Sermon: “To Save You” (September 11, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“To Save You” (1 Timothy 1:15)
September 11, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As you know, today is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most tragic days in the history of our country: September 11, 2001, often referred to as simply 9/11.  Most of us remember where we were when we heard about or saw on television the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center.  I was in my office in South Carolina when a coworker came to my door and told me to follow him to the breakroom where there was a small black and white television that our receptionist used to watch soap operas during her lunch break every day.  Several of us stood in silence watching the heartbreaking live coverage.

Schools dismissed early that day, and I remember giving my kids extra-long hugs that night at bedtime and then watching coverage with my wife Steph into the night.  Each of you has your own story of that day—where you were, who was with you, how you felt.  Some of you knew people who perished that Tuesday morning or know people whose lives were forever changed.

The tragic events of 9/11 not only left an indelible imprint on our country, but also challenged the faith of many people.  How could God let this happen?  The late renowned author John Updike reflected this in the opening of his short story entitled “Varieties of Religious Experience”:

There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall…Dan could not quite believe the tower had vanished.  How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so causally?  The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer.  The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky.  No hand of God had intervened because there was none.  God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.  Thus was Dan, a sixty-four-year-old Episcopalian…he joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism (from his 2009 short story collection, My Father’s Tears, 83-84).

Yet, in the midst of that horrible day there were also extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice.

When she saw the first plane strike the first tower of the World Trade Center NYPD Officer Moira Smith was the first officer to report the terrorist attack.  A thirteen-year veteran of the NYPD, she ran into the tower, assisted in the evacuation, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives.  Moira Smith never emerged from that building, but sacrificed her life instead.  It was six months later before her remains were finally identified in the wreckage.  She was thirty-eight years old, and the only female NYPD officer to die on 9/11, her “end of watch.”

Moira was survived by her two-year-old daughter, Patricia and her husband, James, also an NYPD officer.  A few months later little Patricia, wearing a red velvet dress, accompanied her dad to Carnegie Hall, where Mayor Rudi Guiliani draped her mom’s posthumously awarded gold Medal of Honor around her neck while she held her dad’s hand.  As a teenager now Patricia wears bracelets bearing her mom’s name on both of her wrists.

And of course Moira Smith was one of many who sacrificed their lives on 9/11 to save others.

On their 2002 album The Rising Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had several songs dedicated to those most impacted by 9/11.  One song, called “Into the Fire”, is a tribute to New York’s Finest and New York’s Bravest, members of New York’s police and fire departments who, like Moira Smith, literally gave their lives in order to save others:

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me
Then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss
But love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs
Into the fire…

You gave your love to see
In fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near
But love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs
Into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
It was dark, too dark to see

You held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss
But love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs
Into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

In today’s passage from his First Letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul refers to a cosmic act of self-sacrifice: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  Later in this letter Paul continues, “(God) desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1Timothy 2:4-6).  This is a theologically loaded passage.  God “desires everyone to be saved,” Paul writes—and of course “everyone” includes you.

Paul continues, “There is one God”, which hearkens back to an Old Testament passage known as the Shema (from the Hebrew word meaning “hear”), which states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4, KJV).

“There is one God”—this cut against the grain of the polytheism of Old Testament times with pagan gods like Baal and Ashtoreth and Molech, and cut against the grain of the polytheism of the time of the Apostle Paul with the vast pantheon of Greek and Roman gods.  And it cuts against the grain of our time as well, our age in which religious choices are like a food court at the mall or the buffet tables at an all-you-eat restaurant: pick what you like—it’s all good, it’s all up to you.

“There is one God,” Paul writes, and then continues, “there is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human”—or as it says in the King James Version, “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and therefore the only qualified to serve as a mediator between a holy God and sinful human beings like you and me.  The late Anglican priest and scholar John Stott puts it this way:

And since in no other person but Jesus of Nazareth has God first become man (taking our humanity to himself) and then given himself as a ransom (taking our sin and guilt upon himself), therefore he is the only mediator.  There is no other.  No one else possesses, or has ever possessed, the necessary qualifications to mediate between God and sinners (The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, 71).

Jesus is the “one mediator between God and humankind.”  In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is described as “the mediator” of the “new covenant,” a “better covenant” than the law of the Old Testament (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; and 12:24).  This “new covenant” was established not with the shed blood from animals, but with the shed blood of Jesus, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), who mediated this new and better covenant when he “gave himself a ransom for all.”  Why?  Because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

And this means that even in the face of a tragedy like 9/11, even in the face of the current tragedies in the world or your life, you do not have to succumb to “stoic atheism,” because the good news of the gospel is that there is a God—a God who desires everyone, including you, to be saved—a God whose hands were nailed to a cross, whose eyes wept for your sin, and whose heart beat its last time for you.

Jesus’ love and duty called him someplace higher—Calvary, where Jesus gave his love to you and laid his young body down, where his tears disappeared into the dust, and afterwards his body was laid in the darkness of the grave.

Back to John Updike for a moment…in spite of his bouts with doubt, John Updike remained a believer his whole life, and during his last years regularly attended St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.  His hope in the midst of tragedies like 9/11 rested not only in Jesus’ death, but also his resurrection, as he expressed in his poem Seven Stanzas at Easter:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall…

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

Just like Moira Smith walked through the door of the falling World Trade Center, Jesus, who “came into the world to save sinners,” walked through the door of a fallen, and falling, world to save you, to give his life as a ransom for you, so that you could “walk through the door” of resurrection and eternal life.

Today may that faith give you faith, may that hope give you hope, may that love give you love.

Amen.