Sunday, September 11, 2011

Certainty is Still Killing Us

Sermon preached on September 11, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene. A shorter version of the sermon was preached at Christ Church, Rochester at Evensong on September 10.

One of the things I did when I was on vacation in August was clean out my files at home. Thirty years of accumulated paper. Frightening. But I found some old jewels, of course, which was worth the time.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1986, I went to a conference at Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. It was called “Convivencia,” a Spanish word meaning “co-existence.” Its sub-title was “Learning to Think Globally and Act Locally.” I went mostly because Verna Dozier was going to be there and it was there, in fact, that I began to be gifted with her friendship.

I don’t remember much about the conference, but in my old file on it was an article we had been given to read that had been published earlier that year. Its title was “Alternative to Terrorism: Siding with the World’s Poor.”

I sat on my office floor and stared at that article for the longest time. We knew about terrorism in 1986. It didn’t just fly out of the sky in 2001. Or blast its way onto the scene in 1998 with the embassy bombings in Africa. I know that shouldn’t amaze me, but it does. It’s like in my mind—and probably in some of yours—the word “terrorism” had never been uttered before September 11, 2001.

In fact, the article begins,

It is astonishing how quickly we’ve begun to accept terrorism as a permanent part of the international landscape. Astonishing because there is a fairly painless (and fairly obvious) alternative.[1]

The alternative the writer had in mind was smarter and more just foreign aid policies. It’s a well-argued piece and I think the writer was probably correct, but nobody took him up on his ideas. That’s not what I want to talk about this morning, though. I just wanted to share the revelation in that moment of discovery that there was a time before 9-11 that led up to it, and that there were alternative ways to negotiate our place in the world, alternatives that we did not take. Today I want to talk about an alternative we people of faith need to take for the future.

John suggested to me Friday that he wasn’t sure about coming to church today. He didn’t want “to re-live all that.” We still have grief and anger and anxiety to work through in this country in regards to 9-11; our work there is not done. I don’t know about for you, but for me I know what John was talking about. Remembering that day brings up emotions that are still amazingly raw. Perhaps I will never shake the horror of not knowing where my spouse was and being unable to communicate with him. All I knew was that the Pentagon was between me and where he was headed for work that day, and rumors abounded of bombs in other places in Washington, DC, including the subway on which he traveled. And I spent all day long with people in the same situation. In horror of what was happening to other people and might be happening to you Maybe you never get over that.

I am relatively sure that if Jesus were to give us advice today on how to move forward, he would say something like what we just heard him say from the cross, “Forgive them.” Or even worse, his most radical commandment of all: “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

I imagine that many of us have a reaction to those words, especially in relation to 9-11, similar to the man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to win eternal life. Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me.” We are told, “But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.” The man could not live up to Jesus’ demand that he let go of what controlled and defined his life (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-25).

My observation is that Americans are still very angry and even more anxious and, unfortunately we are taking it out mostly on each other, mostly across political divides. I am not surprised by this anxiety and anger. It isn’t just about 9-11, of course. It’s about a world that is changing faster than most people can keep up with. So many of the old certainties are disappearing. Anger and anxiety are natural in a climate like the one in which we now live, and nobody has a right to tell people they shouldn’t be angry or anxious.

But somebody has to tell them there is an alternative. There is another way. And Christians ought to be first in line doing this work. It is our charter. We do not exist for any other reason. But we have been timid. A large portion of us have capitulated to the mood altogether and are constantly reinforcing it, playing the role of civil religion. Of course, God wants America to be the most powerful nation on earth. That is God’s destiny for us. Others of us know the right answer. We can hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies,” but we also know how deeply unpopular that would be as an action plan, so we are quiet.

Our timidity has not served us well, however. The decline in the mainline Protestant denominations in the decade after 9-11 was significant. The Episcopal Church was average. Our Average Sunday Attendance declined 19% between 2000 and 2009. Remember how our churches were full in the days following 9-11? Did anyone notice? They didn’t come back.

We don’t have to be timid, however. We Christians certainly know the way out of anxiety and anger. It is forgiveness. It is reconciliation. It is the hardest work of all, “Love your enemies.”

For me the biggest single refutation of the belief that this is a Christian nation is the fact that none of our leaders is capable of saying any of these words. And yet they are the words of Jesus, and he meant them for these hard times. We don’t get a pass because 9-11 was so horrific. Reconciliation must be the work we do in response. Vengeance is not an option for Christian people.

I believe that with all my heart, but, I confess, I could be wrong. And I say that because if we are called to fight an enemy in order for this reconciliation to happen, it is this: certainty. The enemy is certainty. Now that may sound like a very strange thing for a religious leader to say, but I will say it. The enemy is certainty. Faith and certainty are not the same thing, in fact, they are really opposites if you think about it. Faith always entails risk. Faith always encompasses mystery that remains stubbornly unresolved.

In my office cleaning I also ran across an article I had torn out of a Newsweek, dated May 23, 2005. It was an opinion piece by George Will. Now I’m pretty sure I have never quoted George Will in a sermon, even though he is a fellow Episcopalian. But this was an extraordinary piece of writing. It was entitled, “The Oddness of Everything.” Here is how he ends the piece:

The greatest threat to civility—and ultimately to civilization—is an excess of certitude. The world is much menaced just now by people who think that the world and their duties in it are clear and simple. They are certain that they know what—who—created the universe and what this creator wants them to do to make our little speck in the universe perfect, even if extreme measures—even violence—are required.

America is currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging, clashing certitudes. That is why there is a rhetorical bitterness absurdly disproportionate to our real differences. It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right. One way to immunize ourselves against misplaced certitude is to contemplate—even to savor—the unfathomable strangeness of everything, including ourselves.

We people of faith know what to do—with no chip of certitude on our shoulder, we are called to love, forgive and reconcile. It’s time we were about that work in as loud a way as possible.

And who knows. If we start being who we really are and doing what we are really called to do we might experience the paradox of, yes, being very unpopular, but also being incredibly attractive.

[1] From an article printed in a long defunct newsletter called New Options, the editor of which was Mark Satin, who presumably is the author of the piece.

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