Peace

Two things happened in our country on September 12, 2001. The first thing is that we came together in our collective grief and shock. There was a sense of solidarity in our collective mourning. Flags went up. Candle-light vigils were held. We prayed a lot. It seemed like overnight Alan Jackson was singing “Where You When the World Stopped Turning?” He ends the song reminding us of the words from 1 Corinthians 13, “And the greatest is love.”

The second thing we did was yearn for revenge. There was a thirst for blood. We had no idea who did this, but it didn’t matter. Another country artist sang of putting a boot in a sensitive spot and how Uncle Sam is going to light up the bad guys like the 4th of July. These two things happened at the same time. It felt immediate.

As we were trying to process things at my college campus, the editorials reflected these two drives and these two songs. One group sounded like the author of 1 Timothy.  There was humility. An accounting of wrongs and sins. A need for a renewal of faith in Jesus and trying to turn from blasphemy, persecution, and violence. The other group sounded like God in the Exodus passage: “Let our anger burn against them that we might destroy them and make ourselves into a great nation.”

My buddy Nick thought it would be a good idea to do what his parents did back during the Vietnam War. We’d wear black arm bands to show that we stood for peace and protested a need for war. We wanted to process our grief and not react in violence. We wanted the full picture and wanted to pump the brakes. I don’t think we made it through the rest of the day wearing those arm bands. The drive for war was immediate and blessed by the TV preachers. I got self-conscious and nervous and chickened out. That feeling makes me think of the Exodus passage we read today.

The Israelites fashion a golden calf and make sacrifices to it. Their lives have been turned upside down. Their world blown apart. Their way of life lost and gone forever. No going back across the Red Sea, it only parted that one time for them. Just like there was no going back to September 10th on September 12th, we were different then. We, like the Israelites were in the wilderness, and we didn’t know where to turn to.

For the Israelites, they are without a leader. Moses is spending all his time up on the mountain talking to God. Some rabbis state that the dream of God was that the whole nation of Israel would go up the mountain, but the people got self-conscious and nervous and chickened out and sent Moses instead.

As Moses is up talking to God, the people look for comfort and melt down their gold earrings and rings to make a golden calf and worship it. This shows us that this isn’t a small group. This is a lot of people giving up their jewelry to fashion a golden idol in the wilderness. It would take some time to do this. It also shows us that we are a symbolic species. We need to see something, touch something, we don’t dwell well in the abstract. In fact, a study from Arizona State University found that the more graphics you can put in a news article, the more people will believe it.[1] We tend to believe things that are in print over something we just hear. Print has some weight to it. Put in a chart, well then we believe it even more. Make a movie out of it, then we’re hooked.

I believe the Bible not because it happened but because it’s happening. We fashion idols. We want to make God conform to our expectations instead of conforming to God’s. We’d rather worship some small gold cow we made from our own hands than the force that made cows and all the common ancestors it took to get the species.

If I were God, I’d be angry too. We are a stiff-necked people. We want to see what we want to see. We want to hear what we want to hear. We have expectations and we want them met, thank you very much. Moses doesn’t dispute this fact with God but instead reminds God of the covenant made with these stiff-necked people. A covenant of a great nation and a holy land. God calms down and spares the people. I think God was always going to spare the people but reacted like this so Moses understood that God knew what he was feeling.

Often times we act in ignorance and disbelief. Yet God responds with grace. I love the line, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Sometimes, I am the worst. Violent. Angry. Ready for blood and smiting. And I confess, sometimes I want God to look like that. There was a part of me on September 12, 2001 that also yearned for blood and sang the song of putting a boot where the sun don’t shine. I think that part of me took off the black arm band. I feel it when I read the horror of the war in Ukraine. I sometimes wish Putin weren’t around anymore. Wrath. Anger. Let’s be honest, those are big concepts. I feel that same anger when someone texts and drives. Or takes too long at the checkout. It’s not a good look on me. I’m the worst, and I do this often. I’m stiff-necked about it and don’t feel the need to change, but I really should. I am after all trying to be like Jesus.

In the Gospel stories today, Jesus tells a parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I didn’t put it in the liturgy today as it’s so familiar. If you have 100 sheep and one leaves, you’d leave the 99 and find it. Or if you are missing a coin of great value, you’d search for it until you find it. That’s how God is. God is like a shepherd who goes and finds the lost sheep. God is like a woman who searches and finds the coin. Searching, finding, celebrating! Parables are strategic assaults on our assumptions. As Jewish scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine comments, “There is no such thing as either sheep shame or penny penitence. The coin and the sheep did not sin, and they did not repent. Nor do the sheep owner or the woman ‘forgive’ their lost objects.” [2]

As Dr. Levine explains, “If one has five sheep, noting only four on a hillside would be easy to do. It is less easy, perhaps impossible, to notice one missing out of one hundred . . ., but as soon as the owner recognizes his loss, he takes whatever steps are needed to bring the group to wholeness.”

This is replayed in the Parable of the Lost Coin. The woman, like the owner of the flock, counted. When things didn’t add up, she got to work.

Today we count. Today we talk about the lives lost. The 9/11 terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people and injured thousands at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. We count the twenty years in Afghanistan. We count the estimated 7,000+ troops who have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2019. We count the approximately 177,000 national military and police allies from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria who have died. We count the 30,177 suicides among our veterans of these post 9/11 wars.[3]

Indeed, we are not whole. We continue to worship an idol of war and revenge and blood. We have yet to turn to God and seek peace for that is the harder path. We would rather God put people on crosses than die on one, but that is not the God we have.

Instead, we have a God who finds us and places us back into the flock. I wasn’t looking for a church when I found the UCC. I only had the sense that I was coming home. I didn’t know I was lost and separated from my flock. I didn’t know I had the gifts I had until I was treasured by a church.

Maybe you’ve had something similar happen to you in a community. You didn’t know you needed it in your life until you found it. Or maybe you didn’t know something was missing until you heard a sermon or a lecture or something in bible study or a book study here. You didn’t know people were missing from our community until you heard a story here and your heart broke a little bit. Or anger was kindled within you.

We need those moments. I know I do. I need that collective grief and sense of community. I also want to do something about it. However, it’s good to remember our place in the story. We’re the idol makers fashioning God in our own image. Putting ourselves in the place of God and saying angry words of violence. That’s an idol we must resist.

For we know where the worship of that idol leads. It leads to violence, and war, and flying planes into buildings. That idol still has not been melted down. It is being worshiped in mosques and laying waste to Yemen, Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. It is being praised in hardline Zionist schools and synagogues bulldozing Palestinian communities. And here in America, it is being preached by Protestants and Catholics alike, convinced this idol is on their side and theirs alone. It gives them the power to pass legislation and condemn others to eternal fire who don’t agree with them. Whenever a faith is convinced its moral authority and power comes from God alone, it risks arrogance and then evil. It never ends well. It costs too much and I can’t bear it any longer.

May we listen to Moses and be talked down from our anger. May we admit that yes, we can be the worst sometimes. Let us hear the familiar parables anew and take our place in the story as the sheep surprised it was separated from the flock. We didn’t know we were lost until we were found. And when found, maybe it makes us a little more sensitive to noticing who is here and who is missing. Maybe the sense of being found and valued and celebrated makes us want to further that in the world; give that to someone else. Maybe that’s God’s dream. Maybe that way we’d find true solidarity with the Prince of Peace and the God of the nations.

For the dream was present on 9/11. The tagline for today is “Never Forget” but I wonder what we’re not going to forget? The evil done that day? Will we remember the horror? Or will we remember that even in the suffering God was still with us? How people ran towards the danger. People pulled one another from the rubble. The hospitality of the residents in the small town of Gander in Canada when 7,000 airline passengers were diverted to them.[4]  Or how a fleet of fishing vessels, pleasure yachts, tugboats and passenger ferries evacuated an estimated 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan in the largest maritime evacuation in world history, bigger even than Dunkirk.[5] How the community looked out for one another and got one another to safety and mourned those who were lost. NYC was changed that day.

A friend who lives in NYC told me that people used to scatter. If someone was suffering, people would walk right by them like they weren’t even there before 9/11. Now, people stop. People help. They no longer scatter, they know that when one suffers, the community suffers. That’s the kingdom. Right in our midst. Never forget. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] https://arxiv.org/pdf/1708.01967.pdf page 5

[2] Cited by one of the best pastors in the UCC, The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke in her article, “On Lost Sheep: What are we willing to do to make our communities whole? https://www.oklahoman.com/story/opinion/2022/07/17/jesus-asks-us-to-recognize-losses-in-community-make-them-whole/65370802007/

[3] https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/military/killed

[4] Read The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede or watch the documentary “You Are Here: A come from away story” or the fictionalized movie “Diverted”.

[5]“The Great Maritime Rescue” by Garrett M. Gaff, Reader’s Digest, September 2022 edition, pages 86-93.

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