Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11: My 10th Anniversary Sermon, "On The Heights"

(In 2011, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday.  Before "officially" beginning my work at FCC Longview, I preached one last sermon at my childhood congregation in Kansas City with an old friend from youth group who also became a pastor and was recently ordained herself.  This is that sermon, based on Habbakuk 3:17-19 (below).

There will always be evil in this broken, fragile world.  But the sooner and more able we are to respond to evil with God's word, the better off I believe we ultimately shall be.  I believed then that God's love could triumph over evil.  And I believe it still.

In memory of the 2,977 men, women, and children who lost their lives to terrorism on September 11, 2001.  -E.A.)

Habakkuk 3:17-19

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

The rocker was no stranger to controversy. In decades past, his lyrics were appropriated by presidential campaigns, NGOs, and any number of people who decided their interpretation of his songs fit their own mission. But when he announced a series of ten concerts in New York City after a short hiatus from his work, an unprecedented thing happened…the New York police force’s largest union, the Patrolmens’ Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the entire series. What makes this story newsworthy is that the rocker was Bruce Springsteen, and in 2000, he had just penned the mournful song “41 Shots” in tribute to Amadou Diallo, the African-American immigrant and street cart vendor who was shot and killed by four white New York City police officers in his apartment in 1999.

But Bruce is also from the New York area, and just over a year after the boycott of his performances, the terrorist attacks that we remember today took place. Rejoining his longtime friends in the E Street Band, he penned a new song, called The Rising, for the eponymous album he would be releasing. And like so much of our painful pasts, the memory of the pain and hurt of the boycott was pushed aside.

You’ve probably heard this song at some point in the last ten years—and if you remember its bridge lyrics, they recall the New York sky, beginning as a backdrop for sorrow and tears before being transformed gradually into a sky of love, and of fullness, and of life itself. It is not often that poetry is put to events so fear-inducing. But every once in a while, across our history, it does happen.

The prophet Habakkuk likely began his career before the sacking of Judah by Babylon in 587 BCE, but much of the book attributed to him contains oracles concerning Babylon and the coming strife attending to Judah. His book begins with a cry that has been echoed by humanity from the Pearl Harbor and the World Wars to Oklahoma City and 9/11—“God, how long must I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” In the oft-cliched question of why bad things happen to good people, Habakkuk has already arrived at his answer—either God can act and ruthlessly chooses not to, or God cannot act and is grieving right alongside us in our suffering. And based on that, Habakkuk creates three chapters of poetry in his dialogue with God; in fact, the final chapter, the one from which today’s reading comes from, was meant to be sung, as evinced by the final line of “to the leader, with stringed instruments.”

And so turning to music in our own times of suffering and of need is a practice as old as time itself. And transcending that time are images played over and over again in our minds and ears as we hear the notes played and the lyrics sung. Habakkuk then, and Springsteen now, offer to us the image of the sky—Habakkuk says “heights”—as the backdrop for hope itself, not for the death that has arrived on their doorsteps, but for the promise of renewal that God offers us, and we can fulfill that promise simply because God has created us to be extraordinary in the depths of our grace and compassion when the need arises to do so. It is not that God would see the hurt and violence that Habakkuk sees, that we see, and do nothing, it is that God has already done so much in creating us. Even amidst the jingoism and prejudice that 9/11 gave light to, I still remember the numbers of people lining up to donate their money, their time, their labor, their blood, whatever they could of themselves, because of one immutable, unchangeable, unbelievable reality—with God, all things become possible, all hatred will meet its opposite, and our salvation will never be any further away than it was before. The extremity of 9/11 brought out terrible parts of us, but it also brought out truly inspiring parts of us as well. It is our painful task to take the bad along with the good, and it is our difficult task to transform the bad into good, not unlike how the sky itself can be transformed, from sorrow into life, from blackness into light.

There is an epilogue to this selflessness, and it is that such actions can transform situations both before and after 9/11. After 9/11, many of our first responders began suffering from medical conditions. But people are stepping up to heal them as well, just as the responders had stepped up on that day. And before 9/11, Bruce Springsteen would not have been welcome in many a New York police cruiser, but after that day, the rock star returned home to honor his city. The real tribute in remembering 9/11 is not in public displays of patriotic piety as much as it is in the day-in and day-out work of elevating it into a place into our communal memory that remembers, and memorializes, and grieves, but that does not hate. And ten years later, that task is still incomplete. But we are working towards it, step by step, bit by bit, piece by piece, soul by soul.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Olathe, Kansas
September 11, 2011

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