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Sermons

Don't Forget

January 06, 2013

Bible Reading

You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the Lord your God. Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.

(Deuteronomy 25:13-19)


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

(Matthew 5:38-48)

Reading from Swedenborg

It is not because of divine providence that wars happen, because wars are inseparable from murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other appalling evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian caring. However, it is absolutely necessary that they be permitted, because since the earliest times, . . . our life’s love has become basically a love of controlling others, ultimately everyone, and of gaining possession of the world’s wealth, ultimately all of it. These two loves cannot be kept in chains as long as it is the intent of divine providence that we act freely and rationally. . . . There is also the fact that if it were not for this permission, the Lord could not lead us out of our evil, so we could not be reformed and saved. That is, unless evils were allowed to surface, we would no see them and therefore would not admit to them; so we could not be induced to resist them. That is why evils cannot be suppressed by some exercise of divine providence. If they were, they would stay closed in, and like the diseases called cancer and gangrene, would spread and devour everything that is alive and human.

(Divine Providence 251)

Sermon

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Matthew 5:45

We are urged on this day to remember the events of 9/11, and it is well that we do so, especially if we bear in mind that if we merely remember but do not reflect and learn, our memories are of little use to us. The philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) said it well and clearly: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It was a large event, certainly, and a large event is in some ways like a large building—you have to stand back from it to see the whole thing. In 1898, the cry was “Remember the Maine!”, and that cry led to a brief and in many ways successful war against Spain. There is no one alive now who can actually remember the Maine, but our present relationships with both Cuba and the Philippines would be far different had it not been for that event and our reaction to it. Given a distance of a century or more, we are freed from emotional oversimplifications and can weigh the evidence more fair-mindedly. A good many people still can “remember Pearl Harbor,” and in like manner can look at that immense event with less desire to prove ourselves right and more desire to understand.

9/11 is now ten years behind us. This means that for most high school freshmen, it is something of which they have no direct, personal memories; but it will still be something that had a formative impact on the lives and thinking of their own parents and teachers. By the time they are adults, they will be capable of that “twenty-twenty hindsight” that enables them to see the whole forest and not just a few of the closest trees.

Ten years, though, is a significant distance. Wordsworth said that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”; by now we should be capable of enough tranquility to make some sense of the emotional turmoil that engulfed so much of the world on that extraordinary day, especially if we look at it through the lens of our faith.

There does remain a core simplicity—the fact that certain individuals, honestly believing that they were doing God’s will, deliberately brought about the death of 2,752 individuals without warning. There could hardly be a more dramatic instance of an evil that had been “closed in,” festering under the surface, until finally it could no longer be restrained but burst forth in all its appalling ugliness.

That, of course, was not the end of the story. The immediate responses were of extraordinary, life-sacrificing heroism. It was virtually incredible how many individuals got out of the buildings alive, with only the staircases for escape routes. Equally significant, there was a worldwide outpouring of compassion and support. For al-Qaeda, it was a public relations disaster of the first order. According to one article, “After the terrorist attacks of September, 11, al-Qaeda (or al- Qa’ida, pronounced al-KYE-da) surpassed the IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah as the world’s most infamous terrorist organization.”1

It is ironic that the most conspicuous reference to the Gospels on the part of our own government was to say, “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.” For better or for worse, our military casualties in deaths alone have now exceeded the 9/11 death toll, and month after month we hear of the burden being borne by the wounded and traumatized. We may leave it up to our children, or perhaps our grandchildren, to make a truly fair-minded cost–benefit evaluation.

Our theology tells us that when things like this happen, it is a clear sign that we need to look beneath the surface. To “fill in the blanks” of our text, the Lord is providing sunshine and rain to al-Qaeda as well as to us. The Lord’s life is flowing into them just as it is into us. What is the Lord trying to tell them, and why are they understanding it in the way that they do? What is the Lord trying to tell us, and why are we understanding it in the way that we do? Remember the story of the lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded not with one question but with two: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). Millions upon millions of devout Muslims read the same Qur’an as the terrorists, but they obviously read it in a very different way; and as for Christians, for all the purported allegiance to “the plain literal meaning of the Bible,” there is obviously no overwhelming agreement as to what that “plain meaning” is.

The contrast between our two Scripture readings could hardly be more absolute. On the one hand, we find Deuteronomy saying, “Remember what Amalek did to you . . . when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every side . . . you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19). On the other hand, we find Jesus annulling the law of an eye for an eye, commanding us to turn the other cheek, not to hate but to love the enemy (Matthew 5:38, 39, 44).

One thing these two texts have in common is that they are absolute. Deuteronomy says emphatically, “Do not forget!” Jesus did not say, “Turn the other cheek, unless, of course . . .” or “Love your enemy, provided . . .” We in our own times are obviously off the hook as far as Amalek is concerned, because there aren’t any Amalekites on the scene any more. We seem, then, to be left with the Gospel commands, and if we want to regard ourselves as Christians, the only answer can be “Yes.”

Actually, though, that is just the beginning of the answer. If we are really to love the enemy, we must find something in the enemy that is worthy of love; and in the case of the faceless terrorist, that is not easy. Essentially, we have to step outside ourselves and see ourselves as we are seen. The workers in the World Trade Center were not seen as individuals, of that we can be quite sure. The Trade Center itself was seen as a symbol of undeserved wealth, of “ill-gotten gains,” so to speak. What was wrong with the people in it was that they felt entitled to that wealth, just as we ourselves feel entitled to our disproportionate share of the world’s goods.

“Entitlement” is a loaded word these days, used almost exclusively to describe government programs that benefit the lower-income levels of our society. Strangely, we rarely ask whether someone is entitled to millions of dollars for being able to hit a baseball, or whether top-level executives are really entitled to their astronomical salaries.

In a peculiar way, there is no way to tell, because that whole question depends on the value of money, and money has no more value than we believe it has. When confidence in the dollar collapses, the value of the dollar collapses. In his recent book on the politics of happiness,2 Derek Bok takes a very careful look at what actually seems to lead to happiness. To make a long story very, very short, it turns out that money is not really a decisive factor until its lack becomes severe. At all levels above poverty, the key factor seems to be generosity. To grasp happiness is to lose it. To give happiness is to gain it.

This should come as no surprise to any Christian. We are, after all, commanded not to lay up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19) and to give to those who ask of us (Matthew 5:42)—two more absolute commands, and to judge from television commercials, the first gets very little attention. Like all of the Lord’s commands, these are for our own benefit, in effect, teaching us how to be good to ourselves.

At this distance, then, remembering 9/11 seems to bring us a mixture of good news, bad news, and questions. The bad news is that there are evils festering under the surface, closed in and gathering strength, and that unless we address them, they will break out in violence. The good news is that there is an immense reservoir of good will in the world. Those who are appalled at the mindless viciousness of terrorism vastly, vastly outnumber the terrorists; and the sheer ugliness of terrorism is already starting to defeat it.

Perhaps the most urgent question for us, though, involves how we are seen at least by some—as greedy, set on “controlling others, ultimately everyone, and of gaining possession of the world’s wealth.” How much truth is there to this view? Is it being made up out of whole cloth? I suspect that if we tried, we could find some evidence for it. One of Bok’s “discoveries” is that no matter how much wealth people have, they can be dissatisfied because they want more.

If we do grant that there is some truth to his view, it would be a tragic mistake to think that it was the whole truth. It has been startling to read of the surge of love for America in Libya, a revival of our image as “the land of the free.” There is some truth to this view, also, and again, it is not the whole truth.

To remember 9/11 well, then, we need to remember it not with resentment or anger or self-righteousness but, strange as it may sound, with love. Love will grieve over the fanaticism and the lives lost, be deeply moved by the heroism, and be grateful for the outpouring of compassion and for the sacrifice of life and limb by so many. Love will resolve to understand, and above all, not ask “What should they have done?” but “What can I do?” There is so much left to be done! Amen.

Prayer

O Lord, let me not live to be useless.

- John Wesley (1703-1791)



Footnotes

1 Laura Hayes, Borgna Brunner, and Beth Rowen, http://www.infoplease.com/spot/al-qaeda-terrorism.html#ixzz1X6h1O4YR

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2Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton University Press: 2011)

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Rev. Dr. George F. Dole