What Have We Learned?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 3
March 20, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : God speaks to us -- maybe even especially so -- in the midst of disaster.

It was an extraordinary thing, for those of us pastoring churches in the fall of 2001. The World Trade Center towers had fallen. An entire wing of the Pentagon had been reduced to charred wreckage. Yellow caution tape still outlined the crash site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And America's church sanctuaries were full.

It continued that way for several weeks: all through the remainder of September and into October. Each week, though, the numbers dwindled a little more: until, well before the Thanksgiving holiday, worship attendance levels returned to what they had been before the terrorist attacks.

"What have we just experienced?" some of us asked ourselves at the time. "Was this a spiritual revival?" If so, it was one of the shortest-lived revivals on record. The shock of the 9/11 attacks propelled many Americans back to their religious roots, seeking consolation. But as soon as the shock wore off, it was back to business as usual.

We're now more than 20 years out from the events of that day. No student now studying in any of our nation's public schools was alive that day. This far out from the disaster, what -- if anything -- have we learned, as a nation, from those experiences? What's different about our spiritual life, as a result?

The short answer is absolutely nothing . That conclusion had already become clear even five years after 9/11, when Christian pollster George Barna completed a massive study of American religious life. Barna and his research staff interviewed over 8,600 people. They studied "three areas of religious activity, five indicators of religious belief, three pertaining to spiritual commitment, and eight related to faith identity." They found that "all of those indicators of faith are virtually identical to the norms prior to September 11, 2001"1

The horrific events of 9/11 may have driven many Americans into the embrace of the church -- but, clearly, what the church had to offer by way of encouragement or consolation wasn't enough to keep them there.

What a massacre teaches

Hold that thought, as we look to the scriptures. Some people come to Jesus and ask him a difficult theological question. A horrific event has just occurred in the temple in Jerusalem. There was some rioting in the city. In retaliation, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, sent a detail of soldiers right into the temple, where they put several worshipers to the sword.

Luke calls the murdered victims "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." In other words, this was an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

The people want Jesus to address the meaning of the terrible temple slaughter. Their question is much the same as the one many Americans were asking as so many came to church on September 16, 2001: "Why?"

Jesus answers their question with another question: "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Do you think those people who perished in the Twin Towers, or in the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 were worse sinners than all other Americans? Of course they weren't. Bond traders at Cantor Fitzgerald peering into their computers, naval officers sipping coffee around a conference table, workers collecting dirty dishes at Windows on the World, firefighters ascending smoky staircases lit by emergency lighting: those people were no worse sinners than anyone else. God did not single them out for punishment that day. They suffered and died simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The thought that death can visit any of us as suddenly and as unexpectedly as it visited them is worth some philosophical reflection, to be sure. Yet, it yields no simple explanation we can discern. It just is.

What a collapsed tower teaches

Then, here in Luke 13, Jesus refers to a second incident, evidently, just as well-known to his listeners: "Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

We know nothing about the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus' mention of it is the only historical record we have. Yet, in a city like Jerusalem -- a city surrounded by ramparts and towers, designed to keep people safe and protected -- the collapse of one of those mighty towers, crushing the life out of 18 innocents, would have been on the minds of everyone. "What if I'd been standing under the tower that day? Why, it could just as well have been me!"

Plenty of people in our country were asking similar questions about last June's collapse of the condominium apartment tower in Surfside, Florida. It seemed so terrifyingly random. One moment, the residents of that upscale apartment building were asleep in their beds. The next, over half the building simply fell apart. There was no earthquake, no hurricane -- just the domino effect of a whole series of flaws in the building's construction, exacerbated by years of deferred maintenance.

By no stretch of the imagination did any of those people deserve what happened to them. Sure, some of them had fought the condo association's attempts to collect money to make repairs, but others -- who were equally dead -- had written their special assessment checks with no complaint. Some residents of the collapsed tower survived: but only because they happened to be away from home that night. Others were short-term visitors to Florida who were only staying there, in apartments owned by friends, for a night or two.

Who's to blame?

There are those who are quick, after hearing about shocking incidents of moral or natural evil, to try to find an explanation. Some of this theological second-guessing went on immediately after 9/11. Just two days after the attacks, Jerry Falwell was a guest on Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV show. He said (and these are his exact words): "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" (Falwell did later apologize for those remarks.)2

Pat Robertson, the host of the program, nodded his head, saying, "I totally concur."

In retrospect, those remarks by two prominent televangelists just could be among the worst obscenities ever uttered on the airwaves. While the ruins of the Trade Center were still smoldering, and rescue workers were risking their lives, searching the rubble for survivors, these two, complacent preachers were sitting in an air-conditioned TV studio, pontificating that God wiped out all those people to frighten certain other people into living differently. What we have learned from 9/11, Falwell and Robertson were saying, is that those people have to repent. (Not us, mind you; those people.)

Well, Jesus does talk about repentance in Luke 13, but he's not doing it that way. Jesus explicitly declares that these disasters were not punishments for sin. The Galileans murdered by Pilate's thugs and the people crushed to death by falling masonry were no worse sinners than anyone else. Yet, these events, he goes on, ought to lead us al l to repentance, for they demonstrate how fragile life can be, and how dependent we are, always, on the grace of God.

What have we learned?

In 2020, a writer named Rebecca Solnit wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper about what disasters teach us. She was referring, as you might expect, to the Covid-19 crisis that had only just started to unfold. She said:

The word "crisis" means, in medical terms, the crossroads a patient reaches, the point at which she will either take the road to recovery or to death. The word "emergency" comes from "emergence" or "emerge," as if you were ejected from the familiar and urgently need to reorient. ... Our focus shifts, and what matters shifts. ... We ourselves change as our priorities shift, as intensified awareness of mortality makes us wake up to our own lives and the preciousness of life. 3

Maybe our chief learning from experiences of disaster is discovering that other version of who we are. It's as C.S. Lewis famously said: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain. It is [God's] megaphone to rouse a deaf world."4

Does God contrive massive disasters simply for the purpose of getting through to us? Is the price of that spiritual megaphone so dear, even for the Almighty, that it can be measured only in dozens, even thousands, of human lives snuffed out? The question of causation, in such situations -- why the Lord allows disasters to happen -- is too large for any of us to comprehend. But of one thing we can be sure: God is present to us, in the midst of it all.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a "Brief Statement of Faith" that begins with this declaration: "In life and in death we belong to God." That's a great lesson we can all stand to learn from 9/11 or the collapse of the Surfside tower or the Covid-19 pandemic, or any sort of disaster that leads to massive loss of life: how dependent all of us are, every minute of every day, on the presence and power of God in our lives. It's a lesson we all started to learn, in those weeks after 9/11, when all the church pews were full -- but which we, as a people, swiftly forgot.

Jesus' call to repentance is clear: all of us -- not just those "other" people -- need to turn around, begin again and seek to live our lives in a different, more faithful, way.


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