Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

“What Has Happened”                                                                      Please read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                       Matthew 5:43-48
The American Church in Paris, September 11, 2011                          Philippians 1:3-18

What happens in our lives can shape who we are, our sense of identity, our worldview and our purpose in powerful ways.  As a pastor I’ve sat with people who have shared with me profound stories of sin and salvation, of brokenness and healing…. Though we can’t help always what happens to us, I think we do have the opportunity to choose what we give ultimate significance, and that makes all the difference in how we live out the rest of our lives.

The Apostle Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with blessing and a deep confidence in God’s work in and through him and the church. Though what has happened to him would not be considered anything to write home about by most of us. He has been arrested before, beaten, stoned and left for dead, three times shipwrecked, hungry and naked.[1] Indeed, Paul knew suffering. But though he is imprisoned while writing this letter, presumably in Rome, he exudes confidence, joy, and a profound love for his brothers and sisters in Christ in Philipi… This is my favorite of all the Pauline letters, because Paul, very likely facing the end of his life, quietly yet firmly proclaims the gospel throughout this letter. Although it does not reflect the “massive theological reasoning of Romans, the emotional intensity of II Corinthians, or the contentious apologetic of Galatians,”[2]  it does ring like a bell the clear note of joy that comes with knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus, no matter what may be happening around you…

Maybe it’s because I’m an American, but this week I’ve been remembering what happened this day 10 years ago by looking at video clips of the planes flying into the trade towers and the buildings as they rained down dust and ashes in the final dreadful collapse. I’ve been remembering the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. I remember exactly where I was and what I did. Kim called me as I was just learning about the attacks. We prayed together at church, and I went home and put the flag I hung out on our porch every day at half-mast… Many people have stories of that day, and it’s good to remember what happened to so many innocent people.. Dan and Lauretta lived just outside New York City. Some in their youth and young adult group knew people who lost loved ones in the towers.

The story of Saint Paul’s chapel has inspired me greatly. St. Paul’s is the oldest public building still in use on the island of Manhattan. It also has a memorial to a French general who fought in the revolutionary war just as you walk in the door, so there’s a special tie in that church with France. St. Paul’s is also just a block from the site of the towers and survived without even a broken window, while buildings all around it were completely destroyed.

The attacks happened on a Wednesday. Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews, rector of St. Paul’s tells how President Bush ordered the country to pray and ring bells at noon on Friday, so the rector called the engineers who ran the church on Thursday to ask if they could get to the bell tower of the church and make the bells ring. They said there was no way… They were sorry, they said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like down here. There is dust over everything. It’s like the moon… There’s just no way we can do that…” But then an hour later, he received a call from Mike Marrero, the engineer who had gone down to try, and he said, “Guess what?? We were crawling up the bell tower and I saw a piece of metal. I picked it up… and I crawled up to that bell… and I beat the hell out of that bell!” Rev. Matthews said, “Praise the Lord!” Mike said, “But the best part I haven’t shared with you. When I got back down they told me, though I couldn’t see it from the tower, that all the police officers and all the firemen and all of the volunteers who heard that bell, took their hats off in silence and stood, as if to say, ‘The Lord God reigns even in this hell.’”

The bells tolled for almost 3,000 people who were killed from 90 different countries. 343 were firefighters.. . At an improvised firehouse altar on Lafayette St. in Manhattan, one sign, hand-lettered by a citizen, said: "You ran in when we ran out.  We are grateful forever." That firehouse lost 14 men.

What struck me about St. Paul’s, in addition to the powerful event of the bell tolling, was that in a chapel where George Washington used to worship, overnight had sprung up a foot clinic, a food service, a place for counseling and prayer for volunteers at ground zero. The actual pew where the first president of the United States used to worship is still there, and framed on the wall beside it is the oldest known representation of the great seal of the United States of America. As most of you know, it’s the image of a huge eagle, and above the eagle is a banner which is written e pluribus unum, which means, “out of many, one. “

The very elegant traditional sanctuary of St. Paul’s became a gathering place for the whole ground zero community in the ensuing weeks and months. It was a place of recovery and refreshment, encouragement and support. Thousands of people came and went to get some fresh socks, or a hamburger that volunteers cooked, or just lay down in a pew because they couldn’t get back home before they had to go back to work. One worker said, “Despite the situation, everyone was able to come under one umbrella here. There wasn’t a thought of race, creed, color, gender, everyone just came in… They averaged about 1,500 people a day, and some days over 2,000 those first months of the cleanup work. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, The Most Rev.  George Carey put it succinctly when he addressed the congregation months later: “Thank you so much for all you are doing to show practical Christianity.”

Paul’s prays for the church “that your love may overflow more and more with full knowledge and full insight to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless…”[3] That’s what it boils down to in the end, doesn’t it? Overflowing love! Are we becoming more loving people because of our confidence that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion? Are we allowing our love to overflow because of the way Christ’s love overflowed for us? Are we really serious about following this One who commanded us not only to love out neighbors, but to love our enemies?

I know this is perhaps the hardest teaching of our faith: Love your enemies. Theophilus of Antioch, a second century bishop, wrote, “Say to those that hate and curse you, ‘You are our brothers!’”[4] From early on, Christians were known for their willingness not just to talk about peace, but to give their lives for peace, to show Christ’s compassion and love even to their enemies. What has happened to that ethic?

The reason the early Christians were so willing to give so selflessly, to empty themselves so completely as Paul will talk about in chapter two of his letter, was because they knew what had happened to Jesus… And they believed what had happened was for them. He had loved so selflessly. He had emptied himself so completely, even for his enemies…

Friends, there are so many other stories out there that are worth telling, but we know what a great story is, we know who a great hero is, because of the great story of Him who is our hero, who ran in when we ran out… Who went down into the very jaws of hell to lift us up and set us free… Who loved us even while we were yet sinner, enemies of God, and who gave himself as a ransom to redeem and restore us…

The most important thing that I’ve learned from listening to the testimonies of people this past week from the wreckage of that day 10 years ago is that we all need hope to go on. We need to focus our thoughts again on what is our basis for hope. One of the volunteers at Saint Paul’s said weeks after 9/11, “I hope people won’t forget the love that was poured out and how we pulled together in the midst of that tragedy…” Indeed, we need to remember, remember what happened 10 years ago… and what happened 2000 years ago…

Dan and Lauretta, Kim and I went out to the American school this past Monday to their community fair. It’s kind of like a trade show where different community groups put up display tables and hand out brochures. I always enjoy going to meet new people and see some of our colleagues in ministry. Well, I was standing there and one of the Embassy diplomats came over to say hi… He said he and his family had visited our church a couple years ago and he loved our worship and wishes that they would be with us… But he said, “Unfortunately, our kids were used to the church we worshiped in when we were in Pakistan, which just met in a warehouse. When they came into your beautiful sanctuary, they were awed by the high ceilings and stained glass, but they said, ‘this doesn’t look like church to us.’” He said I’m really sorry but you know how teenagers are… We’re happy at our small church but just wanted you to know that story…”

I thanked him. He’s a wonderful man and helped with the events we’re having later today, but it got me to thinking… “What is really supposed to be going on here?”[5] I for one love the beautiful architecture and artful windows and the exquisite music we enjoy every Sunday here. But that’s not what makes this a beautiful church. What makes the ACP a beautiful church is as each one of you as you love one another, and share God’s love with the people around you, whether here in this place or out on the street, or in the office, or lecture hall. We love others, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, whoever the others may be in our life, not to make them into Christians but because we are Christians. We are to give witness in word and deed to the love of God in Jesus Christ.” …Whatever it takes.

Friends, I feel that we’re relatively safe here today, but I guess we also know that in this world we’re never immune completely from violence, terrorist attacks, warfare, imprisonment, divorce, sickness and death... It’s true that we just can’t control everything that happens to us. The question remains, however, to what, to whom will we give ultimate significance? And how then shall we live?

Indeed, ground zero for us is the cross. What has happened is that Christ has died for you, Christ has risen for you, Christ prays for you, Christ reigns in power over you. Christ began a good work in you and Christ will bring it to completion… He will make all things new with the power of his love. Christ is our hope. Christ is our joy. And Christ’s love is our purpose in life. May we love not just our family and friends, our neighbors, but even out enemies so what happens to them is not revenge, but reconciliation, not hatred, but Christ’s forgiveness and love… May we as followers of Jesus not be known for our beautiful sanctuaries as much as our beautiful acts of mercy, compassion and self-giving, even self-sacrificing love.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] II Corinthians 11:23-28.

[2] G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), ix.

[3] Philippians 1:9-10.

[4] Shane Claireborn, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer : A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 437.

[5] Enuma Okoro, Reluctant Pilgrim (Nashville: Fresh Air Books, 2010), 26.