September 13, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 19

Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a; Psalm 116: 1-8; James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27 - 38


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

On September 10, 2001, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School opened its doors for the first time, welcoming new students, parents and families. I imagine that it was a day of celebration as the church welcomed students into the renovated Montessori classrooms for the first time where they met their teachers. It was a good day. It was a day to celebrate all the tremendous work it had taken to start a school at St. Andrew’s.  

The morning of the next day, September 11, 2001, while students returned to St. Andrew’s School, much of the country watched in horror and shock as a United Airlines and American Airlines passenger jet collided into the World Trade Center towers. Moments later a third jet, American Airlines flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, set on a course to crash into our nation’s capital, was bravely diverted and crashed in rural Pennsylvania. 

One year later, on Wednesday, September 11, 2002, I attended an interfaith service of remembrance in recognition of the first anniversary of the attacks on September 11 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  I was in my first year of seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary across the Potomac River in Alexandria. I remember driving to the National Cathedral, passing the Pentagon, and seeing armed troops and large 30 MM artillery cannons poised to retaliate if such an attack occurred again.  

The Cathedral itself was full, standing room only, and I watched as dignitaries, clergy from every denomination, rabbis, imams, hindu and buddhist leaders all process and take their place near the altar. The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Africa, delivered an impassioned homily that encouraged those gathered to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote in chapter 2 of his hope that one day war would cease. The prophet write “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

The worship service was a sacred and holy space where for a moment, it felt as if every person inside was united, regardless of race or religion. The sense that we were united in our commitment to work for peace, to distill hope from the tragedy of the events a year ago was palpable in the room. I left the National Cathedral that day feeling hopeful about the future, empowered by the experience of shared unity, and committed to work for the cause of peace. 

As you might expect, this feeling of unity I felt in many ways contradicted the thoughts and feelings of others.  In the days following I heard rhetoric of hate and retaliation from amongst my pears, people who called themselves Christian, and were studying to become priests. I remember walking into the restroom of a restaurant one evening. I passed by one of the stalls and what I saw written on the toilet seat lid immediately grabbed my attention. It was just one word, and beside it was an arrow pointing to the bottom of the toilet bowl. The word read “Muslims” and my assumed implication was that this was a reflection of the author’s disdain and hatred for this religious group. I wondered if he, too, was a Christian.

I don’t ask that you agree with the religion of Islam, but I firmly believe that such a statement of hatred as I saw that day was, in my opinion, not one that Jesus himself would make. This is but one example of how throughout our human history, incendiary comments have started and perpetuated systems of war, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.

The author of the letter of James, whom we hear today, cautiously warns us about the power of our words. James writes that “the tongue is a fire, it stains the whole body, it sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

What power we have in what we say or choose not to say.  It is easy to harbor prejudice against a group of people as long as we generalize them. All Muslims are violent fundamentalists. All drug addicts have no self control. All politicians are corrupt, all Christians are hypocrites. These prejudices work as long as we never meet an educated and devout Muslim, an addict in recovery, a politician with integrity, or a Christian who however imperfect, seeks to pattern their life the best they can on the teachings of rarely, if ever, survives our experience.

Author Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People book presents a simple way to guard one’s tongue, and it is this: don’t say something about someone not present that you wouldn’t say directly to their face.  If we do that, if we speak with integrity and not judgment or hate, then we beat the sword of gossip into a plowshare of love. We transform the spear of hate into a pruning hook of peace.  This, my friends,  is how we change the world. AMEN.