September 11, 2001
Editor’s Note: The following sermon was delivered on September 16, 2001at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Pepperell, Massachusetts.
Listen to the Prophets by Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
I can’t confine my sermon to the appointed lessons today. The matters we are trying to deal with are too big. I need the whole Book to help me wrestle with what has happened in New York and Washington — really throughout the country and the world. I need the Psalms to help me break through the shock and FEEL; and to help me deal with WHAT I feel once those feelings come. I need the Prophets to help me move beyond my feelings into thought and action. I need the Gospels and Epistles to sustain me in the face of the horror and uncertainty.
When we met here on Tuesday night to worship and to cope together, folks seemed to find it relatively easy to talk about their shock and their grief. But it took a little longer for us to begin to talk about the anger and the vengefulness. Perhaps that’s because we’ve come to believe that such feelings aren’t Christian. And it’s true that we’re taught that it’s inappropriate to act on those feelings — or to nurture them. We’re to weed them out rather than tend them and help them grow.
That’s all true. But it’s also true that they are human feelings. People sometimes feel that way. Even good people. Even the people of God. And, if you doubt that, if you’re tempted to feel guilty for having these feelings, just turn to the book of Psalms. Psalms is a collection of hymns, poetry, conversations with, or at, God. They were written by a people who knew about suffering and injustice. The people of Israel had been enslaved, mistreated, oppressed, dispossessed more times than we would care to count. They knew about unjust suffering and destruction. And often they raged about it. In fact, if you want help getting in touch with your own rage and grief and, yes, even vengefulness, I suggest you look at the psalms (start, if you like with Psalm 94) to see just how angry God’s people could get.
And we do need to get in touch with those feelings. Because the truth is, we can’t weed them out until we notice and acknowledge them. If we bury those feelings deep in order to hide them even from ourselves, they simply WILL NOT go away. Rather they will grow, unhampered by our better judgment. If we refuse to see them they will, sooner or later, come out and bite us from behind. They will manipulate and control us. We cannot manage these feelings, we cannot choose not to let them govern our judgment and our actions unless and until we acknowledge that we have them.
But eventually, the shock and grief subside and then (and, sometimes, before then) we have to decide what we think and how we will act. For that I turn first to the prophets. The psalmists, too, eventually moved beyond rage, despair, and vengefulness. They, too, began to think about how to think about the awful things that happened to them. They would begin to look for what they could learn; to search for their own responsibility; and to thank God for "punishing" them so that they could be saved from their own errors. Today, we understand these things not to be God’s punishment. We believe that God never wills terrible things upon us or anyone else. But still, if we are wise or faithful, we look to see what we need to learn.
This is where the prophets prove invaluable. They, too, tend to use language of punishment, but the whole dynamic of prophesy illuminates terrible events as the logical consequences of human choices rather as something divinely imposed. You see, the prophets were not fortune-tellers. They didn’t look into a crystal ball and foretell the future. What they did was more along the lines of reading the handwriting on the wall.
The prophets would say to the community, "If you don’t change your behavior, you will suffer consequences. If you continue to accrue wealth at others’ expense, leaving many to starve while a few revel in luxury, those poor will eventually rise up against you. If you enslave and oppress others they will rebel. And when these things happen it will not go well with those who led the oppression, those who benefited from it, or those who could have done something yet stayed silent." And sometimes people would listen, change their ways, and be saved and other times they wouldn’t and catastrophe would follow. This is what made the prophet’s life so miserable. The best she could hope for was that people listened and amended their lives. But then, of course, the dire consequences the prophet had predicted would not occur and no one would ever know for sure that the prophet wasn’t a crackpot. The alternative was that people ignored the warnings and continued to carry on as before, the inevitable destruction follows and everyone can see that the prophet had been right. But how much pleasure can you take in being right when it means your community has been left in ruins?
So, the prophets teach us to look for our own responsibility in the disasters that befall us. Please understand, I do not want to suggest that God caused this attack to punish us, nor do I want to suggest that it was justified. Still, our hands are not entirely clean and the prophets tell us that we had better learn from this or expect to see it repeated. The fact is, a large group of people prepared a long time to do this to us. Many people were willing to die to do this to us. What could bring them to such hatred and hopelessness and are we, in any way responsible? Others danced in the streets when they heard of our suffering. Not their leaders. Not entire countries. But significant numbers of people in various places rejoiced in our pain and loss. What could bring anyone to hate us so much?
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to those questions. But I suspect that it’s not unlike the reasons the psalmists sometimes asked God to do terrible things to others. I suspect that it has to do with economics and land and oppression. When a people starve, when they watch their children and their parents die in hunger and their society disintegrate while others have more than they know what to do with and do nothing to help, hatred can grow. When a people see the land their ancestors have lived on for generations taken from them, when their homes are destroyed over and over and their children are killed and the bullets and the bombs have "Made in America" written on them — is it any wonder that they laugh to see us get what must seem to them a taste of our own medicine? And when we train others in terrorist tactics, and arm them, and send them out to fight those we perceive as our enemy so that we won’t have to fight ourselves, how can we be surprised when they turn the skills and the arms we gave them against us?
Our hands are not clean. And the prophets tell us that, unless we acknowledge that and look to amend our common life — well, the handwriting is on the wall.
We must, as a nation and as a part of the community of nations, decide how we will respond. What will we do with ourselves and what will we do to those who did this? Again, I don’t pretend to have the answers to those questions. I turn to the Gospels and the Epistles not to provide those answers but to provide the foundation from which such decisions can wisely be made.
Tuesday night we used the Compline service (the service for the end of the day) as the framework for our time of prayer and conversation. There’s a short reading in that service from one of the epistles. It says, "Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary as a ravening lion walketh about seeing whom he may devour." Be sober. Be vigilant. Be careful.
If you believe that evil was behind those attacks — not that the attackers were evil, but that their actions were — let me tell you this. Evil is not interested in our bodies. It does not care about killing us. Evil wants to devour us. It wants our souls. It doesn’t want us dead. It wants us evil. It wants us to become what we hate.
The terrorists’ goal was not to destroy some buildings and kill some people — even thousands of people. That was merely a means to an end. What they want to destroy is us — all of us. They want to destroy our way of life. And to the extent that we respond by eliminating ANYONE’s civil liberties; by abandoning, in fear or hatred, any of the principles of freedom and justice for all that we hold so dear, that have shaped this nation; by persecuting others at home or abroad, to exactly that extent, they will have succeeded.
Evil wants more than our destruction. It wants to own our souls. And to the extent that we allow our anger and our lust for revenge to rule us, we will have become the very thing we abhor and evil will have won.
I don’t know how we get beyond the anger. It’s too soon for me to see that path with any clarity. But I know it’s the path we must take. And I know that denial of our very real and very human emotions will cripple rather than help us. So I invite you to turn to the Psalms and let the anger and grief of our forebears help you to notice and acknowledge your own.
I know also that we must learn even from something as horrible as this — especially from something as horrible as this. So I urge you to turn to the prophets to learn how to hear and accept judgment and how to find God’s love and care and mercy speaking to us even now.
And I know that we have been promised that we will never be left alone. So, when you are so blinded, by grief, or rage, or despair that you cannot even imagine a path that will lead to peace and renewal, I urge you to turn to the Gospels (or back to the Psalms) to be reminded that the God you cannot find has not lost you. And neither has God abandoned those who died or those who mourn.
Evil cannot devour us without our permission. We have to choose to surrender to hatred and anger and fear before we can become the evil we deplore. Use every resource at your disposal, the whole Book, the community, the God who travels, and suffers, with us to resist that temptation. And then, somehow, that peace which passes all understanding will be with you and in you even now.
The Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is vicar of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and chair of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Katherine is a former staff officer for women’s ministries at the national Episcopal Church Center, and she can be reached by email at email@example.com