Sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, October 14, 2001, Pentecost 19, dedicated to the victims of Flight 93 and the people of Shanksville, PA and always to the glory of God.
(I of III in "Stewardship Series")
James 2:14-26; Luke 17:11-19
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
As many of you know last weekend, Sarah, Daniel and I made a trip back to my hometown and my home church. Upon returning from our visit with them Sunday morning, Sunday night we stayed in Somerset, PA. We covered the hills between Somerset and a small town which probably to most of you was unknown to most of you until September 11, called Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We came to the town through the hills of PA. There's nothing quite like the hills of my home state, they roll and they pass, and all of us love the place that we call home. But as I went through on this beautiful fall morning with my youngest and my middle child, I was taken once again by the fact that 27 days before, the solemnity, the beauty, the grandeur of these hills was severely interrupted. I stopped with the children for 90 minutes to listen, to learn, to mourn, to pray.
It was hard to find anyone at first on a Monday morning, the town was either working, I don't think sleeping, but mostly hunting, because we kept seeing hunters all the way into town. People who live in Shanksville live there to avoid places like this, New York City, DC, Columbus, even Pittsburgh. They don't want to be known, they want to be away from the heart of things. And yet, in the 90 minutes that I had with those beautiful people, I learned some lessons about faith and I'd like to share them with you today.
First, faith makes us well, Jesus talks about this, doesn't he? He says in the 17th Chapter, it was the faith of the men that made them well. The one returns and finds out that it's about more than about healing, it's about salvation. It's more than about getting well, it's about getting better. The man returns to Jesus and thanks him, one of ten thanks him. And it's important to note, that Jesus lifts up the fact this is a foreigner, this is not one who you would expect a thank you from, and it's particularly important as we appropriate this text and others for our day that those who we least expect to hear a thanks from are the ones who often return and stop to say thank you for things that have happened in their lives.
Paul Tillech says of faith that faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. It is the place in which our greatest need meets God's greatest desire to be compassionate to us. Faith is in that place.
In Shanksville, I was told of faith that makes well. There's an Assembly of God pastor, a woman, who lives in the Mustard Seed house, just down the street from Ida's Food Market. She was not named to me, I'm not sure why, but it was told to me by Ida herself, that the pastor, during and after what happened in Shanksville, sat on her porch. Her ministry of making people well was to be present to the workers, to the volunteers, to the family members who came across those hills to see where their loved ones died. Her ministry and her faith made them feel better.
Some of you have seen some of the art coming out of NYC these days. Children's art. One I saw was of Jesus enwrapping the Twin Towers in the love of God, as the souls of the departed rose into his arms. Another shows the Twins embraced weeping and their hands are reaching across to each other. Children have also drawn these two towers embraced by a huge heart around which it says, "This is the heart of God." We learn through such experiences that faith is perhaps the only thing that can make us well.
We also learn about faith, and I learned it again in Shanksville, that faith works. James 2:14-26 points out that in fact, faith without works is dead. Faith works. We have heard stories in recent weeks of firefighters, police, doctors, search dogs and others, stories of common people. I heard on Sunday morning from a child of my home church who is now an aspiring actress in NYC working in the Twin Towers who tells of her exit from the Twin Towers. After the service, we stood together in the center aisle of my home congregation, she told me that in that time everyone was orderly. The greatest pride that New Yorkers are taking in themselves is that not one person was trampled. Now that may not sound like a big thing but they looked out for each other. She said, "As we came down the steps through the smoke in the stairwells making room for the firefighters to ascend as we were coming down, single file, people came out of the building", she said, "myself included." "We picked up the wounded along the way, even though it slowed us down." She claims that more than 20,000 people escaped because they stuck together in the midst of crisis. Faith works.
In Shanksville, a man in the village said to me, "For three weeks, we served over 250 meals, three times a day. Do you know that's more food than the people around here eat in 10 years?" And he added, "And it was our privilege and we had help from so many that the Lord sent to us."
Faith without works is dead. In fact, faith with works is alive. It is vibrant. Our Stewardship theme is "Faith in Action" and if there is anything I can say about the faith that works in First Church its that you like to act on that faith. I will be forever indebted to the young men and women who climbed up on roofs in over 100 degree heat and put roofing on homes in West Virginia of people they did not know. They worked on burn sites where the heat was intense trying to help make possible a better way of life this last summer. I look out and see faith in action when I see Dorothy Cromartie, 90 years young, going to Faith Mission whenever she has the chance to serve meals to those who have nothing. That is faith working.
Over 70 groups use our building. We put our faith into action just by offering the opportunity for others to be here for worship and service to this city. So the question is, thirdly, how do we take the faith that we put into action and live it for others?
I was very taken by the words of Rev. Dana Feoron from Lawrenceville, NJ, writing about how faith is lived from others. The third point, "In the midst of the tragedy," Dana says, "Jesus Christ came to walk over the chaos, the passengers of the plane that crashed in Shanksville knew they were going to die and they took a vote. A unanimous vote. And they rushed the terrorists to take the plane down before it could reach it's target. They did better than Peter did when Jesus told him that he too could walk through the chaos."
And Mrs. Tilton, the principal of the Shanksville/Stoney Creek Elementary School, as I stood in her office said, "They did more than save the White House." We looked out of her window, across the hill, the hill not the hills, half a mile away across the next ridge is where the plane crashed. It was headed in its direction and on its trajectory straight for the Shanksville/Stoney Creek school where children Kindergarten through Twelfth grade attend. Over 500 children, all of the children in that part of Somerset County. She said to me, "I've been told, just two seconds later that plane was on this building. They not only saved the White House, they saved all our children."
Faith lived for others. How are we living our faith in these days? I have seen so many of you live your faith for others and I am encouraged as I come to work each morning knowing the power of this congregation living it's faith for others, Wally lifted some of that up today. We do live our faith for others. And we are a testimony of faith to others as they greet us. Let us continue to do that.
I also learned that faith never gives up. Faith has a way of being unyielding in the face of fear and terror and life's challenges. Winston Churchill said, "Never give in -- never give up! Never, Never, Never, Never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force."
"For the true test of character is how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do."
The same could be said for faith. Faith compels us to not surrender our will to force; but rather to battle against all odds to overcome that.
I was mindful again as a firefighter told his story from NY of going back in to save his commander who was down. And he said, "Even under the rubble till the very last, I could hear the lieutenant say, you've got to save the others. Don't worry about me. He asked for a head count of how many in his battalion were down and he said, Go get them." And he said to his commander, "But I know where you are." And he said, "Then find them for you know not where they are."
Faith never gives up. Until his dying words on the cross, the one that we follow never gave up. He said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Faith never gives up.
Faith always looks forward. We have a wonderful plan called Forward in Faith. It's not called Backward in Faith, it's not called Sideways in Faith, it's not called Being Apologetic about Faith, or Being Tentative About Faith, it's called Forward in Faith and many of you have fully embraced the vision. You've given excellent leadership in this past nine months to such things as the Gladden Lecture Series, in mission, in education. You given leadership in assessing our Capital needs and Organizational needs, you've called an Associate Minister, you have funded the present and future mission of this church.
In the coming weeks, I will be lifting up and celebrating this forward looking ministry of this church and of all of you. Now is the time for all of us to take hold and move Forward in Faith. All of us, to step forward to be counted. Like Nehemiah of Old, don't just look at the devastation of Jerusalem or New York and say we have to look back, but rather look forward.
The button that my daughter took back (she only loaned it to me for two hours) said, "Remember, Rebuild, Resolve -- Shanksville/Stoney Creek School System." We must remember our past, we must rebuild in our present and we must resolve to be brilliant for the future. As we move Forward in Faith, we remember that you can only pay forward, you cannot pay back. You can only move forward.
And finally, as we do move forward, faith gives. Facing to the northwest in the hills of Pennsylvania looking over the ridge just half a mile from the school where Flight 93 crashed, there is on the building facing that direction these words from the children of the school there. The words say, "Our hearts are with you, Flight 93."
I've been told by the principal, that as family and children of the deceased on that flight come to Shanksville, school stops. They gather round those who've lost so much, they come down for assemblies to be with those who come to grieve. They are Angels of Mercy. They are giving faith in difficult times.
As Daniel, Sarah and I left Shanksville last Monday morning, 10 AM, exactly the time the plane crashed, we stood right by the site just a few hundred yards away on Skyline Drive where the crash happened. We were gathered with three townspeople. I was about to leave and I'd told them we'd made this journey to pray and I hadn't prayed. The children were running around, I'd given them too much sugar. There they were running around the site, I was trying to gather them to get back in the van, to go home and one of the men said, "You forgot to pray." Of course, I'd told them I was a pastor. It was bigger than big. Because of their faith, they pulled me into the circle of prayer and we lifted our prayers and petitions unto God. And I turned to them and I said, "For the last hour and a half I've been in your town. All I can say is, if I'd lost a loved one or a family member on Flight 93, I would thank God that it happened here. Because there are no finer people on the face of the earth than the people of Shanksville, PA. God Bless you All and God Bless America!"
They taught me that faith makes us well, that faith works, that faith is lived for others, that it never gives up, that it's always looking forward, that it's giving always. In the days ahead, I pray that God will continue to shape and sharpen the belovedness of this faith community, for it can be said of you, there are no finer people on the face of this earth than the people of First Congregational Church. So God bless you and God bless America.
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