On September 11, 2010, a person could have spent the whole day watching an exact replay of 9/11 on MSNBC, the cable news channel connected with NBC. It’s the NBC coverage they showed, not for the first time on a 9/11 anniversary, the friendly and familiar voices of the Today Show shocked and horrified and trying to gather information while no doubt worrying about people in their own lives who might have been in those buildings or on those planes.
For people my age, it’s the equivalent of President Kennedy’s assassination for my parents’ generation. We ask, “Where were you?” “What do you remember about that day?” A childhood friend moved to suburban New Jersey with her husband, to a town where lots of people work in the city. At her children’s elementary school, at the end of that day, there were children no one came to get.
My children were safe in their schools in Portland, locked down, just in case. By the end of the day we were hearing it might be Muslim terrorists who perpetrated the attack; really, we had the names soon, didn’t we? But it never occurred to anyone in my family that the Muslim families in Portland might pose a risk, or that their faith and their practices could possibly do a disservice to those who grieved or to those who died that day.
It didn’t take long to figure out there were people in the world who saw things differently.
We’ve gotten a stomach-full of that perspective in recent weeks, particularly from a self-declared pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran yesterday. He changed his plans, from a bonfire of volumes, to one book, to no burning at all. His neighbors in Gainesville begged the world to know that not everyone there agrees with him. A small effort at research confirms that the “pastor” never went to seminary, and got his degree from an online institution proud to claim it has no accreditation.
The terrible things that happened on that mind-bogglingly beautiful Tuesday continue to roil us. And it concerns me that we hear a point of view on God being expressed that has no similarity to important images of God presented to us in our holy book, in our Bible. It worries me, because people who don’t go to church, or who don’t go often, may not know the stories that inform us about a God who loves us and cares for us. They hear only about a God who condemns and dismisses and punishes.
But we would be hard-pressed to draw a connection between today’s lessons and that resentful, competitive God.
Jesus has been hanging out with a bad crowd, at least according to the scribes and the Pharisees. He’s been hanging around with tax collectors and other assorted sinners. He welcomes sinners. He positively collects them! And not only that, he eats with them.
In our culture, we eat with and around others all the time, in restaurants and at work and even here at the Friday lunch or the Chicken Pie Supper. Oh, the swine flu threat of last winter may have gotten us concerned enough to use hand sanitizer, right? But on the whole we kept on living the way we’ve lived in recent decades. We go out to eat a lot.
Jesus lived in a time when there were many rules about who you could eat with and still be considered clean, or acceptable, yourself. You avoided people with certain illnesses, and women at certain times, and people like tax collectors who worked for the occupying Roman government. Everyone knew pretty clearly who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean.
Now we draw the lines differently. We know that disease is biological and not spiritual. We believe that despite certain obvious differences, women and men can be valued equally as human beings. We have standards as a faith community, but we don’t resort to much in the way of rules outside the by-laws that help us to do the organizational parts of our lives together.
And I find it interesting that in this age of fewer rules, we have to work harder to set ourselves against each other. We are confronted every day with images of hatred and violence, stories that make us feel defensive and frightened and even angry.
The first time I saw the images of the World Trade Center Towers, I felt shocked. We all did. We may have had a moment here or there in which an idea flew through our minds about why this had happened or who might be responsible or what might happen next, but mostly, we were shocked. I wanted to see my children, but the school department had been very clear, telling parents not to come. I had a date for lunch that day, to go shopping for a wedding present, and I met my friends, and we went to Freeport, just as we had planned, because we were stunned, and doing the one thing on the list seemed like the thing to do.
We bought the gift—I think it was an emergency radio, I know it was on the list of gifts the bride and groom had registered—and we walked out through the parking lot and back toward my car, and then we started to see the signs: “Closing today at 3.”
Oh, yes, suddenly that made sense.
We were in shock.
What we lost that day was not a sheep or a coin but a sense of impenetrability. On that day it seemed anything could happen, anywhere, because surely it had. And as time went on, and as people looked at those images again and again and again, we went beyond shock and became angry, and we went to war, and some of us doubted whether we ought to, and most of us wanted to be sure we didn’t let that influence how we felt about our troops, and on the whole we entered an age of extreme vulnerability. And when we feel vulnerable, we may not do what God would do or even what God would have us do. We may forget how God responds when things are lost and just get angry.
In Florida and on the Today Show and on CNN, an angry man has been getting far too much attention, claiming that his way is God’s way.
And if I saw Jesus sit down at the table with that guy? I fear I would be right there with the Pharisees saying, “He welcomes sinners *and* eats with them.”
The Florida “pastor” denies the work of God being possible in Muslim leaders, while I give Muslim leaders the benefit of the doubt and deny the work of God being possible through him.
But then I think of Paul, the apostle who never knew Jesus in life, but met him in transcendent glory on the road to Damascus. Paul wrote the letters that make up much of the New Testament, and even more letters were written in his name to spread his teachings further.
The letter-writer couldn’t be clearer:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:12-14, NRSV)
Not the tax collectors.
Not the people with visible disorders, or the ones who just can’t seem to help going astray.
Not the pastor with the strange ideas.
Not Paul the persecutor and man of violence.
Not the sheep who wanders off or the coin that rolls out of sight.
No one is too small or too unimportant or too wretched or too irredeemable to be worth finding again. God will go to the utmost lengths for all of us, because God’s kingdom depends upon it.
God, embodied in Jesus, does not shut people out or give up on them. God, embodied in Jesus, draws people in, brings back the lost sheep and sweeps the floor for the lost coin. God’s loving purpose is to be sure the flock, the human flock, is whole.
We’ve all had moments or months or seeming lifetimes when our behavior and our choices and our thoughts and our feelings might have been just like Paul’s. He “acted ignorantly in unbelief.”
He did not yet understand the love that was in Christ Jesus, a love that overflows for all of us.
“This fellow” – this Jesus—“welcomes sinners” – welcomes us…”and eats with them.” Thanks be to God. Amen.