The Church after 9/11

Delivered August 18, 2002 by Mike Metzger,
immediate past Director of the Osprey Center
and founding Senior Pastor of Bay Area Community Church.

Sermon Text:
John 11

There is a great deal of speculation these days almost a year later about what will be the contours of our culture and the shape of the world after 9/11. There are those who argue that we need to just get back to normal, other say everything has changed. We certainly have before us issues of security, terrorism, freedom, privacy, economic recession; the travel industry alone has been buffeted. I do not have a crystal ball here, but I do have three ideas for the church after 9/11. So this morning this is sort of an in house conversation. And these three ideas or suggestions come from observing the response of Jesus Christ and his disciples to an incident of tragedy and death. Since Paul is the one who said death is a final enemy, and an enemy is evil, this is a story about the response of Christ and his disciples to evil. It is found in John Chapter 11, if you want to follow along. It’s the familiar story of Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha and the death of a good friend. It begins this way:

“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”

Now you run the film a little bit more forward. After a lapse of two days, Christ and his disciples are having a further conversation and it begins in Verse 11.

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

This is somewhat a familiar story to many of you. It’s the death of a personal friend. In fact, if you read that chapter carefully, you will see five times John records that Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus cared deeply about him, and yet amazingly he lingers for several days after hearing that his friend is in need.

My first suggestion for the church after 9/11 as I draw out the story a little more, is that we shouldn’t be as naive about evil as we have been. We shouldn’t be as naive about evil. In other words, we shouldn’t be so unaware or insulated from evil. Christ is not naive about a terrible tragedy that has taken place. Now some of us might think about him lingering, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when we consider God to be some sort of cosmic vending machine. Put our quarters in and get poof, instant response. And here he is hanging out by the Holiday Inn just a few miles away and not coming to help his friend. But, I think that Jesus understood that tragedies and evil happen every day in a fallen world. And Americans tend not to think about evil, and the church is included in that. How many are familiar with the fact that the number killed in the World Trade Center was roughly the same number, which in the height of atrocities in the Congo, the same number who are being killed everyday. We are historically illiterate. I don’t know how many of you realize that when Matthew talked about Rachel’s children weeping at the birth of Christ, what was that story about? Well, as you know, the crazed lunatic King Herod, when he heard that a king had been born, he deemed that every Hebrew male two years and younger was to be slaughtered and even though historians cannot pin down probably a very accurate figure, the guess is it might be that as many babies were killed as died in the World Trade Center. How many of you realize that the life of Christ, the birth of Christ is actually said deep in the soil that is soaked with blood. In fact, if we want to do a rabbit trail, it would be interesting sometime to consider what it would have been like 30 or 40 years down the road when perhaps one of these Hebrew mothers who had lost her son came wandering into a church at a Christmas celebration. Never heard about Jesus, never considered who he was and, as she heard the service, and as she began to do the math and the chronology backwards, she realized the death of this Savior was the occasion of the slaughter of her son. Something to think about as you prepare our Christmas celebrations this year at Central.

Prior to 9/11 America becomes in the words of Richard John Newhouse, a society that was obsessed by fake pluralism while on a long and hedonistic holiday from history. What did he mean by that? Well, in many ways the United States prior to 9/11 was very similar to Great Britain in the 1930’s. And, as all of you might remember Winston Churchill made appeal after appeal for what he called the recovery of moral health in England as a specter of evil and Nazism arose on the continent in Europe. This was Winston Churchill’s way of saying that the English, especially after the Munich Accords were broken, needed to learn once again to recognize evil. Prior to 9/11, Americans did not recognize evil. Certainly didn’t act like it. But as billions of world citizens watched jetliners plunge into office towers, we suddenly recognized evil and the idea that evil is evil, was now understandable. One of the most striking changes immediately after 9/11 was the acquiescence of the tolerance and pluralism movements in our country. We use to believe that all faces were equal and all truth is negotiable and it is worse to condemn evil than actually to commit evil. Since 9/11, Americans have begun to reconsider that position and perhaps to believe in real evil, even Aerosmith’s leading vocalist, Steve Tyler, I know many of you are Aerosmith fans, I’m sure. He said, “The events of 9/11 made me change.” And he recently remarked to the Detroit Free Press, “We need to go back to the way it was 30 years ago when we were willing to pass morale judgments about right and wrong.” I am not sure it was 30 years ago, but I like what Steve has to say. The world has indeed changed, but it is not so much the world itself has changed, but our understanding of the world. In many ways I think we woke up. Christians ought to have a sense of being reminded of things that we already knew and might otherwise had preferred to forget. As the evil specter of the Third Reich rose throughout Europe in 1939, it was C.S. Lewis who wrote this in his essay, Learning in War Time. He said, “War does not so much transform our lives; he says ,quote ” it simply aggravates the permanent human condition or situation so we can no longer ignore it.” Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. We are mistaken when we compare war with normal life. Life has never been normal. Lewis goes on to say as we perhaps consider an impending war in front of us, “War makes death real to us” and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. I am inclined to think they were right. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked to something that would turn our present world into a place of pilgrimage and into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned and not a moment too soon.

Before 9/11 I believe our naivety contributed to forgetfulness that the fall introduced collateral damage into creation and that continues with us today, and it leaves no one untouched. Our children should understand that walking with God does not make you immune to death or the intrusion of evil. In fact, it might make you a target. No longer invulnerable we see that evil requires no bombs or armies, it can employ jetliners and box cutters. The church after 9/11 ought to mature in recognizing the existence of evil and the pernicity (?) of evil and no longer be so naive.

Well if you trace the story on, you go on to John Chapter 11, Verse 33 you will see that Jesus comes before Martha and Mary after this delay, in fact it says that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. That’s significant because in rabbinical fall that day, when the body laid in the tomb for three days, the spirit or the soul would hover above and there was an opportunity perhaps for a miracle, or a resurrection, or a coming back, but after the third day the soul departed, the spirit departed, they would go back to the Jews and they would change in to sack cloth and ashes, the weeping would change and there would be no hope. And it’s on the fourth day that Christ arrives. You might remember that Martha comes and says, “Lord you know, if you had been there this wouldn’t have happened.” That is a fairly naive view of the presence of Christ shielding us from evil. But while Jesus was not naive about evil, I want you to see a balance here in his life. In verse 33 it says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

Here is my second thought. Not only should we not be naive toward evil, we should not be numb toward evil. In other words, while we should not be naive, we should also not be indifferent. If you look at this passage here when it says that Christ was deeply troubled, deeply moved, the Greek word there is the same for a horse whose nostrils are flaring with rage, Christ sees the death of Lazarus as a great moral injustice. It’s not the way the world was supposed to be. Christ is neither naive about evil, but he also is not numb toward it. After the World Trade Center the danger in raising this question about whether or not we are numb, is that many Americans could veer into a sort of reckless bellicosity against all internationals or people with dark skin. The promise on the other hand, is that we might gain clarity in thinking about what is true inner goodness and what is evil and then engage that problem but not with vindictiveness. For too long Americans have been anesthetized to a world of evil. Troubles all around us. If I begin the drumbeat it could go on for minutes. Rwanda, Congo, Angola, Bosnia, Chesnia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, The Spice Islands and on and on it goes. As followers of Christ, see we live with bifocals. This is why Christ was enraged. We are supposed to be the people who live with a bifocal view of life. By bifocals, I don’t wear glasses, but I have seen enough people who do. We look at the top and it says creation. Creation tells us how it was designed to be, how it ought to be and the bottom half of the lens is the fall. We see how it actually is. Christians should be realists. But as we look at life we see how it ought to have been and how it actually is. How it ought to be and how it actually is. And because of that we see how it should be and how it actually is turning out in the fallen world, we are enraged. We seek to change it. We should be the people who express moral outrage and evil and condemn it as such, not with vindictiveness. We shouldn’t be the people who sugarcoat evil with sloppy and insensitive remarks like, “God works it all off for good.” Jesus was outraged at evil, and we should share such outrage. We shouldn’t numbly gaze with glassed-over eyes at the horrors we witnessed on the evening news night after night and simply turn to our spouse and say, “What’s for dinner?” I think the Jews have it right, never forget.

Well here is my third suggestion. We shouldn’t be naive, we shouldn’t be numb. My last is I am suggesting that 9/11 reminds us that the early church was a hopeful people, not so much an optimistic people. Now what do I mean by that? By that I mean that Stanley Hollerwaltz is the one who said that optimism is false virtue. It actually comes from the word optic meaning a rosy and cheery outlook. Remember James said, “You don’t even know what your life is going to be like tomorrow.” You’re not even sure what your life is going to be like in the next five minutes. As Hollerwaltz points out the problem with optimism is that it doesn’t pay attention to the truth. It neglects evil and paints a rosy picture about how our life is going to turn out. We tend to think for example and I believe we did before 9/11 that will never happen to us and then it did. If you remember in this story from John, Jesus calls Mary and Martha to place their hope in Him, not in endless miracles, bread, resurrections and so on and so forth. I believe the early church and the early believers never had a rosy optimistic outlook. Instead they had hope and because their hope was in Him, they challenged the evil and the errors and wrongs propagated by the Roman Empire. Yes, people were thrown to lions as a result and devoured. Yes, the Appian Way was lit by the burning impaled bodies of those who professed allegiance to Christ, but their hope never wavered.

I suppose in conclusion I am challenging the modern church to live more like the early believers and less like modern day bobo’s. Now usually when I say bobo’s, about half of the heads in the church do finally turn up. A few years ago David Brooks wrote a book, Bobo’s in Paradise, I don’t know if any of you have read it. But he pretty accurately, in my opinion, describes American culture and the church by extension. He says what is phenomenal about America over the last 20-30 years is that we have become people who have combined the historical bourgeois cause of self-improvement, progress and technology and we wedded it with the Bohemian impulse to experience new sensations. So we still have the bourgeois impulse of faster modem, newer palm pilots and the Bohemian impulse of “let’s climb the Rockies next summer” and we wedded those and he says that Americans largely become, and he says there are no more culture wars, he says we have largely become bourgeois Bohemians. Bobo’s. Listen to this description.

“Bobo’s are people who conscientiously recycle as much as possible, that’s bourgeois with progress and technology, while driving massive SUV’s that guzzle gas, that’s Bohemian. We cry out against the deforestation of the rain forest and all forests, while using choice wood as we remodel our kitchens making them larger than most third world homes. Yet bobo’s avoid the old cliche’s of conspicuous consumption and merely being pawns in a mass consumer society, instead we view ourselves as connoisseurs of everything we eat, drink and wear. We don’t order a regular cup of coffee anymore, we order a venti almond frappachino made from a golden blend with a touch of sugar and a hint of cinnamon. As bobo’s we don’t drink beer anymore, we belly up to the bar and select one of 16,000 micro-brews, picking our way to winter ales, Belgian lagers and blended wheat’s. Bobo religion then tends to be a rather shallow affair. When we venture into a church like this, it’s usually not done on any deep belief or commitment, but rather because bobo’s long for a squishy thing called moral community. We want to belong, but only on our own terms, accepting only those practices and doctrines that conformto our modern pluralistic sensibilities.”

Unfortunately as Brooks recognizes, building a house of faith on a foundation like this is very problematic. Brooks writes, “Bobo’s ain’t for decency, not saneness. In short, they prefer a moral lifestyle, but doesn’t shake things up.” And in many ways, this defines and describes the modern church. We are sort of an Arundel Mills design to meet your every need or whim. I believe the early church was radically different. They faced the reality of evil and they fought it. And over the next 300 years, Christianity became the dominant religious force in the western world and reinvigorated the Roman Empire. William Wilberforce in the Clapham sect was cut out of the same bolt of cloth. They were willing to call slavery evil and then do something about it. Over the next 40 years not only won the minds of the empire, they revitalized the empire. So the church after 9/11 are we going to be primarily bobo’s? Or believers? For many of us the church has become a home entertainment center or a hot tub in recent years because that’s what bobo’s want. 9/11 could renew the 21st century church so that it becomes more of an academy that cultivates crisp thinking or an athletic weight room where heavy lifting takes place for those followers of Christ who seek to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul and mind and seek to engage society.

The church after 9/11, the terrible tragedy and loss of life should not be in vain. Let’s turn from bobo living and engage a complex world marked by turmoil and evil as the 1st century believers did. Let’s join their train.

Let’s pray. Our Father in the heavens, in a fallen world that is marked by confusion and complexity, evil and goodness, make us people who are discerning and wise, winsome and kind and who call good, good and evil, evil. In Christ’s name. Amen.