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“With Ears Open and Mouths Closed”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Holy Cross Day & the Commemoration of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11
“With Ears Open and Mouths Closed”
Numbers 21: 4b-9; Psalm 98; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17

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

You remember exactly where you were when the tragic events happened. You remember where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated, when John Lennon was murdered seven blocks from here at the Dakota, when Princess Diana was killed in an automobile accident.  You certainly remember where you were when you first saw the horrifying pictures of planes flying into the Twin Towers; some of you even remember the smoke and flames, the sirens and screams.  Those occasions are often, as the song would have it, the end of the innocence.

September 11, 2001 was the end of the innocence at least in this nation.  Never before had we been attacked by an outside invader.  This was, in most of our minds, a peaceful nation until the towers crumbled.  Then there was an end of the innocence.

With that day came the fear and the hatred, the confusion and the questions.  As you probably remember, there were those who offered strident answers soon after the towers fell, but the wiser ones knew better than to answer too quickly.  The wiser ones were quiet at least for a while.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Scholz was Holy Trinity’s pastor on that fateful day. Scholz wrote of those excruciating days in a devotional book entitled “Wachet Auf: A September 11th Remembrance” (it is available for you at the back of the nave this morning.) He ministered to many of you and to the families and firemen of the firehouse at 46th and Amsterdam where twelve out of thirteen firemen who answered the call that day were killed.  (We continue that relationship that Pastor Scholz forged.  Joe Chappel sang a stirring rendition of “Jacob’s Ladder” at the firehouse this morning with one particularly poignant verse he wrote himself; and I prayed there with the family and friends of those who lost their lives that day.)  Pastor Scholz created a prayer that he believed captured the essence of what those who want to help at any time should do.  Please bow your head in prayer: “Gracious God, grant us the grace to keep our ears open and our mouths closed, that we might offer to others in need that gracious acceptance you have offered us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Keep our ears open and our mouths closed?  Aren’t Christians supposed to provide convincing biblical texts to excruciatingly difficult questions in times of crisis?  I must confess though: when I hear people quickly answer monstrous questions such as why there is evil and violent death, I always wonder how they come up with such cocksure answers so quickly.

Perhaps it is a gift that the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 falls the same day as we celebrate the Holy Cross.  Like 9/11, the holy cross leaves many of us with as many questions as it does provide answers.

When I was in seminary, we had an entire course dedicated to the question called “Atonement Theory”: why did Jesus die on the cross?  did God put his son to death for our sake so we wouldn’t have to die such a death ourselves?  was it sinful humanity that angrily nailed him to the tree?  did Jesus die for our sins so we might see how much God loves us?

Make no mistake: there are theologians and pastors who, if preaching here this morning, would answer why Jesus died with bold certainty.  I confess to you it has never been quite so easy for me: I have always been puzzled by the cross of Christ.

Perhaps you are one of those who feels guilty for not having quick answers to tough questions.  Please know this: Jesus didn’t have ready-made answers either.  Remember what he said as he hung on the cross?  Jesus didn’t sing confidently and cheerily, “Oh what a beautiful morning.”  Instead his screaming voice echoed throughout the world, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Notice, dear friends: this is a painful question about death not a pious answer.

We have little respect for those who are unable to provide convincing answers to baffling questions: good doctors should tell us exactly what’s ailing us; the best presidential candidates should offer solutions to how the economy will prosper; faithful pastors should comfort us with confident reasons why little babies die agonizing deaths.  We want answers; we do not want to sit with questions.

The story is told of a pastor’s kid who asked his father what he did when he visited families who had just lost a loved one.  His father said, “I make the coffee”—that is a wise pastor!

One of my graduate school professors, Dr. Gordon Lathrop, cautions pastors—but he could easily caution us all— “not to have all the answers.”  He writes: “Wise pastors are frequently face-to-face with their own limits, their own helplessness in the face of sorrow, sin, and loss.  They must simply keep silence and be there.”

On this day, fifteen years after the horrific sight of planes flying into the towers, we gather around the cross of Christ and before a few hallowed remnants from those towers kept in the pastor’s office here as sacred relics.  We would love to return to the age of innocence but we gather here in some silence before the awful love of God.

The holy cross reminds us that even in the face of the most inexplicable and horrible wrath this great city has ever known, God suffered similar agony as well. That is why gather here, silently, with questions, and gaze upon the cross, trusting that this is never the final word, that, in fact, from these very ashes hope springs and new life rises on Easter morn.

There are those horrible days when we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing.  You could call it the end of the innocence.  I pray it is more.  I pray that on such occasions, you will always know that the Crucified God loves you in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.