Sunday, September 10, 2006

Where was Superman?

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I post this sermon that I preached on the first anniversary of that terrible day during a quiet morning that was held that day at Trinity, Easton. - atg+

September 11, 2002

The Lectionary for Today

May only God’s word be spoken;
May only God’s word be heard and believed.

One year ago this morning, we all know where we were. I was getting dressed and watching the Today Show. Where were you? Perhaps driving in the car on the way to work or maybe even in New York on business? A priest friend of mine was in a television studio at Trinity Church, Wall Street, getting ready to listen to the Archbishop of Wales deliver a lecture. My wife was visiting her mother in Baltimore and was supposed to fly home that day. My niece was getting ready to have a baby the next day. Where were you?

When you heard the news or saw it happen or watched the videos how did you feel and what did you think?

For me, perhaps the most affecting response came from my little nephew, Sam, who upon seeing the pictures of planes hitting the World Trade Center and having had the news explained to him asked a simple question.

"Where was Superman?"

Good question. Where was Superman? What we saw was real. These were not special effects nor a cartoon. Our overwhelmed senses and the numbing feeling of unreality was one proof of how awful, how real what had just happened was.

The trauma was so terribly real that even our most ingrained cultural myths could not help us. Which does mean that we did not try. Few of us called our therapists right away—many of us walked into churches and synagogues, even if we had not been in one for a very long time. We were, and are, shaken to very core.

We cried out to God out of our horror, our grief and our pain. We cried out then, and we cry out now for an explanation: why? We cry out for justice: make it right! We cry out for vengeance: make them pay!

The "why" is at once the simplest and the most complex answers to give: people with enough hate and enough fanaticism in their hearts do horrible unspeakable acts. People with this much hate sometimes do evil acts in the name of God. People, even ordinary young men, do evil things.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why there is evil. It does not tell us what price is worth over 3000 lives.

And the simple truth that evil exists cannot contain the fullness of the reality and mystery of the depth of evil. Facts are not enough. We cry out for something more.

So where was Superman?

Left to our own devices, the job description for God that we would write looks an awful lot like Superman’s. God should be faster than a speeding bullet. God should be more powerful than anything, at least a locomotive. God should be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound and stop madmen from crashing airplanes full of innocents into them. And then God should beat up the bad guys and leave it for the police to pick up the dazed offenders tied mysteriously to a lamppost (or was that Spiderman?).

We want God to anticipate every evil and make it safe. We want God to bring fire and brimstone on the perpetrators.

But should God not act like Superman then we do one or more of a number of things: we might write off God as at best irrelevant; we might decide that God, not evil men with hate in their hearts, did this terrible thing; or we might attempt to explain away God’s seeming impotence; or we might decide that we should take on the Superman mantle ourselves.

Two famous tele-evangelists got themselves into public hot water when they tried, like Job’s friends, to defend and explain God on God’s behalf. They suggested that God let the attacks happen because of the ways in which they see this country going to hell-in-a-hand-basket. They said that God could have stopped it but didn’t because he was, essentially, in a snit. This is another example of how it’s often God’s friends who do the most harm—but their talk said much more about them than about God. Doing theology under stress has this way of showing our true colors. These two simply exposed their God-as-Superman tendencies and look at how inadequate to the task it was!

Many of us wanted someone (anyone!) to take on the Superman mantle. We want to take the fight to them. In many ways we have, and have made it much harder for terror groups to do business and, I hope, have redrawn the line so that such direct attacks will cost them more than it costs us proportionally. But military might and good detective work and brave emergency response will not make fanatics and people addicted to violence go away. Even Superman knows that we must learn the balance between restraint and confrontation in the responsible use of force especially in the face of brute evil.

Even Superman will find a way, with his superpowers, to save both Lois Lane and the people on the runaway train and catch the bad guys in the process.

But, as I have said, God is not Superman. Neither are we.

Today’s scriptures teach us quite a different way of being. Overcome evil with good, is what Paul counsels. That position cost him his life.

Matthew’s Gospel teaches that the way that the ideal way for the Church to operate requires an incredible balance between toughness and freedom. Hold people accountable for their actions and give them the choice to either repent or sin again (and again!). The lesson teaches mediation, healthy boundaries, and the determination to never give up being an agent of reconciliation. The Gospel pictures a Church where people seemed to be free to choose their actions and free to experience the result all without dragging down the whole faith community in the process.

Ezekiel says that we should confront and warn the evildoer and give them the chance (and the tools) to change. If we do not confront evil then we are just as lost as the evildoer, no matter how righteous we may seem.

All of these lessons have in common these themes: That we are responsible for our neighbors; all of us are accountable for our actions; and, sooner or later everyone has to live with the consequences of their choices; be a persistent reconciler.

The direction given by Paul seems very off-the-wall compared to realpolitik. Shun evil; seek what is noble. Don’t be vengeful but leave that to God. Live as peaceably as you can. Bless your persecutors.

The lesson from Scripture is clear. When we confront evil--even raw, pure, unfiltered evil--with the very things that evil hates, we begin to overpower it. Accountability, blessing, clarity of vision and purpose, compassion, community, love—these are things that successfully fend off advancing evil.

So back to little Sam’s question—where was Superman?

Well, I don’t know about the guy with the red cape, but I know very well where God was in all this mess. He was right there.

When a person, facing certain doom, picked up a cell-phone and reached out to a loved one, there was God. When a firefighter or police officer ran up the stairs when others were running down, there was God. God was there in the doctors and nurses who waited to care for people, many of whom never showed up. God was there in both St. Paul’s Chapel that was still stood after the collapse and in little St. Nicholas’ Church that was destroyed in the rubble. God was there in each bottle of water given, every hug shared, every listening ear and every caring heart. God was there every time someone chose life over death, hope over hopelessness, compassion over selfishness, love over hate. Gods own self was shown in frail, fearful and hurting people who rose beyond themselves in millions of great and small ways.

Nineteen men deliberately and carefully chose evil. Many thousands of other people, when the chips were down, spontaneously chose the good and so unwittingly showed the image of the living God.

In the face of that kind of power, God does not need to be Superman! Neither do we. Our incarnate, companion God had and has much better, stronger, deeper material with which to work.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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