Well, here we are in another year. Gathered once more in this great Cathedral, this National House of Prayer for all People, to celebrate it’s 94th anniversary. On the Feast of St. . Michael and All Angels, 1907, the foundation stone was laid for the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Thousands fanned the hillsides where this Cathedral now sits. But then this was only a clearing among vast acres of oak trees. There were grand and colorful processions of clergy, public dignitaries and choirs; with great litanies and glorious music. There were addresses by the President of the United States, a Supreme Court Justice, the Anglican Bishop of London and the First Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Henry Yates Satterlee. All were gathered to celebrate a dream. A dream conceived in the mind of George Washington in 1791, and given life one hundred years later by a band of Episcopalians.
And so over the years we have tried to live into our dual purpose of serving the ministry of the local Episcopal Bishop and Diocese of Washington, and the more difficult task of also being a Church for this nation. As George Washington’s chief planner, Major Pierre Charles l’Enfant wrote: “[a church] for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgiving, funeral orations; [without distinction to] denomination or sect; but be equally open to all.” This is a very hard tension to live into. Yet it bears such glorious fruit for our diverse nation, especially in these times where we are so deeply in need of uniting symbols, especially spiritual symbols.
So here we are gathered again with processions of clergy, lay leaders, choirs, music and litanies, to celebrate this vision. Yet we all know in our hearts these times are like no other time in our history. For we are only weeks removed from September 11th. As King David wrote in the 23rd Psalm, we are “in the valley of the shadow of death.”
And so, as we have gathered, the procession which is truly on our minds this day is that of the thousands of innocent lives lost or devastated by terrorist attacks in New York City, Pittsburgh and Metropolitan Washington. Perhaps some of us here today recognize, in this grim procession of tragedy, faces of family members, neighbors, acquaintances and colleagues you have lost. Others of us, perhaps not having any direct relationship with victims, are finding ourselves more profoundly and intimately affected than we expected. For as we have moved from pictures of implosions, rubble and smoldering fires, our attention is now drawn with strange intimacy and familiarity to the newspaper photos of the dead. We see portraits of everyday people whose picture or histories look like ours, or our spouses, or our children, or our neighbors, or our class mates, or our work mates. And strangely the effect is drawing us closer together.
For many of us, seeing their faces, reading their bios, has caused us to find a renewed sense of America as a “family”. A “family” which is not simply defined by genes, color, class or party politics; but by a shared striving for and deep belief in the idea “that all [women] and men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” At least for a time, we are discerning that what binds us as Americans is greater than which divides us.
As a pastor I am deeply impressed that in this time of crisis Americans have not gather in political rally or formed demonstrations of rage. Rather all across America we have gathered in houses of worship—churches, synagogues, mosques and temples; and in public places—such as street corners, parks and stadiums – for prayer and reflection. I have also been impressed that so many of these gathering have been ecumenical (across denominational traditions) and in many places interfaith (including people of other Religions, especially Islam). I believe we hold on to each other because the evil is so great and the pain is so deep; for the very soul of American has been wounded.
So in these initial weeks we have reached out in the words of the old Negro Spiritual, asking “Is there a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul?” In other words, “is there any spiritual remedy in our holy places—in our things sacred—for the pain we feel in our souls.” Thank God! For many are finding that “there is a balm in Gilead”.
However, I want to say today that only evil, as a spiritual reality, can wound a people so deeply. Evil is a spiritual force. And my friends, it is active in the world. We may have previously thought of spirituality as a therapeutic activity or discipline for stress reduction. We may even have used it as reflected upon experiences we defined as “bad luck”. But certainly most of us have not given much serious thought to the spiritual reality of evil.
Evil acts intentionally to destroy life, liberty and happiness. Evil acts with total disregard for the divine truth that everyone is created in the image of God, deserving of freedom and dignity. Evil is the vehement counter to God’s good dream for human community. Most importantly, evil takes advantage of our most unique human quality: freedom of moral choice. For all human hearts have the capacity to love, to hope, to heal. But the human heart also has the capacity to hate, to despair and destroy. When generations of young hearts are reared on the fruits of abject poverty and violence of war; when the young are lulled to sleep by hopelessness and lullabies of revenge – such vulnerable hearts are prone to give their very life for evil’s terrifying purposes.
And that is why, I believe, the recognition of evil makes us take God and our spiritual life more seriously. Because to recognize evil is to realize how powerless our own devices are to defend against it. Bombing, better intelligence and economic sanctions may eventually slow or hamper specific acts of terrorism in the world. But they will not remove the conditions which incubate such evil passions and keep alive twisted moral justifications for the destruction of innocent people. Remember this: to willingly embrace violence and self destruction is the ultimate act of impotence and hopelessness, no matter how pious or noble the cause which adorns it.
I am convinced that ultimately the only way to address evil is not simply to analyze the enemy but to also examine ourselves. Even as we work through our shock, pain and anger as a nation, and decide on our immediate and necessary national security responses, we must also ask some very hard and honest questions. Questions such as: Why are we (and some other progressive nations) so hated by various parts of the World? What are our international policies and practices (e.g. how have we honored our responsibilities to the United Nations; how have we kept our commitments to environmental treaties and trade agreements. What developing countries have we used and then abandoned because they are no longer strategically viable to us?).
Now, I am not a politician or diplomat, I am just a pastor. But I believe that these are not simply political or diplomatic questions, they are also spiritual questions. These are spiritual questions because they reflect the character of a nation’s soul. Ultimately we cannot find a successful end to this long road ahead of us, if we do not also answer these questions.
So, how do we begin? First, I think that our immediate impulse to turn to prayer suggest that we have acknowledged the spiritual dimension of this tragedy, that evil is at the core. A Dutch reporter asked me this week, Why do Americans keep saying, “God Bless America”? Do Americans think God is only on their side? I replied, that at this time in our life it is a prayer, not an arrogant assumption. I believe we now realize what St. Paul wrote: “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual enemies of evil….” [JB Ephesians 6:12]. We pray, “God bless America” because we cannot defeat evil without God’s grace and wisdom.
This leads me to my second point: the acknowledgment of evil reminds us that more is needed than blind military retribution or the immediate gratification of revenge (for which some clamor), lest our hearts be possessed by the same demons which inspired the assaults upon us. We understood this after World War II, which itself grew out of the neglect of defeated and devastated Germany in World War I. After World War II there was the Marshall Plan and also the work of General Macarthur in the rebuilding of Japan. These decisions helped to heal the souls of our enemies and insured our own National security. But since that time we have been in many ways, as Amos said of prosperous ancient Israel, “at ease in Zion” (6:1). The prophet Amos critiques a lifestyle, domestic and foreign polices which catered only to their interest and assume good times reflect God’s complete pleasure with them. Like the rhyme,
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the Corner
Eating his Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb
and pulled out a plumb
and said, “what a good boy, am I.”
The assumption that good fortune equals divine favor or spiritual superiority is very dangerous. That is why the Prophet Amos asked prosperous Israel, “In the eyes of God do you think you are better than Calneh (a Babylonian heathen and enemy city) or Hamath (Assyrian heathen and enemy city) or Gath (Philistine heathen and enemy city). Is your faith in prosperity or in God and the right? Has your prosperity become your God? [paraphrase]”
I think our attackers perceived us to be idolaters. We now know that their strategy all along has been to destroy the symbols of our prosperity and security around the world and here on September 11th. The World Trade Towers – soaring symbols of our economic vitality; The Pentagon, the ultimate symbol of our military might; And jet planes, the most visible symbols of Americans great freedom of movement. But we have to say to the terrorists that these are not our idols!! As a nation our belief in the moral benefits of democracy—Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—are not contained in steel, concrete and glass but in the heart and convictions of a peoples’ soul. But, if we cannot assert these things then they are right and we are doomed.
Finally, I say to all Americans, whatever our religion, race or background, let us stand together and face this evil. As the weeks and months unfold, we will feel further pain of violence, anger and stress. In time our toleration of other religions, cultures and races here and abroad will be sorely tested. We will find ourselves impatient with the inconveniences, constraints and changes in our daily life. Many strong conflicting religious and political opinions will arise. There will be times when some of us will strongly disagree with some decisions made by our national leaders. The spiritual unity that we feel today may very well wane as we engage this long fight against terrorism. And my brothers and sisters, the evil spirits of terrorism are counting on it.
William Wadsworth Longfellow wrote [the Masque of Pandora, VI] “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” Evil uses fear, anger, frustration and intolerance to make us act in insane ways; to act with vengeance, to turn on one another, to be crippled with fear in our daily living. If we can be made mad, we will then do the terrorists work for them, we will self destruct. So we must continue to do what we have been doing: caring for one another, turning to one another, and turning to God. And I must say, what I have seen in these past several weeks makes me more hopeful than ever before about the good of the American soul. No matter how long it takes, I believe, with God’s help, we can make it. We can restore our security and become an even better neighbor in the world community.
I am also hopeful because among the enduring images of these weeks, images which I will forever hold in my heart, are not just towering infernos, imploding buildings, and ashen bodies. But also I hold in my heart the images of selfless heroics – firemen, police, emergency medical personnel and everyday people. I picture a President and congressional leaders who sought council and wisdom in a National House of Prayer as well as in the halls of National Government. I still see the images of prayer vigils all over this nation, in sacred spaces, on street corners, and in stadiums. Also I see in all of these images a great array of religions, races, colors and cultures—I see that beautiful and delicate mosaic which is America. Yes, I am hopeful this morning and I hope you are. I am hopeful because from September 11th ‘s tragic work of evil, I have seen in America a new glimpse of God’s beautiful dream for human community. Someone summed it all up in the verses of this anonymous poem from the internet.
- As the soot and ash rained down,
We became one color.
- As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning buildings,
We became one class.
- As we lit candles of waiting and hope,
We became one generation.
- As the firefighters and police fought their way into the inferno,
We became one gender.
- As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,
We became one faith.
- As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
- As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one family.
- As we cried tears of grief,
We became one soul.
- As we sang songs of comfort and praise,
We became one voice.
- As we retell with pride the sacrifices of heroes,
We become one people.
God bless each one of you. God bless America. Amen.