"Has The Landscape Changed?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 16, 2001

Psalm 105:1-11; Philippians 2:12-16

     By this time most of us are like a sponge that is fully saturated by the events of Tuesday morning.  Every adjective has been used.  Our minds and hearts have been bursting with sorrow and pride.  Personal stories will continue to be told and retold as our national consciousness has been exclusively focused on the same events. Many commentators have said that the landscape of our lives has been changed.  I want to suggest to you this morning that it has not.

     About 3,500 years ago, the citizens of Troy brought a large, hand-carved wooden horse within the confines of their walled city.  The people living in Troy loved horses and the Greeks knew this. Trojans wildly celebrated the visible signs that the Greek naval fleet was withdrawing.  In the minds of Troy's citizens the war was over.  They did not know that inside that horse were skilled marksmen who killed the Trojan sentries and opened the gates of Troy's splendid city to the hordes of Greek infantry that had been waiting just over the horizon.  That day Troy fell.

     The enlightened community of the learned used to think that the stories of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were pure fiction until the German archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann stunned the scholarly world with his discovery of the ancient city of Troy.  This beautiful city, situated near where the Hellespont empties into the Aegean Sea, was destroyed through the deeds of a small group of committed infiltrators.

     Those of us who are students of history may also remember the story of the Ten Thousand Immortals. This highly organized group of elite defenders was all that was needed to protect a pass through which any enemy had to come to attack the region beyond.  They were invincible. Yet a single traitor led an enemy army through an obscure, little known, back passage, and the revered and feared Ten Thousand Immortals were overwhelmed from a rear attack.

     We can go on and on citing examples of betrayal and terrorism from Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, and Timothy McVeigh to today's computer hackers who exercise their creative brilliance by disrupting corporate communications all over the world, or by hatching viruses that are designed to destroy stored information -- viruses that can spread quickly to all points on the network. 

     The landscape has not changed.  Last Tuesday it only took 19 men a few minutes to focus the world's attention on how fragile the peace is for America and the free world.  By the time our government repairs and defends what has been disrupted, the price tag will probably approach a half trillion dollars.  And what will our nation have as a result? 

     After the costly efforts of reinforcing our defenses, will our power grids, our water supplies, or our nuclear power plants be safe?  Will we be safe from biological weapons that have been developed in laboratories sponsored by those whom we have labeled, "rogue nations?"  Security is a quality of spirit; it can never be guaranteed or experienced by those who live in fortified environments.

     We can cast blame on religious fundamentalists and conclude that they are the faceless cowards that must be rooted out and brought to justice, but what we have experienced this week is nothing new to history. But as with Pearl Harbor, it is new to us.  Now it is our turn to bring to these events who we are. 

     The mask worn by the perpetrators of these recent crimes is different, but the same spirit is behind every such mask that has appeared throughout history.  The landscape has not changed.  This is part of the reality of our world.  Because we could not love our neighbors as ourselves, Jesus came to teach us why such a skill is so critical and essential for humanity's survival.  How many of us are remembering his instruction as we try to cope with recent events?

     Today many Americans are having a very challenging time controlling their rage.  I will tell you this as unequivocally as anything I have ever said from this pulpit --  If the enemies of America succeed at bringing us to their level of consciousness, they will have won.  Nineteen people used our aircraft and our aviation fuel to destroy what many of us consider very precious --  innocent lives and symbolic buildings that are recognized throughout the world.  Will we now allow 19 people to  plant the seeds of fear into our thought patterns so that we destroy the freedom we enjoy?

     Yes, we will engage in verbal saber rattling.  And yes, we will find those who are responsible and hold them accountable, but that is only part of the portrait of America. During Patti's message at our prayer service Friday night she said, "Americans stand for justice, not revenge."

     If there is anything that our media has made abundantly clear in recent days, it has been the sharp distinction between American values and those who attack what they hate with acts of terrorism.  A number of  citizens in other countries celebrated our misfortune with laughter, with shooting their guns in the air, and with the burning of our stars and stripes. The cameras were rolling as they communicated who they are.  We held candlelight vigils while praying and singing because that is part of the portrait of who we are.

     This week the media cameras were sending vivid scenes throughout the world. They showed everything. America's media never held back; nothing was censored.  With the repeated scenes from every conceivable angle of the two aircraft which slammed into the World Trade Center towers and the explosive destruction of the aircraft that hit the Pentagon, the world was watching with us. 

     The cameras were also rolling while merchants handed out tennis shoes to women in high heels who were escaping ground zero. They showed gourmet cooks who prepared meals for the firefighters and rescue workers.  They caught on tape the people lining the streets cheering the emergency vehicles that were traveling to lower Manhattan.  Yes, there was clear communication to the world who we Americans are.

     Two verses in our lesson today reflect God's will as seen through the prism of Paul's words.  Paul wrote, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be innocent and pure as God's perfect children, who live in a world of corrupt and sinful people.  You must shine among them like stars lighting up the sky, as you offer them the message of life." (Philippians 2:14-15)

     All our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions must reflect a message of life.  This week during our Tuesday morning Bible study, Liz Herrera gave me a quote from St. Tereasa of Avila.  Her words describe how we, who consider ourselves to be the Body of Christ, are to respond in a world that needs to be healed by the spirit he brought.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; yours are the only hands with which he can do his work, yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, yours are the only eyes through which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world.  Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

     During my studies of Church History while at Wesley Seminary, I remember reading an interesting account from a Roman Catholic priest who was writing during the Crusades.  He and fellow priests were living in a small enclave in the mountains that overlooked the plains of Sharon.  The Christian and Islamic armies were poised for battle.  The "holy cause" for the Christians was to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks.

     The older priest and a young man, who had just joined the order, sat quietly as they prepared to watch this great conflict that was about to unfold before them.  The senior priest said, "As you look at these armies, which one is good and which is evil?"  The young priest-in-training answered with great confidence, "The answer to that question is easy.  The army on the right is the army of Christ, for it clearly bears the Cross on its standards.  God will surely grant them victory this day."

     It was not long before the two armies advanced and engaged in battle.  It was a fierce struggle and the loss of life was heavy on both sides.  The priest once again asked, "As you look at these armies, which one is good and which is evil?"  This time the young priest hesitated.  He said, "I cannot tell.  The standards are gone.  All I see now are men killing each another for their causes."  The older priest asked, "Who, then, have you been called to be?  In the midst of what you see, what is the message the Holy Spirit would have you preach?"

     What has made America one of the major contributors to the world community comes from our heritage.  We value human life so much that we will spend a $185,000 and more to save the  life of a premature baby.  Recently our President agonized over choosing the right language in his speech on stem cell research.  Men and women repeatedly enter circumstances that are very dangerous.  They do so with one goal in mind -- to save those who need to be rescued.  The greatest temptation we face now as a nation is to turn our backs on that value.

            It is when fear takes hold of us that the spirit of our nation is at risk.  We would not have our Declaration of Independence had fear controlled the spirits of those who signed it.  When we Americans fear uncertainty to the point where we stop spending our money, where we close National Airport indefinitely, where we put armed guards everywhere from the Metro Center to every major athletic stadium, the war is over. All it took was 19 men and their network of comrades to sow the seeds of fear.  If we are not careful, we will feed the growth of that cancer.

     I am telling America and all of you who are here to cleanse your thoughts! Tell everyone you know that we have given those 19 men too much power.  We are now the ones who are making ourselves prisoners.  We are the ones who are changing our way of life to accommodate our fears. The real war now must be fought within us.  Fear is now the product of our minds.  Those 19 men will only hurt us from beyond the grave if we allow it.

     The stories of humanity's inhumanity to itself will always be with us until every one of us can sing with authenticity, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."  Let us not attack symptoms.  Let us rather find the reasons why America is hated and put those perceptions on the table so we can understand and reasonably respond to them.

     What has been taking place between Israel and the Palestinians is nonsense and unacceptable.  This back and forth destruction of human life will never bring creative results.  Such competition only escalates the body count on both sides. Sooner or later, someone will become angry enough to use a nuclear device and when that happens Pandora's box will be opened.  

            Will 19 terrorists succeed in causing us to engage in a conflict that could unravel and sabotage the fabric of human freedom?  We are creators not destroyers.  The Apostle Paul wrote, "You must shine among them like stars lighting up the sky as you offer them the message of life."  This is our heritage.  This is who we are!

            Perhaps those who died this week did not die in vain.  As innocent men and women lost their lives while they worked, perhaps the world's people will learn from the horrors they witnessed how grave a threat terrorism is.  Perhaps they will come together as never before, join hands, and be resolved to stand against it.

     The ball is in our court now.  We must rely on the fundamentals that have made our civilization one of the models of what human freedom can achieve.  Remember Paul's words, "Be innocent and pure as God's perfect children, who live in a world of corrupt and sinful people." 

     No, the landscape of humanity has not changed.  Jesus came into the world to teach us another way.  Now that responsibility is ours. Since the technology exists to cripple civilization as we know it, we must act quickly to insist that our President and Congress proceed cautiously in concert with the world community.  We must communicate what supports the universal goals of the newly evolved world community. 

     The Seal of the United States of America used to have the bald eagle facing the arrows of war.  Today our eagle is looking at the olive branch of peace.  This is our heritage.  This is who we are. We must never lose sight of what it means to be the light in darkness. 

     Yes, we have been hurt.  Yes, we are angry. Yes, what all of us experienced this week is  our generation's darkest hour.  Jesus taught us, "Be as a light set upon the hill."  Without light the world will flounder as it seeks direction. Many of the earth's people look to us for leadership in the free world. So it is that we must lead.  Leave this sanctuary today committed to being a part of that light!


     Thank you, God, for using these moments of worship for helping us to gain insight into our lives.  You help us focus on our purpose rather than on specific outcomes.  You inspire us to look for solutions rather than our need to be right.  You call us to use our inner tools for living rather than aspiring to live up to the expectations of others.  You have created us to step out in faith, to take risks, and to be attentive to our caring for others.  You encourage us to mirror innocence, character, and integrity even though the goals of others are elsewhere.  You have asked that we not judge others, which is among the most challenging things we have to do.  Speak to us this day, that we might lay aside the barriers we create so that healing might remain our gift to the world.  Amen.


     Loving and all-knowing God, thank you for allowing us to be aware that we can relax because everything is in your hands.  We confess that we do not understand as you do.  We do not see the big picture where none of us ever dies, the picture that communicates that we only change our form.  We find that understanding a challenge because we miss the people some of us worked with every day.  They were like family to us.  They were innocent people who were on their way to becoming what you designed them to be. And yet our faith tells us that you understand this, and have welcomed them into your Kingdom, ready to help them become enthusiastic about their next assignment designed to enhance their growth.

     O God, we confess once more our poverty of understanding.  We so much want justice and we want it on our terms.   We want to use our technology to bring to justice those who are responsible for the death of people who were not at war with anyone, but all 19 of them are now in your care.  These are people who gave their lives for what they believed.  What is it, O God, that we are missing?  What is it that we are unable to hear from those who assaulted the world with their savagery? 

     Because of the many overwhelming images of destruction, may the viewers throughout the world discover and learn that we are one.  And that when we hurt each other, we introduce fear into all our minds, and that getting even only enhances the division we imagine exists.  Make it abundantly clear to us that, in Your Kingdom, peace is the goal that will manifest true freedom on the earth.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to way when we pray . . .