September 13, 2010

9/11, Loss, and Bad Shepherds




SEPTEMBER 12, 2010

LUKE 15:1-10


Dear Friends,

I write to you today from my bed – no place to write, I tell you,

And no good place to have been confined for the past several days.

I’m sick, and my doctor said if I came out to be with you today

I’d risk putting other people’s health in jeopardy.

Besides which, the middle of my throat feels like a plume of fire –

Not a good condition for a preacher.

So here I am; you know where I am now.

What I want to know is, Where we you nine years ago yesterday?

I was in Austin, Texas, waiting for the first real day of seminary classes to start.

We had done our preliminary coursework called August Course,

Presumably to weed out the ones incapable of working at a graduate level,

Though I don’t recall anyone flunking out.

Many of us from other parts of the country had been trying to cope

With the heat in Central Texas.

It took time to develop a routine, for our spouses to find jobs, et cetera.

At any rate, we now had our books and we were ready to go.

I was in an auditorium on campus that Tuesday morning, and one of my classmates,

Who among other things had flown helicopters in the Army,

Took a seat near me.

He said, “Did you hear about the World Trade towers?”

I said no I hadn’t.

He said, “Sounds like an airplane crashed into one of them.”

This didn’t take long to sink in,

Because I thought I was aware of such things –

Small-scale things:

A two-man prop plane had flown into one of the class buildings

At my old alma mater in the early ’70s,

And then, too, I remembered that a B-25 had accidentally flown

Into the Empire State Building in the 1940s, killing 14.

In other words, I had a very narrow slot in my brain for all this.

Such events did not cause mass-casualties,

The buildings in question were always salvageable,

And the whole thing must have been an accident.

“Wow,” I said, remembering the photograph of the wreckage of that two-seater

As it was being torn out of the side of Shawnee Hall,

“What a terrible accident.”

Tim looked at me in a way that suggested I had a lot to learn.

“No,” he said flatly. “That’s protected air space.

Planes can’t fly anywhere near those towers. It’s no accident.”

Then the lights dimmed in the auditorium and the dean of the seminary stepped out,

And he was filled with emotion;

A look of pure shock was written across his face.

Believe me when I say that this, too, seemed more or less normal to me;

He had suffered a stroke sometime before I enrolled,

And I had been told that in the process of his brain repairing itself,

He was relearning how to handle moods and feelings.

It wasn’t how he looked that woke me up: It was what he said, with tears on his face:

“Let’s pray for all those hurt and killed today in the plane crash in New York City.”

A few minutes later, a student named Darrell huffed into the auditorium.

He said, “They just hit the second tower.”

And then I understood: No accident.

The rest of the day, of course, was a complete loss as far as school would be concerned.

There were tears and numbness, a palpable feeling

Of no one really having anything to say that would help,

Just honoring the silence and dealing with the tension; prayers and more prayers.

There was speculation floating around that the City of Austin,

Being home to the nation’s largest capitol building

And just down the road from a major military munitions site,

Might be another target.

Danger in the skies. Looking up, looking over my shoulder. Paranoia.

How to explain it?

A profound sense of shifting, tectonic shifting, of the earth moving –

As though nothing could ever be the same from this moment forward,

Though we didn’t quite know how.

A feeling of being between things,

Of the vague, dreadful emptiness that comes from being between things,

Neither here nor there,

And no way to fill it.

My own tears did not come until the middle of that night,

And I have to say that they’re spilling down my cheeks right now as I write this…

I recall so clearly sitting in our seminary chapel at about three in the morning,

And it finally hitting me: 3,000 was not just an estimated number of casualties,

Not a number of convenience,

But each digit in that chain stood for a real person.

Three thousand lives, three thousand histories, three thousand family connections,

Three thousand sets of hopes and dreams and ways of seeing the world.

All gone.

That was the quiet desperation I knew in the chapel of our seminary,

A big room which was lit by just one candle that night.

I wept by the light of it, ashamed of what someone might think if they happened past.

(I’m happy to say I no longer care; sometimes you just have to weep.)

I don’t know if you remember, but it was at about that time of the night

That the media became comfortable with using the words terrorists and terrorism,

Jihad and Islamic extremism,

As shorthand for what had brought all this into being.

At this point, I have another question to ask you:

What do you think is meant by this teaching of Jesus –

These parables about things that are lost being found?

It seems that the chief characteristic of divine love is that here it is extravagant, right?

That God’s love for us in Christ is just over-the-top extravagant next to the fickleness

Of the Pharisees and scribes, the purported guardians of the faith.

Even the way Jesus poses the question –

Who wouldn’t leave ninety-nine sheep in the wild and go after the one stray?

Or, again, Who wouldn’t sweep out an entire house in search of one small coin? –

Even the way he poses the question tells us

How absurd and excessive is this love because, of course, not many would.

He has been telling us, and we have been hearing these past weeks,

What it costs to follow him.

We should consider ourselves well informed.

Now he uses these parables of God’s extravagant love for us to build up

To the Parable of the Prodigal Son – the ultimate Scriptural example

Of going into party mode because a Lost Thing has been found.

That’s what immediately follows these passages –

But you know what?

In our lectionary cycle, we won’t hear that parable read again in our midst on a Sunday

Until the Fourth Sunday of Lent, in the early Spring of 2013.

And so these parables, which we dare not read by themselves without the Prodigal,

Have been left by themselves without the Prodigal:

Appetizers, with no main course to follow!

When I hear these parables,

And especially when I think on the tale of the Prodigal Son which follows them,

I think of them as part of the basis of the law for Christians:

That to consider ourselves Christian, we must be willing to risk misunderstanding

And lowered social standing

In order to go after one lost sheep.

That’s what’s at risk here.

It won’t make us rich or famous or the most popular congregation in town,

But it will make us faithful to our baptismal vows.

It takes us back to those words, doesn’t it?

It takes us back to terror and terrorism, to holy war and extremism.

It takes us to the news this week, and to a rising tide of unnecessary misunderstanding.

When any religious shepherd sets his flock down into the wild

And teaches them that it’s okay to despise the sheep who are not like them,

That’s religious extremism, plain and simple,

And those sheep in his care should all be considered lost, though they huddle together.

When that same shepherd comes driving bargains

About burning things precious to those other flocks

Merely to be incendiary, gain attention, and get what he wants,

Though it puts an already tense world at further peril,

That shepherd should be considered to have failed his task and his flock

Because he has succumbed to a holy war of his own believing and making.

Pastor Terry Jones of the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center in Florida,

Who draped himself in the cross this week as he threatened to burn the Koran,

Utterly failed the shepherd’s test

And soon enough, he will find himself to be just as lost

As any of the ones he has purported to shepherd.

He, too, will need finding, correction, repentance, and love.

But first he will have to come to his senses,

And who knows, dear friends, how long that will take?

Even so, he is too easy a target:

He’s the product of a society that thinks with its emotions,

And of a religious heritage that insists on being right as the most important thing.

It was we, his fellow Christian shepherds and sheep,

Who had to come forward and say to him:

Do not kill, and do not add fire to killing …

We had to remind him, What would Jesus do? …

Every faith has a holy book …

This is America …

We had to remind Mr. Jones, because we needed to remind ourselves,

How that beautiful American poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1949:

I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my own two feet

And own the land…

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.

We had to remind Mr. Jones, because we needed to remind ourselves,

The words of the playwright Henrich Heine:

“Where they burn books, so too in the end will they burn human beings.”

And we came to see, again, how things are corrupted.

We had occasion, again, to appreciate that “an eye for an eye” makes the world blind.

If books are burned and towers continue to fall

And wars are waged and wrong passions enflamed,

Then we will not last much longer,

And our mission as Christians will have died only partially fulfilled.

But if we heed this image of finding what has been lost

And recognize that doing it will come at some great cost to us,

Then we’ll be doing “the work we’ve been given to do.”

Brothers and sisters, this bed of mine has not been the best place, though not the worst,

From which to watch the world go by.

It’s certainly not the place a shepherd of any kind wants to be for long.

Pray for this feeble throat of mine, and for infection to go away;

And I’ll look to greet you soon.

Let us pray.

Lord, you teach us to find lost things. You teach us this because you say it is in your very nature to do so. Reach into our hearts and make room for yourself: after all, we can’t use all this hatred and prejudice. That gone, may we love you more for such instruction; and may we love one another enough to call each other into account. In the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, we pray. Amen.

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