Shark attacks.

Shark attacks and Britney Spears.  And Congressman Gary Condit’s sex scandal.

About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 11, 2011
Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35

Those are the main things we were talking about—and worried about—in the late summer of 2001.  Congressman Gary Condit had been implicated in an affair when an investigation into a missing intern raised a number of questions that the Congressman had trouble answering honestly.  Britney Spears had worn some kind of outfit on the MTV Video Music Awards that many felt was inappropriate.  And, most troubling of all, for some reason all along the East Coast, there was a surprisingly high number of shark attacks, leading many to worry about their summer vacation plans.

All of that ended on September 11, 2001.  Suddenly the trivialities of life that we had all occupied ourselves with were revealed for what they were: diversions, meaningless pursuits, and trumped up stories.  All of the energy spent obsessing over these topics was now focused elsewhere.  No one cared about shark attacks any more.  In fact, it was The Onion, in its first edition after the attacks a few weeks later who published an article entitled: “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again” that summed up the sentiment nicely.

One day—and the world was changed.

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

This Sunday is the commemoration of a day that changed our world.  It was the seminal moment of a generation.  Indeed, for most of the people in this sanctuary, who—if I’ve done my math right—were in the third to sixth grades at the time, the attacks of September 11, 2001 have formed the backdrop to your entire lives.  We are only barely aware of the wider world when we’re in the sixth grade, it’s usually around the time that our social studies teachers make us write reports about the countries of the world.  For an entire generation, that emerging consciousness about the wider world has been shaped by the events of that one day, September 11th.

One day—and the world was changed.

No longer could we fly without remembering that awful tragedy.  Indeed, no more would we fly without ever more elaborate security measures.  It didn’t matter whether the security measures worked, they were coming.  Soon you’d have to take off your shoes to go through the magnetometer.  Before long nail clippers were banned from carry-on luggage.  Fluids over a couple of ounces were prohibited.  Long gone and never to return were the days of saying farewell or greeting your loved ones at the gate.  Families could only meet their loved ones outside the security zone.

Baseball teams started playing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch before Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Most have since relegated it to Sunday games, but the Yankees continue to play it at every single game.

Suddenly, groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban—who were in no sense new—were on the lips of Americans.  Figures like Osama bin Laden and places like Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif were featured regularly on the nightly news.

But more to the point, there was a cloud, a sense of foreboding over the nation. There was a sense that the world irrevocably changed.  A sense that not only had things changed, but they were never going back to the way they had been.  We were feeling lost—disoriented—and didn’t know how to make our way forward.  And things would continue to change and more and more people would feel the consequences.

Soon we would be embroiled in one war, and then another.  It would soon become clear that these wars were not quick, easily accomplished missions, they way that the Gulf War or a number of other interventions had been.  The numbers of our war dead would eventually climb into the thousands.  The numbers of those dead in towns and villages caught in the crossfire would also rise. War became an ever present reality in the shadow of September 11th.

One day—and the world was changed.


Six years ago, September 11 was also on a Sunday.  It was the first time that it had fallen on a Sunday in my tenure here.  That year, as this year, the lectionary cycle, the schedule of readings that the church uses, was in Year A: the Gospel of Matthew.  As I looked ahead to that Sunday and planned our worship, I noticed what the scripture for the day was: Jesus’ instructions on how we are supposed to forgive.  Not just seven times.  But seventy times seven.  Great.

Because if there’s one thing we’re not inclined to talk about on September 11 it’s forgiveness.  Now, the scripture lesson from Exodus, where God hurls the Egyptians into the sea—that was more like it.  That’s the kind of scripture I could get into.  That would be easier to preach on.  Which, of course, is why I had to preach on Matthew.

See, I grew up in New York State and have always considered myself to be a New Yorker.  Not the loud,  obnoxious from “the City” kind.  No, more of the loud, obnoxious from “Upstate” kind.  I had a lot of friends who lived and worked in New York City and I had spent a lot of time there.  Those towers were an ever present landmark on Manhattan Island, the first thing you’d see of the city from a distance, your guide and bearing when you were in that maze of streets downtown.  They were gone and with them thousands of New Yorkers.  The towers’ collapse and the gaping hole of sky they left behind were a wound in my heart and in that of the nation.

In addition, I had lived here in Washington for ten years.  This had, much to my surprise, become my home.  I have long identified, too, as a Washingtonian.  And here, too, in the side of the burning Pentagon was a scar—like that in the countryside of Pennsylvania—that reminded us of the awful tragedy and senseless loss of life.

It was four years later when I had to preach that sermon, but those scars were still very much present.

Of course, it wasn’t just me. It was a lot of us.

One day—and the world was changed.

Of course, many would point out that the world was not changed, only that we became more aware of it.  This kind of violence and destruction was long known in other parts of the world.  We had largely been immune from it.  Incidents here and there, but in reality most of the damage that terrorism had wrought in our country was largely at our own hand in places like Oklahoma City.

But now, it was as if a switch had been thrown and the world turned upside down.  And it frightened us. Fear began to show up everywhere.   It manifested itself in the visible ways: the construction of ever more concrete barriers around the city. The closing of the Capitol to tourists.  (Time was, you could just walk right up the steps and after going through a metal detector, walk around and look at the sights.  No longer.)  The road around the Pentagon was diverted.  More and more bollards showed up in front of buildings.  Air traffic was diverted from flying over the city.  These measures, designed to increase security paradoxically did little to allay the fear.

Fear started showing up ever more in our newscasts, almost to shrill and hysterical levels as the media, who had long known that fear sells, fell prey to the fear and the revenue temptation that fear could bring.

And fear started showing up in the most unlikely places.

I had a good friend from college who was living in SoHo at the time.  I visited her in October of 2001.  When we were in college, she was an activist and I have vivid memories of her coming back from protesting the Gulf War—a war that I supported.  But now, here we were having a conversation in which she was basically espousing the idea that anyone suspicious should be rounded up.  There wasn’t a lot of nuance to her opinion on this matter.

That frightened me.  Because she was a tough, gritty New Yorker.  Progressive and hip, adventurous and daring.  But it was clear: she was afraid.  The voice I heard my friend speaking with wasn’t the voice I had known.  It was a voice shaped by fear.  And my friends, when you can scare a New Yorker, you can scare anyone.  That was probably what was most unnerving of all.

One day—and the world was changed.


This Sunday is the commemoration of a day that changed the world.  But, you know something, that day was not September 11, 2001.  No, this Sunday, as with every Sunday, is a commemoration of one day that changed the world.  A day that began in a garden outside of Jerusalem, when some women came to their friend and master’s tomb only to find it empty.  Told upon their arrival that their master had been raised from the dead, they fled the tomb in fear and great joy.

They, and later the rest of his disciples, encountered Jesus raised from the dead.  He who had been crucified was raised to new life.

That message of resurrection and salvation spread throughout the ancient world.  His followers, who had been cowering in fear awaiting their own deaths from the hands of a brutal and cruel Roman oppressor, now went boldly into the streets proclaiming the Risen Messiah.

They formed communities—assemblies or ‘churches’ as they called them—in which they gathered together to celebrate a meal together and to share in the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for their own lives.

They traveled from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, bringing with them a message of hope for the entire world: injustice does not win, violence does not win, oppression does not win, not even death wins. Life wins. Love wins.  Hope wins.  God wins.

Emboldened, they stood fast in the face of persecution.  They dedicated themselves to sharing the message and serving the poor.  They proclaimed that the coming of the Kingdom of God was at hand and that they had seen its in-breaking with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

One day—and the world was changed.

For no longer did the forces of fear and oppression hold sway.  Those early Christians understood that if Jesus had been raised then love had triumphed. And if love triumphed, then fear had been vanquished. As the first letter of John would state: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  The world, which had been run under the power of fear—fear of the Romans, fear of punishment, fear of loss of status, fear of alienation from the community—was now turned upside down.  Love had triumphed.

One day—and the world was changed.


It may not seem that the world has changed much for us.  Our world, especially in light of September 11, seems just as broken, just as violent, just as unjust.  The scars of that day are still very much with us.  Fear is still very much a part of our national diet.

But for those of us who follow Jesus, we know that that day in September did not change the world, though it may have changed our perceptions of it.  We know that the world had already been changed by the miracle of grace and love that is Jesus’ resurrection.  The vindication of our hopes, the promise of our own deliverance from death, and with it, deliverance from the fear that causes us to lead lives of brokenness.

Because we are followers of the Risen Christ, we testify with our lives to that one day that changed the world.  And the most powerful testimony we have in that remembrance is that in the middle of a world of such tragedy and brokenness, we live lives of hope.

We may feel fear—there’s nothing we can do to prevent that; we feel what we feel.  But we don’t have to live our lives in fear.  As my good friend Steve says, one of the ways we fight the war on terror the best is to live our lives in a major metropolitan center without fear.  Of course the news makes us concerned, but living in a big city post-September 11th is an act of faith.  And it is instructive for how we as Christians are meant to live.

Confident in the love and grace that God has already shown through Jesus’ resurrection, we live lives not that succumb to fear—fear being the weapon of the terrorist—but proclaim that:

One day, every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.

One day, the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (Is. 40:4-5)

One day, though darkness now cover the earth, the Lord will arise upon us, and God’s glory shall appear over us.

One day, the nations shall come to the light, and kings to the brightness of the dawn. (Is. 60:2-3)

One day, the peoples shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.

One day, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Is. 2:4, Mic. 4:3)

One day, the home of God shall be among mortals, and we will be God’s people.

One day, God will wipe every tear from our eyes; death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Rev. 21:3-4)

One day—the world will be changed.


There is more sky in lower Manhattan than there was ten years ago, but there is also more shadow. Our world is very much in the shadow of September 11 and shows no signs of changing any time soon.

Tribute in Light

But we as Christians do not have to live in the shadow.  We are called to live in the light.  We are called to live our lives in such a way that we testify not to the one day when the towers fell and the Pentagon burned, but to the one day when God demonstrated to us that the world had not been abandoned to death and brokenness.  The world would be redeemed.  And so, we live our lives in a way that testifies to the one day the world is fully redeemed.

This Sunday is the commemoration of a day that changed the world.  But every Sunday we gather here is a commemoration of that one day when the world shall be redeemed.

With every act of mercy and forgiveness, we testify to that one day when all shall know mercy and forgiveness, not just seven times, or seventy times seven.

With every act of justice, we testify to that one day when the oppressed shall be free.

With every act of hospitality, we testify to that one day when all people, regardless of age, race, sex, orientation, ability, nation, or language shall be welcomed and affirmed as part of one human family.

With every act of peacemaking, we testify to that one day when the violence and the brokenness of the world shall be overcome, when all people will live together as one.

With every act of love and openness, we testify to that one day when fear no longer controls the world.

One day in September 2001 changed our world.  But we, too, are changed.  Because we have faith in a God who is in the midst of changing our world.

Our world is still hurting.  Many of us here are still hurting.  But in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our sorrow, we encounter the God himself suffered the brokenness of injustice, violence, and death upon the Cross. The God who reminds us that behind the terrible day of the cross, lies the light of the day of the Empty Tomb.   And so we step out into that light, taking that walk of faith, testifying with our very being to that One Day and its light.  In so doing we shall find that through that faith and that light the world will be changed—one day.

The Texts

Exodus 14:19-31 ¶ The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. ¶ Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.” ¶ Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. ¶ Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Matthew 18:21-35 ¶ Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ¶ “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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