A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 11, 2011
Psalm 140:1-8; Matthew 18:21-35
Most of us can vividly recall where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in our kitchen in Franklin, TN, preparing to walk out the door for a full day of work and meetings, when a special news bulletin on CNN caught my attention. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. In shock and disbelief, I stood before our kitchen television set as it transmitted the image of black smoke billowing from a gaping hole in one side of the Twin Towers, as from some great wounded beast gasping for breath. Immediately I called Mary Lou’s office to tell her what was going on, and as I left a message on her office voice mail I watched in horror as a second plane came crashing into the Towers. By this time I had a gut feeling, and you probably did too, that what we were witnessing was no accident. It was intentional. September 11, 2001, was a day that many of us shall never forget; the events and images of that day forever will be etched in our minds.
Well, it is ten years later. During these past ten years, we have all been changed in a number of ways and we have all learned a lot.
For instance, we have learned that though human nature is for the most part good, humankind’s vulnerability to misguided inclinations is ever so present and sometimes almost beyond belief. It is hard for us to understand how a few misguided souls could be capable of such evil and destruction. Such, I think, is something the psalmist realized as he penned the 140th Psalm. The psalmist had his own challenges to contend with, violent men who planned destructive things in their minds and stirred up wars continually. The 140th Psalm almost reads like it could have been written yesterday. It has never been more evident than now that contending with terrorism is a complicated, unending battle. Perhaps it always has been.
But also because of the September 11 tragedy, we have seen just how good human nature can be, and how compassionate the American people can be. We learned that the volunteer, sacrificial spirit is alive and well in America. Charitable giving following the September 11 tragedy reached record highs.
Another lesson that has been driven home is that all that is done in the name of religion is not necessarily good or true. Sadly, a lot of evil has been done in God’s name down through the centuries by persons of all religious faiths, Christianity included. The terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon claimed to be of the Islamic faith. Supposedly they invoked the name of Allah, or God, when they carried out their deeds. However, just to claim one is acting in the name of God or religion does not a person of faith make. We all know that.
Soon after the events of September 11, 2001, Mary Lou and I attended a lecture series in Nashville titled “Relevant Religion” that was sponsored by Scarritt Bennett Center and Vanderbilt Divinity School. Several of the lectures were given by local Muslim leaders of the Nashville community. One of the things that all of those Muslim leaders insisted was that the terrorists were not true Muslims. The minute they decided to take innocent human life they stepped out of the Islamic faith. True Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and respect for all human life. So we do well to be careful that we don’t identify or equate Al Qaida terrorists with the Islamic faith, any more than we need to identify Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, with the Christian or Roman Catholic faith. We must be careful that we don’t pronounce guilt by association; that is, that we don’t condemn or persecute any who may be of Middle Eastern descent or who practice the true Muslim faith. It has been noted that several Muslims lost their lives in the Twin Towers tragedy too. And Muslim Americans also mourned the innocent victims of that horrific crime against humanity.
Newspaper articles also point out that there has been an upswing in crimes against those of the Islamic faith since September 11, 2001. Many Muslims have been singled out for bias, discrimination or persecution. It doesn’t help when a prominent Christian evangelist continues to call Islam “an evil and wicked religion.” As I have already said, all that may be associated with religion may not be good or true. We need only look in our Christian Bible to read of instances where evil and violence occurred at the hands of supposedly religious, howbeit misguided, men. And how could we forget the Crusades where Christians forced baptism at the edge of the sword?
Thus, the need for tolerance and understanding is greater now than ever. As people of faith, it falls to us to act justly toward all, regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Such is one of the lessons that I draw from the New Testament scripture passage that I read this morning. Jesus, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, is calling for mercy and tolerance. How can we expect God to be merciful and tolerant with us if we fail to be merciful and tolerant with others?
The truth is, we need one another, and we need to love and get along with one another, in spite of our differences. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I felt the great need to connect with loved ones. After I called Mary Lou’s office, I also called our son and daughter, who were 200 miles away attending college. I just needed to hear their voices and be assured that they were all right. You may have felt the same way. But we also need each other in a broader sense of the term. We need each other as members of the Christian faith community. And we need each other in the wider global community, regardless of our differing religious affiliation. The world is much, much smaller than we had originally thought. So we need to learn how to live with one another in harmony and peace.
One of the hardest lessons we have learned as Americans is to look a little closer at ourselves in the mirror. That is to say, we are not totally without fault when it comes to making the best choices in the way we act in the world. The incarceration of anyone who might be a “suspected terrorist.” The way different ethnic groups like Japanese Americans have been put in camps. The use of torture in attempts to gain a confession or information. The invasion of foreign soil when maybe that was not the best thing to do at the time. The way the Native Americans and African Americans were treated. America is not totally without fault. What Osama bin Laden did in masterminding the September 11, 2001, attacks can in no way be justified. However, it is said that he did it seeking revenge because U.S. forces had invaded—unjustly, in his mind—his own country years earlier. All I am saying is when it comes to war and world violence, it is more complicated than it would first appear to be. There may not be any “clean hands,” and there may be enough guilt to go around. So at least one lesson we do well to remember is to be careful that we don’t become too smug or think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.
There is at least one other lesson we have learned since September 11 that is more positive in nature, and that is we have learned that the human spirit is strong. The human spirit, when pushed to the limits, can rise to unimagined achievements. The account of Lauren Manning is one such story that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. Lauren was entering the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 when a fireball exploded from an elevator shaft. She and two others managed to run from the building, all three of them on fire. A passerby ran to help and reached Lauren first. When Lauren reached the hospital with 85% of her body burned, she said, “I want to live for my husband and son.” Before the tragedy, Lauren was one of the most beautiful women you will ever see. But today Lauren’s face and body are drastically changed. She is not the physical “beauty” she once was, as her face and body are forever scarred. Yet, Lauren’s spirit learned to soar with new life. A new Lauren Manning was resurrected from the ashes of the Twin Towers inferno. Lauren’s husband Greg wrote a book about her miraculous recovery. Lauren lived to tell her story through the book and television interviews. She has written her own book about her recovery experience, Unmeasured Strength, that was released last week. Through Lauren, the whole world has been able to see what the power of prayer, a caring world, and the strength of the human spirit can accomplish. Lauren was empowered, inwardly, because of her experience. She calls her burn scars her “personal tattoos, her body art.” She was able to draw from all her injury and loss a new understanding and new purpose for life.
Perhaps these are the great lessons that all of us can draw from the September 11 tragedy—a new understanding and greater tolerance; a sense of humility regarding our place in the world; a greater commitment to working for peace; a new purpose; and a new dedication to life. With the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.