We have met several times to work out the logistics, and decided to open last night's meeting with a dry run. Since we are preparing for something we hope we will never have to use, it is a bit tough. As those who preside at liturgy know, the only way to get comfortable with leading a congregation in worship is to actually do it frequently. That will not be an option, since this will be the "celebration of last resort." Anywho, I was asked to prepare the reflection for last night's service:
Seven years ago today, we gathered in this very space – in shock, in fear, in mourning. And, by this point in the evening, the very first stirrings of anger had begun to sink in. We prayed to God and asked him to see us through these difficult times. The Hebrew people depicted in the First Reading made similar requests during their time in the desert. However, their complaining to God, verbal expressions of ingratitude for all God HAD provided, was also a metaphor for sin, an attempt to assume the role of gods, entitled to all they wanted simply because they wanted it. Such behavior had resulted in painful, deadly consequences. Suffering abounded, and they blamed God for their situation.
Now, you will certainly recall the response of a number of preachers in the days following September 11. The terrorist attacks were labeled as a punishment from God. Retribution for the sinful society we had become. And while the devastation of that day was not solely the fault of the terrorists in the plane, or Al Qaeda, or their supporters around the world, it was certainly not the fault of people who lived or supported immorality.
After all, there are always two aspects to sin – the individual and the communal. The choices each of us make - good and bad, have a residual effect on all of creation. Individual acts of greed and pride become institutionalized, and the corporate accumulation of those decisions is eventually reflected in public and foreign policy.
Every choice each of us makes has an impact on the world around us. Like drops of water, they accumulate. Over the millennia, they have formed into a pool that would make the Water Cube in Beijing look like a shot glass. The ability for tragedy, pain and suffering to come into the world as a result of the sinful behaviors of a given culture at a given point in history is no more likely than the ability for a couple of guys with straws and buckets to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And likewise, it would be easier to empty that pool with the same straws and buckets than to prevent tragedies such as 9/11 with a change in a Presidential Administration or the introduction of a few new policy initiatives. No, there is a lot more at play.
However, trying to understand and explain the tragedy of September 11 is only part of the story. St. Paul reminds us “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.” The construction of the Water Cube was important in as much as it provided a venue for some amazing achievements. And so it is with God’s story.
The swimmers who competed in last month’s Olympics prepared for a lifetime to do so. Years of sacrifice and practice conditioned them to stand on the starting block and await the starter’s signal. One race that will always be etched in my memory is the Men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Along with most of America, I sat on the edge of my seat as, Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak, and Garrett Weber-Gale pulled off an amazing come from behind victory. I mention all their names not in order to show off my vast knowledge of Olympic Swimming, but rather to emphasize the importance of team work in all we do. As a Church, we are One Body. We do not stand alone! That being said, and even though without them Phelps would leave China with only seven gold medals, I am pretty sure that if I had asked you who else besides Michael was on that team, you would have been hard pressed to give an answer. (I have to admit, that without Google, so would I!) But none the less, all four had to give their all in order to succeed.
And so it is with this assembly. As we can see, without a priest, something is most certainly missing. But Christ is still truly present here today – through the assembly gathered together as well as the Word of God proclaimed and preached. Through this celebration, we are able to worship and praise God!
After one of his many other victories, Michael Phelps exclaimed, "That was probably one of the most painful races of my life. Everything was left in the pool.” In the second reading today, Paul reminds us that Jesus, if interviewed after the resurrection, probably would have answered in much the same way. Everything was left in the pool. He gave his all to save each and every one of us.
In recalling an ancient Christian hymn, Paul tells us that Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Greek word translated as “grasped” comes from the same root as our verb “to cling.” In the today’s Second Reading, I think that makes more sense. The hymn goes on to tell us that Jesus emptied himself – leaving everything in the pool. His obedience to God’s will, an obedience that required him to Love regardless of the consequences, resulted in pain and suffering beyond imagination. But, through the eyes of faith, we can see that left in the pool as well!
And so, like the Hebrew people in the desert, as we reflect on the world around us, we turn to God and ask for a sign. We already have the sign, and it is hanging on the wall behind me. We are called to be like Him. To Love. To reach out with kindness and forgiveness, never, ever to strike back. In the Gospel for today’s daily mass, Jesus instructs us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Considering the anniversary, what a coincidence! However, if Christ was here, I bet he would be somewhat indignant at our needing to connect the reading to the anniversary of the terror attacks in order to view it as significant. After all, the entire Gospel- God’s entire being - is based upon that very message.
The Cross we celebrate today is a constant reminder that we are not called by God to Love simply because it feels good or because we are loved. We Love because God Loves. And God Loves because God is Love. To Love like God loves requires us to be willing to risk losing everything we hold dear in order to reach out and be the presence of God to others. That kind of love recognizes each and every life as priceless from the moment it was thought into being by God until long after He calls it back home. It does not take into account what that life has done or has not done. It is loved by God. That is all that matters. Every other decision is made after placing that truth at the forefront. It must be the foundation of every political platform, policy decision, and election.
That is all well and fine. But I challenge you to reflect this evening about what that means if you were to encounter Osama Bin Ladin in the parking lot tonight, looking for a meal. Or perhaps Seung-Hui Cho might be there, asking for someone to help him find a place to sleep. Now, let me make something entirely clear. I am not minimizing the tragedy, suffering, pain, and pure evil that each of these men wrought. Far from it. They are horrible people who did horrible things. And I do not even presume to stand here before you and suggest that I am at a place where I can say with certitude that I would act in a manner consistent with the theme of this reflection. But nonetheless, I ask you to join me in praying that God would grant – will grant – each of us the grace to do His will should that unlikely event ever take place.
Living our lives according to such a standard is a daunting task. One we cannot undertake glibly. It is not enough to think of it only when we are seated here once a week. We must wake up every day determined to climb the stairwells of whatever buildings God puts in front of us, knowing full well we may never reemerge. Then, strengthened with the gift of God’s Grace, we have to dive into our lives - leaving everything in the pool.