"When Death Brings Life"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 23, 2001

Jeremiah 8:18--9:1;  I Timothy 2:1-7

     Twelve days have passed since the tragedy caused by the four hijacked airplanes. How are you doing? How are the people with whom you work or associate doing emotionally and spiritually? Are you internalizing the pain, or are you sharing your thoughts and feelings with everyone who will listen?

     Some of you know that our son, Steven, lives in Manhattan. Last Sunday evening was the first opportunity we had to speak with him. We listened to him talk about the mood of people living in New York City. According to Steven, the pace of living is only 30 percent of what it was. People are taking time to communicate with each other. Seeing people hugging is now common. Candles are in countless windows. Steven said, "I do not get into such things, but I found myself lighting a candle."

     Little children have voiced their concerns when they see an aircraft. They wonder if it, too, might crash and injure people. The questions they are asking are curiously insightful. We adults find it difficult to explain to them why and how these events took place. We have many questions of our own.

     Audiences can generally count on David Letterman and Jay Leno to make our nation laugh before many of us drift off to sleep. Even these masters of wit found that the mood of laughter was not something they wanted their words to evoke. During the nights immediately following the tragedy, both of them tried to create verbal images reflective of what many of us have been feeling this week. As they spoke from their hearts their audiences were inspired and comforted. Like the rest of us, David and Jay needed to share how they felt.

     Last Thursday, I attended a district clergy meeting in Brandywine. We were invited to sit in small groups and debrief each other about our experiences of the past week. We were to tell stories about the members in our congregations who were either killed or escaped. We were directed to talk about what was happening within us as we accomplished our daily tasks.

     One minister told our group how badly his faith had been shaken.

I am more charismatic in my approach to worship. Our services are oriented toward praise and thanksgiving. Our congregation enjoys the contemporary worship experience. Sunday, however, the mood of my people was distinctly different. It made me realize how superficial my faith is.

Tuesday, September 11, caused me to understand how praise and thanksgiving are oriented more toward our emotional experience in worship than anything else. We enjoy it. We thrive on it. But such worship is shallow and may not help us cope creatively during moments of personal crisis. And it may not help us answer many of the fundamental questions. Needless to say, what my church will do in worship from now on is going to be much different.

     I hope he does not change as radically as he believes he must. We need praise and thanksgiving. During moments of misfortune and tragedy, we forget the blessings that we have taken for granted year after year. Our nation is mourning. Tragedy has never touched the world as deeply as these events. Over sixty nations lost people.

     Yes, we were collectively horrified with what Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh masterminded in Oklahoma City, but we have never experienced in this country the destruction of a population that was the equivalent of a sizeable town. Nor have we had our confidence levels shaken as they have been since the Pentagon became badly damaged.

     In Paul's letter to Timothy, we find a theology that has mystified a number of people who refer to themselves as "thinking Christians." In verse 5 we read these words, "For there is one God, and there is one who brings God and human beings together, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself to redeem the whole human race." Thinking Christians often say, "How did Jesus' ministry and death do anything to bring God and humanity together? Just look at what has happened on September 11! We are not any closer now to such harmony with God than we were when Jesus lived." Really?

     Think about this. Jesus remained connected to God through the entire process of his crucifixion. The spirit of both Jesus and God remained united, permitting him to reflect his essence even though nails had been driven into his hands and feet. He was teaching us that it is the essence of who we are that produces kindness and generosity, peace and justice, hope and endurance. Jesus taught us and then showed us what life-transforming, loving energy looks like when it is being given away even when circumstances are hostile and cruel.

     Jesus chose to remain a lover to his detractors even though it meant leaving his physical form and the friends he had nurtured during his life among them. The truth he knew was made visible and that is what has inspired people ever since.

     When we see firefighters running into buildings that could blow up or collapse, they are living that same value. When we find police officers who are killed while trying to direct people away from danger, they were living that same value. When we find people joining hands with people they do not know, they are living that same value. Loving energy cannot be anything less than what it is.

     The destruction of innocent lives has a way of causing us to reclaim what we have either misplaced, ignored, or forgotten. Out of the ashes, the phoenix rises. Out of death, we discover within ourselves qualities firmly rooted in our loving energy that may have grown rusty from their lack of use. It is this spirit that unites us with God. Loving energy displays itself in many forms. We have seen it everywhere during these recent days. Many of us have displayed such courage.

     Since the tragedy, our stock markets have lost 1.4 trillion dollars of their value. People have watched as their once-elevated pension funds have dropped to alarming levels. Lots of people are fearing the potential of being laid off from their jobs and how that loss might affect their financial obligations and responsibilities. And yet, with such fears stalking us, this congregation thus far has contributed $13,575.33 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

     When Barbara told me that amount on Friday afternoon, I said, "Where did the 33 cents come from?" She said, "No doubt it came from a child." If that is true that 33 cents means more to me than the $13,575. I am touched if even one child wanted to help. We can stare financial disaster in the face and yet the spirit of generosity remains unscathed. Death brings new life.

     New York City's Mayor, Rudy Giuliani was reported to have said, "I cannot tell you the exact number, but hundreds of very capable people have come here with the expectation of relieving our current rescue workers. Because of the dangers, we have had to turn them away. But I did remind them that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. I told them to come back to New York City with friends, have dinner, take in a show, and go shopping. Help us out that way." Death does bring new life.

     One of the greatest fears of the staff in the Mayor's office was that with so many police officers distracted with issues in lower Manhattan, crime would be rampant elsewhere. That did not happen and no one knows why. There was no looting, no gang rampages, no anarchy that the terrorists may have been counting on. In fact, very little happened that the terrorists anticipated. The United States is more united now that it was two weeks ago. Death brings new life.

     Who can explain why out of the rubble, the depressed stock markets, and the faceless enemy that remains in the shadows, something invisible has united us? We have seen the results of generosity, but what directed that to happen? We have seen the results of volunteerism, but what directed that to happen? What we cannot see, hear, touch, or smell has united us. This is what Jesus was pointing to from the cross. This invisible quality is what the Apostle Paul was writing about. This is what unites all of us to God.

     Friday morning, a well known news commentator reported something very interesting. He said that before the loaded United Flight 564 took off from Denver International Airport last Saturday, the pilot addressed the passengers.

May I please have your attention. This is the captain speaking. I want to thank you brave folks for coming out today. We have not been given any specific instructions by the federal government, so we are on our own.

If someone on this flight announces that there is a bomb on board, I want to assure you that there is no bomb on board. And if someone stands up with a plastic knife and announces that the plane is being hijacked, I want all of you to stand up immediately and begin to throw things at him. Throw anything you can get your hands on, e.g., books, pillows, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes—anything that will throw him off balance and distract his attention.

Rapidly move toward him and subdue him with blankets. I will land at the nearest airport and the authorities will take charge of him at that time. Remember there may be one, two, or three of them but there are 200 of you.

Meanwhile, since we will be spending the next several hours together, please take the time to get to know others around you. Thank you, and enjoy your flight.

     After the pilot finished speaking everyone on the airplane gave him a sustained thunderous applause. There has not been this kind of focused unity among Americans for as long as most of us can remember. Death and destruction have a way of inspiring the best in us.

     An aspect of loving your neighbor is to do everything you can to be sure they are secure and safe—that they are cared for and protected. And another way to show love to people is to be sure that they do not hurt themselves or others in their pursuit of behavior that is designed to create pain and loss. Being guided by loving energy, the source of which will always remain invisible, is what unites us to God. We saw this dramatically illustrated from a cross.

     Our lesson tells us that Jesus gave his life that we might better understand this invisible nature that we all share, the very nature that has the potential to unite every human being to God. Humanity can be saved from eradicating itself only by embracing collectively the loving attitudes of being that we are capable of displaying.

     Listen again to Paul's words, "Kings and all those who are in authority must live a quiet and peaceful life with all reverence toward God and with proper conduct. This is good and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth." The essential nature of our being is a spirit. This is what joins us to God.

     Quite possibly, this is why the criminal element in New York City was just as shocked by the events on September 11 as was the chief of police. Even they were touched by the altered horizon of Manhattan. It is an invisible spirit that has united America's diverse population. When a collective will becomes more focused on creating rather than on being afraid, there is nothing an enemy of humanity can do to stop it. Do not forget this.

     Today, we mourn. Tomorrow the world community will be stronger. For such strength of will, purpose, and character, let us now pray.


     We thank you God for the many ways you work to heal the direction of our lives. How often has a prolonged illness reminded us of the limitations of wealth? How many times has failure provided us with a deeper meaning of humility? How many times have hidden abilities surfaced by our saying "yes" to a new experience? Thank you for the growth that has come through our increased financial generosity. Thank you for helping us redefine power by living truth rather than seeking it. Thank you for the peace that comes when we let go of our worries, unmet needs, and resentments. Encourage us, O God, to learn that when we resist change, we are choosing blindness over insight, security over growth, and death over life. Guide us to reflect now what we imagine Heaven is like. Amen.


     We come into your presence this morning, O God, eager once again to experience what has remained timeless. We enjoy the environment where we feel safe and at peace with each other. We enjoy having our attention focused on the big picture, which reminds us that during all our experiences your spirit forever surrounds us. We actually enjoy having our perspectives sharpened and refined as the Gospels continue to point to higher ground than that on which we now stand.

     Thank you, God, for creating us with the spiritual awareness to see what our busy lives have often ignored. We have often been so absorbed with our own personal concerns, that being kind and thoughtful are often an afterthought rather than a habit. Many of us have been inspired this week with the attitudes that have been more gentle and patient. Our eyes have been bathed with any number of deeds done by volunteers. Our national generosity has not seen such levels in years. We marvel, O God, at that invisible quality that brings us together. It reminds us that our detachment from you is more an act of our forgetfulness than anything else.

     Continue to inspire our hearts and minds to see the uncommon in what is common, to observe the face of Christ in each other, and to remember always that all of us are yours and that such a reality has nothing to do with what we think about it. We thank you for such truth. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .