Saturday, July 23, 2005


I've been quiet lately, for no discernible or definable reason. Summertime blues, or simple exhaustion, or a need to just be still. It doesn't matter. I've been busy with other projects, such as scanning all my sermons back into digital form, the better to store them. And I came across this one, the one I wrote just after 9/11. At first I didn't like it, and then I decided I liked it after all; at least the ending, anyway.

TEXT: JEREMIAH 4:11-12,22-28; 1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17; LUKE 15:1-10

When the first plane hit the tower, I heard about it on the radio. No one believed it was possible, so all I heard as a report that a plane had possibly struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It was assumed to be a small plane, maybe a Cessna. It was assumed to be an accident.

I don't even remember when I realized it was no accident. The radio news went on as usual. There was nothing unusual about the announcement except the timing. It was something new, not a repeat of headlines I had heard before. But then I turned on the TV. Which is curious, because I never turn the TV on in the morning, never watch the morning news. But by then the second plane had struck the second tower. And this was clearly no accident. And when the video showed what looked like a passenger jet, rather than a small private plane, my heart stopped. I knew then it was a horror beyond any imagining. That's when I first felt the world lurch, and twist to one side, like the ground had suddenly become a bronco determined to unseat me, or had gone from solid to liquid and I was about to fall sideways and drown.

And then the first tower fell. And then the second. And the story came in about the Pentagon. And another plane in Pennsylvania, that might or might not be related. And then all airplanes were grounded. And the earth stood still.

This is what it looked like to Jeremiah, almost 3000 years ago. But it could have been Tuesday morning, in lower Manhattan:

"I looked at the earth, and it was chaos, at the heavens, and their light was gone, at the mountains, and they were reeling, and all the hills rocked to and fro. I looked: no one was there, and all the birds of heaven had taken wing. I looked: the fertile ground was wilderness, its towns all razed to the ground before the Lord, before his fierce anger."

A friend called me the next day. She called at noon. Never in the 20 years I have known here has she ever called me at noon. She asked me if 1 was going to preach on this on Sunday. 1 said she had interrupted me working on the sermon. "Good," she said. "Your people are going to want you to explain it to them. And then you can explain it to me."

Jeremiah tried to explain it. He tried to explain that it was God's judgment, that actions have consequences and that you pay for the evil you do. "My people are foolish," God says, "they know nothing of me; senseless children, lacking all understanding, clever only in wrongdoing, but of right and wrong they know nothing." A group I meet with once a week said these words applied to us, to our nation; that because we had become Godless, had allowed abortions and taken prayer out of schools, this was God's judgment on us. But they didn't really mean it. They were just trying to make sense out of it. They were just trying to give evil some kind of reason.

Some people say it is our loss of innocence. But I don't believe that, either. This
is too cataclysmic, too large, too much, to blame us, to say we were too innocent, too naive, that somehow we had this coming. Nothing we did can ever make us deserve this. And yet we are not innocent. We don't stand outside the circle. "No one does good," the Psalmist says, "no, not one!" But for all that, Psalm 14 is a psalm of comfort. We are not innocent. But nothing we did can ever make us deserve this.

Even Jeremiah sees that. God says to Israel: "Your ways and deeds have brought these things on you; this is your punishment, for your rebellion is deep seated within you." And Jeremiah doesn't say, "Yeah, you're right." He cries: "My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly, I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war." He speaks for us. He speaks our pain. A loss of innocence? No. We've lost our illusion.

Like Jeremiah, we've lost the illusion that we are safe. "Ah, Lord God," theprophet cries, "you surely deceived this promising peace while the sword is at our throat!" We've lost the illusion that we are protected. We've lost the illusion that we can never be harmed. We are free to cry out that God has deceived us. And for that very reason we should not keep silent at the sound of the battle cry or the blast of the trumpets, or the sight of the destruction. So many people killed in such a little time. So many people injured and the families left weeping and left wondering: where is God?

God is right here. In the wilderness, with us.

God is our refuge and God is our strength. But that does not mean God protects us from all pain, that God shields us from calamity. God is our ever present help in trouble. But that doesn't mean that God looks down on even one that does good. God looks for the wise. But what do the wise do? They seek after God.

It seems too much, to turn that way. It asks too much, to say that now is the time to be seeking God. But listen to Jeremiah. What is he doing, when he cries for us, when he uses our voice to ask God why we were deceived, why peace was promised when the sword was at our throat, when he hears the sound of the battle cry and his heart beats wildly because he cannot contain his terror and his fear? What is Jeremiah doing if not looking for God in this wilderness that has suddenly been created where once there were people and cities and fertile land? Jeremiah finds himself suddenly in the wilderness and cries out "Oh, Lord God, what have you done?"

Has there been a one of us who has not asked the same thing since Tuesday? Our cities have been razed, the places once filled with people are empty, even the farmland in Pennsylvania has been made a waste, a wilderness. Haven't we heard all of this before? Haven't we seen this all before? Aren't we looking for God, and not expecting to find God here, in all this ruin, in all this destruction, in all this desolation?

And yet, if the parable is true, it is here in the wilderness that we can expect to find God.

When 1 sheep goes astray, you don't leave 99 alone to search for it. Not unless that one is more valuable than all the other 99 together. What sheep could be that valuable, unless that sheep is God? How could one sheep make the possible loss of another 99 worthwhile, unless that sheep represented the kingdom of God? And what else could make us rejoice, and call all our friends together, except to discover the lost kingdom of God?

The kingdoms of the world are kingdoms of power. They are supported by the bow and the sword, by the weapons of war. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree." We all have. We know. The kingdoms of this world are kingdoms of power, supported by the weapons of war. The kingdom of God is a sheep; a sheep we find in the wilderness. "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace." A sheep is a peaceful animal, a symbol of a peaceable kingdom. It is not a threat, or menacing; it has no power. And we find it, of all places, in the wilderness. Out in the world, where the wild things are. Where terrorists take over passenger planes and commit suicide with hundreds of unwilling victims, commit war on thousands of unwitting lives. Where skyscrapers collapse into
rubble and kill the occupants and the bystanders and the rescuers. Where people die in farmland trying to wrest control from their would-be killers. All the places where you can't possibly imagine God would be, is precisely where God is found. We only need to look for God. We only need to expect to find God.

If we cry to God and ask God, "why?," we have found God. If we think the meek can't possibly inherit the earth, we find a sheep in the wilderness. If we see the wicked in great power, and spreading like a bay tree, spreading branches out until they even reach our shores, our lives, our families and homes, "Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." Instead, we'll find a sheep. Out in the wilderness. Where nothing that needs to be kept safe, should be. Waiting to tell us, "enough." The ways of the wicked, of violence and hatred and revenge, of disaster overtaking disaster until the whole land lies in ruin, is not the way of God. Nor is it the end. Because "the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them because they trust him." Not because the world isn't evil. Not because violence and death and destruction don't occur. Not because
God wasn't there or let it happen, or because we deserved it or brought it on ourselves. But because we too easily find ourselves in the wilderness. That's why it's where God is. As helpless as a lost sheep. Waiting for us.

5000 people. 5000 families. Evil is not reason. It cannot be explained. But God is in the wilderness, waiting for them, waiting for us. God will be with them this day. May we know that God is with us. That though we have troubles, God is our strength. That the Lord will deliver us from the wicked, and save us, because we trust God. Because we trust the sheep, not the weapons of revenge, the tools of hatred, the sound of trumpets or the battle cry of war.


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