Given the news that Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday, I reread the sermon I preached the Sunday after 9/11/01. The scriptures appointed for that Sunday were
1 Timothy 1:12-17
The basic message still seems relevant in light of this week's developments:
In the wake of last Tuesday’s terrorist attack, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were quoted in the papers as saying that the blame lays partly on the moral bankruptcy of America. You know the usual suspects: feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, abortionists. Others have been pointing out that America does not have completely innocent hands in the world. To the extent that the United States has propped up oppressive and unjust systems around the world, it is no surprise that some people strike back. This point of view has its own list of usual suspects. I wonder if both of these responses don’t spring from the same impulse. It is the desire to distance ourselves from the evil and the horror that unfolded before our eyes this week.
We see this same impulse at work at some point during every presidential administration. As soon as the current president gets into some trouble, bumper stickers show up saying, “Don’t blame me; I voted for (the other guy).” Don’t blame me; I voted for Dole. Don’t blame me; I voted for Gore. A similar thing seems to be happening here. Don’t blame me; I’m not a homosexual or an abortionist. Don’t blame me; I’ve been speaking out against America’s injustices for a long time. Don’t blame me; I’m a pacifist. Don’t blame me; I’m not a terrorist. Don’t blame me; I’m an American. We want desperately to distance ourselves from the deeds of September 11th. We desire to draw lines over which we can step so we can be among those who are righteous and innocent. We can then point across the line at those who are guilty, unrighteous, evildoers. We come up with a list of suspects and assign responsibility. But that desire to distance ourselves from the sinners is the desire of the Pharisee. We should know better.
For all the horror, the shock, and the enormity of Tuesday, the deep evil of it, Christians of all people should not to be surprised. After all, we believe that the deepest mystery of the world is played out during Holy Week: the Passion, the cross. We know that the human situation is desperate. We know that we are lost. There is no distancing ourselves from the disaster of human history, the disaster of current events. We are all members of the human race, not just sharing in the tragedy of human history with those who are suffering victims, but also sharing in the guilt of humanity, which is capable of such evil. We share the human stain. To be human is to be implicated. We are all suspect.
In Psalm 51, we are faced with this hard truth, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness. In your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sins, for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. And so you are justified when you speak, and upright in your judgment. Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Hard words to hear. It sounds like original sin, the idea that from our birth, something is not quite right. It is not a pleasant idea and one that we want to deny. But, it remains the invisible elephant in the living room of human history and human society. Too be sure, we are created in the image of God and are therefore glorious creatures, capable of great good. We’ve seen that as well in the last week. But Christians know the sobering truth that being created in the image of God is not the only thing that unites us. We are all bound together as a race that has made a mess of things. The radical nature of sin, to which the doctrine of original sin points, means that each of us is born into that mess and each of us bears the stain. Each of us is the lost coin. I am the lost coin. Much as I want to separate myself, there is no escaping the uncomfortable realization that, however much I try to wash my hands, like Lady MacBeth and Pilate before me, the stain remains.
There are no lines we can draw that make us innocent and “them” guilty. That does not let those who planned and executed the evil on Tuesday off the hook. They are guilty of a heinous act. There should be an accounting. But we should be wary of self-righteousness and the impulse for revenge. The line that separates good from evil, light from darkness, righteousness from unrighteousness, is not a line that we can draw such that we end up on the right side. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who knew what it was to experience injustice, wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, not between political parties either, not between ethnic groups, but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts there remains an unuprooted small corner of evil.” We all like sheep are gone astray. Each of us is the lost coin. It is not hard to see that in the case of Osama Bin Laden and the terrorists. But, the psalm calls for us to look carefully into our own heart to see our own share in the stain.
Each of us is the lost coin. I am the lost coin. You are the lost coin. The homosexuals and abortionists are the lost coin. The most ardent militarists are the lost coin. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are the lost coin. The people buried in the rubble; each one, a lost coin. Indeed, the whole world is the lost coin. That is the deep and disturbing truth that we know.
But praise God! We know a still deeper truth. As the Pharisees were amazed and offended to see, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” If the reality we live is the valley of the shadow of death, we know that God has entered into that valley. We, as individuals, as a nation, as a species, are not left to our own devices. As 1Timothy says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Sinners like me. Sinners like you. Sinners like us all. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God, like the woman in Jesus’ parable, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds what was lost, seeking out the lost coin, seeking out you, seeking out me. Seeking out the lost coins in the rubble. And, hard as it is to fathom right now, seeking out the lost coin that is Osama Bin Laden because God cherishes even that lost coin.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He seeks the lost coin. This does not necessarily mean that we should not seek to stop Osama Bin Laden or to seek an accounting for that which he is apparently responsible. But we do well to remember that we are not the only ones who seek him. And we do well to remember that we are not other than he is. He also is human. He also is created in the image of God. We should be careful how we go about seeking an accounting. God is seeking Osama Bin Laden, too, and God seeks those who are around him. There are innocent people between him and us. We do well to take care.
We are given disturbing word of our condition and joyous news of our deliverance. We in the church are called to proclaim both and to remember that we are in the mess along with everyone else. As a kingdom of priests, we are called, like Moses in the Old Testament lesson, to intercede before God for the whole world. As 1Timothy suggests, we who have received such mercy and know what it is to be found can now become agents of that grace, embodiments of God’s mercy, seekers and healers of the lost. As the church we name injustice and evil, always starting with and remembering our own. We also proclaim the grace of the God who seeks us all. We share the suffering, not alone, but with the one who came to seek the lost, suffered for us, and rose again.
Oscar Romero wrote, “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with earth’s glory, believes that each person is the creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As the holy defender of God’s rights and of God’s images the church must cry out. It takes as spittle on its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion all that human beings suffer. Even though they be unbelievers, they suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between humans and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.” Let’s speak out against injustice and violence. Let’s pay careful attention to our own contribution to injustice and violence. Let’s seek justice and peace. Let’s resist evil. But let us always remember that we too are the lost coin. And remember, there is one who welcomes sinners and eats with them.