A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 11, 2011
Words are not adequate to describe the shock, anger, and sorrow that people around the world experienced because of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On that beautiful Tuesday morning nineteen men armed with box cutters overpowered the flight crews of four commercial airliners that had departed Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. They crashed two of the airliners into the World Trade Towers in New York. They crashed another one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The fourth airline was intended for another target in Washington, but crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers fought to wrest control of it from the hijackers. By nightfall close to 3,000 people had been killed in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Ten years have gone by since that sad and shocking day. We who lived through that time cannot forget it. We should not forget what happened. We shouldn’t forget that people were murdered. We shouldn’t forget that every religious tradition known to humanity was violated by the people responsible for those murders. Ten years later, we still struggle for words to express our profound sadness and anger.And as we reflect on what has happened since 9/11, the words of Isaiah 59 seem painfully fitting.
9 Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall,
groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
among the vigorous* as though we were dead.
11 We all growl like bears;
like doves we moan mournfully.
We wait for justice, but there is none;
for salvation, but it is far from us.
12 For our transgressions before you are many,
and our sins testify against us.
Our transgressions indeed are with us,
and we know our iniquities:
13 transgressing, and denying the Lord,
and turning away from following our God,
talking oppression and revolt,
conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart.
14 Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
and uprightness cannot enter.
15 Truth is lacking,
and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no one,
and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm brought him victory,
and his righteousness upheld him. [Isaiah 59:9-16]
Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo, there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Taliban regime that hosted him in Afghanistan has been overthrown by a military coalition led by the United States. But justice still seems far from us. Ten years later, are we not walking in gloom?
We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. Can we deny this truth? Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden didn’t have a presence in Iraq ten years ago because Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, refused it. Nevertheless, the United States accused Hussein of supporting terrorism. The U.S. invaded Iraq and drove Hussein from power. Al Qaeda showed up in Iraq after we did. U.S. military forces are still in Iraq today.
We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. Over 6000 U.S. military personnel have been killed as part of our nation’s response to 9/11. Another 2300 civilian contractors have died. Nearly 70,000 allied troops have been wounded. More than 550,000 (half a million) disability claims have been filed with the Veterans Administration as of fall 2010. More than 20,000 Afghan and Pakistani security forces have died. We may never have reliable information about the number of civilian deaths and other casualties that have occurred from the response to 9/11. Estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The death toll continues. We don’t know when it will stop. Somehow, we seem unable to stop it. Strange as it may seem, some people don’t act like they want it to stop.
We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. Since 9/11 the U.S. government has outsourced top secret military intelligence and other security work to almost 2000 companies according to a series of Washington Post articles published last year. More than 500 of those companies started after 2001. We’ve learned that U.S. personnel have engaged in torture and have killed unarmed women, children, and other civilians. We’ve spent trillions since nineteen fools with box-cutters killed 3000 people ten years ago.
Ten years later, we’re still waiting for justice, but there is none. Ten years later, we’re still waiting for salvation, but it is far from us. Ten years later, we have a Department of Homeland Security in the land of the less free and the home of the scared.
For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. There was no Guantanamo Bay detention center before the 9/11 attacks. We created it. Our leaders manufactured the story about “weapons of mass destruction” and sold it to the world to justify invading Iraq and driving Saddam Hussein from power. Like Pontius Pilate, they washed their hands when Hussein was killed. The United States has become a society where government agents spy on communications without warrants while courts and judges look the other way. Like the prophet wrote, justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. That’s good news! The Lord saw it. The Lord saw the terrible injustice of 9/11. The Lord saw the grief and sorrow felt around the world because of the murderous acts by terrorists. Let us take comfort in knowing that the Lord was displeased by it.
Yet, that’s not all the Lord has seen. The Lord has seen the torture and spying that’s been sponsored by our government and others since 9/11. The Lord God has seen the grief and hardships suffered by the families of people killed since 9/11. The Lord has seen how people, including religious people, have shamelessly tried to justify vengeful spying, torture, and killing in the name of justice. The Lord saw every secret deal, every secret kidnapping, every secret suicide bombing, every secret cover-up, every secret payoff, every secret murder, and every other secret transgression of justice.
God knows how the world has blindly stumbled and fumbled and groped its way over the past ten years. God knows we’re less free and scared.
Because God is just, we can take comfort in knowing that the Lord has the case.
- Because God has the case, we know that justice is coming.
- Because God has the case, lies will not always hide truth.
- Because God has the case, God knows and remembers the people killed on 9/11 and the people responsible for killing them.
- Because God has the case, the politicians who turned their backs on truth and who refused to stand up for Muslims will not escape divine judgment.
Because God has the case, there is still hope for a saddened world. There’s still hope for grieving family members and survivors of 9/11. There’s still hope for the people living with 9/11-related illnesses and emotional trauma. There’s still hope for grieving families of the wars fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places around the world. There’s still hope for the people who’ve been poisoned by hate and scarred by war wounds. There’s hope for families.
There’s hope for the blind, groping, groaning, and fumbling people in the world even though our leaders still seem to be walking in darkness. There’s hope for people trying to show unconditional love in a time of government-instituted fearfulness and mistrust of strangers. There’s still hope for people who love God and are grieved because religious people have often failed to be agents of divine love and truth over the course of this dark decade.
Beloved of God, hold onto that hope. Live in that hope. Love in that hope. Welcome strangers in that hope. Strive for truth in that hope. In every breath and heartbeat, be living agents of hope in God’s justice, God’s truth, God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s strength.
At Isaiah 40 we find that hope expressed in these soul-stirring words. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:28-31]
In that hope, let us press onward for justice. In that hope, let us cast off fear of terrorism and terrorists. In that hope, let us challenge the leaders of this nation and the world to stop using vengeance as an excuse for injustice. In that hope, let us embrace people from every tongue, tribe, and nation as children of God. In that hope, let us honor God and cherish the memories of those who died on and since that solemn day, September 11, 2001, when a beautiful morning turned into a decade of sorrow and gloom.
Creator, Deliverer, God of justice and truth, we remain saddened by what happened September 11, 2001. We turned on each other. We didn’t respond with courage, compassion, and hope, but with fear, vengeance, and hate. In doing so, we have compounded the tragedy. Forgive, we pray, our weak faith. Forgive our weak efforts to resist fear. Forgive our silence in the face of the injustices suffered by so many people because we turned away from your truth and love in the way we responded to the pain of 9/11.
We pray your continued strength and peace for all the family members of people who died that sad day. And we pray for the families of those who’ve died in the wars since then. Have mercy on them, O God, and strengthen us to respond compassionately toward them.
Help us to live in hope, not in fear. Help us to live in love, not in hate. Help us to live as peace-makers, not as people obsessed with war-making. Help us to live as neighbors before you, even in the face of evil, in obedience to the example left by Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.