Saturday, September 11, 2010
Sermon for September 12, Proper 19, Nine Years After Nine Eleven
Photos courtesy of Jane Barber
Jeremiah 4:11-12, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 16:1-13
Jesus poses these two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and then, “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the second one the answer is obvious: “Any woman would.” But to the first one the answer is the opposite: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. You would simply write off that last sheep as normal business management. What’s a one percent loss, when standard depreciation is ten percent?
The answers are opposite, but Jesus combines these two parables. He means that your answer to the second question makes you go back again to the first question and answer it contradictorily.
Not “No one would,” but “Anyone of us should risk the ninety-nine to save the one.” Jesus is saying, “Maybe you wouldn’t do it, but I would.” The Messiah would. The Messiah would because God does. To God, every lost person is of inestimable worth, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit. To bring such a one is what God rejoices in.
It’s what the cops and firemen and rescue workers did, nine years ago, while the buildings were still burning, and then in the first days after the attack. They counted every last lost person to be of inestimable value, no matter who it was. Even at the cost of their own lives. Which one of you would do the same?
You know that my coming here as your pastor was bound up with 9/11. Nine years ago, on the Sunday after the attack, I preached my candidating sermon, and on these same scripture lessons. They were remarkably relevant, especially the Jeremiah text, which gave words to the disaster. First, God speaking:“A hot wind comes from me out of the desert, toward my poor people, not to winnow or to cleanse, a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.” Then the prophet reporting, “I looked on the earth, and it was waste and void, and to the heavens, but they had no light. I looked, and the birds had fled, I looked, and the cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”
Nine years ago some fundamentalist preachers interpreted the terrorist attack as the judgment of God on America, for this sin or for that. They were wrong. I can tell you that God does not use such violent means to judge us. Our Reformed tradition teaches that all such violent kinds of judgment came to a definite and discernible ending at the death of Christ. God’s judgments are simply and cleanly offered in the words of the scriptures, God’s judgments are freely and earnestly offered for your reading and your understanding. God does not communicate with us by sending us sickness or loss or terror, God does not use violence of any kind to judge us. God judges us graciously in the words of Jesus and the apostles, God judges us faithfully in words of the law and the prophets. We read and mark and learn these words, we inwardly digest them, and by God’s grace we judge ourselves.
9/11 was not a judgment sent from God, but it was certainly an incentive and opportunity for our self-examination. Not to excuse the terrorists, but for us to fall to our own knees for mercy. To return to the Gospel, to judge ourselves by the Law of God again, because it’s always our privilege to be judged by God. Yes, it is our privilege to judge ourselves by the Word of God.
Those preachers were wrong to say that God had sent those terrorists as a judgment on America, but I prefer that mistake to so many of the later co-options of 9/11, as we are seeing now again. To stir up anger against the rest of the world and to respond to the violence with our own violence and our own Christian holy war. As if America had the right to righteous anger, as if we are a special sacred Christian nation about to be profaned by the knees of Muslim men at prayer. As if it were God’s job only to bless America and not to judge us. As if our society does not stand in constant need of mercy. And losing our conviction of needing mercy, our nation is losing our capacity for joy.
The gospel reveals the truer legacy of 9/11, that of the shepherd risking everything for that one sheep, the firemen in the stairwells giving their lives to save the lost, and then digging in the rubble for one more survivor or their last remains, the legacy that every single person, no matter what race or religion, is a silver coin of absolute value. We Christians stand for a society which spares no effort in the rescue of every victim—the victims of terrorists, but also the forgotten victims of our ordinary way of life, the unnoticed victims of the underside of our economy and those who live in the shadows of our great society. We Christians stand for an America that is rich in reconciliation and most powerful in mercy.
Our scripture lessons speak of judgment and of joy. These two words are joined by the hinge of mercy. Mercy is rich. Mercy is grace and generosity. Mercy is self-giving and self-sacrifice. We stand in mercy, we can stand up straight in mercy when we have bowed down low in receiving mercy from a righteous God who judges us in love and reconciliation. We accept the privilege of being judged by God, we come to know ourselves in terms of mercy, and what that yields in us is joy. From judgment through mercy to joy. We Christians and Jews and Muslims are alive to the mysteries of mercy, and we stand for a society which God blesses by judging, not by violence but in God’s word, which calls us out to joy. Not this anger that we see today, not this hatred, this bitterness, this self-righteousness, this fear. But judgment and mercy and joy.
I don’t remember what I said in that sermon I preached nine years ago. I don’t remember having noticed that I preached it on the twenty-first anniversary of my ordination. As Abraham Lincoln said, “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” I don’t expect you to long remember what I tell you on my thirtieth anniversary. But I offer you my testimony, which echoes the testimony of the Apostle Paul in our second lesson.
I can tell you without reserve that I have never been so joyful in my life. Oh yes, I have my burdens and frustrations, I have my own share of grief that I live with, but these are only the sandbars in the daily river of my joy. When I came back from Canada I found myself joyful to get back to work. It gives me so much joy to be the pastor of this church, that I should be here now, with you.
It gives me so much joy to have you people in my life, with all your personalities and your talents and your interests and your desires and your trouble. It gives me joy to face the challenges we share. It gives me joy to have the privilege of leading you, of preaching to you and teaching you, of interpreting the Bible for you—that I get to study the Bible on your behalf, that I get to pray for you and be prayed for by you. Who am I? That I should serve a church that has welcomed an imam to pray here? That I should serve a church that hosts a synagogue for High Holy Days? That I can worship with Jews right here in our own sanctuary is a high point in my ministry. That I should serve a Reformed church that celebrates holy communion every week, that I serve a church that welcomes everyone no matter what their sexuality, that I serve church that welcomes me, that I should serve a congregation 356 years old—O brave old church, that has such people in it.
But most of all it gives me such great joy that I have been the recipient of so much mercy. Mercy from my children, mercy from my family and my friends, mercy from the consistory, mercy from the classis, mercy from those who love me and mercy from those who don’t. I accept all of your judgments of me as true. And I thank you for your mercy. Especially the mercy of my wife, my companion and my lover and the chief joy my life. But most of all, the mercy of God. New every morning, I stand in mercy every day, and that’s what generates my joy.
Look at that stained glass window there, the triptych in the north wall. Notice all the colors in it, the joyful colors in it, the signs of the bread and the wine, the banquet of our joy. And look Jesus and the sheep. That’s where I see myself today. The Lord Jesus there, he daily comes to find me in his mercy. He counts me worthy to stand next to him, and he carries me when I need carrying. He is the savior who saves me and brings me safe to God, and I am joyful to serve him as my Lord.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.