Today is the third day this week that I have climbed into this pulpit to speak about the events of September 11th. Each time I have done so with fear and trembling because while I must speak, it is my job as priest to speak, there is so little I know to say. The destruction and death we have all witnessed are events beyond words, they are tragedies beyond description. There is no way to make sense out of them. There is no way to even get our minds around them. Four thousand, five thousand innocent people gone or missing – how do we comprehend that kind of loss much less comes to terms with it? The truth is, the security of our nation has been breached and our illusion of safety has been stripped away. All of us are on edge and for many people our early feelings of shock and disbelief have given way to deep feelings of grief and anger. Many of us are afraid and I know that more than once I have wanted to drop everything, run home, close the doors and the windows, pull down the shades, block out the world and just hold my family tightly. It has all been too much.
What is the remedy? How do we fix this? We don’t. There are no answers, no good explanations, and no way to tie this all up neatly and put it away. But while there may not be a remedy for our current situation, there is a tonic, a salve, something we can feed on that helps our fear. As William Sadler once said, “The only known cure for fear is faith.”
Fear and a lack of faith is what plagued the Israelites in our lesson this morning from Exodus. Moses had gone up on the mountain to speak with God. He had been gone a long time. The people of Israel left alone in the desert began to feel abandoned and forsaken. Their leader was no where to be found. The man they leaned on and his God who protected them for so long was gone from their midst and they were frightened. Their faith in Moses and his God were not enough, they needed something else. In desperation, to cope with their anxiety and their fear they persuaded Aaron to build for them a new god, a god nearby when Yahweh seemed so distant. A golden calf made by their own hands, an ancient symbol of pagan divinity, became the solace they reached for. If they could not find the God they needed then they would make a god of their own.
It is a powerful story that seems somehow apropos in our current situation. After this past week it is so easy to give into our fear and reach for an idol when we feel like our God is so distant. It is so easy to let go of our faith in Christ when Christ seems so far away. What could make us feel more alone in a cruel universe than what we witnessed Tuesday morning. Who can hold tightly to their faith and push back the fear when quite literally everything seems to be crumbling around them?
I have seen many false Gods, many golden calves emerge this week. The gods of hatred, the gods of prejudice, the gods of bigotry are beginning to emerge in our culture. When the God of love seems so far away why not hold onto our hatred and our bigotry and give it license, hatred is a warm companion and an easy idol. While I understand the anger we all feel, I have heard several people in recent days quoted in the press say things that are hateful and unfortunate. “I know just what to do with these Arab people,” Mr. Beckwith proclaimed on Wednesday to the New York Times. “We have to find them, kill them, wrap them in a pigskin and bury them. That way they will never go to heaven.” “I want to get bin Laden and his parents and his two kids and the people who live down the block,” said a Mr. Willhoit. “Let’s just make glass out of Afghanistan.” I have seen pictures of Arab Americans harassed and their businesses vandalized, cab drivers of eastern descent pulled from their cars and beaten. Easy responses when all that is good and true and right seem so far away.
There is an old English proverb that says – “Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” We cannot change the events of this week. We cannot put them right or find justice quickly. Like the Israelites in the desert we will have to wait it out in our own kind of wasteland a little longer. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. However, I do believe that faith does conquer fear. Faith in a God who is loving and just and good. Faith in a God who makes the lame walk, the deaf hear and the dead rise to life again. When I feel the most frightened I think about the men and women who risked their lives, and the many who gave their lives, to rush into those damaged and burning towers to save the innocent people they did not even know. I think about them because their actions seem to show a faith that points away from the false god of hatred to the real God. When I feel the most frightened, I think about the goodness of the thousands of people lined up at blood banks to literally give of themselves to help others. I think of the millions of dollars rolling in from all over the world to help those most affected by this tragedy. I think of all the families bravely holding together even though they have lost brothers or sister, husbands or wives, children or grandchildren. I look at these beautiful, innocent children about to be baptized, so full of hope and promise, and I know there is something more than my fear. In the midst of all of the awfulness we have seen these are the images of faith that point me away from my fear, images that hint to me that our God has not abandoned us and we are not alone.
The Rev. Meg Riley interviewed sometime this week asked rhetorically, “What do we tell our children? We listen. We hold them,” she said. “We tell them, ‘I love you. Love is forever.’” The only known cure for fear is faith. The essence of faith is love. Love is forever and nothing can destroy that. Amen. These are words of faith. These are words of good advice for how to address our children. They are also words of good advice for what to do with each other. Amen.