September 11, 2014

Honestly

Preached 9/11/11 at John Street Church in NYC.

Honestly, I was in a foul mood for the better part of the last week.

Honestly, this didn’t really surprise anybody who knows me very well.

Never a fan of August and its Dog Days, there was a time in my life when simply thinking about flipping the calendar to September helped me escape the worst of the summer’s heat. After all, the ninth month would bring a change of seasons, breezes that carried autumn’s first chill, football, and—before I met Laura—the potential for a back-to-school romance. There was a time when I loved September, but for many years now I’ve endured August with the knowledge that some of the most challenging and emotional days of the year were near.

September’s first bright and cloudless morning now carries so much more than the announcement of fall’s arrival. Sad memories now fill the air on those days, on days like these.

Honestly, ten years ago this very moment I was kneeling at the altar of Grace United Methodist Church in Putnam Valley, New York, alone, in tears, and terrified on a bright and cloudless September morning.

A day to remember, each of us carries unique memories of September 11, 2001. Where were you when you found out? Did you live in New York when it happened? Did you work downtown? Did you lose a friend or a member of your family? We’ve all asked and have been asked these questions through the years, and the answers we’ve given and heard to them have left an indelible mark on our hearts and in our souls.

Of course, these answers have also raised more questions. Since September 11, 2001 we’ve asked countless questions of God, our government, our neighbors, and ourselves. In prayer, we’ve wondered why this happened and asked for a measure of healing mercy. Of politicians, we’ve asked what they intend to do to disrupt the terrorist networks that prey on innocent people around the world. In our communities we’ve wondered what we can do to honor the emergency first responders of whose daily sacrifices we have become more keenly aware. In our homes, churches, offices, and the places we go to be with our friends we’ve also wondered about and, at times, have fiercely debated questions about the First Amendment, war, torture, national security, and personal liberties.

In ten years, many questions have given shape to our lives.

A similar period of intense questioning gave rise to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.

Ecclesiastes is, I believe, best understood as a book of questions, especially the questions that get asked when life’s old answers no longer satisfy and leave the people wanting.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

What’s the point in doing the right thing if it gives some cheater a leg up on us anyway?

Why should we bother?

Why should I believe?

Something within the book’s protagonist, a man named Qoheleth or The Teacher, drives him to find answers to questions like these. Did a restless spirit or a crisis of faith stir this up within his heart? We don’t know, but whatever set him in motion, the Teacher wanted to find his life’s rest on a solid, steadfast foundation.

His questions carried more weight than trite superficial answers could bear.

“Don’t question, just work hard,” somebody told him.

“Don’t worry, just pray,” said another.

“Forget all of it,” said still a third. “If hard workers and pious people suffer just like their lazy and uninspired neighbors, you might as well just do whatever you want.”

“If this is the best advice people have to give,” Qoheleth wondered, “what’s the point?”

“Vanity of vanities,” he declared. “All in vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Qoheleth’s persistent questions and consistent dissatisfaction with the answers he was given makes his story one of the Bible’s most difficult to understand. Given the way most believers treat Ecclesiastes—placing it along side Leviticus and Revelation on the list of books they’d like the preacher to talk about when they’re out of town—we can assume that the crowd would slowly shift to the other side of the room whenever the Teacher made his entrance.

“Give it a rest, Qoheleth,” the unfortunate ones he engaged in conversation must have said. “We’ve moved on, why can’t you?”

This is a sermon for any of you for whom this day raises more questions than it provides answers, for the restless spirits in this place, for everyone who has grown weary of chasing after the wind, who yearns for a strong footing on a substantial foundation. To you, this day, I proclaim the Good News that any question honestly asked is a means for God’s grace to enter our lives.

To honestly ask—to ask without agenda, to give voice to the mysteries and uncertainties perceived in our spirits—is to pursue truth, and the promise of our Lord is that the truth is holy. Specifically, Jesus said that if you continue in his word—a word spoken by prophets, apostles, and Qoheleth, too—“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The catalytic reaction between the truth and freedom shoots sparks throughout the Scripture. It’s present in every rebuke Jesus brought down on the hypocrites who used pious words to further their own ungodly agendas. It’s there in Mary’s Easter proclamation that regardless of what happened on the cross Friday afternoon, on Sunday morning she had seen the risen and living Lord. It lights up so many of those moments in the Gospel that enlighten and guide us.

Nicodemus honestly admitted that he had no idea what Jesus was talking about, so Jesus told him the truth about how much God loved the world.

The woman at the well was honest about why she had to fetch water in the middle of the day, so Jesus told her the truth that even if her neighbors judged her as a tramp, he had come to her with the promise of living water and eternal life.

Peter honestly admitted that, regardless of the rumors to the contrary, he believed Jesus was indeed the long-expected anointed one of God, so Jesus told him the truth that, with Peter’s help, his Church would stand forever on this good confession.

How easy it would have been for any of these to swallow their question, to remain deaf to the truth—to not expose themselves in the way that honesty required?

How easy it is for you and me to succumb to the same temptation.

That’s why we need to be honest today—honest in worship, honest with each other, honest with ourselves. With our memories, with our worries, with our fears, we are still free to bring our questions before God this day, and in doing so we aim to accomplish a holy task—to accept Saint Paul’s counsel, to examine and test ourselves so that God may perfectly and wonderfully fashion faith in our midst.

Pursuing answers to the questions we carry within our hearts may lead us down a path as challenging as the one Qoheleth traveled. However, in honest confession and Holy Communion, in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and in passing Christ’s peace, I truly believe that all of us can find strength for today and for journey before us. I honestly do.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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