A lost Sheep. A lost coin. The Gospel reading today is about possessions lost. Precious, valuable, essential possessions lost in the mundane routines of daily work and living. A shepherd with a small flock of 100 sheep, whose livelihood depends upon the survival of each one his sheep. And a homeowner who loses a very valuable piece of currency. She knows well her domestic economics and that she can not survive without that very valuable coin.
In these parables Jesus teaches us how to respond to the emotional and spiritual crises such essential losses can present in human lives. What are the lessons? First, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and searches for the one. When the essential things of life are lost it requires our full attention and commitment … a willingness to lay aside other priorities to focus on the most essential qualities which are lost.
Secondly, the parable of the lost coin teaches that spiritual light is required to find what is lost. We need illumined those nooks and crannies of life which our normal patterns of daily observation would miss—the blind spots too dark for our natural power of sight.
Yes, like the shepherd and the householder the American soul has lost precious and essential possessions in the attacks upon our symbols of economic vitality and military power—the Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Amidst the rubble of steel, glass and human bodies there is something of our soul which is lost for the living: a sense of security and a sense of Justice. There is now a vulnerability that we feel as everyday Americans; a sense that we and those we love cannot be protected from foreign aggression. A fear that we and those we love are now forever vulnerable to the evil of terror, destruction and mass violence at work and home.
Last week I had the opportunity to make a pastoral visit, regarding this tragedy, with the children in our Cathedral elementary school, Beauvoir. I tried to allow them to talk about what was on their hearts: what had they seen and heard; what they were thinking and feeling. They talked about the terrible loss of life—which included mommies and daddies and little children. They talked about the bad people making bad things happen.
Finally, I asked them: “what did the ‘bad people’ want to make happen by these attacks?’ Everywhere in that assembly came the statement “they want us to be afraid!” There was no hesitation. They instantly knew the intent for they felt it, as do we: the vulnerability, uncertainty, anxiety, apprehensiveness. But they also spoke about the good people who were risking their lives to help others, especially firemen and police and medical personnel. They were beginning to see what St. Paul taught, that “Where evil is present, goodness is even more greatly present.” [Romans 5:20]. And what St. John taught, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not extinguish it” (John 1:5).
The purpose in dastardly evil acts, such as war against innocent civilians is to impose fear. Fear which blinds us to everything but the evil and darkness, fear which disrupts our spiritual capacity to go on with life as an open democracy, as a generous people, as a free, confident and progressive productive society in everyday living.
But even as we see glimpses of goodness, we still have lost our sense of impregnability. If we are to reclaim it we must now lay aside such things as our assumed privileges of so many public conveniences and free access (I will never again complain about the inconvenience of security in airports. Please search me and the guy behind me).
But also, we must lay aside the quick, potent energy of blind rage and revenge which can only power us to make hasty judgments. If, in the weeks and months ahead, we do not find the strength to lay aside such negative energy we will become a society of emotional and spiritual cripples.
On the day of the attack an Israeli teacher said to a Post reporter : “I feel sad because now the Americans will be like us—scared, angry, not safe. I always thought of America as some sort of a Disneyland, innocent, naive and childlike, a place that didn’t have all the scars that we have. Now [I’m afraid] they’ll be cynical like us and they’ll start looking for revenge, like we do.”
On the one hand we have never been a people to live long with cynicism and vengeance. Somehow in our history we have found our way through such mire. Yet we have never in our history had to live with the insecurity of terrorism. But people of faith who have lived in cultures of terror, with whom I have talked—Israelis, Palestinians, South Africans, Liberians, Irish—all say it is their faith, above all else, which keeps them focused, secure in spirit, and hopeful for justice rather than revenge. I am impressed, that although our President is clearly angry he is consistent in saying he seeks justice and not revenge. He has resisted ill-informed and hasty action for retribution and is consulting in accountable ways with other nations—building accountable partnerships to destroy this evil. I pray that we continue to seek Divine wisdom and courage to keep to this course.
I think he and his advisors understand—and we must understand—that justice is never “just about us”, no matter what the tragedy of our experience. When it is just about us it becomes vengeance and blind retribution, and more innocents suffer. The human aspect of this work is not necessarily always passive or non-violent. But true Justice is never about revenge, pure retribution or acting without the light of our spiritual values and accountability to the larger community. We must not become the evil we deplore in the search for justice.
Justice is used in our everyday secular language in courts, police work, and civil rights pursuits. But Justice is a biblical word, a word of religious faith sometimes translated “righteousness.” It means the work of repairing God’s vision for a broken world. It is about making decisions and taking actions which are intended for healing, restoration, wholeness and peace for human community.
I believe that the search for Justice, in the light of the Gospel means more than destroying the cells of assassins and terrorist. In the long view, I believe it means that we must ask, why we are hated in some of countries, some of whom we will need as partners to confront this enemy. Perhaps the light of truth will help us re-examine some of our policies and attitudes over the years which have appeared arrogant and insensitive to less powerful countries and even some allies. I have no questions that many decisions were seen as in the best strategic interest of America. But power and invincibility have a way of making us blind to the interest and dignity of others. It can give us the privilege of being insensitive to the realities of their daily fives.
An Arab student in Jerusalem said, “Now the Americans won’t judge us,. Now they’ll get it—that these terrorists, all of them, aren’t human beings. They’ll do anything. Maybe [the U.S.] won’t be so quick to condemn [all of] us. It is easy for them to be self righteous when [terror] didn’t affect them.”
This is why at a time like this we turn to religious faith. Because our spirituality helps us to be in touch with our deeper beliefs, our deeper values. This does not mean that our feelings of anger, rage and suspicion will easily go away. These are very natural and human responses to tragedy. But true faith is the discipline which helps us to say, evil has caused this unconscionable tragedy and I do not want my pain to make me another tool of that evil.
A local Muslim Imam told me last week that a Sikh man was attacked on the street. As they attacked they were calling their victim a “murderous Muslim.” The attackers saw a turban and assumed that any Eastern-Asian must be a Muslim. American democracy is a beautiful complex mosaic of colors, cultures, religions and races. My brothers and sisters, in the weeks and months to come the gravity of this tragedy will continue to unfold and the pain will increase. We must resist turning on one another.
We must remember that evil does not wear a turban, a tunic. a yarmulke or a cross. Evil wears the garment of a human heart, a garment woven from the threads of hate and fear. (I fear those Christian leaders who accuse other Americans who do not share their political and moral views as culprits for this tragedy; or who say that America is so wicked God has allowed this to happen. Yes, we have our sins and failings, but this is a good nation of good people of a good heart.) That goodness comes from our deep faith in God and democracy. It is this light, this faith which will give us the strength to find Justice with integrity.
Speaking of faith in God, I am also aware that many feel they are losing their faith because they are so angry with God. True spirituality helps us not only to mourn but gives a healing voice to our rage and pain. Anger with God is an act of faith. We do not rail against that which we do not believe exists. We do not rail if we do not think that there is the potential for God to be affected by our passion, our grief, our pain. We rail against God because we believe that God is just by nature and has sinned by not eliminating the potential evil of free will. Anger, hatred towards God is an act of intimate faith. A marriage counselor once said, “healthy anger is love frustrated.” It is a way for lovers to stay engaged in the midst of grave disappointment.
As a people of faith, what we find in prayer is that as we beat upon the breast of our seemingly silent enigmatic God, we are being gently enfolded into the arms of that love which has been frustrated and our soul begins to heal. And in God’s arms the light becomes brighter, enabling us to see the goodness of God in the spirit of good people, risking their very lives for others. People reaching out beyond race, culture and class, religion and personal safety to confront the tragic effects of evil. I find our faith and our prayers portrayed in the words of W.H. Auden’s World War II poem:
“Defenseless under the night, Our world in stupor lies; Yet dotted everywhere, Ironic points of fight Flash out wherever the just exchange their message
May 1, composed like them, of Eros and of dust Beleaguered by the same, negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.”
Finally, no matter where you are in your grief and fear, remember that God is the true Shepherd and Householder. God knows that in great tragedy his children can feel lost, separated from him. But if we will, we can feel God seeking us, reaching out to us, pulling at the strings of our heart. Drawing us even to this Cathedral this morning. Drawing us through the fear, anger, grief and anguish—even our sense of justice lost. Drawing us like a mother to that place in her bosom where there is comfort, goodness, healing and peace. For our Christian faith assures us that we and those who have died are never lost to God.
St. Paul wrote to the persecuted Christians at Rome: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or [violent weapons]?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor [fear of things present, nor things to come, nor [evil] powers, nor the height nor depth [of life], nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:35-39]
Yes God is the Good Shepherd, who will seek us in our tragedy, in our despair, even in our death.… He finds us and bring us home to peace. Amen.