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Sermon for the Tenth Anniversary of September 11th

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 52 Sermon for 10th Anniv of Sept 11.mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon this morning isn’t so much of an exposition on one of the texts as it a homily for today.

I don’t know exactly what happened at Augustana but I’ve looked back on the numbers and I know that attendance was through the roof on Sunday, September 16th, like it was at almost all churches and synagogues throughout the country.  Augustana followed the nationwide trend with high numbers the next week but by the third Sunday, attendance was only slightly elevated, and by the fourth Sunday it was back to normal.  That trend was born out in almost every spiritual meeting place in the country.  For the last ten years people have been trying to figure out what happened and a number of explanations have been put forth.  One explanation I heard very shortly afterwards was mostly a criticism of preachers nationwide.  The criticism was that during this once-in-a-lifetime crisis what was preached was irrelevant.  From the arch-political conservatives who preached against the Islamic conspiracy to take over America to the arch-political liberals who preached against American imperialism to the apolitical messages of pure comfort in the midst of tragedy, it didn’t matter.  We had dropped the ball, all of us.  It’s safe to say, anyone who wasn’t in church before 9/11 wasn’t in church a month later.  The one flaw in that reading of the situation is that it assumes that if the message had been good enough, that is truly Good News, people would have listened to it.  We know from the reactions of the Israelites to their prophets, to the reactions of the crowds to the preaching of John the Baptist, and even Jesus that many people simply reject the truth of God.  Much more recently, I heard an explanation that made a lot more sense to me.  It was simply that by the third week most people had begun to remember why they had stopped going to church in the first place.  That analysis seems to spread the blame a little further than the prophet and onto the hearers themselves.  So now we’re here at the tenth anniversary of a terrible day in our nation’s history.  What is a preacher supposed to preach to a people who increasingly describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”?  Thankfully, I don’t have to try to answer that question because you’re here.

A far easier question is, “What is an appropriate churchly response to something like 9/11?”  I dare say what it’s not.  It’s definitely not fire-breathing political commentary either from the political left or right.  I’m certain it’s not waving the flag in the church and confusing the theological kingdom of Israel with the political kingdom of the United States.  Just in case this isn’t clear in our minds, God does not love us more because we’re Americans; that would mean that God loves others less because they live somewhere else.  Only politicians benefit by crossing this line.  So no, none of that is appropriate but what is?  Well, it’s what we’re doing this morning, listening and prayer—hearing God speak to us and earnest prayer to God in the midst of any lingering uncertainty, hearing again from God of the sure and true things, the things we can count on, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” and calling upon Him while He has drawn near.  This is what we do in the face of tragedy, even national tragedy, listen again to God and pray for His strength and rescue.  It’s the answer to the question but I’m not sure we like it.

We don’t like feeling vulnerable and in times of tragedy, we definitely don’t want to be reminded of our sin, much less, repent of it.  It’s so much easier to put away all talk of repentance and get on with the talk of another god fashioned after our own hearts, one who would fix all this mess and be quick about it.  Many of those folks who came then to hear what the modern prophets had to say rejected outright the God, who through events such as these, calls people to Himself.  They would rather have a god who rips open the heavens and makes everything right, extinguishes the fires with great bursts from the firmament above or maybe just tactical heart attacks in the attackers’ chests just before they started to commit such crimes.  But truly if God were to operate in this way, where would He stop?  Who would be left alive?  In the words of the psalmist, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  I can hear it now, “Well, of course, preacher, but I’m not talking about my sins.  I’m talking those guys, those terrible people who are doing or who are about to do terrible things.  Their sins are worse than mine.”  Maybe, on a purely human scale, they might be worse, maybe not; they certainly are not worse to God.  All sin offends the righteousness of God.  Those who reject this Word from the Lord, reject that the true God has any claim against them.  They do not need God’s righteousness, rather they might need to try a little harder or be a little nicer.  I’ll be very honest with you.  My problem is not that I need to be a little nicer, my problem is that in my heart, by its very nature, all manner of murderous hatred resides in me and I am an offense to God who is holy and just.  No, my problem is that I am damned for my sin.  If we reject this truth about ourselves, St. John says, we make God a liar.  This is a hard truth and we don’t like it but is necessary to see ourselves as much in need of forgiveness from God as any other sinner, perhaps more so because we know our own sins.

But blessed St. John also tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and not just our sins but the sins of the whole world.  It is precisely at this point, at the cross of Jesus Christ, at the propitiation for the sins of the whole world that we diverge from Islam.  People who don’t know any better talk of Christianity as a religion of peace.  It’s not.  We Christians have to answer for all manner of evil done in the name of Christ and we had a 600 year head start on Islam.  Christianity is violent not just historically but theologically.  The most terrible violence in all of human history was inflicted on Jesus at the cross, the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world.  Islam misses this point entirely, and thereby misses the most single most important historical and theological event in all human history.  Islam does not teach that God’s wrath was meted out on His own Son and appeased.  This is why the classic Lutheran teachers, including our own Dr. Luther, lumped Mohammedanism, as they called it, with Macrcionism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and all the other anti-Trinitarian heresies of the Early Church.  It’s just the happenstance of history that Islam became the most successful of those ancient heresies.  Jesus is the propitiation, the blood covering for our sins, and not just our sins but the sins of the whole world.

There are many Christian preachers who in their misunderstanding preach Christianity as a religion of peace.  They preach a God who is not wrathful at all but only loving.  A god who loves but is not righteous does not judge; that is a god of man’s own making.  That god would be as H. Richard Niebuhr famously described, “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”  No doubt that god was preached on the Sundays after September 11th but of course that god has no answer to the events of that terrible day or any terrible day.  The only answer that god has is, “Can’t we all just get along?”  That god is the god in the minds of many with their “Coexist” bumper stickers with all the religious symbols.  That god is truly a bumper sticker god, a god of our own devising.  He is not a god who has an answer for anyone after the terrible events of September 11th.  The Lord, the true God, is loving and righteous.  He so loved the world that gave His only-begotten son, not to condemn the world but that the world would be saved through Him.  To preach any other message is to fundamentally misunderstand Christianity.

This is why when truly terrible things happen, we return to the Lord our God.  We seek Him and call upon Him while He is near.  The wickedness in others brings to mind the wickedness in us and we confess it and allow Jesus blood to be poured out over it and cover it that God in His wrath against evil would not bring us to our rightful end too.  And we pray, even for our enemies, as difficult a task as that may be.  We pray that they would repent and return to the Lord God, the true God, and that their sins might be covered in the holy blood of Jesus poured out for them.  And should they do that, we pray for faith to see them as God does, as fellow repentant sinners and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And we pray for God to give strength to those who, in their godly vocations in this world, must set their hand to the difficult tasks set before them.  We pray our God would give strength and courage to our paramedics and firefighters and police and all first responders, as well as our military members because what they do is truly dangerous.  We pray our God would give stamina and wisdom to our medical teams and the folks who manage emergency response.  Turn.  Listen.  Repent.  Pray.  Because the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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