“God is in the Gallows; God is in the Rubble”

Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)

The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

 

On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?

We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.

It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”

By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.

Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?

I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?

But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?

And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.

Praise be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter’s Present: Hope Springs Eternal

He is risen!

Hallelujah!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

I’m not one to put more emphasis on one aspect of the liturgical calendar over and against another aspect. I know the importance of holding in tandem all the events of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though I do hold these events in tandem, each one solicits from me a different response. Christmas brings with it anticipation and expectation: the baby has been born, the great rescue plan is under way! Christ’s life solidifies that I can have that expectation and anticipation; he is the perfect one, his is the same mission pursuit as the One who sent him: to seek and save the lost, to heal up the brokenhearted, to set right what was wrong, to defend the defenseless (to mention a few). Good Friday thrusts me in to solemnity that leads to my own death as I witness Christ’s death because he so loved the world that he couldn’t leave the cries of the burdened and oppressed go unheard. Easter is the brilliant light in the darkness; Christ’s resurrection draws from me a deep sigh of relief: my hope finds its grounding and fulfillment. The ascension reminds me: God is with me, God is working in the world, perpetually making things and people new and overhauling the dead.

As a rational and logical person I hold these events of Christ’s activity toward and on behalf of the world in tandem, but as someone who has suffered violence at the hands and words of other humans, Easter pulls strongest: hope springs eternal.

As a sufferer, I need to be called out of myself in the midst of my suffering, I need to be called to look not down at myself (turned/turning inward) but up at Jesus, raise my face to see this very God who is merciful and unyielding in His love; who, by the life of His one and only Son, through the event of the incarnation and the cross, has declared “it will not always be so.” Darkness, depression, sorrow, suffering, grief, loss, and pain have been given their verdict: no; and we have been given ours: yes.

Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead and has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that it is not the final word, and that He has conquered it. Suffering draws us to this God who is not far off when we are at our worst, ugliest, decrepit, sick, infirm, maimed, even when we are angry at Him about our own suffering or the suffering of those close to us.

Suffering draws us to this God who has come close and breathes into our breathless lungs—lungs carried in bodies exhausted from the battle, pelted by the hail-storms of pain and loss, bones made brittle by unfulfilled pleas and petitions. It is this God who breathes into our lungs and re-creates us from the dead, gives us real and true life and new hearts, who causes us to love him and to love others and uses all those things intended for evil for good. Even in suffering, the Light cannot be overcome by darkness.

This is Easter: hope. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is our hope. Hope that is so vibrant and fertile that it is the sole reason so many of us who have suffered incredible pain still walk this very earth. Our hope is historical, it is current, and it turns our faces toward the future because the promises of God have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled. The resurrection of Christ is the event that reverberates through the halls of time; it is the voice that echoes: “hold-fast; I am.”

The event of the resurrection of Christ gives the broken-down, the oppressed, the suffering, the down-trodden future hope that (in it’s most amazing and beautiful way) reaches back to the now and gives it life, life abundant. Future oriented hope in resurrection makes this current life vibrant technicolor rather than drab monochrome. We can walk through this life with our scars, because a new body, a new life waits, one free from the muscle memory of pain and fear. We can bear the pain of loss and sorrow deep in our bones and carry on in life because the future hope of resurrection and reunion reorients our gaze upward toward the one who defeated death once and for all. We can fight for and free the oppressed because our future oriented hope gives us the audacity and freedom to do so in the here and now, to live into thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Hear ye, beloved, these comfortable words:

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken” (Is. 25:8).

And the Lord GOD has,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15)

Today, Easter, hope springs eternal because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hallelujah!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!