A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor , Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., onSeptember 11, 2011
Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48
On this day of commemoration of the events that occurred ten years ago – can you believe it’s really been ten years? – we have departed from the lectionary text. For those of you who may be visiting with us today, or are new to our fellowship, you may not know that I preach from the lectionary. If you’re not familiar with the term, the lectionary, in a nutshell, is a prescribed schedule of texts that attempts to take us through the heart of scripture every three years.
I felt that since this is such an iconic day, we shouldn’t force upon this occasion a biblical text that might not fit. Instead, the portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we read earlier seemed to be more appropriate for the day. I’m sure – or at least I hope – you agree.
However, I couldn’t help but notice, with a strong sense of irony, that the Old Testament reading assigned for today in the lectionary is from Exodus, the fourteenth chapter. It is the story of Israel walking across the dry Red Sea, and then the resultant drowning of the pursuing Egyptian forces which caused Israel to rejoice in God’s deliverance. “I will sing to the LORD,” chanted the Israelites, as they stood safely on dry ground, “for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (15:1).
Ten years ago, when we were bowed down, it was our enemies who were rejoicing as they watched us drown in our grief and our anger and our despair. That, of course, is where the irony comes in.
At first I was not sure it would do a lot of good for us to revisit the events of that day. It’s for certain the media has done a more than sufficient job of that already. Nor was I convinced we should try to get back in touch with the emotional toll it took on us. But then again, on second thought I began to think that doing so might just help us with our perspective.
As we all know, 9/11 was a Tuesday. It was not until the following Monday that U.S. air channels were reopened for commercial flights. It was an eerie feeling in the meantime to step outside and know that the skies were empty of aircraft. For almost a week, no planes – other than those used by the military – were allowed off the ground. It just so happened that I had a flight scheduled that Monday, to Atlanta.
If I had any doubts that things were changed, they were quickly dispelled. First of all, they took my safety razor from me as I checked in. What damage could I possibly do, other than to my own face, with my razor? Though irritated about that, I did not protest. It would have done no good, and besides, I understood the overreaction.
The plane was not full, which didn’t surprise me at all. I’m sure a lot of people cancelled their flights that day. On all my previous air excursions, as soon as the passengers found their seats, they would begin reading or carrying on conversation, checking their phone messages or otherwise engaging themselves in busy work. Not that day. All eyes were watchful, and if anyone with dark skin, who looked at all as if they might be middle eastern, came on board, they were gazed upon with immediate and thorough suspicion.
And then I realized… that is how Jesus must have looked. Not the Jesus of the famous painting, the one with blue eyes and blonde hair that, as John Killinger says, would look marvelous in a Clairol commercial, but the Jesus who was born of the nation of Israel. Would we have looked upon Jesus as a possible terrorist?
Perhaps not. But we probably would consider him to be a troublemaker. I mean, look at what he said about how we are to relate to others, especially to those who don’t look or act like us. “Do not resist an evildoer,” he said. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
“Jesus names what is widely taken for granted (in terms of behavior and retaliation), and then speaks against it.”1 In fact, he does a complete 180 from the way most people in his world considered such things. Not to mention that his way is counter to the way we retaliate today.
Kinda puts us between a rock and a hard place, doesn’t it? Do we follow our national leaders, or do we give credence to the One who we say has come to save us from our sin? Do we have to choose one or the other? It does cause us to question where we put our ultimate allegiance, doesn’t it? Do we affirm a government that seeks retaliation or a Suffering Servant who – quite impractically, we must admit – tells us to turn the other cheek? Following Jesus, on 9/11 or the tenth anniversary of it, suddenly is not so easy to do.
Lex talionis they call it in the Latin: the “law of retaliation.” You’ll find it clearly spelled out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in that book on your lap. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And Jesus looks the law right in the eye and pronounces it to be lacking in the eyes of God. What he replaces it with… well, we’re not at all certain it is the way to go. Not when we’ve got enemies like Osama bin Laden, not when the enemy sends children into marketplaces as suicide bombers, not when they are willing to kill in large numbers even those of their own religious faith in order to fulfill their murderous political agenda.
Is Jesus’ command – and by the way, that’s what it is… it is not a suggestion – to turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, impossible for us to do?
Well, our world was his world. It’s just that the names have been changed. “Rome and its allies practiced state-sponsored terrorism on occasion. Herod ordered infants slain in order to protect his position. Rome responded to rebellion by crucifying hundreds or thousands of people in Galilee. First century Jewish insurgents sometimes assassinated those who collaborated with the Romans.”2
The methods may have changed. We have exchanged knives and swords with bombs – both smart and dirty – and crosses have been traded for AK-47s. But the feelings and the actions behind these methods of retaliation are still the same. Jesus lived in our world, and he knows how we feel. He is aware of the deep sadness and anger we felt in our hearts as we watched the twin towers collapse and thousands of innocent people died.
He knows that our very human reaction is to get even. The day after 9/11, NBC news reported that someone had scrawled a message in the dust left by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It read, “I Love America. Vengeance!” Another image in the newspaper showed a vehicle with a word written on the front bumper: REVENGE! That’s the way we felt then, and little has changed. In fact, our commemoration of what happened a decade ago is no doubt causing all these emotions to surface yet again, though the initial shock has worn off. We still want to rid our world of our enemies. It is a very natural emotion, and Jesus knows it.
On the cover of Newsweek magazine this week, there is an image of a lone airplane in the sky with these words below: Ten Years of Fear, Grief, Revenge, RESILIENCE. Is that all we are left with? Don’t you think we can do better than that?
Jesus does because he shows us the other way… his way. His way is much, much harder. He calls for “non-violent resistance coupled with ministry to those who hurt us.” He demands that we love and pray for those who treat us as enemies.3
Has Jesus asked us to do something he knows we cannot do? As you let that roll around in your mind and heart, consider this… If we are driven by anger, we will have lost the battle before we’ve started. If all we seek is vengeance and retribution, we will have gained nothing. As fragile as it may appear to be, the only guiding force that will prevail in this world, and in the world to come, is faith. The only sustaining inspiration for our continued journey is hope. The only thing that is eternal is love.
Jesus knew that, and I am convinced it is what caused him to say, in the face of his own impending death, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The meaning of the word he used for afraid is “timid” or “cowardly.”4 To not be fainthearted. Following Jesus Christ is not for the weak of heart or for the timid in soul.
We are not responsible for the hatred of those who so savagely and cowardly perpetrated these great crimes, unfortunately in the name of god. It’s hard for us to understand their motivation in wanting to do so. But we are responsible for the manner in which we respond, even and especially on a personal, individual level.
For example, how do you relate to people of other color? Do you show kindness to those not of our culture? Do you live biblically, sharing your faith in what you say and do? If you do these things — things that Christ would do — you do them not out of fear or suspicion or distrust but out of faith… and with the hope that these little things will make a big difference in our part of the world.
A missionary named Oswald Goulter served in China for thirty years. He was there when the communists took over. In a seminary chapel address to students here in the U.S., Goulter told of how he spent his last three years in China under house arrest. Finally, the government told him they would release him if he promised to go home. So, he wired his missionary society and they sent him money for his transportation. He took a ship and landed first at a port in India.
While he was in the coastal city, he heard there were a group of Jews living there in rather squalid conditions. They were in India because they had been expatriated from their homeland and denied entry to other countries, solely because of their religious convictions. It was Christmas time, so he sought them out. When he found them, he said, “Merry Christmas.”
“We’re Jews,” they said. “I know, he responded, “but it’s Christmas.”
“We don’t observe Christmas,” they said. “We don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah. We’re Jews.”
“I know, but what would you like for Christmas?”
“We don’t keep Christmas,” they said.
“I know, but if someone gave you something for Christmas, what would you like?” They told him, “Well, we really like German pastries.”
“Good,” he said to them, and he went off in search of pastries. He found them, used the rest of his travel money to buy them, and then took boxes of the German pastries to the Jews. He said, “Merry Christmas” as he gave them their pastries. Then he wired the missionary society and asked for more money to get home.
One student protested. “Why did you do that? They don’t believe in Jesus!”
And Dr. Goulter replied, “But I do. I do!”5
We’ve all seen the images of planet earth, taken from space. We live in a beautiful world, don’t we? Every time I see that picture of that ball hurtling through space, the one that shows the deep blue of the seas and the lands that are inhabited by all these different kinds of people who do not look the same nor speak the same language nor worship the same God, I think of how so very hard it is for us to get along with one another, though we all live together in this beautiful world God has made. Ever since this world began, we have found ourselves in an “endless cycle of enemy making.”6 Will it ever stop?
Not until we – you and I – decide to do it.
If you ever find yourself able indeed to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to give up your cloak along with the coat that someone demands of you, there will probably be a voice inside you that says, “Why did you do that? They don’t believe in Jesus!” So remind yourself that you do, you do… and that indeed you believe in the other way.
Lord, show us how to walk in the other way, as hard as it may be. The only other thing we dare ask is that you walk with us as we try to do it. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Matthew Myer Boulton, Feasting On the Word: Year A, Volume 1, David L. Barlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 381.
2Michael Smith, “Worship Resource for Observing September 11,” ethicsdaily.com.
4Walter J. Burghardt, S. J., Christ in Ten Thousand Places (Paulist Press: New York, 1999), p. 50.
5adapted from Ken Massey, “Worship Resource for Observing September 11,” ethicsdaily.com.
6Boulton, ibid., p. 385.