Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Tim Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, September 8, 2002, Pentecost 16, dedicated to Tony Lee and Queenie Tsao on their baptismal day and to Amy, Luawanda, David, Laura, Peter, Jodie, Ron, Linda, and Carl on their day of joining first church and always to the glory of God!

"Into the Fire and Out of the Deluge"

Matthew 18:21-35

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

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My heart is filled by a mix of memories, pain and hope today.

It was, after all, a year ago this week, that together we witnessed the unfolding of one of the worst days known to American (and human) history. It was a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 and All but nineteen terrorists had awakened with thoughts of gratitude as we opened our eyes to skies of blue and clear air from the east coast to the heartland of America. But those nineteen men, in the name of Allah, (who has no desire to have anyone invoke his name, thus), hijacked and turned four passenger airline jets into weapons of destruction and machines of death in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the outskirts of a little town named Shanksville, PA.

By noon, every other passenger jet across the globe was grounded as the world watched in shock and horror as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a strip-mined Pennsylvania hillside burned all day and into the night. However, it was primarily New York City to which broken hearts, tear-filled eyes and enraged minds turned the most focus and attention. There, in the heart of Wall Street's business district, the whole world had witnessed the consuming fires and then total collapse of the twin towers. On that day, many of us discovered and other rekindled their beliefs that the men and women who serve our city's fire and police are not only our neighbors, but are our heroes as well. In our hearts, we knew no one in those buildings could have survived what we had seen, yet we hoped beyond hope that rescue workers would save broken lives. What we did not know then was that over 25,000 people escaped with their lives! What the news began to tell us was that close to 5,000 were missing or dead (now known to be 2800).

Poet, song-writer, and singer, Bruce Springsteen wrote the words and music for "Into the Fire" within hours of 9/11. Writing as if family of the firefighters, Bruce wrote: "The sky was falling and streaked with blood, I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust, Up the stairs into the fire, Up the stairs into the fire. I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire...May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love bring us love." ("Into the Fire,"second track from The Rising, released July 30,`02, Springsteen).

For those who have lived beyond the deluge, (which includes all of us!), I find hearts and minds pervaded by ultimate questions about life, death, meaning, purpose, and the presence (or absence) of God.

I certainly found that in Shanksville, PA., when one month after 9/11, Daniel, Sarah and I made a pilgrimage to the crash site while on our way back to Ohio from Philadelphia.

All signs of disaster were gone, except the roadside memorials which spotted the countryside. Two things stuck in my mind from that short visit, both related to the Principal of the K-12 area school who welcomed us into her office. First, she pointed out her window to the hills just beyond and said, "We have been told by the FAA that our school was on the flight path of Flight 93 as it hit the earth. Two seconds later, that plane would been over the ridge (to which she pointed) and on this building where over 800 children in this county go to school. I believe, more than ever before that God is present in this world. I feel it every time I look at our children here."

Then she told how family members had been coming to town to visit the sight where their beloved had been killed. She said, "when they come, all the children in the school, K-12, leave their classrooms and come down to the cafeteria to meet the families, to be with them, and sing for them. Caring for the families of Flight 93 is our reason for being here. And every teacher and child takes that mission seriously. We have had almost perfect attendance since September 11 because people come to school to care for others!"

In April, my family visited New York City. I felt we were walking on Holy Ground as we passed through two towers of light streaming into the night sky and walked to the platform in silence. There we witnessed the final stages of the World Trade Center clean-up operation. The hole in the earth was deep and broad and the feeling absolutely haunting as we beheld the emptiness beneath us. We stood in silence with people of many nations wondering what all of this meant. Truthfully? I have no simple answer.

However, I do know that I have dedicated my life and ministry to live and respond after September 11, 2001. I have dedicated my life to be better educated about the people with whom I occupy space on this planet. I believe each of us must all do all we can to enhance understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of other people. I believe we must work diligently for peace and justice. If at all possible, the people who wrought this disaster in the name of hatred and terror must be brought to justice. But, to open new battlefields of war and to decimate the holy innocents of other nations will not bring back our dead. Watching the death of other mother's children will not make our grieving whole. Of this, I am certain.

We, at First Church have a unique opportunity as we emerge from the deluge. It is not merely coincidence that we hold a special meeting to vote on the question of open and affirming today (although, believe me, masterful planning didn't bring it about!). We have an opportunity to make a very important statement representing our commitment and desire to reach out and welcome those in need of and searching for God's love - which already includes everyone in this room!

"We welcome and affirm all people" our open and affirming statement says. These words are radical in their unconditional power to express love and inclusion for others. And, the statement continues, not only will we welcome and affirm all people, but "we invite those who are seeking God's presence in their lives to join us on our common journey." In other words, we not only welcome them - we want them here with us! We want to journey in faith together!

We say, "Our faith community, seeks to unite persons of all ages, races, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, mental and physical abilities, socioeconomic levels, and political and theological backgrounds." This too is a way to say that "ALL" means "All" as stated in specific ways and with specific communities in mind. We are being intentional, not sloppy in our opening of heart and mind. This is a good thing! We love specifically and to open ourselves to others, we must be specific in our welcome! I can't tell you how many churches I have been to where "All are welcome," means all who are just like us are welcome. Beyond the deluge, this form of false advertising and conditional extension of love doesn't show, nor will it ever show, the spirit and love of Jesus Christ.

Our statement of welcome ends with an acknowledgment that we are and we will be diverse - in every imaginable way! But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will do what we have said we are going to do. In the words of the prophet, "We will do justice, love with tender-hearted kindness, and walk humbly with God."

On Wednesday, people will gather in hundreds of worship services in Columbus to commemorate the first anniversary of September 11. However, when speaking with The Columbus Dispatch Religion Reporters last week, I discovered that we are the only service in the metropolitan area which is intentionally drawing together people from many faith traditions. While thousands of people will draw into their own blessed communities for worship, we will be gathering leaders and people of Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish (Reformed and Conservative), and Christian traditions (of Protestant and Catholic backgrounds) to worship together here. It is my hope and prayer that this too reflects our clear intention to welcome and affirm all people. It certainly reflects my intention.

Near the end of his life, Dr. Washington Gladden, our Senior Minister for 36 years, wrote these words in the last pages of his book Recollections:

...Religion is nothing but friendship: friendship with God and (all people)... I have been thinking much about it in these last days, and I cannot make it mean anything else, so far as I can see, this is all there is to it. Religion is Friendship first with the great Companion, of whom Jesus told us, who is always nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and whose inspiration and help is the greatest fact of human experience. Then, turning from God to humanity, friendship sums it all up. ... If the church could accept this truth - Religion is Friendship - and build its own life upon it, and make it central and organic in all its teachings, should we not see a great revival of religion? (W. Gladden, Recollections, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 1909, pp. 429-430).

In friendship, with our Great Companion and with humanity, let us step forward in the convictions of our faith to extend our hands, our arms, and our hearts to all people. And may the strength, faith, hope and love of those, who in love and duty, laid their young bodies down - lead us - out of the fire, out of the deluge, and into future hope. Amen.

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