Sunday, September 11, 2011

Playing Favorites: A Sermon for 9/11

Playing Favorites
Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35
September 11, 2011
Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

Sides are sometimes drawn in tangible ways and other times drawn in virtual ways. There are times when we can see a person taking a side and other times when we can only feel the power of a person taking a side.

A dozen or so blocks from where we are now, Democrats sit on the left side of a sometimes tangible and other times imaginary aisle while Republicans sit on the right side of the aisle. These Members of Congress are lobbied by some 12,000 people who spend over three billion dollars each year in an effort to lure them over to the side of whatever issue they represent. Phone calls and appointments are made. Cocktails and crab cakes are consumed, all in an effort to get people to make a decision, to choose a side. Whether it is the environment or taxes, gun rights or how to create jobs, we can all choose a side.

But sides are not limited to Congressional politics. When talking with a colleague this week, I reminded her of the importance of completing an online survey designed to evaluate our bishop. I shared with my colleague how the “other side” was organized and ready, referring to those people who are working hard to get rid of our current bishop. I told my colleague how important it was for those of us on our side to complete the questionnaire – to stand against the other side. As I reflected on the conversation driving back to the church, I realized how easy it is to create divisions with our words and our actions. We are good at taking sides.

I learned the pain of taking sides when my parents were divorcing. When Dad moved out I watched as friends, neighbors, church members and grandparents all took a side – some choosing to stand with my mother and others choosing to stand with my father. Some people who were once close to both of my parents were no longer visible in our lives. I also learned how easy it is for a parent to lobby his or her children into taking a side – that even children are sometimes unfairly swayed to take a side in complex parental disputes.

When have you taken a side? How many times have you aligned yourself with someone or something? How many times have you responded to the question, “Whose side are you on?”

We all take sides both consciously and unconsciously.

But what about God?

Does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

We are in the second week of our sermon series, Exiting Egypt: Examining Exodus. We started last week by looking at the Passover. We heard the specific instructions God gives to Moses concerning God’s plans to kill the firstborn in each Egyptian home while passing over the Israelites. Since last week, the Egyptians have awakened to the horror of devastating loss while the Israelites are vowing to always remember what God has done for them by roasting the right-sized lamb with the right herbs and the right unleavened bread. The Israelites have seen the strong hand of God while Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened with an unwillingness to let the Israelites go.

It’s time for the journey to continue. God knows that the Israelites are still a little tenuous when it comes to leaving Egypt. The Israelites are still more comfortable with what they know, even though what they know is bondage, than they are with letting go and trusting God to lead them into freedom. As a result, God is doing everything God can to make sure they continue towards the Promised Land.

While a more direct route exists between the current location of the Israelites and the Promised Land, God knows that if the Israelites see an Egyptian army pursuing them that they will immediately turn back so God comes up with an alternate plan.

Going ahead of them as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, God leads the Israelites to the side of the sea. But the mass of more than 600,000 people plus children and animals is not able to move without catching the attention of the Egyptians. Pharaoh learns that he is seemingly losing all of servants and quickly gets ready for battle. 600 picked chariots along with every other chariot in Egypt are readied to push in on the Israelites. The Egyptian army is fully prepared for battle. The Israelites are running out of room with the army on one side and the sea on the other. But God has not forgotten them.

As we just read, God instructs Moses to lift his hand over the sea. Moses follows the instructions, the sea parts forming walls of water on both sides, and the Israelites walk through the sea on dry ground. When every Israelite has safely crossed to the other side with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the walls of water disappear covering the ground that was once dry, and every Egyptian drowns. Not one person in Pharaoh’s army survived while all of the Israelites safely crossed over the sea.

Does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

Like most of you here today, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of airplanes crashing into the twin towers in New York City. I remember the Dean of Duke Divinity School opening the door of our student services staff meeting to let us know that something terrible had happened in New York City. I remember gathering around a television set to watch the replays of planes being used as weapons. And I remember gathering in the Divinity School chapel to pray after we learned that four planes had crashed in three different cities.

I remember the first time I met a 9/11 widow who forced me to imagine what it was like to have a toddler at home and to be pregnant with your second child. She illuminated my mind with the story of waiting for confirmation of her husband’s death, telling me how the only piece of her husband that remained was a bone from a finger that a policeman brought to her door months after 9/11.

I remember reading an email from a dear friend who told me about losing his best friend on United Airlines flight 77, a flight number we will never forget even though the number will never be used again.

I remember the sight of sanctuaries being filled to capacity as people who never went to church before packed into pews, yearning for a word of hope on the Sunday following 9/11.

I remember seeing more bumper stickers with the words, “God Bless America” printed on them than I had ever seen before.

I remember relearning how easy it is to take sides and how easy it is to assume that God is always on our side. Some of us were so angry that day because things like this do not happen to the United States. We have been taught to believe that we are always God’s favored nation.

But does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

The Exodus journey begins with God appearing to Moses in a burning bush. The Lord says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…”[1] God continues, “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress the Israelites.”

God calls Moses to help God deliver the people. God does something but only after God has seen the pain of the people. God responds when God sees suffering. God shows up when God sees oppression. Like all of us, God is sensitive to pain. God sides with people who are in pain, people who are in misery and people who are being oppressed.

Many people have asked where God was on Tuesday, September 11. It is a difficult question to answer when we have been taught to believe that God is all powerful and all knowing. While we are all grateful for the gift of free will, there are times when we would give anything for God to not give us so many choices, especially choices that can lead to so much harm. What if God would have tied the arms of terrorists instead of allowing them to execute their plans? What if God would have used the terrorists to strike another nation so that we might continue to live with unnecessary goggles that only allow us to see a favored nation status?

God does not take away our ability to make decisions – no matter what. We are not puppets on a string with everything already figured out and God holding the handles.

But if God is Emmanuel, God with us, then God is fully present in all places and at all times. If the steadfast love of God is established forever then this love seeps in to all places and perhaps especially the broken cracks around us.

There is no doubt in my mind that God was with all 2753 persons who died in New York City – that God knew each one by name, each family member they left behind, each award they had won, each dream they had dreamed. And I believe that the same is true for every single one of the 189 people who died at the Pentagon and the 44 people who died in Pennsylvania. Each person was a beloved child of God, intricately woven by God in the depths of their mother’s womb. God was present in every memorial service, funeral and burial. And, God has seen the pain and misery that has been magnified in the last ten years.

God wept on this day and if we could hear the sound of God weeping, perhaps it would be just as loud as the sounds coming from Egyptian houses on the day after the Passover. God wept with each person on the planes. God wept with each person who lost a loved one. And God’s weeping was not only for the victims. God’s weeping was not reserved for our side.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text that was created around the 10th Century to be read at each Passover Seder table. The Haggadah is the text from which people read the story that helps Jews remember how they have been passed over. But the Haggadah does not allow people to travel far into believing that God is only on their side. Rather, part of the tradition of the Haggadah is that the salt water of the sea represents both the sweat of Israelites slaves’ brows and the tears of the Egyptians who are mourning their great loss. While many people want to cheer when the Israelites obtain victory on the other side of the sea, the midrash pictures God telling the people to please quiet their cheers. God is not celebrating when the Israelites are safely on dry ground. Rather, God is weeping. God is weeping because the Egyptians who have died are also God’s children.

If this teaching is true then God wept at the actions and deaths of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the four passenger planes just as God wept at the deaths of their 2,966 victims who expected Tuesday, September 11, 2001 to be just another day.

I purchased a new devotional book this week. The book provides a pattern for daily prayer that goes like this: becoming aware of God’s presence, inviting God’s intervention, listening for God’s voice, reflection time, making our requests known, offering of self to God, and blessing. I used the book for the first time on Friday morning. With the rain still falling and a cup of coffee in my hand, I allowed the book to guide me through my devotional time only to find myself being completely arrested when I got to the guidelines for making my requests known.

I was invited to make my requests known to God by offering specific prayers: prayers for our world, its people and leaders, prayers for the church and its leaders, prayers for those in our circle of responsibility, and prayers for myself. I was doing fine until I got to the prayers for those in my circle of responsibility. My first reaction was to think, “Well, that’s easy. I only have to pray for Craig.” But God would not let me stop with my husband. Rather, different people kept entering my mind. My imagination was soon expanded to include many people in my circle of responsibility: my mother and father, my sister and brother, my nieces and cousins, my neighbors and friends, and every single one of you. I soon discovered that my circle of responsibility is very large, and that I am not allowed to pray only for the one person with whom I most closely and intimately share life.

I then thought about God interceding on behalf of God’s circle of responsibility. While we like to think that we are always at the top of the list or that God is always far more eager to bless America than God is ready to bless another nation, a song kept coming to mind. It is a song many of us were taught as children when we sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

God’s circle of responsibility includes every single living thing: every bird in the air, every animal that walks the earth, every creature in the sea, and every single person – terrorist and victim, Christian and Muslim, believer and doubter, innocent and guilty, you and me. And just when we are convinced that we are finally recipients of most favored nation or most favored person status, God shows us how big God’s hands are before letting us know that God’s heart is even larger.

It is not our responsibility to figure out which side God is on. It is our responsibility, however, to rest with confidence that God’s hands are upon us. We can believe without a shadow of doubt that God has seen and continues to see our pain, that God feels our pain, and that God is with us in our pain. We can face this day and all of our days to come with the full assurance that God is with us and that God will never leave us nor forsake us. And when we have done everything we can to place ourselves on the other side of God, we discover that God does not turn God’s back on us like we are so prone to do to others around us. Rather, we are promised that we can come back to God no matter what because the thing about God is that God’s side and God’s favorites seem to constantly be changing.

[1] Exodus 3:7-8.

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