“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
We all need rest right now, don’t we? We need rest because we have seen the valley of the shadow of death in the crumbled, twisted masses that are now the canyons of Lower Manhattan. The part of that great city which once was marked by twin towers standing tall, strong, and true, now has a profile of posters, a great patchwork of posters on almost every wall, with the headline “Missing” above, and then a picture or a description of a loved one. That is what marks the city now.
We are in need of rest because we hurt deep inside. Our first reaction was one of grief, one of unbelieving. Our first reaction was one of horror, one of tears, one of holding anyone who was around us. Our first reaction was to want to turn off the television, to close our eyes, to make it all go away somehow, and say, let’s go back to Tuesday morning and start all over again. Yet we couldn’t turn off the television. We couldn’t pull ourselves away. We were afraid of what the next moment might bring, and we wanted to be there.
After the horror, the anguish, and the pain, then came anger, and justifiably so. These are acts that deserve anger. For anyone to make of another human being, let alone almost three hundred other human beings, living missiles of death and destruction is an unspeakable evil. It is an evil beyond our words, beyond our comprehending. We are justified in our anger.
Over the last decade almost every terrorist activity throughout the world has been committed by some militant, fundamentalist, religious group or individual. These are people who take the essence of their faith tradition, whatever it may be, and they twist it beyond recognition. They give themselves absolute power and authority to do as they please.
As you well know, every evidence points that this is the mastermind of one or at least a small band of Islamic militant fundamentalists. Please, dear friends, this is not Islam. This is a deviant, far branch of Islam. Islam stands for peace. Islam stands for the universal brotherhood of all humankind. Islam is one of the great historical religions of our world. We want to affirm our Islamic brothers and sisters, but we cannot affirm what has happened.
They are not alone. There are Jewish militant fundamentalists as well. Jewish militant fundamentalists take the tradition of the Hebrew people and twist it beyond recognition. A number of years ago it was Jewish militant fundamentalists that bombed a mosque at the time of prayer, when the building was filled with people all on their knees, with their heads touching the ground. It was the Jewish militant fundamentalists that several years ago killed the then Prime Minister of Israel because he would not agree with their ideas.
But as Christian people we too are guilty. There are within the realm of Christianity those who are militant fundamentalists. They have taken the teachings of Jesus and twisted them beyond recognition. They are the ones who fight each other in Northern Ireland. They are the ones who kill gay and lesbian people in this nation. They are the ones who bomb medical clinics. They are the ones who kill doctors who may have as a part of their practice performing abortions.
The enemy is militant fundamentalism when it somehow gives people the concept that they are in control and not God, and that they have the right to decide who has life and who does not. The enemy is that person or that group that says I am right and everyone else is wrong. They are the ones who say, if you do not agree with us, then you have no right to live. These are the people who believe that only a very few have the truth and everyone else is wrong, and creation will be better if all the rest are gone. So they massacre.
Let there be no mistake. That which was done this week is an unspeakable evil. We must pray and we must work with all of our energy for justice. Those who are culpable must be held accountable. There is no doubt about that. And yet we must be very careful. We must be careful not to react out of our anger. We must be careful not to act out in vengeance. Because if we do, then there will be uncontrolled anger released and many more innocent people will die. We must pray and work for justice.
Rose Marie Berger is a Catholic social worker in Washington, D.C. She said on Tuesday morning at 5:00 a.m. she was awaken by a strong voice calling her to prayer. She got up and opened up her Book of Hours. The passage that was before her was this. “Everyday rest your arms upon the window sill of heaven and gaze upon God. Then when your heart is full of that vision, turn with strength for the day.” She said, “I was so grateful for that time of prayer, because when I turned to my day, my day was filled with hell. If it had not been for the vision of heaven that I had in my heart, I would have been overcome by the evil that was loosed in the world.”
That is what you and I need to remember friends. Unless we have heaven in our hearts, the evil of the world can overcome us. We need to center ourselves in God, and in God’s strength, and in God’s grace, so that we can be a positive influence in this world, and so we can witness to the world the goodness of God in the land of the living.
Let us turn and look at the scriptures for this morning, scriptures that I chose for this day. The first is from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. It is a court scene in which God is trying the nations of the world. The reason God is trying the nations is because they have turned to idolatry. The usual image that we have of idolatry is people sitting around making little images, instead of worshiping God. But that is just a symbol of what it is. Idolatry is worshiping values that are contrary to the values of God. Idolatry is worshiping the work of our own hands, instead of worshiping God.
That is what the terrorists are doing. They are worshiping the work of their own hands, their hatreds. That is idolatry. To the people of Israel in Isaiah’s day, Isaiah paints a picture of this court scene. God says, “In these other nations that have fallen away, people help other people. It looks good from the outside, until you realize they help other people to do evil. In these other nations brother encourages brother, and artisan encourages the goldsmith. Those who hammer upon the metal encourage each other. All that looks wonderful, until you realize everything that is going on in those nations is for evil.” Then God says, “Israel, I am your help. I am your strength.”
Friends, this word was written to the nation of Israel when they were being held prisoners of war in Babylon, the rogue nation of the world in that day. This word was written to Israel when it was in its greatest time of need. Hear the words that God speaks to people in need. “Do not fear, I am your God; do not fear, I will be with you; I will be your strength, I will be your help, I will uphold you with my victorious right arm.” Those are the words not only for Israel in Isaiah’s time, those are the words for all of God’s people in this time. Those are the promises of God.
I am sure that amongst your prayers this week there has been a word, “Oh God, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you change things?” I have prayed that, and I know better. It is a part of who we are; we want things to be different. Oh, if we could only turn the clock back to 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday. But God does not abrogate God’s natural law. It’s a part of creation. It is in that part of creation and that natural law that you and I have free will. Otherwise if God were to intervene and to change things along the way, you and I would become nothing but puppets. We would not be free. We would not have life in any sense that we know it now.
What God does do is come in our midst and live with us. We know that most clearly in the life of Jesus. He came to people who were hungry. He came to people in pain. He came to people who were dying. He came to people who were grieving. He came to people who were alone, who were afraid, and he was with them. That is the witness of our God.
So where was God on Tuesday morning? God was sitting with those people on those hijacked airliners, comforting them. God was in the crumbling buildings as they fell to the ground. God was beside the rescue workers as they dug through the rubble. God was with them when they were crushed. That is where God always is, in the hurting and painful places of life.
In the passage from the Gospel of John, we have a little view of what is a very familiar picture, the Palm Sunday parade. John writes it differently than the other gospel writers. We see the great crowd and hear them cry out, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Remember the word “hosanna,” means “come and save us.” For someone to be “blessed in the name of the Lord,” means that they have the authority of God. So the cry of the people as John understands it, is these people are crying out for Jesus to come with military might and save them, to throw off the oppressors of Rome. But John makes it very clear it is after Jesus hears the cry of the people that he chooses his vehicle for entering the city. He doesn’t choose a horse, or a chariot. He chooses a donkey. He chooses the symbol of service, of humility, and of peace. This is the nature of God’s help in our midst. God comes as one who is in our midst to help us, to serve us, by giving God’s life to us. We know that in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
So how is God acting out God’s promises now? You have seen them all about you, haven’t you? You have seen them on television. You have probably seen them in your own neighborhood. Let me lift up just a couple.
The other morning on television there was woman who was interviewed named Diane Leonard. Her husband Dan was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Out of her grief she went on television to speak to those who were suffering now because of the loss of loved ones. She spoke a word of hope and understanding to them. She said the most important thing for you to do was to hold on to the family you have now. The next most important thing for you to do is to support the rescue workers. Know that those people aren’t doing a job; they are on a mission, a mission to save life. She said to be patient with yourself, and be patient with the rescue workers. They are working as hard and as long and as fast as humanly possible. Know that they have your best interests at heart. Here is this woman, wounded herself, speaking out of her grief to help others. She is the promise of God at work.
I was a part of the interfaith service Tuesday night at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. There were several poignant moments in the midst of the service. One of those came when a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim Imam, and an Anglican bishop of Palestinian background together lifted the flame to the paschal candle and lit it. The candle is a symbol of the presence of God in our midst. The candle is a symbol of new life. These three persons of these three divergent traditions came together and did that symbolic act. Friends, in our lives may it not be a symbol, may it be reality, that with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, we give witness by the way we live to the presence of God in life.
Another poignant moment was when the Imam spoke. He said on Tuesday morning he had received a phone call right after the towers had been hit. The phone call was from his next-door neighbor, who is a Roman Catholic woman. Her question was, “What can we do to help protect your mosque?” That is the promise of God at work in our lives.
St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, tells them to gear up for war, to gear up for the war of the spirit. He says to them, “Put on the belt of truth. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. As for your feet, put on anything that will help you proclaim the gospel of peace. Pick up the shield of faith. Put on the helmet of salvation. Take hold of the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. With the full armor of God go into battle.” That is the clarion call to you and me this day as Christian people. With the full armor of God we are to go into battle for goodness and righteousness in our world.
Let me close with this. There was a young boy who was quite ill in the hospital. His pastor visited him, and said, “Have you ever prayed the 23rd Psalm?” The little boy said, “No.” The pastor said, “Let me suggest you do it this way. You hold up your hand and with your fingers you pray ‘The…Lord…is…my…shepherd.’ And you do it over and over again, saying a word for each finger so you measure them out and you hear each one, ‘The…Lord...is…my…shepherd.’”
That evening the boy’s father came to visit him. He told his father about the pastor’s visit and about the prayer. But he said, “Dad, that’s not me, so I changed the prayer. I changed it this way because, Dad, I am not in this alone. You and mom are helping me. The doctors and nurses are helping me. My friends at school are helping me. My friends at church are helping me. I changed the prayer to be like this. ‘The…Lord…is…our…shepherd.’”
During the night that young man died. The nurses found him early in the morning. His arms were on top of the sheet of the bed. He was holding on to the our finger. “The…Lord…is…our…shepherd.” Dear friends, hold on to that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.