Reflections of 9/11 in light of Hebrews 11:13-16
Today we remember the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. It has been 15 years. This is significant, because 15 years is a generation. Babies who were about to be born when the terrorist struck our homeland are in now in high school. People who were in elementary school when the towers were knocked down are entering the work force, and they are starting their work life knowing that job security belongs to a simpler time. We have all known someone who has served in the military since 2001 and many of them are connected with this church. After 9/11 Michael _________,Bradley _________, and Nicholas ________ joined the Marines. J.T. ________, Hunter __________ and Laura V_________ joined the Navy. Chad ________ joined the Air Force, and Adam __________ joined the Army. Chuck Hoover’s daughter-in-law, Jamie Bulken-Hoover joined the Army through ROTC even before 9/11. Though a wife and mother she continued to serve the army as a doctor, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. Her decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star. At the age of 44 Jamie’s lost her battle against cancer, and her body will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery on September 19th. In January of 2017, a third American president will take office, and one of his or her primary responsibilities will be the conduct of the 15 year old war on terror.
We all know someone who serves, but we don’t always understand all that their service means. In previous wars, we had a draft. Today, the weight of the war on terror is borne by a small cadre of volunteers. The sacrifice demanded of them and their families is greater than ever before. Let me illustrate that point. Several years ago I met with a senior Marine NCO who who flew home from Iraq so that he could see his dying father. I was shocked to learn he was on his fourth combat tour.. He had more time in combat than many WWII vets who landed at Normandy and fought all the way to Berlin. We call the WWII generation “the Greatest Generation,” but there is a new generation who are contending for that title. Few of us can imagine what it has been like, or continues to be like, for this new generations of heroes and their wives and husbands and children and parents.
For many Americans, 9/11/2001 is a day of personal tragedy. It was personal for the victims who died in the twin towers of the World Trade Center, or in the offices Pentagon, or on United Airlines Flight 93 that went down in rural Pennsylvania. It was personal for the first responders,including the firefighters and policemen who risked their lives to save some of the occupants of the towers. Likewise,it was and is personal for the families and friends of the heroes and victims alike. Winston-Salem is well over than 500 miles from New York City, and 250 Miles from Washington, yet, on this day, 15 years ago, we had two members of our church, who were scheduled to be in the towers on business, just a day before, or after the terrorist strike. They lost many close friends and colleagues when the towers collapsed. Likewise, within hours of the attacks,Jim Doss, a Moravian pastor, who was also a Navy reserve chaplain was on the ground in Washington, ministering to the victims and their families. (Another of our members was scheduled to be in hotel adjacent the World Trade Center hotel; and, on a whim, changed his reservation to a hotel in the same chain adjacent Laguardia.)
For all Americans, 9/11 was a day of national tragedy. Since that day our nation has spent our time, talent and treasure at an alarming rate. Some of our best and brightest have been killed in action, a loss not only to their families, but to the future of our nation. Likewise, we have spent 1.6 trillion dollars on the War on Terror that we could have used to alleviate poverty and fight disease. All this and are yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We ended World War II when we invaded Europe, and Okinawa, and dropped terrible bombs on the German, and Japanese homelands. Truman said he thought the bombing of Japan would save both American and Japanese lives. But Germany and Japan were nations, and nations are easier to defeat than ideologies. If we shoot a missile at what we believe to be the epicenter of an idea, we risk killing friends along with our foes, and nothing turns friends into foes quicker than a few misplaced smart bombs. Likewise, if we cut the head off the multi-headed hydra that is terrorism, two heads grow back in place of the one, and when we kill one of terrorism’s soldiers, a half-dozen angry relatives and friends are often inspired to join the fight.
Is there a path to victory? Some think there is a real chance. One such optimist is Joseph S. Nye, a distinguished professor of Political Science at Harvard, and a former assistant secretary of defense. In his books like “Soft Power” and “The Future of Power,” Nye says that to win the war on terror we have got to use all the power available to us. He defines power as the ability to get things done, and achieve our goals in the world. He says there are two kinds of power: 1) Hard power, which consist of military and industrial might, like armies, and navies, and guns and bombs. And 2) Soft-power, which consist primarily of inspiration, and influence, and persuasion. To illustrate, Nye says that Russia has great military might, but it lost a lot of soft-power when it invaded the Ukraine. Nye says China accrued an unbelievable reservoir of soft-power when hosting the Olympics with a show that inspired the world. In the same way, President Bush was trying to accrue soft-power with our allies in the middle east when he refused to say that the war on terror was a war against radical Islam. In the same way, though it would not serve his purpose to admit it, I have no doubt that President Obama is trying to accrue a little soft-power in the Muslim world by appointing a Muslim-American to a Federal judgeship. He wants to demonstrate that America is a land of equality and justice, and that we have true freedom of religion.
The thrust of Nye’s book is that to defeat the terrorists we have got to make the people of this world feel as if our American freedom and prosperity is a suitable foundation for their own. And we have got to convince the world that winning the war on terror will bring big dividends, not just for America and Americans, but for all nations and all peoples. As a Christian, I think it is interesting that God showed his own understanding of soft-power when God allowed his own son to be driven out of the world onto a cross. Likewise, Jesus demonstrated his appreciation of soft power when he told his disciples that if he choose, he could appeal to his Father for than twelve legions of angels to deliver him. He did not, instead, he choose the way of the cross saying, “I, when I be lifted up, will draw all people unto myself.” (John 12:32)
So, 9/11 was a personal tragedy for some, and a national tragedy for us all. How has it affected our attitudes? I would mention the following:
First, 9/11 has not diminished our love of freedom. Americans have an unfailing faith in the destiny of free men and women to rule our own lives and that has not changed. Not long after the tragedy of 9/11 President Bush told Americans that one thing we could do to help defeat terrorism was to go shopping. A foolish few thought he was just concerned just with the economy. I believe he was concerned with the our national character. I think he wanted to remind all Americans that we must never surrender our right to be who we are in our own nation. We needed that. Do your remember how anxious we were in the weeks and months following 9/11? I do. I remember a day when I opened my mail box, and took out a letter from the Publisher’s Clearing House, or something like it, and found myself wondering if it was filled with anthrax powder. How many of you had a similar experience? And do you remember the first airplane flight you took after 9/11, or the first visit you made to a foreign country that had a significant Muslim population? It takes great real courage to join the Army. It takes at least some degree of courage to refuse to let the terrorist change our way of life. As Americans,we can live with the TSA, and with metal detectors at the courthouse, and with additional security in our schools and hospitals. We cannot live with the diminished freedom that comes for want of everyday courage.
Second, 9/11 has not diminished our love of freedom, but it has forced us to contemplate the end of America as we know it. As nations go the United States is relatively young. Chinese civilization is more than 7,000 years old. The nation of Israel has survived more than 3000 years, much of that time without a homeland. Muslims claim a caliphate that dates back more than 1400 years. Our American experiment of government of the people, by the people, and for the people is only 240 years old, and our survival for another century is complicated. We now live in a world where a double-handful of terrorist—with an atomic weapon, or some other heinous device, can hold entire nations to ransom , and worse. Though we hope and pray that our the United States will survive and thrive for generations to come, so that our children and grandchildren, can taste the sweet fruits of democracy and freedom, there is no guarantee.
The truth is there has never been a guarantee. Our greatest heroes have died not in victory but in the struggle of battle. Consider World War II. Think of all those soldiers and airman who died in Europe, or in the skies over Europe. They died without knowing that Hitler would be defeated. And think of all the sailors and Marines who died in the Pacific theater of war. They died not knowing that we would eventually win the war against Imperial Japan. Heroes do not die in victory, they die in struggle of battle; yet they dare to face the battle because they believe in the cause for which they fight, and they believe in the people with whom they fight.
In the same way, the greatest heroes of faith are singled out by the book of Hebrews not because they entered the Promised Land and kept it safe for future generations, but because they all died in faith (that is, “in the struggle”), not having received what was promised but having seen it and greeted it from afar.” In living as they did, they made it clear that “they sought a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Most of us hope and pray that we can someday handover the nation we love in even better condition than we found it. Christians want an even better country for our children and grandchildren. We want them to attain citizenship to a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Citizenship in the Eternal City can never be taken away.
Third, 9/11 it has forced us to think about death. People of faith have always thought deeply about death.
St. Paul called death “the last enemy,” meaning that none of us have finished running the gauntlet of life until we have faced death, not just our own, but also the death of those we love. Some death is horrible in its aspect. On 9/11death came quickly and without mercy. Some of the people it claimed were victims. Others that it claimed were heroes, because they saw death coming, and chose to embrace it so that others might live. I read recently about one fireman who made several trips into one of the towers to rescue people who were injured. He brought them out. He was on the ground floor, 75 feet from saving his own life, but he stayed there, at the heart of the danger, to mark the location of other survivors. They found his body two weeks later, precisely where he had chosen to be. You have read your bulletin insert. I once visited the site of ground zero saw the cross of Steel that is featured on it. I am glad that there is a cross of steel at Ground Zero to remind us that the cross of Jesus Christ always intersects with our world at the place of human suffering. Jesus died on the cross not just for us, but also with us. He chose his place in the rubble, too. And, as the war on terror has unfolded, the word Jesus spoke to his disciples just before his own death has been remembered, and lived by many of our heroes, “Greater love hath no one than this, that a man or woman lay down their own lives, for their friends.” Some people lay down their lives for others in one grand act of sacrifice. Many more lay down their lives, here a little, there a little, for the sake of others, and they are heroes, too.
Death can be seen the last enemy, but people of faith have had kinder things to say about it, too. Death is a power, and like all powers it can be very bad, or very good. I once heard the late Dr. Fred Craddock talk about the death of his mother. He said something like this. He said:
When mother first got sick, there was a crisis, and death came knocking at her door, but we knew death was a yellow monster, and we bolted the door, and would not open it; then, when we had watched with our mother months of suffering, and knew that she had lived the last good days of her life, death came knocking again; and this time, we unbolted the door, and swung it wind, and death stood revealed, not as a yellow monster, but as a friend.
One picture of 9/11 I will never forget was taken of a man who was plunging to his death, one shoe on, one off, calm on his face. Did he have consolations of which we are ignorant?
Death can be the last enemy, or a ready friend. Certainly God wants to prepared us for death.
The ancient rabbis used to teach that there a series of unripened fruits in the world. They said that the Law of Moses is the incomplete form of wisdom. They said that the Sabbath, the day of rest, is incomplete form of the heavenly kingdom. They said that sleep is the incomplete form of death. St. Paul, was an eyewitness to the risen Christ. He frequently spoke of the death of believers not referring to “those who have died,” but to “those who have fallen asleep in Christ.”
When I was a boy, my mother, who is 93 years old today taught me to pray:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the LORD my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the LORD my soul to take.
As a child, that prayer scared the dickens out of me. As an adult, it no longer does. In fact, it is a fine prayer, and it will be just as fine on the last night of life as on any other. For people of faith, the only difference between between lying down to sleep, and lying down to sleep for the last time, is that, after that final night of sleep, when we get up in the morning, everything will have changed for the better. How does our bulletin insert put it? “…The life which is to come will be far greater than the life that has been taken away.”
The Cherokees had a right of passage by which they marked a boy’s transition to manhood. The boy was led into the woods by the men of the tribe. He was then seated on a stump, and blindfolded, and told that, if he wished to become a man, he must not remove the blindfold, or move from the stump until the morning. Then the men of the tribe would leave him, making lots of noise as they went. The boy was left alone in the forrest, surrounded by wild beast, and other things that slither, and crawl on your arm, and go bump in the night. It was, a long night, I am sure, but when the morning finally came, and the sunlight peeped through his blindfold, the boy would remove it, wipe the sleep from his eyes, and look around. As soon as he looked to his right or to his left, he saw his father, who had been seated right beside him all the night long, watching over him, and protecting him.
In Psalm 121:4 we read,”(The LORD) who watches over (us) does not sleep or slumber.” And in Psalm 6:2 we read that God “…tempers the cold wind to the sheep that has been shorn.” If God is so kind to the sheep, will he not also be kind to his people, in life and in death? By faith we believe it so.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.