Replacing Horror with Holiness
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
We gather today at the start of a new program year, with children and teachers all ready for Sunday school, with beloved friends re-connecting after a summer away, with new classrooms all shiny and clean, with hope and joy and expectation, and all of it under the shadow of a day we wish we could forget — a tragic day that has changed the world in which we live. We gather today not only as an act of worship, but also as an act of resistance: by the very act of gathering here, in this holy place, we demonstrate our enduring commitment to the hope, courage, inclusiveness, and love that our enemies sought to destroy. It’s all jumbled together, because that’s how life is: the good, the painful, the joy, and the hope, all coming at us all at once, and we holding our small lamps, looking for the greater light of Christ. We, and those like us, are God’s sign that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
For about a year after the attacks on 9/11, I would step off the train in Grand Central Station and find myself confronting a wall of images, hastily constructed. Each picture showed a face, and under them there were messages:: “Call me.” “Have you seen this man?” “Are you OK?” fading, slowly, to other words: “In loving memory,” “Love never ends.” Jesus asks, “What shepherd, having a hundred sheep and losing one, will not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go to seek the lost?” (Luke 15:4) It’s customary for preachers to point out that no shepherd would actually do that; he’d only lose the rest of sheep as well. But that wall of faces reminds us that we do seek our lost, that the ways of the heart are wilder than the ways of the mind. That those we have lost are, paradoxically, sometimes more present to us than anyone else. Because our loved ones can no longer do it for themselves, we lift their memories upon our shoulders and bear them home.
We Christians have a word for that: anamnesis. It refers to the kind of memory we practice in the Eucharist: remembering things from the past that still form our identity; past things that refuse to stay in the past because they are real for us today. In the Eucharist, what we remember is the profane made holy: the utter degradation of Jesus tortured and Jesus killed, become through a strange transmutation the instrument of our salvation. 9/11 shares that unsettling blend of emotions: we remember not only the destruction, but also the beauty of thousands of people who went there, who helped, who risked their lives; of children who sent teddy bears and of older folks who served food, day after day; of ten thousand gestures of love that erased the smoldering heap of steel and replaced horror with holiness.
Replacing horror with holiness is the essential act of salvation, the salvation God works in each of our lives. You may be thinking that “horror” is a strong word to describe the petty concerns that dog our souls, but I think it is perhaps not too strong to describe how those appear in the sight of God. Held up to the perfect, eternal, and unchanging love of God, most of us are pretty shoddy stuff. That’s why Jesus tells so many stories about seeking the lost: we tend to emphasize the seeking and the finding, God’s action in seeking us and ours in seeking him, but in each of these stories, being lost is not optional. It’s the necessary precondition for being found. Reading these stories straight, neither the coin nor the sheep is even capable of trying to find its owner. All the action is God’s, all of it.
That should give us great comfort.
Few people know that sense of being found as profoundly as St. Paul. Listen to his words, which may sound different to you today than on any other day: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. But I received mercy…and the grace of the Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ.” (I Tim 1:13-14) Listen to him; this is the testimony of man who had tasted rage, who had been almost consumed by rage, who could perhaps have flown a plane into a building, but who, by the grace of God, chose another way: the way of faith and love. Paul is the living, speaking embodiment of Christian hope, that the worst is never the last. The worst is never the last.
Holding that assurance in our hands as a talisman, let us turn to our reading from Jeremiah, a disquieting reading for a disquieting day: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro…I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” (Jer 4:23-26)
This reading is grotesque; I hope it made you uncomfortable. It plunges us into a world of divinely-sanctioned, divinely-enacted violence, the world imagined by Al-Quaeda and by ISIS, a world whose ground-notes are rage, fear, and submission.
We catch a glimpse of that world in one of the founding epics of Western civilization: The Iliad of Homer. Homer begins his poem with one word: Rage. And then he continues:
Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion.
That one sentence sums up the whole epic: underneath its stirring heroism and its glorious battles, underneath its beauty and its courage and its power, The Iliad is a poem of loss. It begins with rage and traces destruction: the destruction of a city, of a civilization, of heroes, and, eventually, of heroism itself, as prolonged exposure to the degradation of violence leads the great hero of the Greeks to abandon the field, to abandon his comrades-in-arms, and to commit an atrocity that has not been forgotten in nearly three thousand years.
The Iliad is a very honest poem. This is the Way of Rage, and that is where it leads. Always.
Rage is not anger. Anger is a natural part of our humanity; sometimes, even a helpful one, when it give us strength and courage to stand up to injustice or abuse. Rage is anger gone wrong; it’s what happens when we allow anger to consume us, to become the focus of our lives. Rage kills joy; it bends us inward, corrodes our compassion, allows vindictiveness to masquerade as righteousness, convinces us that any means — no matter how unethical — may be sanctified to pursue the destruction of our foe. Rage turns the victim into the perpetrator and destroys our deepest humanity.
We live in the shadow of rage today. We have seen its effects in our own world — this sadly-altered world we inhabit. But we are here today in this church because the Way of Rage is not the only path we can walk. We can also choose the Way of New Life.
Between those two paths, the Way of Rage and the Way of New Life, lies one word: (You’re all expecting me to say “Jesus,” aren’t you?) Courage. It takes courage to find new life, because it means admitting that you are lost. It takes courage, because it means laying aside the life you have made for yourself and holding out your empty hands and receiving whatever Jesus chooses to give you, trusting that that new life will be a gift of incomparable love.
St. Alban’s is dedicated to that kind of courage. It takes courage to go to Satterlee Hall and walk into the longest-running twelve-step meeting in the country and say, for the first time or the hundredth, “I am an alcoholic.” It takes courage, at a time of vitriolic anti-immigrant sentiment, to enter into community with those who speak a different language and say, “Tu eres mi hermana, you are my sister; Tu eres mi hermano, you are my brother; you are my friend. I choose you.” It takes courage to go out on Grate Patrol for the first time, to look in the eyes of men and women we often hurry past, to speak with them as one human being to another, to receive their prayers. It takes courage to live in a world deformed by the forces of rage and to choose to be instead a witness for love.
The ultimate danger of terrorism, the real danger that it poses in our lives, is not the death of our bodies. It is the death of our souls. The hatred of others presses us to respond in kind; the violence that others inflict upon us tempts us to see violence as the only way to resist evil. But these are dangerous and false responses; they lead us away from the world of the Shepherd. During the 1940’s, a young Jewish woman from the Netherlands wrote, “the Nazi barbarism creates for us an identical barbarism that would proceed using the same methods, if we had the chance to act today as we would like. Inwardly we must reject this incivility, we can not cultivate in us that hatred because otherwise the world will not come a single step from the mud.”
That rejection of what Etty Hillesum calls “incivility” does not come from unprepared hearts, but from lives that have been found by Love. It is not natural to us to return good for evil, love for hatred, kindness for pain, but that is exactly what Christ did for us. We are each of us sinners who have been given the great, unearned, unexpected blessing of sitting at table with Christ. We break bread; we drink wine; we remember that we live in a world that has already been redeemed. We who follow Christ know that death is not the end, that hatred is not the means, that the worst is not the last. We are fragments of divine love snatched from the fire, and it is our duty and our privilege to burn.
In a few minutes [at the 9:15 service], our Sunday school teachers and youth mentors are going to stand before us and promise to be witnesses of that kind of love. It is as good a response as any to today: to pledge to be what God asks us to be, bearers of love in this world. And so, let us all rise and turn in our prayerbooks to page 304 and commit ourselves once more to our Shepherd, our Lover, our Creator, and our End:
Sept 11, 2016
Rev. Deborah Meister
Jer 4:11-12, 22-28; Ps 14
1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
 I owe this formulation to John Claypool.
 The Iliad,, trans. Robert Fagles, I.1-4.
 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life.