The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2016
Jeremiah 4:11-2, 22-28
Of Biblical Proportions
Fifteen years ago, you and I turned on the television to witness an evil scene. The Twin Towers, gone; turned to dust. The Pentagon, crippled and burning. A field in Pennsylvania, with a long, trailing, curl of smoke. The morning of Tuesday, September 22, 2001 was a morning that we will not forget. The buildings that were destroyed were not just buildings. They were symbols, they were icons of America. And to watch them burn and collapse was if we were watching American itself burn and collapse. Our feelings of security, of prosperity, evaporated in the flash of an eye.
I was a junior in high school in 2001, and I remember my physics teacher, not knowing quite sure whether she should let us watch the news or not. She was fidgety, as we were all fidgety. She was confused, as we were all confused. She was angry, she was sad, she was scared, as we were all angry, sad, and scared. All at the same time. Eventually, she did turn off the tv and made us work on something like the gravitational pull of planets or the coefficient of friction, but nobody’s heart was in it. Because our minds were elsewhere.
And the stories of that day just kept getting worse throughout that week. We saw parking lots full of cars, cars whose owners went to work that day and never came home. We heard inspiring and mournful stories of first responders who risked and gave their last effort for the sake of others.
Most chilling of all, we saw New York City covered in ash and dust. Ash and dust that was part building, part airplane, and horrendously, part human. A city laid to ruins. Cherished buildings reduced to rubble. Symbols of our identity completely thrown down by those who would wish to do us ill. It was, as they say, a disaster of biblical proportions.
And when they say, “biblical proportions,” they really do mean something from the bible. For the prophet Jeremiah, he intends the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. See, the ancient city of Jerusalem was a hub of commercial and religious activity in the ancient world. Not unlike New York City. Jerusalem was at a crossroads, Europe to the north, Asia to the east, Africa to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Jerusalem was at the crossroads of the ancient world.
But more than that, it was the very center of the world to the ancient Jews. The walls of Jerusalem symbolized their might, and God’s favor upon the ancient Jews. The ancient Temple, was, by all accounts, an incredibly magnificent building. The gold on the outside of the Temple would gleam so brightly in the sun that one could be blinded by its brilliance. The Temple contained the Ark of the Covenant with the ten commandments. It was, for the ancient Jews, where they believed God dwelled, actually God’s presence abided in the Temple. Like our Twin Towers of New York City, the ancient temple stood not just as a building, it stood as a symbol of identity.
But, there is a storm coming. As the prophet Jeremiah says, there is a hot wind blowing in from the desert heights. There will be a fire and the city will be laid in ruins. Jeremiah lived at a time when the temple was the center of what it meant to be Jewish. But Jeremiah knew, Jeremiah knew that it wasn’t going to last forever. That it would thrown down. That the city and the temple would be turned to dust and rubble and ash.
Indeed, it was. Like you and I remember September 11, 2001 as the day that changed our world, the ancient Jews remembered the year 586 B.C. That was the year that the Babylonians marched into Jerusalem. They slaughtered the people. They robbed the Temple. They desecrated its altar. They tore down it down to the ground. When Jeremiah describes a city laid in ruins, a city attacked by its enemies, he is describing the ancient city of Jerusalem. The language Jeremiah uses was the language we used, “the whole land shall be a desolation.” You remember that, you remember how eerily quiet things were in the hours and days of that week. As we hunkered down in our homes, glued to our televisions. As I remember it, the streets were desolate. Jeremiah says, “I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.” At the time I was living in Dallas, in the flight path of DFW airport. And I remember how quiet the skies were because all the flights had been grounded. I remember that lack of sound stood witness to the evil of that Tuesday. Jeremiah brings back to us many memories, many haunting memories.
But, Jeremiah also has something to teach us. As the Lord God says to Jeremiah, “yet I will not make a full end.” In other words, the people of Jerusalem will not be completely destroyed. The ancient Jews will survive. That awful and evil day, though it may seem like it, it is not the end of the world. Yes, for those who were killed by the Babylonians in the horrendous slaughter, it was the end of the world. But it is not the end of God’s people.
September 11, 2001, was the end for thousands of our compatriots. And for some, they were our friends, our neighbors. They perished in despicable and horrific ways that are unspeakable. Yet at the same time, September 11, 2001 was not the end of the world. In fact, it was not even the day that changed the world.
No, for Christians, our foundations go even deeper than the foundations of those great buildings. Our foundation, and the day that we believe changed the world was Good Friday. Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, was the most important day in the history of the world. That was day on which God and humanity were reconciled. That was the day on which you and I saw the true power of love. That was the day on which the whole world changed, because the powers of death were destroyed. The sight of ash and smoke rising up from New York City, the sight of rubble and smoke circling the ancient Temple – those are no match for the sight of Christ’s blood upon the cross. Of Jesus’ arms opened wide upon the cross, in perfect love and in perfect vulnerability.
The destruction that we still witness today, that is only the death throes of death itself. The power of evil, the power of death, the power of corruption – that power was defeated once and for all on the cross. As Jeremiah says, God will not make a full end.
Fifteen years on, the Church and Christians still have many things to say about September 11, 2001. We have things to say about love, dignity, violence, courage, compassion. But what we say, our words, will fail. For Jeremiah, two thousand five hundred years ago, his words failed, too. When the ancient Jews struggled to understand, struggled to cope with the destruction of their beloved temple, words failed. When I stand in this pulpit, when Christians talk about September 11, words fail. They always do. Whatever we say cannot possibly speak to the fullness of our pain, of the atrocity, of the horror, of the compassion we saw fifteen years ago. Our words fail. This may seem as an admission of weakness.
Rather, for the Christian, this admission of our weakness is our strength. We are strongest by our actions, not our words. We are strongest when we are struck on the right cheek and look defiantly back at our aggressor as we turn the other cheek. We are strongest when we walk the second mile with our enemy. We are strongest when we pray for those who persecute us. We are strongest when we open wide our arms in love.
As you continue to reflect on those terror attacks fifteen years ago, remember that they do not define you. You were not baptized by smoke and ash and rubble. You were baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. You are not made of hate, you are made for love. And when the next atrocity happens; when the world seems to fall apart; when creation groans yet again under the weight of another disaster of biblical proportions, when our temples are turned to dust, take yourself to the foot of the cross. Remember that when we suffer, when we struggle, when we languish in pain, Jesus suffers, struggles, and languishes with us. Remember, that on Good Friday, God showed us that we are never alone.