Asbury First United
Text: Exodus 14,
The view from Ellis Island is your best perspective on 9/11. That is, the joyful memory of past deliverance gives the power to withstand current confinement. True for Moses, for Paul, for you, for all. It is the view from Ellis Island that saves after 9/11.
About 15 years ago, when the Carousel Mall was still new, a religious temple built, and now being rebuilt, for the gods of getting and spending and laying waste of powers, 400 people gathered in the Mall’s top floor room, to enjoy breakfast, the view, and the featured speaker, Mario Cuomo. He began with light banter, wondering how in the midst of state recession the local developers had found the capital to build, and teasing them about ‘looking into it’. He told about meeting President Reagan for the first time. As he crossed the room to be introduced the jolly President said, ‘You have no need to introduce this man. I would know him anywhere. A great American, leader, and Italian American. I am proud to greet Lee Iacocca at any time’. He spoke knowingly about the needs of central New York, but also had to spend time acknowledging the shortcomings that soon would bring his defeat. He began at 8:20 and I did not look at my watch until 9:15. I believe it is the most powerful public oration I have personally heard, and it was delivered without a single note. As George Eliot might have said: “ingenious, pithy and delivered without book”.
He concluded by talking, as he had in 1984, about Two Cities, one set on a hill, and one set far below. Two Countries, one rich and one poor. Two Nations, one for the many well to do, and one for all the others—the poor, the frail, the elderly, the disinherited, the minority. Two Realities, as different as night and day. After Katrina, his words sound very contemporary. You can hear his voice in the magic of the internet, 21 years later: Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn't understand that fear. He said, "Why, this country is a shining city on a hill." And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill. But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city.
It was a striking kind of sermon to deliver, at the height of economic wellbeing in that part of the state, a sort of Robin Hood homily for the Sheriffs of Nottingham in the Carousel Mall. I only cried once, at the end, when he talked about his mother coming to this world across Ellis Island. “The young Italian woman and her small child stepped on U. S. soil for the first time at Ellis Island in New York harbor. The immigration official got her vital statistics and then asked her, “How much money do you have? “None,” she said, “Maybe a few dollars.” “How much education do you have?” “Not much,” she answered. “What skills do you have for employment?” "None,” she replied. “What does your husband do?” “He works in New Jersey in the trenches,” she said. “You mean he is a ditch digger?" he clarified. “Yes,” she replied. The official asked, “You are telling me that you have come to America, with no money, no education, no marketable skills, with a small son and a husband who is a ditch digger?” “What were you thinking?” “I was thinking that my son will grow up here and be the Governor of New York State,” said Mario Cuomo’s mother.”
That is the dream of Ellis Island, the spirit that made this state and country so great. That is the remembrance of our common faith, our confidence in a future, still as open and as terrifying as it was for a poor Italian woman, looking out at Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. That is also, and very much so, the heart of Exodus 14 and Philippians 1, the cry of the heart for deliverance from tyranny. The place from which to view 9/11 is Ellis Island. The way to think about the tragic horror of the Twin Towers and the other unspeakable hurts of that day is by the faith of Jesus Christ, the Son of the same God who fought for the slaves of Egypt, and prevailed, the Son of the same God who broke the spiritual shackles of Paul of Tarsus, and prevailed. This is your faith. For at our best, this country has been the last best hope, a city set on a hill, a place of liberty and justice, not only for some, nor even just for most. And those who know what they have received, by the power of God, and the expanding circle of freedom that is the meaning of Jesus Christ, can see things clearly-- from Ellis Island. That is the great insight of our best history, sung by Emma Lazarus—keep all the fine things and people, give us the poor, and little faith, and see what we can do!
It helps to have a reminder of our faith, from the life and voice of someone, like Cuomo, who has known height and depth, poverty and wealth, how to be abased and how to abound. The sociologists call such an one ‘status inconsistent’. Many early Christians, the first readers and writers of our New Testament, were ‘status inconsistent’, too.
That is, beloved, to get to the far side of terror, to get past 9/11, and all manner of similar tragedy, we truly will need, together, to rely on the faith of Christ, and to take the long view, and to take the view of deliverance, as did the slaves in Egypt, as did Paul in prison, and has have you, when the chips were down. The joyful memory of past deliverance is the key to withstanding current confinement.
Our passage from Exodus is the most important one in the Old Testament. It is so significant that it gets quoted in Joshua, rehearsed in Isaiah, remembered in Jeremiah, explored in the Psalms, and recited every Passover in the Seder meal. It is the basic frame on which the wonders and words of Jesus were understood in early Christianity. It is bedrock, hallmark, heart, core. The main thing. The one thing.
So it is somewhat surprising that surveys show that many do not know much about Moses, or the story just read of Moses, great Moses, leading his slave sisters and brothers in a great fleeing from Pharaoh.
Moses, as the story goes, hidden in the bulrushes, to be spared persecution, and was found and raised by the daughter of the great Pharaoh. That is about as ‘status inconsistent’ as it gets: an Israelite slave given the palace for his home. As a young man, worked in Midian to shepherd for his father in law, killed an Egyptian who opposed him, and suffered mightily the shame and hurt of his people. Moses rose up as a liberating leader of his people, and eventually led them out of bondage.
Up to the Red Sea they came, and the waters parted for them, returning to clog the wheels of the chariots of Empire. A paradigmatic power, not a naturalistic one, says Brueggemann, and he is right enough. God is not a meteorological manager, but meets us as the power of freedom scraping its way home in life. The memory of the Red Sea, now largely conceded to lie beyond any historical tracing, is the paradigm of our faith. God brings good out of evil. God sends grace to overabound sin. God opts for the poor. God makes a way when all you see is a wall of water. Are we not in a week when we can hear that? God is at work in the world, powerfully, to make and keep human life human, and your hands are doing that work. Out went the Israelites to the wilderness of Sinai, and down came the water that clogged Pharaoh’s chariot wheels.
The chariot wheels of Empire sometimes do get stuck the mud. The chariot wheels of order and rank sometimes do find themselves mucked up. The chariot wheels of great governments sometimes do find themselves halted and stymied. Then you need leaders who are not horsemen but chariot experts. And then Pharaoh and Empire are made to face what otherwise could stay in the shadows. That we forget the poor to our own damnation. By apocalypse, this past week, the central lesson of the Bible—real religion is never very far from justice—by apocalypse we have had to face this again. You do not break the commandments, especially 1, 3, 6, and 8 with impunity. You are broken by them. We thought somehow that our neglect of the lower 15% would go unnoticed in the universe.
Have you taught your children to remember the commandments? (Here, recited). Life, over time, will teach them, but experience is such a harsh teacher. There are so many things it is better not to have to learn from experience.
We may want simply to recall the basic contours of the Christian life: Praise God in private and public by daily prayer and weekly public worship; Be faithful in deed and speech to your partners and spouses; Give away a tenth of what you earn each year. Worship God, Keep Faith, Tithe. This is what it means, at a basic level, to begin the Christian life.
We have learned 9 to 11 religious lessons for and from 9/11:
• Religion matters
• Real religion is never very far from justice
• Religious perspective about heaven matters greatly
• We are woefully under prepared to think about world religions
• Religion involves hatreds as well as loves
• Religion, good religion, deserves our best dollars and hours
• Religion needs our best attention
• The great visions of religious perspectives, the utopian horizons, need to fuel our imaginations
• All of life is religious—even anti-religious postures and perspectives are fully, even sharply, religious
• We are not viewed with esteem from all the corners of the globe
• We face, across the globe, a violent, angry enemy, whose designs will not be resisted merely by the singing of hymns.
The children of Israel remembered, as they composed these verses during the later captivity in Babylon, that the joy memory of past deliverance brings power to resist present confinement.
Another status inconsistent soul greets us from behind bars, this morning. He too, in a time of terror, would have us meet the morning with joy. He is now somewhere near the end of his life. Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans are in the rear view mirror. His imprisonment—could it have been something he said?—is for the sake of the good news, says he. Remember where he is…
The slammer, the joint, the tank, the hoosegow, the calaboose, prison, jail, the big house, up the river, in stir, doing time. There is a reason that Matthew 25 marks this condition alongside hunger, nakedness, loneliness, and sickness. The great prisoners, Socrates, Paul, King, Sadat, find a loosening of their mental shackles even in the grey bar hotel.
It is the imagination that most needs loosening, when one is caught in prison. And the imagination is everything for the future. After 9/11, we determined upon a military course, one part of which has our chariot wheels mired in Iraq. Our action was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, and in those measures stood alone, across our long history, in overt contradiction of inherited just war theory. Now the question is whether, as a people, we can summon the imaginative power to free up a shackled situation. Can we not wonder together, and imagine together, a shared resolution?
One alternative would be to return to these same temporarily jettisoned principles, and find our way back home through them. To foreswear any future preemption: to say clearly and repeatedly that we are not in the business as a people of attacking others who have not attacked us or others. To actively engage a multiplicity of nations and organizations of nations: to recognize that for all the layers of inertia, the UN—which is both Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjold—or something very like it is a necessary tool. To forcefully eschew any advantage of natural resource, even in a time of shortage: our hands must be clean of oil. To set a clear time line: go in, finish, get out, soon. The just war arguments have proven, tragically, to be the stronger. Perhaps, together, across the older divisions of whether we should have or shouldn’t have gone, we may find our way home by observance of these centuries old principles. I believe we can. But I also believe we have about a year left, at most, to do so.
The phrase translated so weakly here, ‘your sharing in the gospel’, is one of my favorites in all of scripture. The RSV had it somewhat better, “the partnership of the Gospel”, but the original is best, the koinonia of the gospel—the mutuality, conviviality, priceless and freeing community of the Gospel! My brother minister, Ken McMillan, used the phrase to define his whole ministry—the partnership of the Gospel. Ken gave me the proverb, Plan for the worst; hope for the best; then do your most; leave all the rest! He gave the best succinct advice for happiness in ministry: care for your family first; preach with all you have; spare nothing in visitation—hospital, officey, home. He gave us a great family, from Los Angeles, Doug and Carol Major. But mostly he gave the light of this verse.
Paul sits in prison. His deliverance is another view from Ellis Island. He remembers the joy of past liberation, the freeing kindness of his Philippians, and he finds a way forward.
Our forebears in faith donned their faith in struggle. We all have our ‘status inconsistencies’. You have too. You may want, this special Sunday, when we remember a time of terror, to recall one of those points in life where faith did see you through. Not your own belief, but faith, the faithful love of Christ Jesus. Faith finally is personal. It is worked out, in blood, and in fear and trembling. To be yours it must be yours. That is why the document soon to appear which records the dozen lay witnesses from this summer is so central to our life together.
Our one city, New York, harbors crystal treasures, from the Cloisters, to Harlem and its new Dinosaur Barbeque, to Central Park—the mother of all village greens, to Little Italy and Wall Street and Battery Park. Your children need to see the inside of the United Nations. They should ride the elevator of the Empire State Building. They should walk Fifth Avenue, and eat a pretzel. In the writing of this sermon, there were barely reigns enough to keep the multiple horses of memory from stampeding all over the remains of the message. It is too much. We owe debts of spiritual gratitude to Reinhold Niebuhr for wrestling down Harry F. Ward, to Abraham Heschel for exalting Amos, to William Sloane Coffin for fighting off fundamentalism, to Paul Tillich for love of culture. New Yorkers all.
A humbler, darkened spot will forever, however, hold most power in our life. In our second year of marriage, the last year of seminary, and Jan was with child, we learned a little about deliverance. I was employed as a night watchman on 122 St, the requirements for the job, ideal for study, being height, weight and an unpleasant disposition. One late night Jan called in terrific pain. Something was wrong. We took a cab to St. Luke’s on 112 and Amsterdam. The doctor said to me, memorably, “I do not know how bad this is, whether she will make it, and especially whether the child (then 18 weeks or so) will either. Call your family”. That night my theological education began, in truth. The whole range of study and life took on a completely different hue. Alone, early in the morning, I found myself in a humble, dark spot, a pew in the back of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I prayed, if you can call it that. My mother in law came and made residence for a week. My classmates appeared, to me, to be on a different planet, and so, as well, for my teachers, with one exception. Gradually the hours passed, and more gradually deliverance came. The cyst was removed. Mother and child survived. Mother in law and son in law survived each other. We lived to another day, a different day. A quick move to an open, small church in Ithaca. Departure from a great city, a plan of further study, a range of some freedoms. Suddenly, all of the waves of responsibility—spouse, parent, pastor, neighbor—splashed ashore. And we made it out alive. This, too, is the view from Ellis Island, the long look forward into freedom following deliverance. The far side of terror. The new creation. New York, city of freedom for those in need, means for me a wife and daughter, a wife saved and a daughter given.
And in that sliver, as your experience also teaches, we know Moses, we know Paul, and we know the freedom for which Christ has set us free. There is something else in the remembered dawn light streaming through the windows of St. John the Divine. A sense, a confidence, that however the medical situation had concluded, somehow, someway, God would see us through.
The place from which to view 9/11 is Ellis Island. You, people of faith, take your stand on the shores of deliverance, on the coast line of liberty, along the moving tide of freedom, in the great surf of salvation. Emma Lazarus’s poem, in full, is your song. Sing it.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; >br>Her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp”, cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door