What Amazing Grace! A Sermon Preached the Sunday after 9-11

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11. Our remembrances of that horrific day will be a bit more muted than ten years ago. Part of that stems from the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Twenty years of war don't seem to have changed that country very much, and the rest of the world remains caught in ongoing conflicts. I was the pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara at the time. I was also the president of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association. So I was tasked with addressing both the congregation and the community as it struggled to make sense of the devastation from those attacks. That following Sunday morning I attempted to address the situation at hand. I will confess that my response apparently didn't sit well with many in the congregation who felt I didn't address the situation in the way they desired. I will leave it to you to decide if I handled it appropriately in that first sermon after 9-11. On this anniversary date, I've decided to once again share that sermon. I pray that the return of the Taliban to power does not lead to more violence and oppression in that country and around the world. It is clear that our invasion didn't change things very much, which should be a lesson to us all. 

On the morning of April 19, 1995, at about 9:00 a.m., I turned on the TV, as I often did before heading for Pasadena to teach my church history class at Fuller Seminary. As the TV came on, I watched in horror and grief the scene at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. There on the screen, I could see people staggering out of a building in ruin. As I continued to watch, I saw people being carried out, some alive, and some dead. No one knew, at that point, quite what had happened. Was it an accident? Was it a bomb? If it was a terrorist act, could it happen here? I mean, I live in Southern California, but Oklahoma City; you don't expect something like that in the Midwest. Though I lived far away, I was immediately drawn to the scene. I wept with those who were weeping; I was angry with those who were angry; I hurt with those who were hurting.

As the shock began to wear off, we began to wonder who? Who would do such a thing? Then, like now, fingers quickly pointed at Muslims, at Arab and Palestinian groups, but to our surprise, we soon learned that this terrorist attack was homegrown. An angry white supremacist named Timothy McVeigh rented a Ryder Truck in Junction City, Kansas, not far from where we used to live, filled it with explosives, drove it to Oklahoma City. He then parked it in front of the Federal Building. The explosion killed more than 150 people, including some of the little children at a daycare facility located in that building. Finally, I broke away from the TV and headed to Pasadena. As I started class that afternoon we prayed; we prayed for the victims and their families, and we prayed that such a thing might never happen again.

Cheryl normally turns the radio on at 6:30 A.M. That is the signal to Brett and to me that it is time to get up. Usually, we hear lite music and some banter from Gary and Katherine, but on this particular morning, the music and banter were replaced by word that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. Cheryl immediately turned on the TV and called for me to come and see. By the time I got there, we could see the two magnificent, towering buildings on fire, with smoke billowing out, filling the skyline. This wasn't a made-for-TV disaster movie; this was the real thing. Somehow, someone or some group had committed an unspeakable act of terror against innocent and unsuspecting people. It wasn't long before we heard that an explosion had rocked the Pentagon, and as the morning dragged on, the news only got worse. First, we watched as the towers imploded and crashed to the ground, burying rescue workers, fire crews, police, and anyone who had not yet vacated the buildings. Then we heard the news of another plane that had crashed under suspicious circumstances in Pennsylvania.

It has now been five days since those events and life has yet to return to normal if it ever will. We remain in shock and confusion. We are angry and indignant. We continue to ask, how could such a thing happen? We look for ways to vent our anger, and unfortunately, we hear that some have taken matters into their own hands. People make death threats against Muslims and Arabs. A masked gunman shoots up a service station where an Arab man works. Rhode Island police stop a train and arrest innocent Sikhs for nothing more than wearing turbans. After all, Osama Bin Laden wears a turban. We hear of plans to go after the perpetrators, to strike back in retaliation and vengeance, and without much thought, we nod our heads in agreement and shout Amen! At this point we don't really care who did it, we just want some blood spilled to atone for the loss we feel.

We cry out in our anger, in our fears, and in our grief to God and ask why? Why God have you abandoned us? Again, we ask, how could this happen? We even wonder: will it happen again? For many, life has ground to a halt. Airports are only now reopening and no one knows what will happen next. Sports activities have been postponed or canceled, and the stock market remains closed. We are numb.

But, at the same time, we are coming together in our churches and synagogues and mosques to pray and to console each other. We mourn for those we do not even know, mindful that it could have been someone close to us. We also celebrate the heroic efforts of those who have risked their lives to rescue survivors and for the doctors and nurses who have worked endless shifts caring for those in need.

You see our hearts are full of conflicting emotions. We seek a sense of peace and yet we cry out for vengeance. The emotions are natural, and yet we must be careful about where they lead, what they cause us to do. We must be careful that our anger does not consume us and create in us the same spirit of hatred that led these men and their supporters to act in the first place.

So, how do we feel? What are we thinking? That is the question being posed to everyone, especially pastors of churches and other religious leaders. Reporters, people on the street, members of this church, ask: How are your people doing? What are they thinking?

I began dealing with this issue pastorally, as I joined my usual Tuesday morning breakfast group. We talked about what little we knew, and at that point, we knew very little. We wondered, what has happened? Then, as I walked in the door of the office, my colleague Lloyd Saajtian of the Methodist Church was on the phone asking: What should we do? The answer to that was: we must gather the community together to pray and reflect. Tonight's service at the Methodist Church is a result of that conversation. It will be a powerful time of gathering together. We will come as Muslims, as Christians, as Jews, as Buddhists, as people of questioning faith and with no faith at all, to pray and seeking healing. But this is only one step in the process of finding healing and reconciliation.

Last week I struggled with a sermon about the costly nature of discipleship and looked forward to preaching about grace. Then Tuesday happened. What do we do? Do I throw out my sermon? Do I throw away the service that had already been planned? In the end, I decided that we needed to hear about grace. Yes, in the midst of our darkness we must see some light, we must hear a word of comfort and joy. We must confess in our confusion our belief that our God is truly an awesome God. Yes, we need to sing Amazing Grace, now more than ever. So, in the midst of all our conflicting emotions, we come to hear this word of grace and love and mercy, whether we think we are ready to hear it or not.


Grace is for sinners, and all of us must confess that we are sinners. Not just Osama bin Ladin or the hijackers, but all of us, are sinners in need of grace. No one, not one of us, is righteous. In 1 Timothy, we hear Paul confess that he once was a "blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence." Tuesday morning, as I first looked at this week's text and asked myself, what am I going to say on Sunday, my eye caught this phrase: "a man of violence." Yes, it is violence that I had just witnessed, and the perpetrators of this crime were certainly "men of violence." And now here, I find Paul confessing that he too was a man of violence. He had been one, who in ignorance of God's love and mercy, had let hatred and anger lead him to commit acts of violence.

As history quickly proves, we humans are people of violence. Tuesday was not the first human atrocity, the first time someone struck out in anger and violence at innocent people, and it will not be the last. History is full of such stories, stories we would just as soon forget, or at least retell in a way that appears more flattering to our side. But no amount of historical revisionism can wipe away the stain of millenniums of human bloodshed, much of it committed in the name of religion.

Violence is rooted in deep human emotions, emotions of anger and resentment; feelings of oppression and injustice; emotions that lead us to seek vengeance against our enemies. And when anger catches hold of us, we often look for a scapegoat, someone to blame, to react to. As people reflected on this event, many raised the specter of Pearl Harbor, and in some ways there are similarities. While both events rallied the American people, both events have their dark side. It did not take long for Americans to decide that all Japanese were responsible for that day of infamy. So normally decent people lashed out at their neighbors and the government locked law-abiding Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, stripping them of their material goods and their dignity in the name of national security. There is already evidence that many "Americans" have begun to do the same to our Arab and Muslim neighbors: Death threats, assaults, arrests of innocent people, for no other reason than that they look "suspicious." One young Muslim man said, they talk about Pearl Harbor, and I wonder if I like Japanese-Americans of that age will get sent to a concentration camp. So the question lays before us: Will we return violence for violence? Or, will we take a different course?


We hear about people wandering the streets of lower Manhattan in a daze, not knowing where they are or what has happened. They are lost and alone. We too, at times, have been feeling lost and alone, not sure where we are or where we are going. Fear takes hold of us; we are afraid to get on planes or even venture out into large groups. We want to stay where it is safe and secure. Yes, we feel lost.

For some in our community, this feeling of loss is even more profound. An employee of Raytheon, a UCSB gymnastics coach, a relative of a hospital employee, all were on those planes, heading back home to Santa Barbara. There may be others I don't know about. People tell stories of family members living there and not knowing what has come of them. No, they haven't heard from them yet. Yes, we feel lost and alone.

Being lost is scary. It can quickly lead to paranoia, and we become paralyzed by our fears. In the midst of this sense of lostness, we hear two parables about something being lost and then being found. In the first parable Jesus speaks of the lamb that has gone astray but is found by the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one, and upon his return rejoices at this good fortune. In the second story, a woman loses a coin and tears up the house looking for it. When she finds it, she invites her neighbors over and has a party to celebrate the return of the coin.

God is like that shepherd, God is like that woman, God seeks us out in our lostness and restores us and celebrates our return. We hear the joy of being found in the words of John Newton, who sings of God's grace that saved him, a wretch though he was: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." Yes, and then he continues: "'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed." It is grace that calms our fears and relieves our distress. This morning, we come celebrating the wondrous grace of God that carries us through times such as these.

We come this morning needing to hear a word of grace, a word of peace, a word of reconciliation. We want to move beyond our sense of lostness and find ourselves in God's presence. We seek healing. We may not be ready to hear about healing, but we must seek it nonetheless. We must seek the healing presence of God that will transform our despair and our pain into hope. It is at this most important moment, as we seek relief, that we hear the words of Paul to Timothy that "the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." Here, this morning, the grace of our Lord overflows us and in this grace, we find the source of our hope for the future! We may not be ready. We may not want to hear it. But we must listen to the word of grace anyway.

In a moment we will come to the table, and at this table, we will taste the signs of our own inhumanity to each other. There will find our peace and our reconciliation.

Preached on September 16, 2001, at First Christian Church of Santa Barbara, CA. 


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