Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This weekend has given our nation a time to pause and to remember the events of September 11, 2001. Most Americans remember painfully where they were 20 years ago on that day, and what they were doing when they heard the initial news of the attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers. Twenty years ago, I was serving as the pastor of an English-speaking church in Vilnius, Lithuania, and shortly after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, a Chinese friend from church called me. “You should turn on the television,” she said. “Something is happening in New York.” For Americans, September 11th 2001, would soon be indelibly etched into their memory.
I imagine it is true for all nation who have experienced acts of terrorism. For we are not alone. For the Indonesians, they memorialize the bombing in Bali on October 12th, 2002; for the Spanish, when they remember the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004; for the British as they recall the London bombings of July 7th, 2005, and most recently for Norway, on July 22nd, 2010 Many nations have experienced their own September 11th. For some, the memories are new and strange and vivid. But for all who have suffered, there is still the begging, mystifying question, how could anyone hate a nation so passionately, that they would seek to destroy it?
Yes, September 11th, 2001 will be remembered as a tragic day. But in spite of the loss of life from a 112 different nations, there were also rare moments of genuine human greatness. This noble character was witnessed first hand in the acts of fellow citizens. When the World Trade Center was attacked, the city of New York dispatched its battalion of first responders. 343 city firemen and medics and 23 policemen went to the scene of the attacks to save lives, and in turn, lost their own. Over the fields of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the 44 passengers of United Flight 93 struggled to regain control of their hijacked plane. The passengers chose to risk their own lives, rather than to risk a strike at the heart of their nation’s capital.
As Americans living abroad, we experienced the best in the human greatness as well. We were truly isolated, but we were not alone. We were surrounded daily by expatriates and nationals who offered arms of support and strength. Every American Embassy in Europe was decorated with a sea of flowers and candles from caring communities and friends.
Across America and around the world, men and women described the events of September 11th, 2001, as a turning point in their lives. As brothers and sisters, we all shared in a common story in which we had all been attacked; where we all had been struck down. Regardless of our ethnic background, we wept together. Regardless of our political beliefs; we grieved together. Yes, the knife of terrorism may have been thrust into the symbolic centers of economic and military power, but the terrorists misjudged the truth of our common humanity, and as citizens of this nation, of our spiritual core. While a certain naiveté was gone forever, there was also a newfound sense of community, solidarity and re-commitment to justice and faith and hope.
My friends, the dedication and valor of the first responders in New York City on that sunny Tuesday morning, 20 years ago, and the courage and self sacrifice of the passengers aboard United Flight 93.should invite us this day to reflect and meditate anew on Jesus’ teaching that we have heard this morning in St. Mark’s gospel. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The story of Peter and his confession of who Jesus beautifully illustrates the daily challenge for men and women of faith. The scene opens with Jesus asking his disciples who do people say that I am. It was the bold Peter who spoke up and gave the right theological answer. “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” But it in the following dialogue, we discover what often happens quickly to those same inspired faithful people. The devil gets the best of them. Peter was brought from the heights to the depths. As Jesus announced that he would go to Jerusalem to be crucified, Peter tried to argue with him. Then when Jesus, heard Peter’s rebuke, he said to him, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Poor Peter thought he understood Jesus’ purpose for his life and the church so differently. And he is not alone.
It is easy for us to lose sight of the task God has given us to do and heed the prodding of Satan instead, especially in these cautious pandemic times. We get caught up in our own personal needs and fears, and rights, and we completely forget about God’s world or mission. We get lulled into thinking that the work of the kingdom and rallying people to the faith can wait until after the pandemic has passed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Peter, we keep letting Satan get the best of us. People need the church and the community of faith now- more than ever. We need the living presence of other believers to challenge us and encourage to be faithful. If we are ever as a nation going to reclaim that nobility of sacrifice and honor and care for one another that we experienced 20 years ago, than we need to embrace one another again, not out of fear and anxiety, but hope and love.
My friends, as Christians we live and act as a people of hope, because we believe that God has the power to heal, and bring new life. You and I have been created, formed and shaped by our common faith and trust in a God who was willing to deny himself, to take up the cross and die for the sake of those he loves. That is our hope.
Diplomats are not often known as poets, but 100 years a British diplomat posted in Stockholm penned a poem called The Two Fatherlands. The three verses described how the Christian has two loyalties: one to an earthly homeland and the other to God’s heavenly kingdom. The poem would become the beloved British anthem, “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” In 1912, when Cecil Spring-Rice was appointed the British Ambassador to the United States, he carried his poem with him from Sweden to America. There, during the course of World War I, he rewrote the first verses of patriotism and nationalism several times, but the final verse always remained the same, for it captured his understanding of God’s people, as a people of hope.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
In many ways, great and small, that is how hope carries us through the times of trial. It is the unseen kingdom that demands our loyalty and offers an inner strength and comfort. Hope is the confident trust that no matter what happens to you, you are still in God’s mindful care. As a hopeful people you are willing to seek God’s hand at work in the world. And more importantly, you are willing to be those hands. Hope is not a wistful way of avoiding trials, but rather hope is a resolute way of facing the storm. It is a choice of how you will face the future; alone, or with your brothers and sisters in faith.
My friends, on this Rally Day and this day of remembrance, let us commit ourselves anew to work together in this world to be a people of hope. Let us love, as Christ first loved us. And let us learn again to deny ourselves, to take up the cross and follow him. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.