El Sueño de la Fe – Sermon Preached on 9/11/2001

 

 

“El Sueño de la Fe”

 

Sermon by Britton Johnston 

Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church

Santa Fe, NM

September 11, 2001

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:3-5

The atrocities of September 11th caused me all the feelings that I might expect of such a horror: shock, disbelief, nausea, sadness, anger; but one feeling surprised me a little: it was the feeling of being reminded of how gloriously human beings can act in times of crisis. In Hollywood’s disaster movies, the crowd of people always acts irrationally and in a panic when the crisis comes; only the hero keeps a level head (and maybe his girlfriend). But this past Tuesday we saw what a lie that is. Weren’t you surprised, as I was, by the courage of the passengers on the hijacked planes who called their families to say goodbye? By flight attendants who phoned in security information, and who, with passengers, resisted the hijackers? Who wouldn’t be awestruck by the courage of rescue workers who ran into a burning skyscraper, not knowing if it was about to collapse on them? I was inspired by the workers in the World Trade Center who made their way down fifty, sixty, or a hundred flights of steps calmly, rationally, and orderly, saving themselves and helping coworkers to do the same. Such courage is a gift from God; such people are worthy of emulation.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be overthrown; God shall help it at the break of day. The nations make much ado, and the realms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things God has done on earth. It is the Lord who makes war to cease in all the world, who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. “Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

— Psalm 46

All around our nation people are saying, “They tried to break our spirit, to make us run in fear. They thought they could make us panic. They were wrong.” This is of course deeply true. For those who cling to the assurance offered in Psalm 46, surely it will be true. Yet there is another danger to our spirits, other than fear and panic, and that is vengeance. I’m gratified to hear so many voices calling for moderation in our response — calling for a response that, though it may be violent, will not be aimed at revenge, but at establishing order.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’— do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

— Mark 13:1-8, 21-22, 29, 37

The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, as Jesus predicted; but the destruction was not a bolt from heaven; the temple was destroyed by a violent, oppressor empire. The temple wasn’t just any old building. It was the center of Israelite culture; it was the sign of God’s favor, and to the people of Israel it was almost a guarantee that God would exalt them above the nations. Its destruction created a cultural crisis. When the central symbol of a people is lost, a certain kind of madness ensues. People become confused, violent, seeking scapegoats. The challenge to Jesus’ disciples in those days was not to fall under the spell of the madness of a nation in crisis.

The challenge to “keep awake,” that is, to remain faithful to God’s truth in such times is particularly difficult because when everybody goes mad, madness is what seems like common sense. Craziness seems like what is normal, sane. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled If which includes the lines: “If you can keep your head/when all around you are losing theirs/and blaming it on you/….then you’ll be a man, my son.” This is much like what Jesus tells his disciples in a time of cultural crisis. Jesus tells us to “keep to the faith of the Prince of Peace when all around us are demanding blood and attacking us when we don’t go along with them.” False messiahs and false prophets, promising redemption through violence, will appear and produce signs and omens, “to lead astray, if possible, the elect.”

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” As a nation, we had the same kind of confidence that Israel had. Our confidence in the security of our nation, based on geography (protected by two large oceans on either side of us), and based on our global economic and military power. Now all three of these symbols of our security have been breached or destroyed. The oceans crossed, the military headquarters devastated, the preeminent symbol of our world economic power – the “World Trade Center” – thrown down.

We have been in a developing cultural crisis for decades now, as the differences between things and people have been steadily eroding. For one thing, warfare isn’t the same. It used to be that you knew who the enemy was, and where he was. He was the guy on the other side of the front with the different uniform on. But by the time of the war in Vietnam, things were changing. Was that villager just a farmer, or a guerrilla leader? Was that little girl bringing us something to eat, or carrying a hand grenade? Was the enemy in front of us or coming out of a tunnel behind us? Now we’re in a war with terrorists, who are spread out over an international network. How do we even find them, let alone fight them?

But the cultural crisis extends far beyond warfare. The 70’s comedy group “Firesign Theater” once produced an album entitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” We are beginning to wonder: what, after all, is the real difference between male and female? Is there really such a thing as “race,” apart from a cultural convention? If our nation is really the great force for liberation that we always thought we were, why are we so widely regarded as an oppressor? When people begin to feel like “everything you know is wrong,” a certain madness takes over, with a tendency towards violence.

It does no good, in such times, to depend on rationality to get us through the craziness. The painter Francisco Goya drew a cartoon in the early 1800’s, depicting a scholar sleeping with his head on his book, atop his desk. Owls and frogs and bats are flying out of his head. The caption reads, “El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos.” (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). Did he mean that we must be vigilant to be sure that we never let our reason slacken, for fear of the madness that results? Or did he mean, as I think Jesus means to tell us, that “reason” by itself, without faith, is a kind of nightmare. When everyone around you is “losing their head” and crying out for blood, then madness seems completely rational. Without faith, reason becomes a nightmare. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Already we see too many people raising their voices and claiming that the murderous acts of September 11th lend reasonableness to their point of view. No doubt you have seen the video images of a small group of Palestinians dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, crying “God is Great.” (This by the way seems not to be the response of the majority of Palestinians); certain Israelis are claiming that now the United States must get behind Israel’s anti-terrorist repression (as if we weren’t already); George Bush, Colin Powell and a majority of the American public now feel vindicated in their desire to make war – many people are saying that we must get revenge, even if innocent people are killed in the process. On Christian TV, I heard religious conservatives claiming vindication, saying these deaths were God’s punishment for our nation’s sexual immorality and abortion. I even saw one article by an anthropologist claiming that this atrocity vindicated his economic theories! Using the death of thousands of people to score rhetorical points is just as disgusting as making jokes about it. Instead of arguing, we should be repenting.

The only point of view that is not vindicated by the violence of September 11th is the one that urges us not to return evil for evil (it doesn’t seem “rational”). It is precisely because nonviolence does not seem to be vindicated by this violence, that nonviolence is the most faithful course for our nation. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 8:8). When our media, military and government leaders are crying “follow me and we’ll get revenge”; when the nation is calling for violence in response to the madness of this atrocity (“False messiahs and false prophets will appear”), what does it mean to “keep awake?”

It means to call for mercy. It means to hear the cries of the injured, and to bind up their wounds. It means to care for victims, and not to create more victims. If we can be peacemakers in such a time, then, truly:

“….you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”

One Response to “El Sueño de la Fe – Sermon Preached on 9/11/2001”


  1. If only this voice in the wilderness was a more audible part of our national narrative


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