshippers were Muslims and that the temple’s sign said “Go Bin Laden.”

“There was this fear, all this backlash was coming at us,” Ms. Wellmon said. “But I had built a relationship with the women in the mosque early on, and they knew I was not going to put them into a situation that was hostile.”

They began by talking about the Koran and Islamic rituals, but they soon found themselves in intimate discussions about how they pray, what they believe about birth and death, why they do or don’t wear head scarves. It was hard for the group’s feminists to reconcile their assumptions about Islamic oppression of women with the room full of dynamic, assertive, educated Muslim women.

“I think we had seven meetings about the veil,” Mrs. Wiggins said. “We finally got over the veil.”

The group outgrew Mrs. Wiggins’s living room and took on the name Women Transcending Boundaries. Soon, the group was organizing international dinners to raise money for girls’ schools in Pakistan. Members volunteered to teach English and sewing skills at a center for immigrants and refugees. They organized a community walk that they called Journey to the Tent of Abraham, with stops along the way at churches, a synagogue and a mosque. They turned a vacant lot into a garden where immigrants from Myanmar, Vietnam and Burundi grow vegetables.

A glimpse of the kingdom. Glimpses like this show us the way. The way to God’s kingdom on earth.

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