The Failure

ruined buildingsThis has been a period of intense soul searching for me. I spent the week at a cabin made available through the generosity of friends, writing on my next book, immersed in commentaries and surrounded by volumes of history. But I could not stay away from the news reports, the interviews, the pictures.  I was deeply moved by President Bush’s address to the nation.[1]

Several times this week, I awoke in the early hours of the morning, disturbed by urgent and unrelenting questions:  Why has this happened?  What does it mean for our nation and our future?  What do these events say to the people of God?

One thing is for sure—the events of September 11 have changed us and the world in which we live.  They’ve changed us in good and bad ways, in trivial and profound ways, in temporary and permanent ways. They’ve changed us in ways we do not yet understand, ways we cannot foresee.  We will not shake these things off and move on as if they never happened. This tragedy has hit the reset button on our lives.  It’s forced us to shut down and boot up again . . . nationally . . . personally . . . and spiritually.

It is the spiritual re-booting I want to explore with you this morning. 

I am convinced that what happened September 11 comprises both an indictment of and an opportunity for the people of God.  Disciples of Jesus Christ have also been changed by these events . . . and if we haven’t been, we should be. We’ve been challenged by these events . . . and if we haven’t been, we should be.

The gravity of these events and this time makes it possible for me to speak truths you would not ordinarily hear . . . truths I would not ordinarily voice. But in light of what has happened recently, I’m feeling a little dangerous today.  Last week, I made a deliberate attempt to speak comfort to you.  But this week, I intend to be offensive—to myself, and my own spiritual complacency, and to you and the compromises we have all made.

Where did we fail?

Have you noticed how willing people are just now to engage in critical self-analysis?  To ask, “Where did we go wrong?”

We’re doing it as a nation. Was our intelligence that unreliable? Was our security that lax? Are our borders so porous that something like this could happen to us? We recognize that Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security by our wealth and military might and the peace we have so long enjoyed.  We see now that a national complacency made us vulnerable to violent men.

I suggest that God’s people need to engage in the same sort of soul searching.  We need to face up to some failures of our own.  We also have been lulled into a false sense of security, anesthetized into a profound spiritual complacency.  Jesus has been so long returning that we feel no urgency, no sense of immediacy about the spiritual battle we are waging. In these peaceful, joyous times, Satan seems a long way off, a bad boy on holiday. Our material possessions have diverted our attentions from things that matter.

We may be people who live in two worlds, one foot in the earth, the other in the spiritual realm.  But I contend that the foot we have in this world bears most of the weight of our priorities and desires and time and attention. The foot we keep in the heavenly realms is light as a feather and atrophied from lack of real use.

The clear, unmistakable, blatant expression of evil we witnessed September 11 not only reminds us cruelly of the presence of Satan and the reality of wickedness . . . not only strips away our illusions of peace and security . . . it confronts us with failures that we, the people of God, have permitted and rationalized and winked at for years.

Today, I want to mention three:

  1. A failure of vision.
  2. A failure of community.
  3. A failure of righteousness.

September 11 Convicts God’s People of Tiny Vision.

Part of what stuns us about these attacks is the scope of the plan.  This plot was years in the making.  Millions of dollars were required. Hundreds of people, spread through a dozen countries, dedicated themselves fanatically to making this wicked plan work. Some of them pledged their lives to the cause.

And here we are, God’s nervous warriors, worried about the slightest changes in worship or ministry lest it cause somebody offense.

I look at what these wicked, driven men did, and I feel ashamed.  They would go to these lengths, take these risks, make plans this detailed, devote so much time and money and energy to commit an act of unspeakable evil.  And we—the people who hold in our hands the story that can change lives, and save the world, and transform the very people who did this—we sit here with our weekly budget deficits and our sacred cows, pointing to ministries we started 40 years ago to convince ourselves we really are making a difference in the world.

Where is our vision for turning a world upside down?  Where is our ambitious, audacious, risky, costly plan for winning the world?  Where is the vision to which we have pledged our “lives and property and sacred honor” . . . a vision we value more than our comfort and our complacency?

September 11 cries out that we are suffering a failure of vision as God’s people.

Some of that is a failure of leadership.  I get so involved in planning adult education and doing premarital counseling and smoothing ruffled feathers and going to committee meetings that finding time to think about how this church is going to radically impact the world is hard to come by.  And our elders know too well what it will cost to do anything bold as a church. They know some of you will howl if we try anything different or demanding. They know some of our sister churches and institutions will react violently to any attempt to put effectiveness ahead of business as usual.

So the temptation, for me and for them, is not to lead, not to dare, not to experiment, not to dream, not to risk failure, not to risk offense.  The temptation, God forgive us, is to opt for timidity. 

But some of our tiny-ness of vision comes directly from the pew. I could mention several things at this point that make boldness difficult for the church: a pervasive individualism among our members that makes unified group action almost impossible; an unrelenting busyness that saps us for the purposes of the kingdom.

But the one thing I will mention, since I’m offending you anyway, is the impact of materialism on our ability to do anything world-changing as a church. We couldn’t do anything bold and aggressive and audacious if it cost real money. The American brand of Christianity—the brand that underplays the ugliness of greed and sees wealth as an unmitigated sign of God’s favor—has taught us it’s all right, it’s justifiable, it’s perfectly understandable for car payments and retirement plans and trips to Disney World to compete with Kingdom work.

Any vision that challenges us financially in a significant way—whether it be a building program, putting ten missionaries in Egypt for the next ten years, or setting up orphanages for the children of the war-dead in Afghanistan—any such projects run up against this one, immoveable brick wall: you and I will only do what we can do with the money we have left over. We will not make significant changes of life style or standard of living, no matter how worthy the cause. We value our stuff and our toys and our financial security more than we value the risky business of changing a world.

And then New York City blows up and we wake up to wonder if greater vision, greater sacrifice, greater dedication might be needed from the people of God.

September 11 Convicts Us of Tepid Community.

Part of what stuns us about these attacks is the depth of the hatred that prompted them. “Why can’t we all just get along?” we want to ask. “Why can’t we be friends?” And then we look at the World Trade Center, and we realize there are forces at work in this world determined to destroy peace, to promote war, to fan hatred and grievances, to maim and mangle.

But don’t be fooled by the hatred. The people who committed these violent acts valued community. They depended on their sense of community to coordinate and carry out these attacks. And they chose symbols of our nation’s communal life to strike at, hoping to tear apart our own sense of unity.

And while they used community to assault community, God’s people have despised community by practicing and tepid and limited love.

I look at what these hateful men did, and I feel convicted.  Convicted that, as God’s people, we have been commissioned to proclaim “God is love” and to practice a love that looks like His.  Convicted that there is no more pressing need in the world than for the people of God not just to talk about love but to demonstrate—in the church—what it means to be a loving, caring, intimate, healing, joyful, accepting community of people.  Convicted that, too often in the church, we have settled for relationships that are marginally better than those in the world around us, but not radically better. 

For decades now, we have squandered an opportunity to demonstrate redemptive community, real intimacy, forgiving fellowship to a world desperate to see such an example.  We have fought and bickered and divided as individual churches.  And we have shown greater commitment to denominational boundaries than to the pursuit of a unified body of Christ.

In the world we used to live in, in the pre-September 11 world, we had the luxury of differentiating ourselves from other religious groups and letting matters that don’t matter keep us distinct and apart.  In the world we used to live in, minor differences in belief and practice may have been important enough to draw lines and withdraw fellowship. You and I have been part of a movement (the “churches of Christ”) that not only justified such divisions, but reveled in them.

Unless we as a congregation have the courage and the Christ-likeness to love each other with a radical, arresting kind of love . . . unless we as a congregation can extend our hands to and celebrate our unity with Baptist brothers and Pentecostal brothers and at least two or three Presbyterians . . . then by what right can we stand before a watching world and say, “Look at us.  This is how you love other people”?  “Look at us.  This is how different people with different points of view accept and encourage each other.”

Once upon a time, making distinctions based on how people worshiped, how often they took the Supper, and what their position was on the cessation of gifts was justified—perhaps.  But in the glare of the awful hatred that was unleashed September 11, holding on to such distinctions is not just foolish . . . it is petty. 

And I want no part of it.  In times like these, I would rather separate from those who insist on remaining separate than remain separate from those who are attempting to find a basis for unity.

September 11 convicts us of a casual righteousness.

Part of what stuns us about these attacks is how evil and wicked they were. These dupes of Satan—these poor, deluded, misled people—deliberately, intentionally, with forethought and premeditation carried out an act of unspeakable horror.

Which leads me to say that the people who destroyed the World Trade Center were far more intentional about their wickedness than we are about our righteousness.

In high school, my mother once told me I had gotten too casual about sin. And no, I’m not going to tell you what I was doing to prompt this rebuke.  I will tell you she was right.  I had grown casual with sin.  And I have continued to do so. And so, I suspect, have you.

We play awfully fast and loose with morality in the American church.  We excuse and overlook a great deal.  The research (and there has been a great deal of it) indicates there is little difference on most measures of morality between those claiming a relationship with Jesus Christ and those who do not.  We have about the same divorce rates as the world, about the same incidence of alcoholism and abortion and arrest.  We visit pretty much the same web sites.  We harbor many of the same prejudices.

I look at the raw evil unleashed on our nation last month, and I see too much evil in myself and in you.  We’re playing around in the shallow end of evil while terrorists dive into the deep.  But it’s the same pool.  We’re playing in the same water.  And I feel dirty.

The events of September 11 hold up a mirror before the believing community. There are those who are deliberately choosing evil in our world.  Will we just as deliberately choose holiness?  There are those who are fanatically pursuing a wicked agenda in this world.  How fanatical are we willing to become in the pursuit of righteousness?  There are people who are willing to die to do murder.  Are you and I willing to live to do good?

The Opportunity

So much for the indictment.  Satan is going about this world like a ravenous lion, looking for people he can eat alive.  On September 11, we saw his teeth and claws.  And I believe we saw ourselves: sleeping, complacent, self-satisfied.

Where does the opportunity lie?  Precisely here:  Our weaknesses can become our strengths.  Our fumbled responsibilities can become our renewed focus.  What we had forgotten can be now our intense remembrance.

Can we, as God’s people, rise up to find a vision worthy of the cross and of our best efforts?  Can we discover a renewed sense of purpose that pushes us to be bold and justifies real sacrifice?  There is no better time than these dark days to challenge ourselves with something beyond ourselves—a mission that dares to touch the world.

Can we, as God’s people, recommit ourselves to being “one”—as Jesus prayed so intensely the night he was betrayed?  Can we practice a compelling love in the context of this church?  Can we extend an accepting hand to those who, like us, claim Jesus as Lord?  There is no better time than these hate-filled days to provide a loving alternative—the unified, joyful, passionate body of Christ.

And can we, as God’s people, rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of holiness?  Can we call ourselves and each other to a higher way of living, one that honors God, one that is distinct from the worldly and the profane?  There is no better time than these self-indulgent, dissipated days to take up a lifestyle that goes against the grain of popular culture.

If you haven’t noticed, this is war. And you and I have to decide whether we want to sleep-walk through it, or take up the full armor of God and get on with the business to which God has called us.

[1]     Preached at the Otter Creek Church on September 23, 2001.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.