Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For just such a time as this....

I preached this sermon, from Esther 4:5-17 and Romans 12: 9-21, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks...

Ten years ago this morning, my husband Jim and I woke up in the slightly down-at-the-heels Bridal Suite of the slightly down-at-the-heels Holiday Inn in International Falls, Minnesota, just about 300 yards short of the Canadian border.  No—no special occasion or anything.  The Bridal Suite was the only first floor room left at the Holiday Inn, which, being slightly down-at-the-heels did not, of course, have a working elevator.

I was in the bathroom, which I remember as being awfully small and utilitarian for a putative bridal suite, getting ready for the annual trip north to our cabin.  Jim switched on the TV while he waited, the Today Show as I recall, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric talking about a reported small plane crash at the World Trade Center, down the road from where they sat in the NBC studio.  Sad, we thought, but no big deal. 

As we came out of the dining room a little later, and saw the bar TV across the way, we realized how wrong we had been.  Something awful, really awful, was happening and no one was quite sure what.  Jim and I decided in that moment that if we were going to go to the lake, we’d better go right then.  We made a run for the border crossing.  A young man, a kid really, met us at the gate wearing body armor, something I’d never seen before, and carrying a machine gun like he wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do with it.  He waved us through without a word.  And the border closed behind us.  We were the last ones through for nearly a week.

That’s what Jim and I were doing ten years ago this morning.  I’m sure that you remember what you were doing, too.  September 11, 2001, was that kind of a day, a day to remember.

And remembering is, I think, part of what we are called to do as Christians.  Our remembering honors the sacrifice of those who died in the attacks, and those who died that day trying to save them.  Our remembering honors those who have given so much since then to protect the freedoms that you and I enjoy every day.  Our remembering honors the grief and the loss of the families who lost so much on September 11 and on all the days that have followed.  That’s a big part of who we are as Christians.  We remember.

Which I’d like to suggest, by the way, as we, each one of us in our own way, observe this solemn day, may not be exactly the same thing as never forgetting, at least not for Christians anyway, for those who claim to follow Jesus. In a real sense, the idea of never forgetting  holds in itself an unspoken imperative to never let go of what we felt that day, the anger, the fear, the hatred, to never let oneself move past the hurt and betrayal, never, ever forgive, no matter what.  Remembering is a positive action; it does something.  It enters into the other’s pain; never forgetting holds on tight to that pain and uses it against the other like a shield.  As Christians we work hard to forget and forgive, even while we remember.

Our faith knows the power of remembrance.  That’s what Mordecai wanted his kinswoman Esther, the Jewish queen in our Old Testament story this morning, to do.  He wanted her to remember.  There he stood in the courtyard of the palace, dressed down in sackcloth and ashes, a living, breathing, shouting, lamenting reminder to Esther of who she was and what she alone could do.  Remember who you are, Esther.  Remember from whence you have come.  Remember all those who aren’t as fortunate as you, who don’t live in places of power, who don’t have a voice with which to speak the truth in love.  Remember what can and will happen to them.  Remember, Esther, Mordecai insists, that you are one of them, one of us. In the face of terrible persecution, of the threat of total annihilation, remember. 

Remember—for just such a time as this.

Paul understands this too, the power of remembrance.  He spends eleven of the sixteen chapters of his extraordinary letter to the church at Rome reminding his Christian brothers and sisters who they are in order to push them to do what they alone can do, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Remember who I once was, he writes, the worst sinner of all, a persecutor of the Lord and his followers.  Remember who you once were too, sinners every one.  Remember what the Lord did for you anyway, that while you were yet sinners, Christ died for you.  Remember that you have been justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, a free gift that you have done nothing to deserve.  Remember that there is now no condemnation for you, that in the power of the Holy Spirit, you have been set free.  Remember that nothing, not your sin or someone else’s, not any power on earth or in heaven can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord.  Remember that, despite who you are and where you’ve been and what you’ve done, God has shown mercy to you every step of the way.  Remember who you are, who God has made you to be.  In the face of great persecution by the Roman power machine, of the threat of total destruction, remember. 

Remember—for just such a time as this.

There’s something about the act of remembering who we are and whose we are that gives us the strength to live into that reality.  When we remember, we once again enter respectfully, even humbly, into the story, whether it’s our story or primarily someone else’s.  Our remembering brings great tragedy down to a human scale; it can and does call us into relationship with the other, with the neighbor and the stranger.  Somehow remembering aligns us with the grief-stricken; it places us shoulder to shoulder with the widow and the orphan, the poor and the helpless, the lost, the least, and the last.  We remember hunger and we share our food.  We remember thirst and we pour another cup of water.  We remember loneliness and we welcome the stranger.  We remember grief and we hold on tight to the ones who mourn.  We remember the sweet, sweet taste of forgiveness and maybe, just maybe, find in that memory the grace to forgive those who name themselves enemy, even those who have injured us so deeply and grievously.  At its best, our remembering tears down the walls that divide us, the walls that refusing to forget so easily build up.  It’s resurrection work, this kind of remembering; in the power of the Holy Spirit, the promise of our Christian faith is that even the dead will be raised.

Ten years ago, Jim and I rode out the first days after September 11 alone on an island in Canada, cut off from what was going on here at home.  These were the days before everybody and their brother had a cell phone surgically attached to their ear and communication with our family and friends was mostly by payphone—you remember those relics of another time, right?  We got what news we could get from the TV at the local bar and grill.  It was so quiet, eerily so, and we felt so very, very alone in our sorrow and our fear.
One day shortly after we arrived, we headed into town once again to try and connect with the folks at home.  As our boat came around the point into the marina, there on the flagpole hung the Stars and Stripes where the Maple Leaf had always flown before.  The grouchy, crabby couple who had always taken our American money as if they were doing us a huge favor (my interpretation and I will absolutely own that) had somehow scrounged up an American flag from somewhere and hung it where we would see it first thing.  They wanted us to know we were among friends.  They remembered us—and for us, that day, it made all the difference in the world.

I don’t think very many of us would contend that the world is a better place since that Tuesday ten years ago.  Maybe it’s just me, but the phrase “going to hell in a hand basket” seems to fit the bill pretty nicely.  But the witness of Esther and Mordecai and Paul and the claim of our faith is that you and I have been given what it takes to make a difference, to change that world, one prayer, one holy hug, one cup of water a time.  We can, if we only will, participate in what God has been doing since the beginning, what God was doing in Jesus Christ, and what God continues to do even in times such as ours in and through the Holy Spirit.  Remember—we are the body of Christ in the world, and as our Lord and Savior healed and fed and forgave and raised the dead, so we too are called and gifted and sent out into the world to do the same.
Remember that on this day of remembrance and every day.  Remember who you are and speak the truth to power like Esther did.  Remember what God has done for you, who God has made you to be and, like Paul and his Roman Christians, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with those around you.  Remember, and give your enemies bread to eat; share the cup with those who stand against you.  Remember that you are loved beyond comprehension and love with everything you’ve got.  Remember the One who gave his body, his very life for you and present your time, your treasure, your talents, your body, and your life to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable before the Lord.  Remember and heal the sick, feed the hungry, forgive and forgive and forgive once again. 

Remember—for just such a time as this.


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