I think we all know what yesterday commemorated. The world took a dramatic turn on 9/11. A date that has it's very own meaning in our vernacular. What is truly hard to believe is that it happened twenty years ago! And for the vast majority of Americans, the sting has lessened. If you weren't directly affected, the memory is sad; maybe it produces anger, but the urgency seems to have decreased.
But then the end of August brought much of it rushing back. American troops were removed from Afghanistan. As we look back, there were some victories—Osama Bin Laden is no longer leading terrorist actions. But there were sacrifices as well, 800,000 Americans served, 2352 gave their lives in the conflict. 66,000 Afghan soldiers are estimated to have died. Over 19 years fighting ignited by the events of 9/11.
Our initial reactions following 9/11 found communities pulling together, church attendance rising, prayer meetings held for wisdom and peace. We found a sense of common purpose. We drew closer as a nation. But it didn't last, this unity and community. In our reading from Proverbs, I get a sense of how the author saw his world and how history keeps repeating itself.
Both our Proverbs reading and James seem to question if we can overcome our nature that is selfless and antagonistic. Is our nation, our world, destined to struggle forever? And I'm afraid that the answer is yes. We live in a fallen, sinful world. But a world that has been visited by the Son of God! That is our cause for hope in the darkness. God did not forsake us in the terrorist attacks neither have we been abandoned in the pandemic. So you may rightly ask, how can we believe in the midst of our troubles? I'm reading the book, Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie (actually I've been reading it in bits and pieces for several years). This week I read this section on God's providence, “present experience seems to bear indisputable evidence that we live in a godless and godforsaken world. But faith in a loving and just God is not based on either good or on bad experience in the present. It is based on what God has done—sometimes in our own personal histories and above all in the history of God's people.” Guthrie calls us to recall the way God has worked in the past as the basis for our hope in the future.
9/11 is one of those dates that lives in infamy; a date when we say “I remember exactly where I was when...”. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor. For me it includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The Challenger explosion is another one. And our country survived all of those disasters. God is still on the throne, hope has not died. “Never Forget” became a kind of battle cry after 9/11. Let's make that the basis for our faith as we move forward in the troubles and trials of today. Never forget that in the beginning, God created.... Never forget how God saved his people from the yoke of slavery. Never forget that Jesus came to show God's love. Never forget the sacrifice of Jesus that leads us to true and full life. But also never forget that we live in a world that is not yet fully redeemed. We live in a fallen world, an imperfect world. And similarly, none of us is perfect. There is no perfect individual, no perfect community, no perfect government, no perfect political party, no perfect church, no perfect world until Jesus returns. We live in the in-between time, in-between the resurrection of Jesus and his return when he makes all things perfect.
Twenty years ago, the world was changed and we pulled together and we turned to God. But over these twenty years it seems we have forgotten that spirit of cooperation and community. We say, “never forget”, but it seems we have. But we are here this morning because we have chosen not to forget the world changing appearance of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. Jesus taught unity and love, and forgiveness. Jesus lived out empathy and healing and acceptance. Jesus was and is our hope in troubles and our joy in times of peace. As we faced the challenges of 9/11 we supported our leaders and our troops. And as I said, success was mixed but we are still America and we stand for what we see is right but support those who fight for our freedoms. A sad part of our American experience is how we treated our military men and women after the Vietnam war. We do much better today recognizing how our veterans have preserved our freedoms.
I want to end with an encouraging story. It happened some years ago but still speaks to us today. On the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a History teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, did something not to be forgotten. With the permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she removed all of the desks in her classroom. When the first period kids entered the room they discovered that there were no desks. 'Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?' She replied, 'You can't have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.'
They thought, 'Well, maybe it's our grades.' 'No,' she said. 'Maybe it's our behavior.' She told them, 'No, it's not even your behavior.'
And so, they came and went, the first period, second period, third period. Still no desks in the classroom. Kids called their parents to tell them what was happening and by early afternoon television news crews had started gathering at the school to report about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of her room.
The final period of the day came and as the puzzled students found seats on the floor of the desk-less classroom. Martha Cothren said, 'Throughout the day no one has been able to tell me just what he or she has done to earn the right to sit at the desks that are ordinarily found in this classroom. Now I am going to tell you.'
At this point, Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it. Twenty-seven U.S. Veterans, all in uniform, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. The Vets began placing the school desks in rows, and then they would walk over and stand alongside the wall. By the time the last soldier had set the final desk in place those kids started to understand, perhaps for the first time in their lives, just how the right to sit at those desks had been earned.
Ms Cothren said, 'You didn't earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. They went halfway around the world, giving up their education and interrupting their careers and families so you could have the freedom you have. Now, it's up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn, to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don't ever forget it.'
[By the way, this is a true story. And this teacher was awarded the Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year for the State of Arkansas in 2006. She is the daughter of a WWII POW.]
That is our story as Christians as well. What have you done to earn the right to sit in your pew and call yourself a child of God? Jesus went to the cross, giving up his life so you could be made whole. Jesus has done what needed to be done for you to be in the family. Now it is our responsibility to be good citizens, good neighbors, good friends, good workers. It is our responsibility to show Christ's love to this fallen world in which we live. Be kind, be forgiving, show grace, guard your tongue; look for Jesus in everyone you meet and be Jesus to them.
The battle cry of 9/11 was “never forget”. And we remember the lives lost and the high costs paid due to that terrorist act. But as citizens of Christ's kingdom, you are called to never forget that you are a beloved child of God. Live and know that love, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn: O for a World