"CHRISTIAN VISION AND AMERICAN DREAM ON 9/11/11"
by David James Randolph © 2011
by David James Randolph © 2011
(These are the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A which falls on September 11, 2011)
Getting ready for the beginning of school and autumn activities is exciting and frustrating. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks both complicates and illuminates our celebrations by recalling the Christian vision of the Good Society and the American Dream of a nation under God. Both of these are seriously challenged today but faith helps us respond by showing the way to deal with the past redemptively and the future creatively by works of love now.
We need to find the bright faith to guide us forward in these critical days and nights. I was driving north on San Pablo Avenue the other day when a man in a hardhat and yellow vest stepped out and signaled traffic to stop. I soon saw why: a huge tractor
and trailer rig was blocking the road. No way forward. I looked back to see if I could reverse but that was too risky. I could not turn right. I could not turn left. So I sat there, trapped in traffic. Do you know that situation? I’m sure you know that feeling.
Many of us privately and all of us publicly are in a situation like this.
I got to thinking of some of these people I know: Students who have just graduated from colleges and universities, a contractor who is out of work, a gifted artist whose life is now absorbed in taking care of her father and sisters, seniors who have worked all their lives looking forward to the golden years to find them turning to lead. For the first time in American history parents no longer expect their children to be better off then they are. These and many others are trapped in the traffic of today.
Yet Christian faith is still alive here and signs of hope are appearing all over the world. This offers a guiding light for the heart of the problem is faith
The Faith Deficit
The basic problem in America today is not the financial deficit but the faith deficit.
The financial problems are real but they are manageable by people of faith, faith in God and faith in themselves. We the people of the United States have done this before and we can do it again. So help us God.
The key to debt reduction is doubt reduction. News reports that tell of job losses, rising costs and other woes for most people also report increasing profits for some corporations and individuals in the billions of dollars. There is money in America but those who have the money do not have the faith to invest it in the people with their capacity to work.
The task before us is to recover the faith that will enable us to recover the economy.
This is highly complex but not impossible. The nation took the steps that got us into this crisis and with God’s help we can take the steps to get us out.
Move Forward With Faith
We need to find the bright faith to guide us forward as the Children of Israel did in their march to freedom with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day as described in Exodus.
The Israelites were in trouble because of their hope. They hoped for freedom. They passionately wanted to be free from their Egyptian slave masters. But here they are with the Red Sea blocking their way forward. They cannot go back because the Egyptian army is behind them. And both the right and left alternate routes are not clear. Talk about your traffic jam! This is colossal.
In this overwhelming crisis, a way opened and with faith in their God and the leadership of Moses the people crossed the sea, escaped the Egyptians and moved toward freedom with songs of praise and joy.
The drama of this event has captured the imagination from that day to the epic film of Cecil B. DeMille and now in multimedia. While there is debate about details of how this happened why it happened was declared in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The theme of the song is that when leaders lead in the work of God and the people willingly follow,
joy and blessing follow. That is something to sing about!
In our present crisis of danger and opportunity we are called to live out that story and that song with a different cast, which includes you and me.
Who will the American people choose to lead them as President? Leadership in America becomes even more critical in this coming national election cycle of 2012 in which we must choose our next President and many who will govern with them. Will that leader be Barack Obama or …you name them…someone else?
Whoever is elected will be inaugurated and promise to uphold the constitution to the best of their ability with their hand upon the Bible and the conclusion, “So help me God.” This tradition goes back to our first president George Washington in 1789.
There is agreement that the Holy Bible was in place and that Washington showed reverence for it. There is debate among scholars as to whether the statement “So help me God” by Washington was spontaneous or if it was even actually stated. The phrase, “So help me God” is important because it acknowledges dependence upon that higher power represented in that Bible. There can be no doubt that George Washington believed this because he said so explicitly in his inaugural address.
In his first inaugural speech George Washington clearly states: “…my fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the council of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes…” Washington gives homage to the “Great Author of every public and private good…” and acknowledges his “Invisible Hand” which conducts the affairs of men.”
This is significant in the healthy debate about the relationship of God and government, which is critical now as throughout American history. There is debate about whether the God referred to in the Declaration of Independence and presupposed in founding documents is the God of biblical revelation, theism (personal), deistic (impersonal) or someone or something else.
Walter Isaacson holds that the key to relating God and government in America is neither deism or theism but pragmatism. Seeking governance that is responsible not only to the people but also to higher power works. Imperfectly, yes. But better than forms at the extremes of theocracy on the one hand and strict populism on the other.
The debates about theism and deism important as they are must not distract us from the work we have to do as a people. This is why faith in God is essential for in our moments of crisis we are not alone. We turn to God in prayer and act in the light of that. Whomever we elect as President will put his or her hand on the Bible and say, “So help me, God.” We the People are called to study the Bible, pray and put that faith to work with whomever we elect, so help us God.
Look Back With Forgiveness
The 21st century began with great hope and celebrations all around the globe but then came 2001. The years since have been a tragic decade but this need not become a tragic era. We can learn from our mistakes. We can apply wisdom from our successes. This requires both a thoroughgoing analysis of how we lost the way and a cooperative effort to recover it by correcting errors and creating alternatives.
The question of the use of military force to solve international conflicts must be raised but there can be no question of the heroism of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who serve in the military. We honor and thank them for their service today and around the world.
Forgiveness is required as well as analysis. People who are now divided will not become united without forgiveness of one another and of themselves. The passage from Matthew is especially helpful at this point because it sets forgiveness in the context of civil and military disputes. Jesus is teaching about behavior in the kingdom of heaven that is in conflict with contemporary conduct. Jesus illustrates his point with a parable about a king, his servants and negotiation of a debt repayment. This is in answer to Peter’s question about how often he should forgive his brother’s sins against him. Seven times Peter suggests. No, Jesus replies, seventy times seven. That is, without limit.
Forgiveness balanced with justice seems strange, but it can be real and redemptive.
Chris Rodriguez was a boy practicing his piano I his home in Oakland when a stray bullet from a gunman in the streets hit his spine. Chris was paralyzed and his life seemed over. But Chris found the courage to begin again with the help of his mother and others.
He resumed his piano lessons and other studies. Later, the man who fired the bullet that wounded Chris was brought to justice. In the courtroom, Chris got a chance to talk to that man and question him. Then Chris said to him, “I forgive you.”
How does a young man who was disabled by a stray bullet find the courage to go on and make music and a life? There is a mystery of grace here we cannot fathom but we know it comes with forgiveness. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Seven times? No, seventy times seven . With honesty and forgiveness comes the grace to go on.
Look Around For Works of Love
The heart of faith and forgiveness demands hands that work. This work is an enormous challenge but it consists of tasks that can be performed by every one of us. Day by day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year.
The details of this work and its national and international applications are responsibilities of elected officials for America is a representative democracy. There is a lot of talk now about which persons and which party can best fulfill this responsibility and upcoming elections will clarify this.
However, pending help from our elected officials I suggest that each one of us take hold of the Christian Vision and the American dream and get in the great parade of love and justice passing through our land.
The shining example of love in action is found in the first responders to emergencies like the emergency rescue workers at Ground Zero on 9/11/2001 who ran into the fiery buildings while others were running out. Their mission was to risk their lives to save those who were trapped in the ruins. In their presence and memory along with their brothers and sisters in our local community we stand on holy ground.
The actions of these first responders awaken in us the courage to go one with our lives against overwhelming odds because of love that is greater than fear. In acting in a way contrary to what we have been taught about self-preservation as the first law of life, these Emergency Rescue Workers reveal another world. In this world self-sacrifice is the first law of life, everyone really is for everyone else, and compassion rules.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down their life for their friends : Jesus Christ said this. This is lived out every day and night by our neighbors who serve as first responders, emergency rescue workers, firemen and women, chaplains and all other
caregivers. Chaplains and churches belong in this company. We recall that Chaplain Father Mychal Judge was the first victim to be officially recorded at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 and he was there as a caregiver. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near there was a center of service to the most needy throughout that crisis. It is fitting that we honor all those who serve in this way in our communities, celebrate them today, and provide more care for them when they need it.
We can open that Bible the President will place his hand upon and study it. The Sermon on the Mount will recall us to do unto others as we would do unto them and guide us on how to do this. Romans will remind us that God is the ultimate judge and that all things work together for good with those who love. When the going gets really bad and the traffic jam seems overwhelming we can remember the heroes with the face of the emergency rescue workers and put love to work.
That traffic jam on the avenue I mentioned did get cleared up. Many of the other jams we are in from toddlers to seniors can also be cleared but it will take a lot of love and work.
The Beginning Rejoice and Sing
A new life of faith and hope and love begins with us. In dark times there are candles in the dark: individuals and communities who illuminate, heal and lead us forward with a voice of singing. Music has accompanied the march of freedom from
Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea through out the ages. Americans are a singing people as Walt Whitman observed early. The songs of the Civil Rights movement still ring in our ears and hearts. In good times and bad we lift every voice and sing even as we create new songs and poems and movement.
One of our most familiar songs has an unfamiliar story. This is the song that was chosen for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on the first program aired after 9/11/01. Crosby, Stills and Nash sang it then. This is the song that President Barack Obama chose for his inauguration when it was sung by Aretha Franklin. This is the song quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream speech” at the March on Washington.
You might expect that such a great song came from a famous composer and was introduced at a prestigious concert hall for a conspicuous occasion. Actually a man named Smith, William Francis Smith, wrote it. He was then a seminary student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. It was written for and introduced at a children’s Independence Day service for July 4, 1831 in Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. This famous song is the hymn we call “America” which begins “My country t'is of thee sweet land liberty, of thee I sing.” “From every mountainside, let freedom ring” as Dr King recalled. The hymn concludes: “Our Father’s God, to Thee Author of liberty, long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light; protect us by thy might…”
We may add new verses to this hymn in 2011 but let us sing over and over again sweet freedom’s song as the children of America did in Boston and the children of Israel did at the Red Sea. For the great leaders know and the world comes to realize that the future belongs not to the few in their places of privilege but to children and youth in the schools, and believers in their places of worship, and all who learn to love and work together. They, and this means you, will find the way forward with faith in God and one another, learning from the past and forgiving as we are forgiven, loving and working together.
Some say that America is coming to an End but we say that America and the world are coming to a Beginning. So help us God!
Let us stand and sing and live and work Sweet Freedoms song. Sing, “America,” #697 in the United Methodist Hymnal.