9/11

It was my Senior year of high school. Stockholm, Sweden, where I was an exchange student. One of my classmates invited me to his family’s Friday night dinner. When I told my host parents what I was planning, they became very upset and tried to talk me out of going. . . . It was the first time that I had personally seen the ugly face of anti-Semitism. I was told, “His people killed Jesus.” My classmate’s sin: he was Jewish.

And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Fast-forward a year to my first year in college. My roommate was Henry Marshall, an African-American. First week there, I was approached by a group of upper classmen whose self-appointed task was to haze freshmen. They wanted me to assist them by luring Henry down to the football stadium late at night where – just as a joke – they would jump out of the dark wearing pointed white hoods. I refused. So they came into our dorm room late one night, threatened me, grabbed Henry, took him down behind the stadium and beat him. Several other beatings were recorded on campus that fall. All were people of color. Their sin? They didn’t look like us.

And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, describes the work of a downtown priest and pastor in this way: “I carry the keys to unlock and open the church doors so that the stranger passing by may enter. I preach the word of God so that those who listen may know the good news of God’s justice, love, and mercy for all creation. I stand at God’s table and make Christ known in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine so that God’s hungry people may be fed. And I pronounce God’s blessing upon those who seek it so that they may experience the gift of God’s creative love.”

“It would be very easy to exclude people: to make some people feel welcome and others not, to feed some and turn others away, to bless some and curse others. Like any human being charged with such a daunting task and awesome responsibility, I run that risk each and every day.”

“Whenever I am tempted to lock up God’s house, to gate God’s table, or to refuse God’s blessing, I am confronted with the question.” (Interrupted by God, p. 15)

It is the question raised by by Jesus whenever he encountered the temptation to bar the door and say . . . we have enough in here already. For Jesus is always saying to those who will listen . . . but there’s at least one more out there who’s still lost . . . one more sheep . . . one more pearl . . . one more precious one who’s not yet seated at the table and eating the food of the kingdom.

And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Barbara Grafton, a New York priest, tells this story:

It is some years ago now: a Friday afternoon, busy as usual, full of the interruptions that form the major part of a parish priest’s life — our parishes pay us to be interrupted, my friend Philip says, and I think he may have something there. The phone rang and it was for “the pastor” — someone I didn’t know, and probably someone who wanted money: professional mendicants often call churches late on Friday afternoons.

But it was not a mendicant. It was a young woman, calling from somewhere upstate. She and her partner had moved up there from the Bronx last year, she said, and they had found a church they liked. They loved going to church together: my caller had grown up going to church with the beloved grandmother who raised her, and it meant a lot to her to have church in her new life. The people were friendly and the pastor was friendly. For several months they attended services, made friends, helped out with various projects in the church. They looked forward to Sunday mornings. The pastor was a good preacher, and they liked the music. They could imagine themselves making a permanent spiritual home there, and they wanted a spiritual home.

And so they made an appointment with the pastor to talk with him about joining his church. They came to his study on the appointed evening, and he received them kindly. He would be delighted to receive them into his congregation, he said. He had a question, though: he knew that they shared an address but had different last names. They were not—how should he put it—living in a lesbian relationship, were they?

Well, yes, we are, one of the women said. Nothing had ever been said, but wasn’t it sort of obvious? And people had been so friendly with them, at the church picnic, and at the yardwork day. Nobody had ever questioned them about their living arrangements.

The pastor’s demeanor was still kind. In that case, he said with real regret in his voice, I’m afraid I can’t accept you as members of our church. You are living in a state of sin. I’m sorry.

The two young women never returned to that church, of course. They were humiliated to think that the people who had been so friendly and kind to them would not have received them at all had they known who they really were. A state of sin, the pastor they so admired had said. It had been hard for each of them, growing up, to come to terms with their sexuality. Other kids had been cruel to each of them in school sometimes, and that cruelty had stung like a lash. It had been hard telling their families; there were still family members who did not know. But at the little country church, it had seemed that an unconditional welcome in Christ had been offered to them unconditionally. But no. There were strings. They were not acceptable to God.

Her partner was bitter. Who needs church, anyway, she said angrily. Bunch of hypocrites. But my caller remembered the comfort of her church at home, remembered her grandmother’s faith, remembered the white Bible she had been given as a girl, the very one she carried to church now. She remembered safety and love and learning about holiness. And she found our number in the telephone directory and called me late on a Friday afternoon, wanting to know if there was a church that could find the two of them in its understanding of salvation.

She said that she was a Baptist. I told her a little about the Episcopal Church. . . .

Then, in a quiet voice, “But — are you saved?”

And I heard in her voice the weight of a thousand sermons about Hell, about the wrath of God. I heard the voices of a thousand thousand good and kind people, convinced that they served a God who decreed a fiery Hell for many, whose invitation into heaven depended primarily on our having a careful and correct belief system and a scrupulous record where certain rules are concerned. I knew that my caller understood being saved to involve a specific moment in which grace came, the hour and minute and second of which was known and remembered, I was saved at 11:17 the morning of April 27 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior, and before that moment I was not saved and would have gone to Hell if I had died.

All of these thoughts took just a moment. She was still waiting for an answer to her question. “But, are you saved?”

And, late on a Friday afternoon, full of sins I knew about and of other sins I had not yet understood, the pastor of a churchful of people who were sinners, too; full, also, of the stunning awareness that the grace of God was flooding my little office at that very moment, shining, pooling its light on the floor, invincible, bigger than any sin I had or anyone else had ever had, lifting everything, I knew the answer. Are you saved? Yes, I told her. Yes, we are.

And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Today’s date is one that “lives in infamy”, to paraphrase FDR’s reference to Dec. 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 9/11. Every year at this time the news is filled with recollections of what happened that day with a laser focus on New York’s twin towers, the Pentagon, the high jacked planes, and first responders. But we largely fail to comprehend that the damage to the peoples of the earth unleashed that day is still growing and expanding exponentially. A half-million Syrians alone have died. The wounded and displaced are many more than that. The death toll in other parts of the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and America continues to mount daily—far out-distancing the nearly 3,000 deaths on 9/11 itself.

But even with all that misery and death, there’s a greater tragedy that has worked its way into our psyches. And that is the fear, suspicion and distrust with which we regard one another. We’ve been successfully terrorized!

This afternoon we’re going to try to nudge the ship of fear and distrust onto a new course with a Peace Heroes walk. We have no illusions that that this or other walks around the world will do it alone. It takes each of us, everyday, to accomplish that work.

Now peace heroes are not just the famous and well known. A peace hero is often an everyday person who accepts risk and succeeds in making the world a less violent and more just place. If I can be one, so can you. Just refuse to be terrorized. Cast aside fear. Reject suspicion. Trust the other.

Can’t that be dangerous, you might ask? Certainly. Jesus got crucified for it. But for me, I’d rather be in the company of Jesus than to live in the well of hatred and fear—forever separated from my sisters and brothers.

May one day the murmerers say of us: These women and these men receive sinners and eat with them. We may discover that what we had thought was sin is not. And that our mighty righteousness is often no more than blindness to our own brokenness.

Take the risk. Be a peace hero!