Sermon – September 11, 2016


You can read the scripture for September 11, 2016 here.


      Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

You remember the day. It was one of those beautiful September mornings when the sky was like something out of a storybook. I’d gotten to work earlier than usual for some reason and was sitting in my cubicle at the Middlesex County Department of Personnel, probably working on the prescription plan database that was always in need of updating. The quietness in the office was suddenly pierced through when my co-worker Connie, whose cubicle faced mine and we talked through a cut out in the wall separating us, flew into her work station and cried out, her voice breaking, “…a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!” That surreal uneasiness we’ve all come to know came over me like a wave and from that moment it felt almost like I was under water. Movement and thought were slowed, nearly to a halt, by utter disbelief.

I studiously avoided television coverage of the attacks, especially any images of the plane actually making contact with the World Trade Center. But I simply could not escape the ringing in my ears, imagined or otherwise, of screaming and sobbing, the deafening roar of concrete and steel collapsing – glass shattering. The days of smoke and dust refusing to settle. On the very day of the attacks, Connie and I went to the top floor of our office building in downtown New Brunswick and stood gazing through picture windows out into the distance, watching the thick streams of black smoke rising from the New York skyline. We cried together and prayed.

In the days that followed, my disbelief turned into a kind of wonder. On my morning drive from Metuchen to New Brunswick, Route 27 became more and more filled with cars sporting those American flags sticking up out of the rear windows. It was painfully ironic how frequently it was the drivers of cars so festooned who drove aggressively, swerving in and out of lanes, cutting people off. It seemed the attacks on 9/11 gave birth – or, rather, re-birth – to a particular brand of nationalism – one that was borne only partly of sorrow and grief. But as days became weeks and even months, it became harder and harder to recognize the grief and sorrow, because the spirit undergirding the movement had begun to turn hateful. A generalized national ethos rooted in an “us against them” thinking gathered so much energy that it seemed the car-flags whipping by on the roadways were emblematic of a deepening darkness.

It’s nothing new. Think of Pearl Harbor. And I remember being a kid in grammar school during the cold war and being trained to duck and cover. Our national culture is regularly steeped in “us against them” – from authentic national defense positioning to the ridiculous in entertainment. Remember “Rocky and Bullwinkle” versus Boris and Natasha? Reflections of who we are and how we think. Pick almost any time in our nation’s history and you can find any number of different forms of faction-making. There’s something in human nature – a tribalism, if you will – that tends to draw us, without even thinking too much about it, into camps of opposition.

And, at its worst, our tribalism makes for some pretty persistent fear-mongering and wrong-mindedness. I remember driving to work in the months after 9/11, recognizing the building wrong-minded hatred in American society and remarking to myself (and anyone who would listen) how sad it seemed that it takes a global excuse for hatred to bring the people of the United States together in a shared identity. What would it take, I wondered, for the entire world to come together in a unified identity? Attacks from extra-terrestrials? Then what? A unified solar system at war with another part of the galaxy? When would it end, this need for opposition as the thing that brings about unity?

Part of the us against them thinking, post-9/11, has been grounded in opposition to a different faith. This past week I found some new insights into how camps of opposition function around faith.

I happened upon an interview conducted by Judy Woodruff the other day. The man in the chair opposite her was Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America”. At first, I couldn’t help but imagine the book’s stark title to be an outgrowth of the kind of reactionary thinking arising from events like 9/11. But the more deeply I looked into the work of this man, and his scrupulous, fair-minded approach to the subject matter, the more I was able, without being inflamed in the least, to process the data. And what I’ve found only strengthens my conviction of a key factor, a key factor so pastorally and succinctly described by Katherine Jefferts-Schori, when she was denied full participation in the meeting of the Primates, she said, “…it’s always all about grief.”

Robert P. Jones is the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, an organization affiliated with the most highly regarded polling entities in this country. He, and his organization, are regularly referenced for their impartiality and cogent observations by The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His most recent book “The End of White Christian America” is less an indictment than a cool observation of changing demographics and some of the reasons why, as identified by things like commentary made by the very people being polled on a variety of subjects related to the role faith plays – or no longer plays – in American life.

In an interview in the Washington Post, Jones explains that membership in Christian churches long regarded as white bastions has sharply declined in the last several decades. Even the Southern Baptist convention, by far the largest Protestant denomination in the US, has experienced nine straight years of declining growth rates.

When the Institute’s surveys asked religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised religious why they left their childhood religion, respondents gave a variety of reasons: they stopped believing in the teachings, conflicts with science, lack of time, etc. But one issue stands out, particularly for young Americans. About 70% of millennials (age 18-33) believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. This factor, alongside the outrage experienced in the same demographic groups polled – outrage over the deaths of black men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to name just a few – make for a powerful temptation to make this philosophical shift – or, spiritual shift, really – directly linked to a politically progressive agenda, rather than just simply justice. Much of the purpose of Jones’ work is to assess the impact such shifts have on politics. He concludes, then, that “values” voters are on their way to becoming “nostalgia” voters, embracing what he calls, “a narrative of cultural loss” that clings to, “a sentimental vision of mid-century heartland America”. This would almost be benign if not for what Jones also describes as the nostalgic desire “to have their hands on more of the levers of political power than they do today”. The apocalyptic rhetoric resulting (you know, that the US is going to hell in a handbasket) is, at its source, fueled by the particular energies that are unleashed when a long-dominant group senses the looming end of its era. Seems like a strange blend of God and government – a blend that finds its basis in fear.

And while no part of the current reality necessarily precludes the possibility of a religious awakening in this country – just you wait and see if aliens attack! – there are, at present, no indicators whatsoever suggesting that the likes of a white Christian America will ever be a dominant cultural force again. And I feel very deeply that this is a good thing.

And there’s more. Part of the good news – the hope – is that many unaffiliated Americans still believe in God, even as they are happily unconnected to any church, and show little interest in seeking out institutionalized religion. This is an evolving and complex group, racially, culturally, in terms of age and depth of religious experience, which is also good. It’s good because relationship with God is a lot like democracy. Both, at their best, are centered on justice, mercy and joyful humility. Both can be very messy. Both are cumbersome and time intensive, but oh so worth it!

Deepak Chopra takes up the subject and expands upon it in his latest book, “The Future of God”. Like Jones, he observes that, for most Americans, religion is taken for granted as being ineffective – meaningless. It no longer represents, in the minds of millions, anything like a living connection with God. Unbelief continues to rise. And how could it not? Chopra talks of an unhealed rift that has been exposed between God and us. Too many catastrophes have eroded our trust in a benign, loving deity. Who can ponder 9/11 or the Holocaust and believe that God is love? Admittedly, that’s a longer discussion. But it seems we can’t deny that the majority of Americans claim to live with a nagging sense of doubt and insecurity. Any questions that arise about God in the face of world suffering have become so troublesome that we avoid even asking them. At no other time in history have so many felt that neither the questions nor God are important anymore.

Post-Enlightenment thinking – belief that is dependent upon empirical proof – has placed our society at “zero-point” – the nadir of faith – the point where “I put more faith in myself than I do in an external God”. This makes God either pointless or feeble – the prevailing attitude being that God may look upon our suffering and feel moved, or just as likely greet our suffering with a shrug. For God to have a future, we must escape “zero-point” and find a new way of living spiritually. We don’t need new religions, better scriptures or more inspiring testimonies of God’s greatness.

It’s about recognizing the difference between staying glued to the news cycle and doing our best to cope, and being consciously open to a reality that extends into higher dimensions. We can’t re-fashion a God who never existed for some, but we can repair what appears to be a broken connection for many.

When you ponder the kingdom of heaven as being within you, twinges of guilt about the ways it is not don’t help. Rather, deeper explorations regarding what it might take to make the statement true, serve to place you on a spiritual path that embraces curiosity in something as unbelievable as God, and God’s unrelenting desire for us. It’s the first step toward repairing a broken connection with God.

You see, we lose that connection whenever we:

· Fear divine punishment

· Reduce God to a set of “do’s” and don’ts”

· Defend God with anger and violence

· Hope to be so good God cannot help but love us

· Live as if God is secondary to the “real “ world

· Treat others as if God loves them less

These ingredients don’t just sour your relationship with God; they’d doom any relationship between you and another human being. Living in fear, using anger and violence, pretending love is a finite commodity – no positive relationship can grow under such conditions, even if it manages to limp along.

Our future with God has everything to do with our choice to recognize the great progression that can reconnect us with God.

I like to remember that Jesus knows us – he knows our changeable nature. It is part of the gift and curse that is our free will. It’s why he repeats himself so often in the gospels – he knows we’re backsliders by nature. And he remembers how in Genesis, God’s first question to the first humans is, “Where are you?” He knows that our connection with God can get broken in gigantic ways, like 9/11, and in myriad tiny ways in our individual day-today lives. The hope for us in God’s future may lie in the natural expansiveness of consciousness and a process that usually begins with our fears, then moves into an ego-centeredness. More expansion, then, brings us into increased awareness of our social order, which engenders empathy and understanding, leading to even greater self-discovery and a genuine desire to express compassion. Finally, we reach a place of “being” where our consciousness rests in a place beyond duality. No more us against them. Pure grace. Restored relationship with God. God, the place where the mind finds an answer beyond thought.

Do these reflections change the way our gospel lesson today resonates within you? Have you come down on one side or another in the question of how faith community might best function in our nation? Do the ways you may or may not have been pondering these notions make for a different kind of heart-centeredness when you think of the woman searching for the lost coin, or the Good Shepherd searching for the lost 1%? Are these parables about us finding something of value that we lost – perhaps it is our faith – or do they contain something even more important that actually has to do with the power in being found?

We’re called in this day and age to recognize that change is always happening and always has the potential to draw us closer to God – to bring greater beauty into our lives and into the world. But do we expend most of our spiritual energies lamenting change? Tending the altar of the good old days? How can we grow in the knowledge of God’s presence in our lives and, day by day, become more aware that we are not separate from each other? That we are not separate from God? This is what God clearly wishes for us.

We are not separate from each other. We are not separate from God.

How do you make those statements true for you?