Special Program: Out of the Ashes...Hope

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Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Of all the questions that have exploded into our lives since Tuesday, September 11, two questions linger in the air like the deadly dust over the Manhattan skyline. We have certainly asked many questions, and we have been asked still more.

But two questions are still thick with us. Why does this evil occur? And, secondly, should we go to war?

For those in this community and across the world who have lost family and friends and colleagues--and there are many of us in that category--the first question comes from our gut, the result of four punches that we will be feeling for years. Why does this happen? Why does this happen to innocent people? Why?

We ask it of one another, and we ask it, ultimately, of God. Why do bad things happen to good people? The best of our religious faith traditions answer the question with mystery and frightening awe. The Book of Job is in the Bible because we know that suffering exists in this world without explanation or justification. Evil does exist, and innocent victims fall to it.

Our Christianity answers the question not with a rational defense, but with the cross of Jesus Christ. We gather each week before a cross, a cross which stands for both suffering and victory; it stands for both death and life. Jesus, the ultimate innocent victim, gathered into himself all the suffering and death of the world. God suffered in Jesus Christ. God wept in Jesus Christ, just as God has wept this week. God has wept with us, and with the world.

When Jesus died, however, he put death to death. In that eternal moment, our death is swallowed up in his. Therefore, when he rose again, we also rise again. The cross of Jesus Christ is our answer to the question: Why is there evil in the world? This answer does not do away with evil, but it proclaims to us that evil is not the last word. Life is the last word.

Second question: Should we go to war? Should we then go to war for the sake of the good, for the sake of justice, for the sake of life?

It is hard to speak of war in the sacred space of a Cathedral. I do not speak of war lightly. But I speak of it because it is already begun, begun in the world around us and begun in our own hearts. But please listen. I do not speak merely of physical war; I speak of a much more powerful spiritual war, just as Jesus speaks of a peace that does not come from this world.

Some say the physical war began ten years ago, with the bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Many say that war has certainly begun with these terrorist hijackings and attacks. They have a legitimate argument. Our peace and good will have been shattered; innocent lives have been lost violently and horribly.

So when someone asked me that week if I thought we should go to war, I realized with a stab in my heart, that I am already at war.

I am already at a war in myself, struggling between violent revenge and peace, struggling between hate and love. I am at war myself, trying to calculate the moral right after this ugly attack of evil.

This is a war, then, that exists first in our own souls. Each of us has known some kind of loss before -- certainly not the kind of loss we saw on that Tuesday -- but each of us has known loss. Remember the various responses we have had to loss and tragedy. Sometimes we have become depressed and lifeless. Sometimes we have struck back in anger and rage, responding to violence with violence. And sometimes we have found a third way.

So it is now that a moral struggle is occurring in our individual souls, and in the soul of our nation. What should be our righteous response? Do we drop bombs on innocent civilians somewhere? Do we single out one man, wicked as he may be, and lay all the blame on him?

Obviously, neither of those actions will win the spiritual battle which we joined the week of September 11. Yes, it is a spiritual battle that exploded into the open that week, and it is a battle that must be won on spiritual grounds.

These are the grounds of moral good, justice, and peace. A moral war must be won by moral means. It may be that many of us have forgotten, or never learned, to think this way. It may be that churches and communities of faith have fallen out of practice.

But we are sure practicing now.

On the Friday of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, the Cathedral of St. Philip witnessed one of the most powerful outpourings of faith, hope, tears, and prayers in its history. Over fifteen hundred people gathered there, and in the narthex and the adjoining parish hall, for prayer and remembrance. We sang the national anthem. We prayed. We broke bread together.

As people streamed out of the church, a man came up to me, crying like most folks. He fell on me and hugged me, and he said, "I am sorry, I am so sorry I haven't been to church." Other folks are probably saying the same thing, "I'm sorry I haven't been to temple, or synagogue, or mosque." But they were in those sacred places on that Friday.

There is a new awakening occurring. Evil had its way on September 11, but a new Great Awakening is rising. Out of those deadly ashes a new Phoenix of life is rising. Slowly and surely, a grand body of faith is growing. And it will grow higher even than the World Trade Center.

And this body's base of operations will be the communities of faith across the world. Throughout history, God has been in the business of redeeming evil, of making whole that which is broken, of bringing life out of death. That is the business of communities of faith today.

This century does bring us a different kind of war. It is not territory or land that is in dispute. There seems to be no self-declared and easily identifiable enemy. It will be a war, too, about what religion is. Is religion an engine of violence in the world, or is religion an angel of peace?

The world needs religion to stand for peace. God needs religion to stand for peace.

Again, this is not a war of Christianity versus Islam. It is a war within Islam, and within Christianity, and within every religious system. It is a war against violence or extreme absolutism or fanaticism in any religion.

A battle against invisible and violent terrorism cannot be won simply by violent means. The way to overcome terrorism and evil in the world is to infiltrate those systems with the moral good and with peace. Against the virus of violence, infect the world with the breath of the good, the breath of the Spirit.

It is, unfortunately, not a battle that can be won overnight. It cannot be won with one major explosion. It is a long campaign, where little by little the right decisions are made, and where each small action is taken for the universal good. We pray for President Bush and his cabinet that they make those right decisions day by day, that they take each action for the universal good.

Our campaign will be like raising a child. One statement, one victory, one event does not determine the final result. It is rather a pattern of the good, a habit of the moral right, which shapes our future together.

This habit of peace and truth means that we need, daily, the whole armor of God, as the Epistle to the Ephesians has said: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that prepare us to preach the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit. This is the equipment that will bring us peace, a peace of Jesus that does not come from this world.

Look at the images from across the world in the days after September 11. People across this world have been incredibly magnificent in their use of truth, peace, righteousness, and faith. Lines of people waiting to give blood have been up to eight hours long. All sorts of volunteers yearned to be moving the rubble of the World Trade Centers. Parents were hugging their children like they never had before. Indeed, the world has changed. A grand new body of faith, a great awakening is occurring.

And not just in the United States have the responses been magnificent. Our Canadian neighbors raised their voices. At St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the United States national anthem was sung for the first time ever. Across Europe, citizens observed a three-minute silence; motorists stopped their cars along the Netherlands expressways and they stood still. School children in Bhopal, India--yes, the same Bhopal of tragedy years ago--school children lit candles for peace. Palestinian children in Hebron lit candles. In Belfast, Ireland, thousands gathered in the public square. In Nairobi, people prayed.

A great awakening is occurring. Out of the horrific images of September 11, God is producing fresh images of hope and courage, beginning with rescue workers and medical personnel, and now spreading around the world. God is redeeming evil, God is bringing life out of death, just as God did in Jesus Christ, and just as God always does.

It does matter what religions believe in this day. It does matter what we believe. We dare to believe that the one God of the world is a God who brings life out of death; he is not a God of death. That is the truth that brings peace and righteousness, faith and hope to the world. We now are to be the givers of that life; we will need one another to do it.

There are ashes this day, ashes of death, and ashes of grief. There is sadness and deep pain. Evil has struck. There is war. But from these ashes, from this death and destruction, God is raising up new life and hope in us, and in communities of faith across the world.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

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