People of Hope,
I don’t use that title for us lightly. We are the people of God worshiping, serving, and fellowshipping in this community we call Hope Lutheran Church. We are a people saved and empowered by the grace of God, and that should give us hope. It is our source, our call, our strength, our anchor, and our future. The power of Hope should never be undervalued.
I had only been in my new (and first solo) call since the middle of June. I was getting acclimated to the people, as they were to me. It was a process made easier by Pastor Sam Montgomery, a former pastor of the parish, who had retired to the congregation. His support and endorsement of me went a long way to opening the hearts of the people to the “new guy”. It was a trust and relationship that would be tested just a few months later.
I had just walked out of Hope Depot, after picking paint colors for the interior of the parsonage after a major water leak. The Tampa radio station was on my car radio, where I’d often tune to get sports scores and local news. But this morning, the DJ was talking about a plane running into the World Trade Center.
I immediately thought, “What a stupid joke to tell, you classless jerk!” His sidekick, usually one to chime in with something snarky, was crying. I was stunned. I searched the dial for a better news outlet and finally found one while I drove back to the house and the workers. I wondered how many others on the road were hearing this. When I got back home, the workers were all huddled around a boombox, listening to the news. We pulled my TV out of storage and hooked it up. After ten or fifteen minutes, I pulled the contractor aside and told him to let the guys go home with pay. We all needed to be with the people we cared about.
I went to the office, called our church leadership, and set up a connection with the larger congregation down the street to share in a chaplaincy at their location where I would be on rotation. Then I called Mary Jo. She already knew and was trying to decide what to do. Together with her roommate, we gathered snacks and drinks and set up a place of gathering for their community at their apartment. There was crying, there was speculating, there was praying. And there was quiet; introspective, stunned, and fearful quiet. What did this all mean? What does it mean for us and our community? There was a consensus among those who shared that what really mattered in life became far more apparent to us that day.
That was eighteen years ago. Today, many of us still wonder, “What does this all mean?” Not simply the attacks of that day, but the views that drove the perpetrators, the polarization of our communities, the pain that remains, the fear that was instilled, the place of faith, hope, and love to cope with and respond to such an act. If only it had been the sole hateful and painful event to capture the headlines. If only it had been…but it still would have been too much.
But it was not an isolated event. The problem is human brokenness; anger, hatred, bigotry, elitism, factionalism, envy, selfishness, arrogance, and more. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, we call this sin. It’s not what was intended for us, but it’s what we fall into when we look to anything else, especially our own wants and fears, and away from God. It’s why Christ came, not in judgement, but in grace.
Oh, we believe judgement will come, but we are ever grateful that it hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, in a scene that should cause our very souls to tremble in awe, sorrow, and gratitude, he hung upon a cross and died an agonizing death for our sake. He, who had no sin, became sin for our benefit.
Why is it that headlines can move us so deeply while the truth of God’s work of redemption doesn’t have the same effect, unless bound up in some emotionally stirring spectacle like a passion play? If it doesn’t move us every day, then we aren’t moving in the right direction. If we’re not moving into the depth of God’s grace for us and then out of that grace and into the world, how can we be effective in the call to “make disciples of all the world?”
And that’s what we’re to be – disciples who proclaim God’s grace in word and action so that others hear the gospel and become disciples, that the world may be transformed. We can do it in large ways or small. We don’t need to wait for towers to fall to do something. Nor should we. But when we do face those momentous occasions of community loss, sorrow, and fear…what then?
I’d like to share a prayer that my good friend and colleague Fr. Larry Recla shared at Ground Zero. You see, Larry was one of the area pastors who worked tirelessly as a chaplain on that day, collecting broken bodies, counseling broken hearts, and upholding broken spirits. As remains came into the morgue, different chaplains from various faiths would pray over them, not knowing who the remains belong to. This was his prayer:
Eternal God our Father, often we experience our lives as broken and apart. We pray that as you have already received this person into your love and made them whole, that you would keep us apart of our families and friends, and continue to encourage us in our service done in your name, that we may continue our course on earth in confidence until, by your will, we are reunited with those who have gone before us. We ask and pray in the name of Father, Son, and Holy spirit. Amen.
This world is filled with people who are broken in spirit as much as those bodies were broken in flesh. Some wounds are evident, while some are hidden from our awareness. We don’t know who they all are. We know some as family, friends, neighbors, church members, or even ourselves. We know the one who knows and loves them, and we don’t have to wait until they die to pray over them, to usher them into the presence of God, or to bring God’s grace into their lives through our presence, our time, our love, and our service. May we be encouraged by the Spirit to continue to run the course of faith, in tragic times and in the daily grind, so that we may be recognized as body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, and serving him and proclaiming him to the community around us.
What does it all mean? It means God wants better for all people than we want for ourselves. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” I look forward to the day when children read of the evils of our world with puzzlement because they are so different from the peace they know. Some of you are thinking, “In your dreams, Pastor!” Vision or dreams, I’ll cling to it (Acts 2:17) and live into the future as a person of Hope. Will you join me in living up to our name as a congregation and, more importantly, the people of Christ?
Rev. Jon-Mac MacLean