The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19
September 11th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
I remember where I was 15 years ago today when I saw the south tower of the World Trade Center melt like a candle and disappear into a cloud of dust and rubble.
The shock and emptiness that arose within me and so many others around the world who witnessed the sight was unlike anything I had ever felt before…the closest analogy was the reaction of Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movie after the newly constructed Death Star destroys an entire planet.
“I felt a great disturbance in the force,” he says, “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I feel something terrible has happened.”
And indeed something terrible had.
For many younger Americans, September 11 represents the beginning of a new age of exposure and vulnerability.
No longer immune to the terror and destruction that raged in other countries around the world…in an instant the United States knew on an intimate level what it was like to lose.
It was an unfamiliar situation for our country, and in the days that followed several voices tried to make sense of it, often in disparate ways.
On September 13, two days after the fall of the towers, noted right wing pastor Jerry Falwell and 900 Club anchor Pat Robertson publically blamed the events on the abortionists, the ACLU, gays and lesbians, and others who had, in their words, “secularized America” and mocked God with their actions and lifestyle.
God, in God’s anger, they suggested, was punishing the United States through the actions of those terrorists, and this was only the beginning to what the United States would receive as its just desserts.
As misguided as I found that claim, and as damaging as it was to a national psyche already wrestling with what to make of it all, I could see how they arrived at their conclusion based on an incomplete reading of scripture.
In the aftermath of the golden calf in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is seen trying to persuade a wrathful God to refrain from consuming the Israelites who had only recently been liberated from slavery in Egypt.
God is furious about the idolatry of the people, so much so that God is willing to be done with them entirely.
Moses intercedes for them, and eventually God’s anger cools.
I could see how Falwell and Robertson, and countless other pastors and religious leaders could imagine themselves in the role of Moses, pleading for an end to the terror, and promising that America would be done with its idolatrous ways.
Their folly, however, was in how they defined that idolatry and the offending idolaters.
One did not need divine vision to see that anyone they considered enemies were cast into the camp of the guilty and blamed for the events of September 11.
Such generalizations were dangerous and unfaithful then, and they remain so today.
Were the events of that day an opportunity for us as a nation and as individuals to repent and reconsider the things, edifices, and policies in which we had put our faith?
But the vengeful, simplistic God of whom Falwell and Roberston spoke could not have been further from the God that I know in Jesus Christ.
One look at today’s parables reveal a very different nature of God…one that is not content to turn away from the lost, but rather a God who goes out of God’s way to find them.
Jesus is criticized for the company he keeps: tax collectors, who collaborated with the occupying empire in their oppression of his people, and other sinners who the religious reactionaries of his day had condemned.
In that context he speaks of God as one who doggedly goes after one lost sheep and searches incessantly for one lost coin in order to return them to the whole.
Instead of seeking retribution for them being lost or being resigned to the fact that they are gone, the protagonists in these parables go after the lost with a determined effort.
And instead of being met with shame or a set of “penance criteria” they must meet before returning to the fold or purse…the response of the seeker upon their safe return is one of joy and celebration.
Joy and celebration. Not anger and abandonment.
We live in a world that has run from the claim that God is an angry father-figure whose primary goal is to keep us in line and punish us when we fall out…like a drill sergeant charged with preparing us for well oiled military service.
Generations of the faithful have seen how the powerful have manipulated the weak through claiming this is the heart of God’s nature, and as a result, droves of questioning souls have fled from the religious life altogether.
Maybe you have recoiled as well from such claims, and maybe you question what is the true nature of the God we worship and acclaim.
I hope you do.
And likewise, I hope you come to the conclusion that the only God that can reach the lost and the hurting and the terrorized masses of our present age is not one of retribution, but one of radical forgiveness that never stops reaching out for us.
It is no accident that these two parables come right before the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, which further illustrates God’s nature upon these lines.
Our God is one that searches for us…that loves us enough to let our free will take us where it may…away from the flock or into a foreign land…but which comes running upon the road to embrace us and will not stop trying to find us no matter what.
And when we are found…there is great celebration and joy.
I read a story about the last survivor pulled from the collapsed towers…a woman named Genelle Guzman McMillan…who was rescued a full 27 hours after the buildings fell, on September 13, 2001, the same day Falwell and Robertson made their infamous claims.
She was wedged between steel and concrete, her body badly broken, but holding on to life and praying for someone to find her.
She heard the voices of rescue teams above and below her as they searched through the rubble and tried to cry out to them, but her voice was too weak.
Suddenly a hand came reaching into her virtual tomb.
One hand and then another stretched into the cramped space where she lay, and embraced her free left hand.
Then she heard a voice.
“What is your name?” the voice asked.
“Genelle,” she replied.
“OK, Genelle, I won’t leave you,” said the voice who identified himself as Paul.
A few short minutes later, the team of rescue workers were lifting her to freedom.
Genelle was found that day and as she recovered over the next weeks in the hospital, person after person came to visit her to celebrate her miracle story and safe return to life.
When she asked the other rescue workers who came to check in on her about Paul, she received a strange response.
Not one of them ever remember a Paul being a part of the rescue team.
She insists that it was Paul who held her hand and comforted her while the rescue workers cut through steel and concrete to free her, and she claims that he was her angel throughout the process.
Regardless of what you want to believe about her story, THAT is the nature of our God.
Our God is the hand of comfort in the darkness…the rescue worker searching through the rubble…the shepherd unwilling to give up on one lost sheep.
And as we remember the events of 15 years ago…let us never forget that despite the voices to the contrary, and despite what barriers we think may be in the way of our safe return…our God will never give up on us.