Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
September 17, 2017
Text: Romans 14:10, O.T.: Psalm 114, N.T.: Romans 14:1-12
On September 11, 2001, Americans awakened to the beauty of the Lord’s Day. We were a people who usually refrained from judging each other. We had our disputes, our arguments over weighty topics, and our disagreements over lesser topics. But we were a people at peace.
Democrats and Republicans defended their opposing social views. But, they met in Congress, state legislatures, and in religious congregations across the country, respecting the other’s freedom to a different opinion.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, and atheists went to work, to school, to daycare centers to drop off their children. Our children learned and played together, ate together, were taught to stand together as a responsibility of being an American.
Our multi-national corporations spanned the globe. American businessmen were bridging the gap between our nation and foreign nations in a free-market meant to benefit everyone. Some corporations marketed products that were altering foreign cultures. But the people of those lands desired the products, or there would not have been a demand for them.
We were the center of the global economy. No place stood closer to the center than the World Trade Center’s towers. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others worked there. Vegans and carnivores worked side by side without judgment, in peace.
America stood as a land of promise for a world divided by judgment.
If there is one hope that inspired the American dream, it’s the hope of being one people where equality is honored by all. Not all are equal. Not all are honored by others. But the dream is the dream that unites America, and for most of those from other shores who came to our land.
We took to the skies unconcerned about our safety. Our freedom was limited only by our own choices and goals. Our borders, for the most part, were open for anyone to cross. Our nation’s capital was free for the world to see. Our domestic tranquility was protected by a military where Muslims, Christians, Jews and others wore the nation’s uniform, as one.
It never occurred to us the judgment of an angry people could reach the heart of the American dream.
It never occurred to us that the vision of a people of reconciliation, of a nation that transcends the foreign barriers of judgment, would be so threatening to others’ beliefs that they could penetrate the tranquility we believe to be the world’s hope.
America, in many ways, exemplifies the hope of Christ’s communion. People of various nations, races, and creeds unite around a table of reconciliation, making their home together in peace. We’re mostly void of judgments in foreign lands that deny civil and human rights. America repudiates political and most religious beliefs that deny people equality before God’s sight. Even Christianity’s most distinct claims about Jesus Christ’s sovereignty do not result in the denial of non-believers’ political, civil, and human rights in America. Christians would have it no other way.
But for those whose hearts are filled with judgment, America was the global threat. At even the most inconsequential level of our diet, the freedom we have to eat anything without considering it an offense to others was regarded by some in the world as outrageous. The equality men and women have in America was considered abominable. The freedom we have to pursue various lifestyles, customs, religious beliefs, was considered evil. The export of our national culture, which we so deeply desire, was considered not of God. On 9/11, we came face to face with a human judgment to destroy the God-given reconciliation and tranquility that we believe is the world’s hope. 9/11 was a personal indictment of each of us.
Each of us remembers the moment we first learned about the 9/11 attacks. It’s very personal to us. We can relive the sickening feeling we felt as we watched the World Trade Center collapsing. We who have made the pilgrimage to Shanksville, gaze across the peaceful field to the forest line beyond and weep remembering what happened to Flight 93.
Bob Patterson remembers that field, the woods of death and destruction that judgment day brought. The hell of those woods is very personal for him and his rescue dogs that searched for survivors. Both of his rescue dogs died within a year after being exposed to the carnage.
On that morning of 9/11, we came face to face with the fear of losing the dream, the tranquility, the freedom that America cherishes.
On the morning of 9/11, we came face to face with the knowledge that others do not share our national vision of reconciliation and peace for all is the world’s hope.
On the morning of 9/11, we came face to face with the fact – living without judgment threatens our security. Each of us was called to examine the meaning of judgment and our national vision of reconciliation.
Judgment became personal – a personal struggle between the vision of hope that inspires us as Americans, and the fear of losing it.
Through the years since, we’ve struggled with judgment while trying to uphold America’s vision of reconciliation. I remember returning home from Florida after leading my uncle’s funeral, and seeing three Muslim women in their veils, sitting in the Tampa air terminal, ready to board the plane to Pittsburgh. I had been involved in Christian, Jewish, Muslim dialogue for years and never felt the emotions I experienced in that terminal, trying to overcome my fear and judgment of those women.
I prayed, turned over the question of judgment to God, and boarded the airliner with them, like tens of thousands of Americans have done since 9/11. The vision of reconciliation remains.
Two and a half years after 9/11, I was invited to speak at a convocation held at the Boyce Campus of CCAC. It was an ethical debate over our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Several Baby Boomer college professors, my peers, repeated the Vietnam protest against going to war. They were protected by our national vision of freedom of speech as they condemned our military actions as unjust. They were unsuccessful in persuading their Millennial audience to judge the actions of our government in response to terrorists who had brought so much fear to America’s shores.
Instead, the audience applauded three young men in the room who were in military uniform, who had just returned from service in Iraq. It was the Millennials’ response to the fear they felt.
But neither was the audience daily struggling with their freedom. This age group freely explores the Internet, without fear their freedom is judged evil by others. Their affluence spends billions of dollars annually as the American consumer, shopping and entertaining, freely pursuing their desires. They were fearlessly living their version of the American dream while their nation was going into debt paying for the war against terrorism. This audience was honoring their peers who were serving America’s cause overseas. But they and most of America were not sacrificing much for the cause. Certainly not near the level of the families of the 2,996 who died on 9/11, another 6,928 service men and women who have now died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 and another 52,000 service men and women are wounded fighting terrorism since that judgment day.
I’ve struggled with judgment in the face of this discrepancy. Is not our freedom and national reconciliation worthy of our equal sacrifice to preserve its greater good? Are we not afraid of losing both in defending our judgment against evil?
I carried my struggle before one of the young men in uniform in the audience, a Marine. I asked him what his thoughts were upon returning to America from Iraq. He personally sacrificed for America. He returned to a nation where few students were sacrificing in solidarity with what he and others were sacrificing abroad.
His answer was typically American. It was not judgmental. “Sir, I went to Iraq to defend the right of these students to live freely. I have no problem with whether they are making a sacrifice with me. I’m doing what I believe I have to do to serve the freedom for which our country stands.”
There lies the dilemma of 9/11’s judgment that remains today, sixteen years later. Each of us wrestles with the personal responsibility of being Americans – to live without judgment in a world that threatens the non-judgmental ethic we try to practice as a nation of reconciliation.
Each day since 9/11, we pass through the air port terminal we call life. We’re continually screened for the potential of a threat. A judgment is made by others about our intentions. The judgment threatens our freedom.
If we totally succumb to fear and live solely in judgment, we lose our freedom to live in reconciliation with others that makes America great and secures our national tranquility. We will cease to be the people who woke up the morning of 9/11, who went to work at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and climbed aboard four air liners secure in the greatness of our national vision.
We will cease to have fire fighters who freely climb stories to save all who live in America in judgment’s burning tower. We will cease to have ambulance drivers and emergency care givers to freely venture forth to aid all who live in America at the risk of their lives. We will cease to have police and law enforcement officials who temper judgment’s scale with a conscience formed by their personal honor for others’ rights to live.
We will lose the spiritual foundation of Jesus’ Upper Room with his disciples upon which our national ethic of reconciliation was built.
Alan Long grew up in the church I previously served. His mother prayed unceasingly after 9/11 when he served as a nurse anesthetist in Khost, Afghanistan at the foot of the Tora Bora Mountains. He was part of a medical team of the U.S. Army whose primary duty was to save the lives of Afghan villagers and their children, who were maimed and wounded by the judgments of the Taliban. He and his medical team offered Khost’s Muslims the vision of America we see every day, and so often take for granted. It’s a vision the Taliban and Al-Qaida deny. He said, “We’re changing hearts. But there are so many whose hearts need to be changed.”
Only as we rely upon God to help us cast our fears from the core of our collective heart do we join Todd Beamer on Flight 93, and pray to our Father to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and go forth to sacrifice ourselves for America’s great hope.
We’ve learned during these intervening years to join those first responders in New York City – living beyond our fear. Each day is another day for us to honor their sacrifice by offering ourselves for the vision of reconciliation for which they died.
We’ve learned during these past sixteen years there’s a price to being a people who are reconciled to one another. We are carrying the Cross of that price Jesus carried, with courage, grace, mercy, and fortitude.
We’ve been learning during these past sixteen years what makes our vision of reconciliation great lies in the continuing faith of each American in Jesus’ work on the Cross that unites us as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. For as much as we have learned, there is much more that we need to learn if we are going to live up to the ideal of Jesus’ Upper Room.
Our faith in Jesus’ vision of reconciliation remains the world’s hope beyond 9/11 because we have not succumbed to the temptation of living imprisoned by fear. We do this because we know God is love. He calls us to love one another.
As we show this in our daily lives, we continue the hope that overcomes the evil which lies in the darkness of human judgment.