Sunday, May 21, 2006

Leaves From the Notebook of a Survivor

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Acts 10: 34-43

Peter, we are expected to remember, denied Jesus three times. His sermon is ostensibly remembered here today. But there was another day in Peter’s life, too. Cowering in the corner, he watched Jesus die. Peter survived. Maybe this is why his sermon here begins with testimony: “I truly understand…”

The early church, we are able to recall, watched the destruction of Jerusalem from afar. They saw the temple destroyed in 70ad. Luke and the church survived. Is this what fuels the memory here of Galilee and Judea and even Jerusalem? “Beginning in Galilee…”

This text, Acts 10, we are stunned to see, displays a potential, universal salvation. Any and all who have lived well, and lived to tell the story--are accepted. The race survives. Fear God and do what is right: “anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

Yet there is more. What Jesus the Risen Christ brings is survival forgiveness. For those who survive often do so with a shadowy sense of guilt—irrational, unutterable, survivor’s guilt. Peter—forgiven in survival. Luke—forgiven in survival. All—forgiven in survival. We—forgiven our survival.

Peter survives, but he will carry with him always, as the Gospels testify, a memory, and a sense of guilt, about his darkest hour. The story of his life, and perhaps of ours, comes in leaves from the notebook of a survivor. Survivors’ guilt is a condition, that sense that ‘it could have, might have, should have been me’.

Peter raises a question for you about the greatest trauma you have personally have survived. You did survive. Good for you, you survivor, you. Now: have you had absolved the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost every survival?

Luke raises a question for you about the greatest trauma your generation has survived. Your generation did survive. Good for you, you survivor you. Now: have you all received absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost any survival?

Acts raises a question for you about the greatest trauma the human being has survived. Now: have you heard the word of absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends any survival?

You survived a car accident. You survived a war. You survived birth. Personal, generational, congenital survival. It is the Gospel that will empower you to survive your survival, too.

Yet there is more. What is the single greatest trauma recently endured by your beloved country?


Sometimes, Fosdick said, a sermon is a twenty five minute public session in pastoral counsel. We mean a place where two or more souls, in Rilke’s words, “protect, border and salute each other”. In God’s presence we may stand by one another, at the border of the soul. Not to avoid. Not to interfere. To honor.

On September 11, 2001 four airplanes were commandeered and employed as weapons in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. More than 2500 people died in hellish ways in the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and in an open field, as a consequence of this infamous assault. Parents lost children. Children lost mothers and fathers. Husbands lost wives, and wives husbands. This senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, a cruel and hate filled act inflicted upon defenseless citizens, was further exacerbated by the expressed celebration of American deaths by terrorists across the globe. Wives of New Jersey firefighters were forced to bury their loved ones against the background music of such choruses of joy. Parents of young, single women were caused to weep for their dead within earshot of the terrorist network’s bright eyed happiness. A generation of younger Americans was caused to carry into life lasting pictures of horror: a body, floating like a leaf, falling 100 stories…two young women, clasping hands in the fire of the 90th floor, and jumping hand in hand to their deaths…the greatest of human constructs in two giant towers rendered dust…a city paralyzed…a nation frightened…a culture permanently altered. Nineleven made us a people drenched in fear, anger, sorrow, and hatred. We have scarcely begun to absorb, to digest, or to reflect upon the experience.

Robert Pinsky has given us a poem. Rowan Williams has written a short book. The television produced a docudrama. Of late, the movie industry is stirring to life with a film or two. Newspaper articles, now and then, appear and are gone. A collection of sermons from that week has been printed. There are the remaining struggles over the memorial. But what about you? From the perspective of the pastoral theologian, we have hardly begun to reflect upon this tragedy. The time honored cadences of avoidance, denial, and repression are readily apparent to the pastoral eye and theological ear. This is a tragedy, too. In some ways this is the greater tragedy.

For since nineleven our theological hibernation—theological hibernation-- has allowed a series of actions that multiply the tragedy of the day into the tragedy of a lifetime. We have not sifted and settled our hearts about the horror of that day. In consequence, our national life has been subliminally formed and shaped by undigested angers, unreflective fears, impatient hatreds, and untamed sorrows.

How else, in retrospect, shall we explain the race to war without final evidence for its need? How else, in retrospect, shall we account for the abuses of power in military prisons? How else, in retrospect, do we understand a sudden celebration of victory when all the evidence pointed to its opposite? How else, in retrospect, do we think about a general election decided by votes garnered through the fear of, the specter of, gay marriage, of all things? How else, in retrospect, can we possibly explain the relative silence about casualties and collateral deaths, about maiming and civilian losses? It was our own suffering and survival of these very things that got us into the war in the first place. How else, in retrospect, can we fathom our neglect of our original motto, “meet violence with patient justice”? How else, in retrospect, shall we try to understand the fracture of freedoms hard won over two hundred and more years of American history?

On a more personal, local level, how else, in retrospect, do we analyze the conservative cast of our culture that affects every opportunity to change, every opportunity to grow, every responsible risk to take, every single investment in the future? What has become of us? Tell me: are you looser or tighter with your money since nineleven?

We have survived, when others did not. Can we say that out loud? We survived, when others died. Are we able to name that simple reality? Are we able to articulate and so escape the pervasive survivor’s guilt of this age?

There are undercurrents of healing. It is remarkable, for instance, that the new film about Johnny Cash, well attended, is built squarely on a plot about survivor’s guilt. Cash’s father said, when Cash’s brother died, “the wrong boy died”. And the singer spent a lifetime healing from his own survivor’s guilt. He survived. His brother did not. He did. He poured his talent and art into lament and atonement.

Here is a description of the effects of survivor’s guilt: “general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt.” (Borgess). That sounds like life as we know it.

With birth survival, deliverance and survival down the birth canal, must come a kind of congenital survivor’s guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breathe. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God. Nineleven rekindles it.

This is our condition. “Like the beating of the heart, it is always present.” (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. For Peter, Luke, and Acts: especially existential survivor’s guilt. For you, your generation, your race, and your culture—the same. “It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality.” (Tillich)

Fair or not, we lived. Survival--strangely--brings a kind of guilt, irrational and unjust and useless, that nonetheless needs healing and pardon. Today, in earshot of Acts 10, we announce absolution for your survivor’s guilt. Kyrie Eleison. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven the fact that we survived. This is the season of Easter! Live!

Peter survived and thrived. Your generation survived and thrived. Your mother’s child—YOU—survived and thrived. Our country can too. But we will need to do the things that make for peace, for healing. Here they are. Once forgiven, we are thawed, freed. Now we can move, and we had better move fast. THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF.

First, it is bloodily clear that we have in this world people who will kill without qualm, and on a grand scale. There will be the possibility of further terror. We need to do all that is patient and just militarily to resist such terror. In a responsive way. Together with other nations. Without interest in gain. With exit strategies as a first priority in every case. We face a mortal threat, and with integrity we must face it down.

Second, we need to be realistic about the scope of this threat, by comparison with other past threats. Joseph Ellis has given one example. His view may not be yours, but may provoke you to compose yours: My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic. Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility. Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic.

Third, we need to lament. Wail. Curse. Shout. Lament. Some of us will need to take time away from religion, until we can make sure our religion is real. Julie Nicholson, an English priest, lost her daughter to terrorists on July 7, 2005, in the London bombings. She had been ordained two years earlier. She resigned her pastorate. She could not reconcile her priestly duties with her refusal to forgive her daughter’s murderers. “I think forgiveness is a cheap grace. We have to be careful that we are not putting layer after layer on a deep and festering wound. I felt it after 9/11 and I feel it now. For a number of months, faith was more a hindrance than a help.” (New York Times, 5/6/06). The conscience of the believer is inviolable.

Fourth, we need honestly to assess what this does to our understanding of God. We need to think theologically about nineleven. God did not intervene on that day, nor is that the pattern of God’s participation in life. God must love freedom, says Bishop Tutu, because God leaves us free to go straight to hell if we so choose. Our understanding of God can not make space for a small, tribal divinity, even including some of our most cherished Christological affirmations. World religions are as close as the window on your cubical, as a plane approaches. It really matters—to you and your children---how 6 billion people think about God. It is a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell, right here on earth. We will need to become steadily and quickly adept at framing our faith posture in ways that accept, accommodate, and admire others. We shall need theologically, more than ever we have done in history, theologically to love our neighbor as our self. We shall need to be particular in our honest celebration of the faith of Jesus Christ without becoming exclusive to other genuine expressions of faith. Otherwise the kind of theological hatred of which we have our own personal and very local experiences will become the lingua franca of a death-prone world culture.

We want to build five theological bridges for every theological fence, five theological doors for every theological wall, five theological handshakes for every theological fist. We do not have to ‘win’. We do have to love. We shall need to love others as ourselves, by treating different theology as a new friend, not a certain opponent. When we feel the shackles of guilt falling away, we shall be able to summon the courage and energy to get on with the task at hand.

You can read one serious, hard book on world religions this year. You can find a way to offer gracious, unsolicited help to the poor, non-Christian world. You can develop a sensitivity to others, the other. You can see this post-modern world, with its fragmented face, not as a threat to be fought, but as an opportunity to be embraced. You can fund all this by tithing, and you can gain the power to tithe by selling your house and buying a smaller one, selling your car and buying a smaller one, limiting your purchases and leisure investments to a third of their current levels. It is only the unabsolved survivor’s guilt that keeps us from an heroic life. HERE THE GOOD NEWS: YOU ARE FORGIVEN FOR SURVIVING NINELEVEN. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. Now go and make your peace.

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

In the cross, we learn to die. In the resurrection, we learn to live.

Our spirit is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free
Our God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the heart of men before his judgment seat
O be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet
Our God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

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