A sermon delivered by the Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 2001 Pentecost 15, dedicated to the men, women, and children murdered this week in an attack on America and to the brave souls who have labored and sometimes lost their lives attempting to save them, in thanksgiving for Dorinda K. White on her day of Commissioning into Educational Ministry and always to the glory of God!
I Corinthians 15:51-58; Matthew 19:13-15
As I look out at you this morning, you can't even imagine how I feel at this moment. As I look out on you, I am deeply grateful to our Glorious God for this moment in time. I am thankful this morning and in this moment for each and every one of you. I am thankful that you are alive!
I am thankful for your presence here in worship today.
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Please listen to this parable . . .
Apparently, not long after the British colonized India, a deep yearning for recreation led them to build the Tollygunge Golf course in Calcutta. However, golf in Calcutta presented peculiar hazards. Monkeys would drop out of trees, scurry around the course and seize the golf balls. They would play with the balls, tossing them here, there and everywhere. Monkeys did not fit into anyone's understanding of golf!
At first the golfers tried to contain the monkeys. Their strategy was to build high fences around the fairways and greens. However, you can imagine - fences presented no real challenge to monkeys. Soon, the fences came down. Next, the golfers tried to lure the monkeys away from the course. However, the monkeys found nothing more entertaining than watching humans go wild when their balls were disturbed - so they didn't leave. Then the golfers tried trapping the monkeys and carrying them away. But, for every monkey that was caught, another would appear. Finally, the golfers gave in to the monkeys and tried a novel approach - play the ball where the monkey drops it.
As you can imagine, playing this way could be rather maddening. For example, the ball is driven well down the fairway close to the hole - only to have the monkey run off with it and drop it somewhere far from the hole. On the other hand, the opposite sometimes happened. A terrible shot might be picked up and delivered close to the cup. It didn't take long before golfers realized that golf on that particular course was quite similar to our experience of life - there are good breaks and there are bad breaks and we cannot entirely control the outcome of the game called life. Like it or not, Life is all about playing the ball where the monkey drops it.
When I came across this story some months ago, I thought of today and our commissioning of Dorinda White into the Ministry of Christian Education. CE work is much like this: you play the ball where the monkey drops it. There are many uncontrolled elements of the work. A parent comes to you in tears about struggles they are having with one of their classes or children; a child has a particularly bad day; or on the other hand, a child or teen has a tremendous breakthrough in their journey! In these times, I have seen Dorinda lead people through to the other side of the experience - especially sorting out the good in the presence of what appears only to be bad.
Needless to say, on Tuesday, 9-11, the monkey dropped the ball in the worst possible place in all of our collective memories. For a day or two, the staff wondered if we should even proceed with this celebration today. In the end, we all decided we needed to celebrate the good news of Christ's power and presence in the educational ministry of First Church and in Dorinda's gifts for this ministry. I felt God calling us not to flee in the face of evil and the horrors of this past week, but to move forward in faith together. But, before moving toward this great celebration, please allow me to share some thoughts and prayers concerning the tragedy of this past week.
On Tuesday, September 11, yes - 9/11, between 8:00-11:00 am, terrorists in four places, in four commercial airplanes, perpetrated unprecedented acts of war and evil upon the citizens of the United States of America and the world. Acts of war - yes! But, I know that some of my ministerial colleagues choose not to name Tuesday's actions as "evil." While I respect them greatly for their thoughts, they believe that to name such actions as evil will add to inciting our government and our citizens to strike out in similar actions against men and women and children somewhere else on the globe.
However, I believe what happened was nothing short of evil. And it was also a choice for evil! It was done by those whose hearts and minds were consumed by hate and by evil. Evil is defined as "morally wrong, wicked, harmful, injurious and depraved, vicious, corrupt, vile, and nefarious." To turn four commercial airliners loaded with civilians and tremendous volume of fuel against centers of commerce in the height of daily work and against the center of military planning is EVIL.
Now, the danger of dealing with such evil is that it pervades the human heart and mind. In response, we must not be drawn into actions as persons or as a nation which call forth darkness and evil of our own inclinations and perpetrations! In Paul's words, "Overcome evil with good."
And we must never assume that because we, as Americans, are the reacting strike force, that what we do and how we do it is good in and of itself. Children and innocents abroad must not die in retribution for the death of innocents and children in our native land!
As the Jewish year comes to an end and reading from the Torah focus on the last passages from the fifth and final book of Torah, Deuteronomy 34, we are reminded that God calls Moses and all of us to make choices - for after all - life is about making choices. God tells Moses to choose good over evil; to choose blessings not curses; to choose life, not death.
In a moment we will look at our choices for good, for life, for blessings. But, first I need to tell you that what we all witnessed Tuesday was what I named it to be on the cover of the First Church News (which was written as buildings were being attacked and falling!).
Tuesday was the single worst day of loss on American soil in the 225 years of our nation's history! It appears that well over 6,000 people are dead or missing at this point. Outside of losses numbering close to 6,000 people in a hurricane which struck Galveston, Texas in 1990 and the single day loss of over 4,000 soldiers from North and South at Antietam in 1862, our country has never lost so many lives on American soil in one day in over 82,200 days of our existence as a nation. During the American Revolution, fought between 1775-1783, we did not lose as many lives as we lost Tuesday! Comparisons have been made to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On that day, 2, 800 soldiers and civilians were killed in a military action against a military base. I fact on pearl Harbor, not to suggest that the horrors of one experience override the horrors of the other. Rather, I share this to say that as we feel the total impact of this huge devastation, we are right to feel that this may be the worst single day in American history! (For example, as horrid as the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was, 168 lives were taken in that terrorist action). To feel overwhelmingly numb, shocked, angry, everything else is perfectly understandable considering the hugeness of this devastation. As Bob Scheffer of ABC News said Thursday night, "The more I look at the rubble of the WTC, the larger and the worse it becomes."
As this drama has been unfolding, we have all been given strength by the stories of people rallying to support the fallen and the valiant men and women working the rescue missions on Manhattan's lower east side and at the Pentagon. THESE ARE ALL STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE CHOOSING LIFE! The Firefighters, police, EMS of NYC stand tall - and thousands of stories of volunteers, reserves and active duty military, medical personnel continue to amaze us and inspire us.
In addition, I was reminded by Bob Woods, a Delta pilot and F-16 fighter pilot in the reserves, we must never forget the heroes of Flight 93 which crashed in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He said, "As airlines' pilots we are trained to deal with terrorists based on our knowledge of the last experience. We must all remember that the most recent, last experience of airborne terrorists was Flight 93 - not the other three flights. On that flight, the men and women passengers courageously battled the terrorists and sacrificed their own lives to save the lives of thousands of others on the ground. That battle in the airspace over Ohio and Pennsylvania is the last experience on which all the new training models will be based." Following those words, Bob Woods and Mike Ponzoni and other pilots - members and close friends of this congregation - courageously took off to do their jobs!
We must all thank God, and thank the heroes and angels of mercy from this past week who saved literally thousands of lives by their calm demeanor and valiant actions on behalf of people they did not know.
We must remember who we are and to whom we belong. We must act with love and justice on behalf of others We must choose to act against injustice and to act with mercy. We are children of a living God! We belong to God in Jesus Christ our Lord! Here at First Church, we have entered into study course in Christian Education entitled, "Who is my neighbor?" In facing the horrors of this day - we must name and embrace Arab and Muslim Americans are our neighbors. We are being abandoned by most of the Islamic world because of the actions of these days.
On Wednesday night, as worshipers were coming out of Ascension Lutheran Church, they were greeted by Somali-American Muslims who lined the sidewalks in solidarity with their sisters and brothers from another faith. In the First Church family, we have relatives and friends who are Islamic and of Middle Eastern descent. Some of them may be Arabic. They are facing renewed prejudice and hatred in these days. We need to reach out to them and hold on to them!
ABC News carried a story about a woman in Oregon - a 30 year old Palestinian-American citizen - who was facing hate in her community because she owned and operated and Arabic language school. In the piece, it was also pointed out that she was a Christian. OSU President Brit Kirwan (and a member of First Church) spoke passionately on Wednesday about stopping hate crimes or hateful words or actions against persons in out community who may be of Middle Eastern or Islamic background. It was a moving statement of truth and sanity. Make sure your Islamic and Arabic friends, family, and neighbors are okay. Find out how you can help them and support them this week.
We must also take care of each other. We must choose to love! As the shock wears off the full range of emotions will come out. I have found myself highly emotional in all sorts of situations this week. I know that you have been, too. Please, be gentle with your children and spouses and loved ones and co-workers. NONE OF US HAS CAUSED THIS. Let's not take out our feelings on other people. Talk to people, express yourself. Find healthy outlets for your emotions. I have always found it to be true that when my feelings don't come out in healthy ways, like toxic waste, they will seep out in unhealthy ways. Turn the terror and fear and hurt you are feeling to love. Hold your loved ones longer and closer. Ask for hugs if you need them. Practice random acts of kindness for those who are isolated, shut-in, homebound. They are all alone in their fears and feelings this week. Take some flowers to the nearest Firehouse or Police station or to a pilot or flight attendant you know - they have all lost brothers and sisters in this battle this week. Ask at work and school if people have experienced personal loss in this tragedy. Take care of yourself, too. Take a walk. Breathe deeper. Write letters to Congress and the President. Express your feelings so they don't turn into toxins within your soul. And help those closest to you, especially children to express themselves, too.
We must also make the choice for God to guide us! We need to seek in prayer and daily direction for God to guide us as individuals and as a community in the midst of this crisis and tragedy. Many of us have given blood. Many have shared donations. Today, in a moment we will share in a special offering for Church World Service for the relief efforts in NYC and Washington, D.C. Mary Ann Goetz called me and asked if the children could use pint containers and collect "pints of pennies" since they can't give blood. Great idea. I called Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Tom Tewell on Thursday and asked what we can do to help. "Pray unceasingly!" said Tom's secretary. I suggested we might send childcare workers to them when the memorial services begin, so that their members can worship and know their kids are loved and cared for by brother and sisters in Christ. This region's head of Church World Service told me one of their greatest needs is for grief counselors right now. Could we send professional help to them? If you know a retired counselor or folks who could make the trip, let them know they are needed. The shock is wearing off and people are needed now and in the months (and years ahead!). Let's think outside the box and find ways to reach out to New Yorkers or Capital Area families in need.
Finally, we must clearly and simply choose God! Our God reigns! God is in control! Paul writes in Romans 12, "Neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nothing else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." God is in the midst of all of this - calling us to stand in solidarity with our American sisters and brothers in needs and our global family in its time of grieving, too.
My prayer is that this brings those who seek life, and good closer together. I know God has brought us together this day for purposes beyond our creating! God has brought us together to love one another. God has brought us together to hold on to one another. God has brought us together to mend the broken hearts of one another. God has brought us together to mourn the horrific losses of this week. - For Jesus Says, "the blessed ones who mourn shall be comforted." God has brought us together to be merciful in this day and in the days ahead. - For Jesus Says, "the blessed ones who are merciful shall receive mercy." God has brought us together to be molded and shaped as peacemakers. - For Jesus says, " The blessed ones, the peacemakers shall be called children of God!" God had brought us together to praise His Holy and Everlasting Name! So, our prayer is for God to bless us in this time. Now, let us pause from grieving and reflecting to see that the ball has been dropped close to the cup. Let us celebrate God's glorious love in the sharing our morning offering for Church World Service and the commissioning of Dorinda White in our Ministry of Christian Education.
And please know, from the depths of my heart, I love you! I love each and every one of you! And never forget - God loves you. May God bless you and your loved ones - now and always! Amen.
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