?A Transient Smile?

Text: Joel 1:1-10; Acts 13:15-26
Todd A. Collier; September 30, 2001
Pastor, Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church
Dallas, Texas

"If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak" declared the synagogue
leaders. How do we do that now without sounding hollow?

We?ve raised the flags; Barry Bonds is about to make baseball history again; Maureen Dowd reports, ?Women I know in New York City and Washington debate whether to order Israeli vs. Marine Corps gas masks with the same meticulous attention they gave to ordering no-foam-no-fat-no-whip lattes in more recent days? They are toting around sneakers in case they have to run, and stocking up on canned tuna, batteries and bottled water.?

?Everyone needs a well of hope,? writes Nancy Gibbs at TIME Magazine.

?Did you hear that there was a 70-year-old man on a top floor of one of the towers who managed to surf the crumbling building all the way down to the street, surviving with nothing more than two broken legs? We would love to believe what we cannot imagine is true. We keep giving blood, out of faith that the rescue workers will yet find someone whose life it will save. The search dogs digging through the World Trade Center crypt have become so discouraged by their failure, day after day, to find anyone alive, that rescue workers have taken to burying themselves under blankets and allowing the dogs to sniff them out and ?save? them, while others watch and cheer and pat the dogs on the back?If only they could do the same for the rest of us. ?We have been awakened to danger,? the President said. We?re told to go about our business. When millions of us all imagine in the same week what we would say in our last cell-phone call to our family and friends; something in our lives, and our nation?s, has changed forever.?

Move on, someone says?I can?t; not yet; there?s a global catharsis taking place.

Meanwhile, about 1,300 family, friends and United Airlines colleagues gathered at West Bowles Community Church, Littleton, Colo., Sept. 19, to say goodbye to Captain Jason Matthew Dahl. He was at the controls of United Flight 93 when terrorists commandeered it Sept. 11.

According to the Denver Post, it was Dahl's plane that originated in Newark, N.J., and was traveling to San Francisco when it crashed onto a field in Somerset County, Pa., possibly due in part to [Dahl's] actions" and those of some "heroic passengers."

"His war has been won. He is free," said the Rev. Janice Erickson-Pearson, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Littleton. During worship, Matt Dahl, son of the late Jason Dahl, shared a story with the congregation about his father reading Dr. Seuss rhymes at bedtime. After reading some pages of a Dr. Seuss book, Matt said, "Good night, Dad?"

How, then, are we to move on?

2Hear this, you aged ones; listen, all who live in the land, declares the prophet Joel. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers? 3Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation?

8Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the husband of her youth. The priests are in mourning, those who minister before the LORD. 10The fields are ruined, the ground mourns?

The name, ?Joel,? means, ?Yahweh is God.? The date of the Book of Joel is not clear, though most put it at 400 BC. The occasion was an unusually severe plague of locusts. The priests, those who minister before the Lord, are in despair; Black clouds of insects darkened the sky like an invading army; the fields are ruined; the ground mourns; all of creation is affected and mourns.

The solemn and pensive Joel then calls them to never forget: ?Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children. He calls them to mourn, ?like a young woman grieving for the husband of her youth.? In other words, don?t forget what?s happened here; mark it with mourning.

Don?t just sweep it up, pave it over and pretend it never happened; 6000 dead; 40, 50, 60 funerals a day; how can we forget, while the country is in mourning? There?s a grief that can?t be spoken; there?s a pain goes on and on; Empty chairs at empty tables; now my friends are dead and gone.

Oh, my friends, my friends, forgive me; that I live and you are gone; There?s a grief that can?t be spoken; there?s a pain goes on and on. Phantom faces at the window; phantom shadows on the floor; Empty chairs at empty tables; where my friends will meet no more.

Marius, from Victor Hugo?s Les Miserables, mourns his friends?

History comforts those who mourn. Has anything like this ever happened before?

Yes, sadly yes; Egypt had their plagues of locusts; and God delivered and gave birth to the nation of Israel. The French had their revolution, and so did we. And so in this present calamity we wrap ourselves in stars and stripes. We find ourselves in a renaissance of patriotism, strangely warmed by a sense of the past, a past filled with pain, empty chairs at empty tables. And like the firemen burying themselves under blankets, allowing the dogs to ?save? them, we suddenly are wrapping ourselves up in American flags, because there is comfort in our history, the story behind that flag.

Now, more than ever, we are feeling the emotional texture of that story. And we need to tell that story, that story of revolution, that story of bloodshed. Because much like the Book of Joel, it is a story about a crisis, but more importantly, a deliverance from that crisis. Joel?s poetry and rhetoric have striking parallels.

The swarming locusts are described as an attacking nation or ferocious lion. We are to lament like a young bride who has lost her husband. We are to tell our children of the suffering that has taken place, because rest assured, our suffering and our mourning will comfort future generations, not because we wallow in it, or are morbidly fixed upon it, but because God delivers us from it, and God will deliver us from this!

History comforts those who mourn; and those who mourn as God?s people, do not grieve as those who have no hope, for God has changed the way we grieve. ?God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised,? says Paul. ?Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, listen to me! It is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.?

We have a message of hope, a message of salvation to tell. Now, more than ever, people are searching for that message. A ferocious lion is roaming about and the people need to be comforted. Now, more than ever, we need to take courage when the prophet calls: ?Who will go for us; whom shall I send;? and stand up and say, ?Here am I; send me.?

When asked for a message of encouragement, ?please speak.? The President of our nation has been reassuring, determined and resolute. But in the middle of the night, when no one feels very brave, [like the man who lost his two daughters in the WTC], perhaps the song of Les Miserables? Fantine may be now or one day soon the song of the person next to you:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by; when hope was high and life worth living;
I dreamed that love would never die; I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
But the tigers come at night; with their voices soft as thunder;
As they tear your hope apart; as they turn your dream to shame.
He slept a summer by my side; he filled my days with endless wonder;
He took my childhood in his stride; but he was gone when autumn came.

September need not be the autumn of our souls, not with what we believe about ourselves as a people, and about our God who does deliver. Death, divorce, disease, distress, plagues of the human spirit, or of any kind can all be delivered by the Spirit of God, and the spirit of God?s people.

The grief that can?t be spoken can be set free. The lion can be tamed, not with false pride or self-pity, but with humility and trust in the God of Israel ? the Lion of Judah who became the Lamb of God.

The lion and the lamb laid down together, like the prophet said. Faced with death, the self-assured and the self-effacing become One on the cross. In the face of force, the powerful and the humble become one in the spirit of Jesus.

Napoleon, we are told, writes Abraham Heschel, ?solemnly declared to his Minister of Education: ?Do you know what astonishes me most in this world? The inability of force to create anything. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the spirit.??

But, says Joel, ?A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness.?

?These are the times that try men?s souls,? wrote Thomas Paine, Dec 19, 1776: Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Not all the treasures of the world could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it?am I to suffer it? A ravaged country ? a depopulated city ? habitations without safety? Look on this picture and weep over it! It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all.

Spoken over 225 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday.

So why the flag? Why the renaissance of patriotism? Why are we suddenly united under a flag and in singing God Bless America? Because that is our story; that is our song; that is our path of deliverance. It?s the soul of the American people ? not that we owe allegiance to a flag ? but to that for which it stands, we pledge our allegiance to a principle ? and that principle is indeed the celestial article of liberty and justice for all.

When our soil is attacked, our soul is violated ? the soul of freedom. For it is freedom that directly links our soul to the soil we toil upon. Bloodshed upon the soil leaves a wound upon the soul. And it is our history, our story of bloodshed and the path of deliverance that brings us comfort.  We huddle together and cling to our symbols, because these are what set us free. The mood across the land is subdued, said one of our members who is a flight attendant for American Airlines ? subdued. The stories on that grapevine in the air are solemn and pensive. There are smiles, but the smiles are somewhat transient across the land.

As comedians Letterman and Conan O?Brien host late-night TV, it?s hard to be funny when just down the street terror reached into the heart of their city. There is laughter, and God knows we need it, but in this age of uncertainty, the smiles are transient. Benjamin Rush, in a letter to John Adams in 1811, recalls the ?sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended and subscribed the Declaration of Independence:?

Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The silence and the gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, only for a moment by Colonel Harrison of Virginia, who said to Mr. Gerry at the table: ?I shall have a great advantage over you Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.? This speech procured a transient smile, wrote Mr. Rush, but it was soon succeeded by solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.

On that day they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. It is for this cause that brings a solemn and pensive mood over our land. The struggle between war and peace is now between freedom and terror.

And once again has us wrestling with the pacifists on the one hand who say, ?turn the other cheek,? and on the other hand, with a solemn majority who carry the sentiment in their souls, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood;
Their flag to April?s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Spirit that made those heroes dare
To die and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

?My bursting heart must find vent at my pen,? wrote Abigail Adams to her husband, John, serving in Philadelphia in the Second Continental Congress. Abigail was alone, with her four children, on their farm in Massachusetts. On a hill near the farm she watched the smoke rising above Charlestown. After the Battle of Bunker Hill Abigail reassured John Adams that although she and others, ?live in continual expectation of hostilities, having made our prayer with God, we will say unto them, Be not afraid of them.? ?The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Trust in him at all times, pour out your hearts before him. God is a refuge for us ? Charlstown is laid in ashes.

"Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak."

In the distance, the pacifists are well-meaning; but I?m afraid naïve in their understanding both of the gospel and the history of freedom. Their rhetoric leaves me hollow. It took the death of one as lovely as Jesus to set us free from sin and evil. Jesus never turned a blind eye to evil and corruption. And as for freedom in our land, as has been said by Thomas Paine and our current President: We have an enemy ?that is not easily conquered.?

A ravaged country ? a depopulated city ? habitations without safety? Look on this picture and weep over it! But, says Abigail Adams, ?Be not afraid of them!?

We?re not murderers, and we?re not aggressors, nor are we perfect. We value freedom and the protection of our liberties. The empty chairs at empty tables are a part of our history, and as imperfect as it is, we have to trust our history and those who died to set us free. Like the prophets of old, we, too, must condemn brutal acts of aggression.

Amos cried out against the cruelties that nations inflicted upon each other. But the prophets always insisted that it is the aggressor who is guilty. Abraham Heschel concludes: ?As it was in the age of the prophets, so it is in nearly every age: we all go mad, not only individually, but also nationally. We measure manhood by the sword, and are convinced that history is ultimately determined on the fields of battle.?

In the gospel of Jesus Christ we find the battle between good and evil; between good news and bad news. People, blinded in their folly and corruption, rejected and crucified Jesus. But for the one who never had a chance, belief in Jesus means new life. And ultimately, as we pour out our hearts and weep before God, while we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, we can rest assured that even our rude efforts at peace and justice will not be in vain. Amen.