A sermon for Proper 19; Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
September 11, 2001. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, into the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania? I was in the office of Holy Cross, West Memphis. At first, I did not grasp what was going on. The more the reality came to me, the more I felt alone, which had nothing to do with the fact that it was the secretary’s day off, and I was alone. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I went to my Sr. Warden’s Store. Together for the next couple of hours, we watch a national tragedy unfold. That night a crowd of folks from West Memphis crowded into one of the big churches, for a prayer vigil, in which I had some part.
I don’t remember when I started to think about Sunday and what in the world needs to be said to God’s people. On top of that, it was the Sunday, after Holy Cross Day, the congregation’s name day. The images of the Cross and the collapsing Twin Towers were too large a juxtaposition. I know the empty feeling of nothing to say. This was something different, it was not that I didn’t have anything to say so much as I was empty. And only then did I realize I would not preach that Sunday; the Bishop would be there for his annual visit. I have always enjoyed the Bishop’s annual visit. I have always enjoyed hearing my bishop preach. But never before, and never since, was I glad not to have to preach.
It has been 17 years. The effects of that day continue to be with us. US forces are still in Afghanistan. We all know or perhaps have family who are, or have, or will serve in Afghanistan or a related conflict. If you have flown or taken a bus trip you have stood in security lines. In the next two years, anyone who wants to travel by air or enter a Federal Building will have to have a Driver’s License, that is an approved Federal Id or a Passport. These have their roots in the travel restrictions that follow the effort to make air travel safe after 9/11. Our previously innocent relationship with Islam continues to be combative, even though President Bush made the brave effort to speak the truth. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. … The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war. (Bush) It has been a long war, spanning more than seven years of George Bush’s, all of Barack Obama’s and the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidencies, with no real end in sight. And though the terror is mostly over there, it continues to shape our lives, in all sorts of sublet, often ~ invisible ways. And I know that some equate the 9/11 attacks and the continuing impact of terrorists’ ways to the ‘cross’ Jesus speaks of in this morning’s Gospel.
The challenge is that this understanding of Jesus’ words If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. leaves off the significant end for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel. (Mark 8:35) (Zee; Perkins) The truth is I cannot tell you an instance when I have risked my life for Jesus or the Gospel. I’m not really sure I have inconvenienced myself for Jesus or the Gospel. I do know of Christians who do. Those who live in China and do not accept the official version of Christianity, an oppression with renewed strength this past week; members of the Coptic Church in Egypt, constantly under threat, and other communities where it is illegal to be a Christian. I do think that as the culture war in the US heats up, the possibility of people persecuting others for their Christian belief is growing. Tragically, I think it may well be Christians persecuting Christians; but this would not be the first time. But, maybe ~~ we can learn from the tragedies of our past.
In the broadest sense, Jesus is speaking about the power the Cross can have and should have in shaping our lives as the foundational value from which we form all our relationships and make all our decisions. The power of the Cross should also define how we respond to those times when life happens, especially in the extremes of personal crisis, family crisis, community crisis, or national crisis, and really, international crisis.
Janet Vincent was serving as a chaplain escorting families to a viewing area the city had built following 9/11. Here, in her words, is the rest of her story of September 24th.
At about 1:45 a firefighter came up to me and asked … Is there going to be a 2 o’clock mass today? I’m sure I looked confused, so he repeated his question: Is there going to be a 2 o’clock mass today? … [I] thought to myself: You want a mass here? I was horrified at the thought of a Great Thanksgiving celebrated in Hell and [asked]
You want a mass here?
[He replied] Yes, … You do that don’t you?
Well … yes, I do, … but we don’t have the things we would need … bread, wine, Bible, prayer book, or even a place …
There’s a mass kit in the tent, he said, motioning to a respite tent, and we can get the bread and wine.
Well, whadda ya say, Reverend?
Yes, I said. I’ll say mass with you.
I went into the tent, …[s]ure enough there was a mass kit, some sandwich bread and wine …. The altar was a makeshift table with a bunch of dead flowers on top. There was an altar frontal of sorts. It was a large piece of construction paper [on] which a little girl had written: Daddy, please come home. There was a crayon image of a fire fighter standing between two tall buildings — smoke coming out of the top of each. Her name was Kate … ~ her father never came home. …
At 2 o’clock 18 fire fighters appeared … and took off their … gear …. Their faces were dirty and drawn, their eyes heavy and sad. I introduced myself and added that I was an Episcopalian. Now that my mask and helmet were off there was no doubt that I was also a woman. I thought that might make a difference to what I assumed was a Roman Catholic group. It didn’t. I was there with them and that was more than good enough.
And so we began our Eucharist in Hell. I started with words I assumed would be familiar: Grace to you and peace from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Grace and peace? How did we ever say those words so easily? I had no Book of Common Prayer but the collect for the Great Vigil of Easter had welled up during the day. It’s the collect where night yields to daylight and death meets new life. It is the intersection of that long service and the beginning of the baptismal liturgy:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church and especially upon this gathering and this place. Let us and the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection through Christ our Lord.
The words seemed utterly outrageous. We had no Bible, so I asked the group to share whatever scripture came to mind and heart. One man spoke of the deposition of Christ’s body from the cross. He said:
There were people who took Jesus down from the cross and buried him. We are taking our brothers out of the pile so that they can be buried. We will take the civilians out and return them to their families — as many as we can.
Another man said:
Jesus said to love our enemies, but I want them all dead. I want to pull the trigger on the gun that kills bin Laden.
His voice cracked as he spoke, and another fire fighter put his arm around his shoulder. That man explained to me: His brother is in the pile. The bereaved man said: I guess I should leave. I replied, No, don’t leave. Please don’t leave. It’s okay. I realized later that I was speaking to myself. I also needed permission to stay because I knew that if bin Laden stood before me I could also pull the trigger. Another man had a quote to offer from the gospel according to Bruce Springsteen: Badlands,
you’ve got to live it every day. Let the broken heart stand as the price you’ve got to pay.
Another guy followed with a piece of another verse from the same song:
I believe in the love that you gave me. I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope that one day will raise me from these Badlands …
I talked about the great caring I had witnessed — gentleness, compassion, and selflessness. I quoted Jesus:
There is no greater love than this, than to give one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.
Then I quoted from the Boss, same song but from the last verse. A verse I knew they would not quote:
[and] it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive (from Badlands/ Darkness on the Edge of Town).
They seemed surprised that I had recognized Springsteen and could also quote song and verse. Looking at each other we almost smiled.
We moved on to the Great Thanksgiving as we gathered around our small altar. It wasn’t difficult to begin the familiar call and response of the Sursum Corda:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
But I hesitated before saying … Lift up your hearts… How could they lift their hearts in this place of death? How could I? Most of them had been on duty since midnight. They were falling asleep on their feet. Their lives had been devastated … all had lost friends and/or relatives. They [felt] guilty that they had survived and were driven to claw at the wreckage until forced to go home.
And yet here we were, in what seemed to be the center of hell, weighed down by unimaginable sorrow, and I was supposed to verbalize that ancient request. I struggled to lift my hands into the gesture of what I was about to ask. Belt high was all I could manage. I struggled more to raise my voice beyond a whisper:
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
They replied in sad but steady voices. I continued from memory:
… Holy and Gracious God, in your infinite love you made us for yourself and when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you in your mercy sent Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us …
And so we continued. This is my Body given for you. This is my blood, poured out for you and for all. The bread was broken and shared, … all drank from the cup. We stood in silence for a few moments and I blessed them as my hand shook. They thanked me as I hugged each one and then they returned to their work.
The firefighter who had approached me at 1:45 … saw the Word made flesh, the Incarnation, God’s impossible YES permeating the rubble, ash and twisted steel. He knew that his fallen comrades had said their YES. He could see into the mystery of Incarnation: that God is with us and for us (Vincent).
The Cross should be the foundational value that shapes our lives. The Cross should also be the power that fuels our response to a crisis. In our decades together, Angie and I have come to understand that life happens. The question is
Will we let the forces of chance or evil shape us, or will we reach back and grab the power of the Cross to define how we will respond?
That September day, eighteen firefighters, and a priest found the power of the Cross by which they continued to face the results of the forces of evil. And they are not alone, for no matter how bad the land, there is nothing that can keep you from the power of the Cross; there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God, in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31-39)
Bush, Geroge H. W. “Islam is Peace” Says President . 17 9 2001. 14 9 2018. <https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010917-11.html>.
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Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on Mark 8:27-38. 16 9 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
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Vincent, Janet. Lifting up our Hearts: Communion and Springsteen at Ground Zero,. 11 9 2018. <https://www.episcopalcafe.com/lifting-up-our-hearts-communion-and-springsteen-at-ground-zero-2/>.
Zee, Leonard Vander. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 8:27-38. 16 9 2018.