Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11th - Eight years later

We notice anniversaries, sometimes in our flesh and bones, even when the calendar date is not consciously marked or observed. It still strikes me as a little jarring when September 11th (2009) is referenced simply as a date on the calendar, when ordinary meetings are scheduled, bars hold happy hours, and movies are premiered. I’m ok with that - it's natural and even good. I’m just noting it as my reaction.

Eight years of living means that much has happened since that morning when the sky was bright and clear, and an ordinary day became so deeply marked, profoundly affecting to so many.

Those four planes striking the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, and those two collapsing towers, sent out ripples which are still being felt.

We have had eight years of wars, with costs far exceeding the heavy toll of 9/11/01. The cruelty perpetrated eight years ago has unfortunately been multiplied in military and civilian casualties, in expressions of ethnic prejudice, in torture.

Nearly three thousand families, plus unnumbered co-workers and friends, have had eight years without loved ones. New towers will be built. Those human losses are permanent.

The attacks continue to kill a small but real number of those who survived that day. Family members, survivors, and responders have taken their lives. The dust and debris has proved toxic to some of those exposed, and that number will only increase.

We have had eight years of recovery. As happens after every injury, the natural response of living organisms is to regroup, repair, recover, and renew. The losses hurt. The suffering has not ended, and for some the problems are just as acute today as they were in 2001. But time and time again, people have mourned and moved forward. People have reached out and helped one another. They have received the gift and done the work of forgiveness. They have shared their stories. People have offered hope and found inspiration. People have fought for understanding, for resources, for accountability, and have fought demons. Not every fight has been successful. But they have been holy, and the power of healing has won out so many times.

As a nation, we are still confused about how to achieve our need for security. While the towers have fallen, so much is still up in the air. It is literally eight years later, and it seems right to ask what have we done, what have we learned, where are we going.

Recently I’ve been remembering and reflecting upon my 9/11-related experience. My 9/11 memories are so much based in the people I have met and related to around those events. But lately I’ve found myself remembering those buildings and the way much of my New York City life passed through them. Never my favorite parts of the NYC landscape, they have become hallowed in memory, and more so by the people that lived and died in them. And I am so grateful for every life that was saved from disaster that day.

I remain hopeful about what people can accomplish when working together on a common goal. I remain profoundly skeptical about whether we have the willingness to focus our attention on the problems that the attacks of 9/11 revealed. In national policy this means things like the security theater we go through in airports, bowing down before the gods of safety, removing and replacing our shoes and buying 3oz containers of shampoo as if those were meaningful steps towards airline safety. Little has been done to change the reality that terror can always find a target. And is seems that some of the important 9/11 responses serve to make more who are willing to seek destruction in the name of righteoousness.

A national day of service is a step in the right direction. But declaring each other heroes for helping paint an underfunded school is less than we are called to. The God who redeems life from the Pit asks more of us. I know we are capable of it. Eight years ago, hundreds of thousands of ordinary heroes showed up to do their part in response to an obvious atrocity. Can we do the same for the on-going atrocities of war, poverty, and oppression? We needn't raise a grand tower - we only need follow the more humble way of the ones who gave of themselves to help others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who do you say that I am?

The gospel reading for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Mark 8:27-38.

Of course, Jesus' question is not about his identity - who he really is - but how people see him and relate to him. Our answer, of necessity, says more about our self than it can say about Jesus.

It seems significant to me that this question comes at a particular place in Mark's gospel. It is the setup for the Transfiguration story, where Jesus' God-given identity will be revealed, shrouded, and misunderstood. But it also comes at a particular place. For the first time in Mark, Jesus is in Roman territory. It is when he approaches the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi that he asks the question. Identity politics were not invented in our generation.

Jesus' identity - or how he is seen - has a particular meaning in relation to the empire. The rest of the gospel turns on this point. Is he the Son of God (divi filius, the same appellation used of Emperor Augustus)? Or is he a rebellious slave who must be crushed and obliterated, lest he infect others with his heresy?

We cannot help but get the answer wrong, as did Jesus' disciples before him. The only one with both a clue and the courage to speak up is Peter - and then a moment later he is telling Jesus not to pull this suffering servant crap. Perhaps he is concerned not simply for the success of their mission and his place in it, but for the safety of his friend and teacher. He knows this kind of talk can get you killed.

The appointed Old Testament lesson for today says something more intelligible about Jesus than we are likely to, even with a lot of practice.

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens - wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Isaiah 50:4-9

Who do you say that I am? You are the one who sustains the weary with a word/Word. You are the one who, like a flint, has been sharpened by the blows that struck you. And you are the one who listens to, who is supported by, and who is willing to stand with the Lord God - even in the face of an empire which respects neither God nor humans, only power.

The gospel reading is unfortunately truncated. I'd really suggest going on and reading one more verse into chapter 9, right through that awkward chapter division. "And Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power'" Mark 9:1.

Jesus knows that we have trouble recognizing God's kingdom and the kind of power it expresses. We have been seeing kings and kingdoms in an entirely different light. Not the divine light of righteousness, of heaven breaking through, but we have been deceived in seeing power in the glow of gold and the glint of steel, the luster of purple robes and the deep red of spilled blood. Jesus is pointing the way to our transformation, that in his ministry we will see God's kingdom revealed.

Who do you say that I am?

I love this picture... Jesus has a power that Caesar cannot even dream of. If you want a glimpse of that power, click on this link to visit the site which produced this portrait of Jesus. If you zoom in, you will find it is composed of 2019 photos of ordinary people doing ordinary things.

We're in position to answer Jesus' question when we know what God is doing for us. Caesar depends on keeping people off-balance, so they can be pushed, coerced, seduced, threatened, and rewarded into dancing the empire's tune. Caesar cannot stand except on the backs of the conquered, those who have bowed down, who have become obedient to Caesar. Caesar cares not if they submit willingly or by force, only that they submit. By contrast, God's kingdom depends only on God standing with us, in the hard places and the very ordinary ones. Who do you say that I am? "It is the Lord God who helps me..."