The Rev. Dr. James Forbes
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, it is always a delight for me to come to share in the worship life of this community. This is a special place aesthetically, and it also achieves a spiritual sense of place where God is present and where our lives are to be enriched as we share together in Christ’s name.
You should know that I feel a special sense of comfort in being present with my friend, Dean Baxter. We have known each other for many years, and in some sense you should know that by prayer, I am implicated in his ministry here, and I have a sense that at Riverside Church in New York, we benefit from the grace that is shed in this place.
Now I want to speak out of the experience of the last few months, three months almost now since that tragic day in September when we experienced the shaking of the foundations of our national pride and sense of security and power. The Negro spiritual intones these words, “My Lord, what a morning when the stars began to fall.” How very true.
My Lord, what a morning, when the World Trade Center Towers and a wall of the Pentagon began to fall. My Lord, what a morning, when symbols of our economic strength and military might were mocked, maligned and massacred by the madness of human beings enslaved in flight and used for missiles of mass destruction.
It’s autumn, into winter now, but the autumn of 2001 has witnessed more than falling leaves. Confidence, hope, trust, our economy, bombs and babies, bullets and bread and peace talks, falling around us.
But thanks be to God, we have made it through somehow! And the second Sunday of Advent is here. We’ve come this far by faith leaning on the Lord. Our souls look back and wonder how we got over.
Now my job this morning is to share with you something about what has been helpful to me since that awful day. And also to suggest a possible response we might make individually and as a nation to the events we continue to lament.
Here’s where it started for me. From early childhood my parents used to quote from the King James’ Version, Romans 8:28. Whenever we children experienced bad things, sooner or later somebody would remind us, “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to God’s purpose.” This theological perspective became almost instinctual for me in reaction to any tragic situation. Now I never thought at all that God caused, or even willed, atrocities and barbarous action, but I was convinced from my youth up that nothing could happen but that God could find a way in the midst of the rubble, to bring some good out of it. This angle of understanding was later expressed, just right for me, by the late John Bennett, who was once the President of Union Theological Seminary, who said, “God does not will everything. But God wills something out of everything.” That’s right, I think. That’s just about right.
Now, you notice that to the confidence that God is at work in everything, there is also in Romans 8:28 the requirement that we discern what we are supposed to do in the midst of the crisis. Remember the verse said, “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,” that’s God’s purposes, but then, “also to those who are called according to God’s purpose.” It is not only that God is at work in the situation, but you and I and our brothers and sisters from far and near, we have our responsibility to find that good thing to extract from the awful circumstances, something that is positive. My faith calls me that way.
My faith calls me, yes, to hope and to action. It speaks to me like this: If tragedy strikes, make it pay dearly with something that is a greater good than the evil which has been done. My faith tells me: upstage death and destruction by amazing grace. So, go on. Tally the dead, the maimed, buildings destroyed, evil impulses fanned into dishonorable deeds, dollars lost, wars raged, liberties subverted, and ideals abandoned. Calculate, if you will, the magnitude of the horror. And then, set to work, with God, and do not rest until unnumbered blessings break out in a title wave of righteous deeds. Or until the earth be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.
Since September 11th, out of my Romans 8:28 sensibilities, I have been on constant vigil, looking for that something God wills now. And that something that I, and we together, are called to do in service of God’s purpose. What we have experienced—the attack, the threats, anthrax, the retaliations, and retaliatory counter-threats–these things have been so disturbing, so disorienting, and so depressing that one really has to strain one’s eyes through the dust, the clouds, and continuing smoke from out of the rubble at Ground Zero, and the media glut of war reports. One has to strain to see out of all of this the great and our place in God’s ordained path to peace, justice and compassion.
Well, I’m glad to report, I’m seeing some grace. I’m glad to report on what I have seen. Thanks be to God, grace has made a welcomed appearance here and there in the last few months. The heroic acts of compassion, magnanimity of spirit, blood donors, volunteers, contributors, candles honoring the death, businesses caring for families of their lost loved ones, the almost parental attention of political leaders in New York and in Washington and around this nation, and the speed with which assistance agencies have responded, and the benefit concerts, and in general, the discovery in America of a tenacity and a resiliency of spirit, and a basic human goodness in the hearts of our fellow citizens. That’s some grace working out of that disgraceful moment.
And also, I’ve seen some grace in the way faith communities of different religious tradition, have responded in funerals, memorial services, counseling, social service ministries, and strong advocacy for tolerance and restraint befitting a truly democratic society.
And I’ve also seen the ground swell of expressions of patriotism, the waving of the flag, and also pausing at curtain call time at Broadway plays and sports events and even at the stock exchange, for the heart-felt singing of “God, Bless America.”.
And I recognize that some of us sing “God, Bless America” in relatively safe space, and yet there are others who even now, in places of great peril to their lives, are doing the best they can according to their understanding to help things be better for those of us around the world who love freedom.
So I say, thanks be to God, for these fragments of grace in these never-to-be-forgotten days of doom and gloom.
But today, today, I want to report on what may prove to be the most significant blessing to emerge from the impact of 9 – 11.
Let me say it first interrogatively. Could it be, that out of the crisis brought by the attacks of September 11th, our nation will come to see the need for a great spiritual awakening? Can you imagine the promise of a spiritually renewed United States of America, at work with God in this time of terror, offering itself as a spiritually grounded and re-energized nation, ready to fulfill its destiny as the leader of a coalition of compassionate nations, uniting to lift up justice, peace, equality, respect and compassion, as the foundation stones of a viable society in this age of globalization?
Well, let me acknowledge something. I have introduced this idea in the form of a question. But if I tell the truth, there is no question in my mind. I must acknowledge that really, it’s more than a question. It’s even more than a suggestion. Today, I stand in this pulpit with a convictional invicative of what I think God is longing to do for the good of nation, and God is longing to have us join in participation for a purpose even grander than our nationalistic longing for repair and recovery of our pride and power and our premiere place as the only super power on earth.
That’s what I want to say. I want to say to everybody in the choirs and around, that out of the awful circumstances of September 11th, if we listen carefully, we may hear God saying, “alright now, don’t you see, a nation that was built upon a respect for a God who wills all of us to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That nation cannot fulfill its destiny if it has broken sensitivity and contact with the God who has willed us to be this grand and glorious nation. And so, that’s what I want to tell you.
I simply want to give you an outline of that possibility. I stand here salivating, no ventilating, out of anticipation that maybe out of all of this, just possibly, the United States of America may find its way back to a sense of spiritual grounding for the lifting up of the democratic ideals. Without God’s presence and power we can’t get it done now. And so that’s what I wanted to talk about.
And my time’s just about up already!
But let me tell you how I came to this conviction. Well, it’s like this. For sometime now I’ve been feeling that my life has no other major purpose than spiritual revitalization of the nation. And I’ve been talking this a long time. Way back in 1984, God said, “This is what’s got to happen. We got to have spiritual revitalization wherever you go. That’s what you are working on.” But this 9-11, I found myself renewed in that conviction. I was so conflicted between my pastoral duties after that time, and my prophetic responsibility after that time, until I didn’t even feel it was safe to go outside of my house without first of all checking in with the Spirit. I even wrote a little song that I try to sing before I go out into the streets.
“Holy Spirit, lead me, guide me, as I move throughout this day. May your guidance deep inside me, show me what to do and say. In the power of your presence, strength and courage will increase. In the wisdom of your guidance is the path that leads to peace.”
So I was beginning, day by day, to say, “Holy Spirit, I don’t think it’s safe for me to leave my house without getting some clue from you about what I ought to do. And then one Sunday morning, this Holy Spirit thing was stirred up again in me, when they had down at Ground Zero, out of the rubble, a white pigeon came up. And I don’t know what the rest of the folks thought about it, but given my background with respect to doves and turtledoves and pigeons and all, when I see something white like that flying up, I just happen to think about the Holy Spirit. So there it was again!
And then as people were singing, “God, Bless America,” I got the impression, especially from Romans 8 in another place where it says, “the Spirit makes intercession for us according to the mind of God.” And we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but I heard my nation singing that song, and many of them didn’t know it, but the Holy Spirit had seized that song and heaven thought America was actually praying, when they were singing, “God, Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night, with the light from above.” All the angels stopped and the whole heaven’s said, “Listen, all America is praying to us in the light of this event.”
I thought about that. And then I thought I wonder what will it be like if God really thinks we were praying that our nation might be blessed? What would it look like if God actually would bless America? I got to thinking that if this is a prayer, maybe God will grand the United States of America an audience. And if God granted us an audience, maybe there would be a change. Perhaps we would get a chance to ask God, “God, tell us, why does someone hate us this much?” And God might give a much different answer than you pick up here and there. We might ask God, “God, is there anything we need to change, or to strengthen about our national purpose, that will make it better for us?” We could change that exchange with God. We could talk with God about, “God, what have we left undone on the home front? And what have we done in relationship to the Third World? And, God, is there a path that we could take that could really give us sustained peace so we can promote democracy as the leader of the free world?”
If God gives us an audience, can you imagine what that would be? In fact, I want everybody to think about this, every time you hear that song sung, “God, Bless America.” Think of it as God says, “OK, I’m listening, what have you got to say? And what do you have to ask? And what will it look like from your perspective if I would bless your nation?”
Of course, if you sing that song in God’s presence, you might have to sing it like, ….well, …even God as we say “God, Bless America”, we understand that the United States of America is not America. The United States is a part of a hemisphere. And then there’s North America, and then there’s South America, and there’s Central America. And I don’t think we’d want to come before God asking God to bless us to the neglect of the rest of the Americas. You see what I’m trying to say?
I’m talking about if, if we’re really praying this prayer to God. We got to broaden it out. In fact, when my predecessor, Bill Coffin, said, “that when you go to God, you’ve got to ask for a blessing for Afghanistan too.” If you’re asking “God, bless America,” you’ve got to throw in some other numbers, or else God will think you are coming before the courts of glory asking for preferential treatment when God says all the children of the earth are my children. You have to be careful how you sing that song if God is listening!
And furthermore, if uncharacteristic of me, you know that I don’t preach from the lextionary most of the time. But Dean Baxter sent me all four Lessons. And I have read those Lessons over and over again, at least ten times. I mean, you read the Lessons for Advent too. They’re right there in your bulletin. Read them over and over.
Let me tell you what happened to me. When I read the Isaiah passage about the righteousness of God being like water that covers the sea, and how the Root out of Jesse was going to be filled with the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge and counsel and might, the Holy Spirit got active again in me. Even though I’m being finished off in my refinement at Riverside, the Holy Ghost got active again in me because I’m hearing in this Isaiah passage that the Holy Spirit is just pulsing, just waiting for America to truly to act for God living dynamic, wisdom, justice, power and compassion. I meaning, even the Psalm…I was going to leave the Psalter out, but it’s talking about a nation, asking that our rulers will be endowed with grace, and that they will be champions for the needy, and that they will be ones who will look toward lifting the banners, the barriers of oppression from those. The Psalm had it.
And then I read the Epistle. The Epistle! I mean, let me tell you how it ended, and the Spirit is getting stirred up all the time. Notice the Epistle ended, “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Let me tell you the Holy Spirit’s getting stirred up in me.
I think God is intending to call America to spiritual revitalization. And as if that were not enough, did you all listen to the Gospel