September 17


By Marsh Chapel

Mark 8: 27-38

1. Preface

(The sermon was preceded by R Thompson’s ‘Two Roads’, the first Frostiana piece, and the first of seven uses of the seven pieces at Marsh this fall, corresponding to the Markan lectionary, and the sermons of the day. The service concluded with #426 UMH, to the tune ‘Marsh Chapel’.)

As Jesus taught, and Mark wrote, and Frost sang, we become who we are by the decisions we make.

We survivors, surviving survival, and moving from the guilt of survival to the gift of survival, when last we gathered did affirm…

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’ (Niebuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

2. A Defining Moment

Sometimes, Fosdick said, a sermon is a twenty five minute public session in pastoral counsel. We mean a place where two or more souls, in Rilke’s words, “protect, border and salute each other”. In God’s presence we may stand by one another, at the border of the soul. Not to avoid. Not to interfere. To honor.

On September 11, 2001 four airplanes were commandeered and employed as weapons in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. More than 2500 people died in hellish ways in the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and in an open field, as a consequence of this infamous assault. Parents lost children. Children lost mothers and fathers. Husbands lost wives, and wives husbands. This senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, a cruel and hate filled act inflicted upon defenseless citizens, was further exacerbated by the expressed celebration of American deaths by terrorists across the globe. Wives of New Jersey firefighters were forced to bury their loved ones against the background music of such choruses of joy. Parents of young, single women were caused to weep for their dead within earshot of the terrorist network’s bright eyed happiness. A generation of younger Americans was caused to carry into life lasting pictures of horror: a body, floating like a leaf, falling 100 stories…two young women, clasping hands in the fire of the 90th floor, and jumping hand in hand to their deaths…the greatest of human constructs in two giant towers rendered dust…a city paralyzed…a nation frightened…a culture permanently altered. Nineleven made us a people drenched in fear, anger, sorrow, and hatred. We have scarcely begun to absorb, to digest, or to reflect upon the experience.

3. The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

Robert Pinsky has given us poetry. Rowan Williams has written a short book. The television produced a docudrama. Of late, the movie industry is stirring to life with a film or two. Newspaper articles, now and then, appear and are gone. A collection of sermons from that week has been printed. There are the remaining struggles over the memorial.

But what about you? ‘Who do you say that I am?’

From the perspective of the pastoral theologian, we have hardly begun to work through the psychic, spiritual ground of this tragedy. The time honored cadences of avoidance, denial, and repression are readily apparent to the pastoral eye and theological ear. This is a tragedy, too. In some ways this is the greater tragedy.

Each of us has a slice of this pie. On August 27th, I had determined to preach a bluntly simple sermon, two live parables, about going the wrong direction and making mistakes. Jesus told paradoxically simple parables. I followed, or tried to. But I must tell you that in the hours before that service, I did not know whether I would find the courage to say what needed saying. No, we do not underestimate the spiritual struggle for health in which we are all, intimately, involved. Each of us has as slice of this pie.

For since nineleven our theological hibernation—theological hibernation– has allowed a series of actions that multiply the tragedy of the day into the tragedy of a lifetime. We have not sifted and settled our hearts about the horror of that day. In consequence, our national life has been subliminally formed and shaped by undigested angers, unreflective fears, impatient hatreds, and untamed sorrows.

How else, in retrospect, shall we explain the race to war without final evidence for its need? How else, in retrospect, shall we account for the abuses of power in military prisons? How else, in retrospect, do we understand a sudden celebration of victory when all the evidence pointed to its opposite? How else, in retrospect, do we think about a general election decided by votes garnered through the fear of, the specter of, gay marriage, of all things? How else, in retrospect, can we possibly explain the relative silence about casualties and collateral deaths, about maiming and civilian losses? It was our own suffering and survival of these very things that got us into the war in the first place. How else, in retrospect, can we fathom our neglect of our original motto, “meet violence with patient justice”? How else, in retrospect, shall we try to understand the fracture of freedoms hard won over two hundred and more years of American history?

On a more personal, local level, how else, in retrospect, do we analyze the conservative cast of our culture that affects every opportunity to change, every opportunity to grow, every responsible risk to take, every single investment in the future? What has become of us? Tell me: are you looser or tighter with your money since nineleven?

We have survived, when others did not. Can we say that out loud? We survived, when others died. Are we able to name that simple reality? Are we able to articulate and so escape the pervasive survivor’s guilt of this age?

4. Undercurrents of Healing

There are undercurrents of healing. Over dinner Wednesday we heard the recorded voice of Johnny Cash. It is remarkable, for instance, that the new film about Johnny Cash, well attended, is built squarely on a plot about survivor’s guilt. Cash’s father said, when Cash’s brother died, “the wrong boy died”. And the singer spent a lifetime healing from his own survivor’s guilt. He survived. His brother did not. He did. He poured his talent and art into lament and atonement.

Remember from last Sunday the contours of existential survivor’s guilt…

Here is a description of the effects of survivor’s guilt: “general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt.” (Borgess). That sounds like life as we know it.

With birth survival, deliverance and survival down the birth canal, must come a kind of congenital survivor’s guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breathe. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God. Nineleven rekindles it.

This is our condition. “Like the beating of the heart, it is always present.” (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. For Peter, Luke, and Acts: especially existential survivor’s guilt. For you, your generation, your race, and your culture—the same. “It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality.” (Tillich)

Fair or not, we lived. Survival–strangely–brings a kind of guilt, irrational and unjust and useless, that nonetheless needs healing and pardon. Today we announce absolution for your survivor’s guilt. Kyrie Eleison. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven the fact that we survived. And we are ready to choose life, to choose the way of the future, that includes by the cross the recognition that such life will not be pain free. Good living is not cost free or cross free. We have the tenor voice of the evangelist, here at the crux of the Gospel. Mark has had to construct (so Haenchen, loc. Cit. and Weeden, loc.cit.) this passage to remind the later church of Jesus’ suffering servant role, and so, by extension, their own. (Weeden, Traditions in Conflict, 65ff).

Peter survived and thrived. Your generation survived and thrived. Your mother’s child—YOU—survived and thrived. Our country can too. But we will need to do the things that make for peace, for healing. Here they are. Once forgiven, we are thawed, freed. Now we can move, and we had better move fast. THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF.

5. Steps Toward Surviving Nineleven

The Boston Globe carried a discussion this week of survival. Don Murray, on 9/12/06, wrote about memory and surviving war. He wrote about ‘the guilt of the survivor’. Yesterday, a fellow veteran responded, insightfully, placing the phrase ‘the gift of survival’, alongside Murray’s ‘guilt of survival’. In a phrase, that is the gospel, the movement from guilt to gift. May it be ours, in the heart and in the mind, and in the soul, this day. Here are some steps along the path from guilt to gift. As one theologian has suggested, we are as a community to experience “the church as ritual sustenance”, for the journey of faith and life (RCNeville, The Symbols of Jesus, chpt 2).

1. Lament

First, we need to lament. Wail. Curse. Shout. Lament. Some of us will need to take time away from religion, until we can make sure our religion is real. Julie Nicholson, an English priest, lost her daughter to terrorists on July 7, 2005, in the London bombings. She had been ordained two years earlier. She resigned her pastorate. She could not reconcile her priestly duties with her refusal to forgive her daughter’s murderers. “I think forgiveness is a cheap grace. We have to be careful that we are not putting layer after layer on a deep and festering wound. I felt it after 9/11 and I feel it now. For a number of months, faith was more a hindrance than a help.” (New York Times, 5/6/06). The conscience of the believer is inviolable.

2. Protect

Second, it is bloodily clear that we have in this world people who will kill without qualm, and on a grand scale. There will be the possibility of further terror. We need to do all that is patient and just militarily to resist such terror. In a responsive way. Together with other nations. Without interest in gain. With exit strategies as a first priority in every case. We face a mortal threat, and with integrity we must face it down.

3. Assess

Third, we need to be realistic about the scope of this threat, by comparison with other past threats. Joseph Ellis has given one example. His view may not be yours, but may provoke you to compose yours: My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic. Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility. Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic (N
YTIMES, 3/06)

4. Divine

Fourth, we need honestly to assess what this does to our understanding of God. We need to think theologically about nineleven. God did not intervene on that day, nor is that the pattern of God’s participation in life. God must love freedom, says Bishop Tutu, because God leaves us free to go straight to hell if we so choose. Our understanding of God can not make space for a small, tribal divinity, even including some of our most cherished Christological affirmations. World religions are as close as the window on your cubical, as a plane approaches. It really matters—to you and your children—how 6 billion people think about God. It is a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell, right here on earth. We will need to become steadily and quickly adept at framing our faith posture in ways that accept, accommodate, and admire others. We shall need theologically, more than ever we have done in history, theologically to love our neighbor as our self. We shall need to be particular in our honest celebration of the faith of Jesus Christ without becoming exclusive to other genuine expressions of faith. Otherwise the kind of theological hatred of which we have our own personal and very local experiences will become the lingua franca of a death-prone world culture.

We want to build five theological bridges for every theological fence, five theological doors for every theological wall, five theological handshakes for every theological fist. We do not have to ‘win’. We do have to love. We shall need to love others as ourselves, by treating different theology as a new friend, not a certain opponent. When we feel the shackles of guilt falling away, we shall be able to summon the courage and energy to get on with the task at hand.

You can read one serious, hard book on world religions this year. You can find a way to offer gracious, unsolicited help to the poor, non-Christian world. You can develop a sensitivity to others, the other. You can see this post-modern world, with its fragmented face, not as a threat to be fought, but as an opportunity to be embraced. You can fund all this by tithing, and you can gain the power to tithe by selling your house and buying a smaller one, selling your car and buying a smaller one, limiting your purchases and leisure investments to a third of their current levels. It is only the unabsolved survivor’s guilt that keeps us from an heroic life. HERE THE GOOD NEWS: YOU ARE FORGIVEN FOR SURVIVING NINELEVEN. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. Now go and make your peace.

5. Appreciate

Fifth, we see in this shadow, dimly, the living and lively shades of others who have taken the narrow path. We are encouraged to remember them.

Look around , and you will see what I mean. In Toronto there lives the great Jewish teacher, and Holocaust survivor, Emil Fackenheim. Once he was asked, “How can you practice faith in God after the horror of the Holocaust?” (That may be the single most important theological question of our time.) His reply: “I practice faith, in the face of Holocaust, “in order not to permit Hitler any posthumous victories.” He survived, and survived his survival.

Look around. In Montreal there lives a great French Canadian teacher, Jean Vanier. He left the pastoral life to create a movement of caring ministries with developmentally challenged people. Working with survivors to help them survive survival. His organization, L’Arche, has attracted great acclaim, including the service at the end of life of Henri Nouwen.

Look around. When our first two little survivors arrived, we lived in a little cottage in Ithaca, around 1980. In the 1930’s, Pearl Buck and her husband had lived there as he served that church and studied at Cornell. I think of her celebration of Chinese survival, and her effort to save the survivors there, here evocation of birth in the rice paddies of Canton. With her contemporary William Faulkner, she trusted that the human race would not merely survive, but would prevail.

And whence the energy for these steps? Whence the power to continue, when weary feet refuse to climb? Whence the motive? This is our watch. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ We look for a rebirth of hope, real hope, global hope, a living common hope…

6. A Common Hope

This week we pause in prayer and quiet to honor those who lost their lives 5 years ago, and those who lost loved ones the same day. We meet this moment, in quiet, to honor and remember. In doing so we do not neglect, we do not forget, we do not side-step, those who have lost life and loved ones since. In service of God and neighbor, in service of God and country, in Tsunami and hurricane and disease, we remember those who have been hurt, in a world of hurt.

Rightly to honor those lost and those loved, and fitly to meet this moment, we shall need briefly to look out toward the far side of trouble. There is, we hope, a far side to trouble. We may watch from the near side, but there is a far side to trouble as well. That is our ancient and future hope. Dewey spoke of a common faith. Thurman preached about a common ground. Today we identify a common hope.

This is the hope of peace. We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life. This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope, the vision of the far side of trouble, is the hallmark of the space in which we stand, and the place before which we stand. If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope. There is a story here, of peace.

Methodists are like everyone else, only more so, the saying goes—a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley).

Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope. Ghandi
wrote: “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”. A common hope of peace. Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote: “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad. Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” A common hope of peace.

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green. King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote: “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion. We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.”

This week, in memory and honor, we lift our hope for a day to live on the far side of trouble. We remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace.

7. Coda

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

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