9/11 + 10: Today, I Heard the Worst Sermon of My Life

Well, to be honest, today’s message wasn’t all that different from numerous others I’ve heard in church. Nothing said was doctrinally wrong or unsound (not that I am especially concerned with those things). The message wasn’t explicitly hateful or exclusionary.

Actually, based on that fact alone, I’ll even concede that the totality of the message wasn’t as rotten or devoid of the gospel as others I’ve sat through recently. Rather, it was more about what wasn’t said.

And an opportunity lost.

Today’s service began with many in the congregation delivering impromptu testimonies in remembrance of 9/11, including one from a Ground Zero responder who helped to pull bodies from the rubble. Then, the message was about being agents of grace. You and I personally, that is.

And I affirm that message, don’t get me wrong.

The problem is, it’s a message I hear frequently in church. Twice a month, perhaps. It’s an “anyday” message.

And today isn’t just any day.

If it was, we wouldn’t have spent over a half-hour listening to people relive and remember the terror we all felt on 9/11 – the tremendous loss of life, the sense of security that disappeared instantaneously, the confusion about what just happened, the fear for our loved ones who might’ve been in danger, the anger at seeing video of people in the Middle East dancing in the streets after our misfortune, and many other emotions that we will not soon forget.

We’re willing to relive the horror of that very day one decade ago, but we apparently aren’t willing to ask what, if anything, we’ve learned in the years that follow. That’s the message that needs to be said to the whole country, but it needs to begin in church.

Could we, the Church, have responded differently?

  • Could we have prayed for our enemies?
  • Could we have “supported our troops” without supporting a foreign policy of quick-triggered military interventionism?
  • Could we have urged forgiveness instead of retaliation?
  • Could we have preached radical and transcendent peace, rather than being complicit in (and sometimes rubber-stamping) the state’s drumbeat for war?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is Yes, we could’ve, will we do so the next time peace and patience and forgiveness are called for?

At any point in the decade after 9/11, could we have awakened and remembered that there was a time when the church, because of those things we proclaim about Jesus and his message, would openly disagree with the destructive policy of the ruling authorities?

Could we begin to do that today?

Becoming agents of grace in our own lives is important. It speaks to an overall orientation toward the macro-level, big picture things that God desires of his kingdom — living individually in a correct manner, loving all persons, being communally oriented, standing up for righteousness, and conspiring for radical peace.

But on some occasions, a slightly different message is called for.

The gospels are all in agreement that John the baptizer served as a forerunner to Jesus. Matthew’s account says it this way:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 3:1-2, NRSV

Implied in this simple message is that kingdom-orientation requires, assumes, presupposes, or is otherwise improved by first repenting.

The Greek language thought of “repentance” in a much different way than we do. My esteemed professor Fred Shively explains it this way: he grew up believing that repentance was feeling sorry about all the bad things he’d done. More or less, we were all probably taught something similar to this. But for the Greeks, repentance was a compound word meaning “change of mind.”

μετανοία (metanoia) = “change of mind,” translated as repentance
μετα (meta), meaning “change of/in” + νοία (noia), a form of νόημα (noema), meaning “mind”

“Repentance” is an ambiguous, if not outright poor, translation of the word, if you ask me.

If we’re honestly seeking an orientation toward the kingdom-life, we must collectively change our minds about supporting the state’s war machine, whether explicitly or implicitly, by changing the words that we’ve spoken in the past or the words that we’ve kept to ourselves. The kingdom of God is compatible with neither guns and bombs nor the quick trigger to use them.

Today’s sermon included a reminder about St. Paul’s Chapel, an episcopalian church at the feet of the World Trade Center towers that survived their collapse with nary a scratch. Though this particular church served as an important relief center in the hours, days and weeks after 9/11, the message was that the church still stood after that fateful day.

But I’m wondering if the Church will now stand for something.

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PostScript

As much as was humanly possible, I attempted to keep politics out of my message, which is church-oriented by nature. I rather think I succeeded in doing so, for the most part. But where matters of policy are involved, it’s hard to keep politics out of it completely. So I’ll let Judge Napolitano of Fox Business’ “Freedom Watch” speak for me. This video is golden, and I am in agreement with virtually everything he says.

 

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