Fourth Anniversary

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading this morning comes from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 5.38-48. Jesus said:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”

So said Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Christian scriptures.

The second reading this morning comes from the Hebrew scriptures, Psalm 34.14

“Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

Sermon

This morning, I had planned to preach the last in a series of sermons on Chinese religion and philosophy. But I changed my mind, and decided to preach a sermon titled “Fourth Anniversary.”

We Unitarian Universalists are both Christian and not-Christian; I like to say we are “post-Christian.” I like being a post-Christian. As a post-Christian, I can hold on to the best of the Christian tradition; and through the use of reason I can reject the parts of the Christian tradition that are obviously wrong-headed.

It’s just after the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and I find myself holding on to the best of the Christian tradition. And I believe the best of the Christian tradition can be found in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” This is a sermon that was supposed to have been preached by the great rabbi and spiritual leader Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus and his disciples were going through the countryside in the land of Judea. Rumors began to spread through the countryside that a great and good and wise man was preaching with such authority and such deep humanity, that he was said to be the Messiah, the Chosen One who would lead the Jewish people into righteousness and freedom. Thousands of people flocked to hear this great man preach. His disciples found him a hill on which he stood while the people gathered around him. And there he preached a sermon that contained the core of his beliefs.

In that sermon, Jesus of Nazareth preached: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [5.14-16]

And then he also preached what we heard in the first reading this morning:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your [God] in heaven; for [God] makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly [God] is perfect.'”

Taken as a whole, the Sermon on the Mount comprises what is arguably the highest and best statement of Christian ethics. On this fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I would like us to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” To help explain what he meant by this, he offered a dramatic example of how we are to live this out in our own lives, saying:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….” [5.39-40]

That, my friends, is an utterly ridiculous statement. If anyone strikes us on the right cheek, there is no way that we are going to just stand there and offer our left cheek also; we would either call the cops, sue the jerk who hit us, call the domestic abuse hotline, or simply walk away. But to just stand there, waiting to be hit on the other cheek — we are not going to do that, it is asking to be hurt.

Or take a more extreme example. When the fanatics hijacked those jets and flew them into the World Trade Center towers, our natural impulse was to strike back, to invade Afghanistan. Of course we invaded Afghanistan. We sought justice. We sought justice for the hundreds of people who died in terror on those jetliners. We sought justice for the thousands who died in the twin towers: the people who burned to death, the people who jumped to their deaths rather than be burned. Of course we invaded Afghanistan to hunt down terrorists; we could not sit passively waiting for the terrorists to strike again.

The Christian tradition tells us that some wars can be just wars. Thomas of Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian thinkers, said, “In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.” We fulfilled the first criterion, because our sovereign powers, the President and Congress, approved the invasion of Afghanistan. Thomas Aquinas continued, “Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: ‘A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs….'” Clearly, we had been wronged; clearly we fulfilled this second criterion as well. Thomas Aquinas says we must meet yet a third criterion for a just war: “Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says: ‘True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.'” And when we invaded Afghanistan, we assuredly felt that our object was to secure the peace, to punish evildoers, and to uplift the good.

And then we took another short step; on March 20, 2003, we invaded Iraq. That was but a short step further along the same path. Wasn’t it? Wasn’t the invasion of Iraq justifiable? Can the invasion of Iraq be justified religiously as a just war?

Most Christian religious leaders and thinkers did not believe that the invasion of Iraq was justifiable. A typical example: on March 9, 2003, former president Jimmy Carter, a Christian and a deep thinker in his own right, said:

“As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards. This is an almost universal conviction of religious leaders, with the most notable exception of a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology.”

Jimmy Carter, who has studied Christian just war theory and who has updated that theory to account for the way the world works today, had an updated list of criteria for a just war. But he said that the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed all his criteria for what constitutes a just war. And he asserted that most Christian religious leaders and thinkers agreed with him.

Perhaps some of you believed then, and believe now, that the invasion of Iraq was justified. And I know that you can make sound arguments that invading Iraq was politically justifiable, that it was a pragmatic act. Our president has made exactly such arguments. Many of our Congressional leaders made exactly such arguments as Congress voted overwhelmingly to invade Iraq; and while some of those Congressional leaders have since changed their minds, it does not seem to me that they changed their minds on the basis of religious conviction. Politically, the invasion of Iraq seems to have been justifiable.

I readily admit that I am not competent to argue whether the invasion of Iraq was politically justifiable. I am not a politician, and I know I am somewhat naive when it comes to politics. But to anyone within the Christian tradition — even to those of us who are post-Christians — the invasion of Iraq was not religiously justifiable. To Christians and to post-Christians, the invasion of Iraq must be considered immoral and wrong.

These are harsh words. To say that the invasion of Iraq was immoral and wrong, is to accuse our elected leaders of being immoral. And because we live in a democracy, this means that the entire electorate has allowed immorality to rule our foreign policy. We have allowed the United States to become an immoral nation. Even more harshly, those of us in this room who can legally vote, or who participate in the political process in any other way, have aided and abetted an immoral war.

These are harsh words, because if we acknowledge that we ourselves have aided and abetted an immoral war; we have aided and abetted immorality. This fact rose up into my consciousness as the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approached — the fact that I myself was in some small sense participating in an immoral war.

A week an a half ago — on Friday, March 16 — there was a Christian Peace Witness for Iraq down in Washington, D.C. To mark the fourth anniversary of the immoral invasion of Iraq, scores of Christian religious leaders planned to commit civil disobedience in front of the White House. They planned to trespass on White House grounds and commit the radical act of praying for peace. Thousands of other Christians were going to light candles and surround the White House with light, surround the White House with prayers for peace.

I called up my friend Elizabeth — she’s a Quaker and a pacifist who lives in Washington — and asked here if she was going to participate in this Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. Yes, she said. I said the whole thing seems hopeless, and that praying for peace seemed hopelessly impractical. Well, said Elizabeth, we can’t do anything else, but at least we can pray. So I told Elizabeth that if she’d put me up for the night, I’d come down and pray for peace in front of the White House while other ministers and clergypeople got arrested for praying.

A week ago Friday, at about eleven o’clock, there I stood in front of the White House in the freezing cold, snow on the ground, along with two or three thousand other people. The organizers announced that the people who were going to commit civil disobedience should get ready. Beside me, one man said to another, “OK, Rev., guess this is it. You’ve got my cell phone number?” The other man, presumably a minister, was an older African American man whom I guessed to be about 70 — and I give that description of him so you realize that this wasn’t the stereotypical crowd of young white hippie peaceniks. The minister nodded and said, “Yes, I’ve got it, and I’ll call you when it’s time to bail me out.”

What a ridiculous thing for a seventy year old minister to do: to stand in front of the White House on a freezing cold night, and get arrested for praying for peace. I almost decided to join that 70-something minister right then and there. What a silly thing to do, to get arrested like that. It’s as silly as turning your left cheek should someone strike you on your right cheek. It’s standing there in silent witness to immorality and violence: not turning away, not striking back, not seeking legal redress, but standing there as if to say: “What you are doing is wrong, is immoral.”

When we are told to turn the other cheek, it’s usually put in such a way that it means we are supposed to be meek and mild and to accept whatever crap is dished out to us. That’s not what it means to turn the other cheek. To turn the other cheek is to stand up in the face of immorality, to stand up against that which is wrong, to stand up in witness that there is a better way to live. Therefore, I do not recommend to you turn the other cheek. If you stand there in the face of immorality and violence, chances are that you’ll just get hit on the other cheek; or maybe you’ll get arrested for praying. Better to put up with immorality. Don’t turn the other cheek.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others….” I have told you not to turn the other cheek. Maybe if we just ignore the war in Iraq, it will go away. Or maybe you agree with the political expediency of the war in Iraq, and you think we should continue to fight it with increased troop levels.

On the other hand, we cannot justify the war in Iraq on religious grounds. So it is I tell you that we must somehow figure out how to let our lights shine: that is, we must somehow figure out how to proclaim the immorality of this war; we must somehow figure out how to ask forgiveness for our own complicity in the prosecution of this war; we must let the light of love shine in the darkness of violence. May our very being, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, become prayers for peace.

All Kinds of Patriots

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The reading, a poem about the horrors of war, is not included here due to copyright restrictions.

SERMON — “All Kinds of Patriots”

Today is the Sunday closest to November 11, Veteran’s Day, the holiday when we honor all those men and women who served in the armed forces of this country; November 11 is also Armistice Day, the day when we commemorate the signing of the 1918 armistice which put an end to “the war to end all wars.” But war is one of those topics we Unitarian Universalists struggle with. Some of us oppose all war; others of us believe war is sometimes necessary. So on this weekend when we honor veterans and commemorate the end to World War I, let’s explore what, if anything, we hold in common about war and warfare. Not that we’ll come up with a final answer this morning, but it’s the beginning of a conversation, the beginning of an exploration.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are firmly within the tradition of Western religion, and while individually we may find inspiration in other, non-Western, religious traditions, we are nonetheless each embedded in a society with deep roots in the Jewish and Christian religions. Thus it is that when a man like Martin Luther King asked us to consider who was our neighbor, we know he meant to refer to the teachings of Jesus, who is reported to have said, treat your neighbor as you yourself would like to be treated. Thus it is that we are all familiar with the teachings of the book of Exodus, which tells the story of how Moses led his people out of slavery and into the freedom of the desert; and the story tells how in the desert God appears to Moses and gives Moses a series of moral precepts, or commandments, including the commandment, “You shall not murder” [NRSV]; or, as this commandment is more familiarly (though perhaps less accurately) translated, “Thou shalt not kill.” [KJV] Therefore, as people of the Western religious tradition, we have gut-level knowledge of these two ethical teachings: treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated, and thou shall not kill.

Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the High Middle Ages and who was one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, realized that these two moral precepts seemed to indicate that all war must be immoral. But in his book the Summa Theologica, he argued that in fact some wars can be considered just wars. And Thomas Aquinas offers three criteria to help us judge whether a given war is actually a just war or not. Let’s look at those three classic criteria for determining if a war is just.

For one of his three criteria, Thomas Aquinas writes that a just war must have a just cause:

“…[A] just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: ‘A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.’ ”

In the ongoing discussion about the Iraq war, we have been hearing both pro-war and anti-war people repeatedly referring to this criterion. But this is a criterion we religious liberals are wary of using. As Universalists we are certain that love that will transform the world, not violence or vengeance. Therefore, while we might be able to condone warfare as a short-term necessity, it seems difficult for us to justify it in terms of vengeance or punishment.

Another criterion for just war, according to Thomas Aquinas, goes like this:

“…[I]t is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil…. For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): ‘The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.’ ”

Again, this criterion for war remains current, and we’ve heard supporters and opponents of the Iraq war using it. We religious liberals like to use this criterion. With our strong emphasis on the dictates of conscience, we spend a lot of time thinking about intentions, and we well know that the best actions can be sullied by wicked intentions. But we are most likely to use this criterion at a personal level, for those who serve or have served in the armed forces: if your overall intention is honorable and good, by the dictates of your conscience, then your own military service is justified and justifiable. But while necessary on a personal level, this criterion does not seem to us to be a sufficient reason for going to war.

Which brings us to Thomas Aquinas’s third criterion for a just war, which requires:

“…the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior…. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers… so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies….”

As religious liberals, this particular criterion for just war is most problematic for us. Thomas Aquinas assumes here that society is based upon a hierarchy and authority that begins with God, who is the ruler of us all. From God, power flows down to ecclesiastical and governmental authorities, who rule masses of people, and finally trickles down to individuals. We religious liberals have a different vision of society that begins with the connections that bind us each to each; these connections lead us to develop covenants, explicit statements of how we are bound together, and the promises we make to each other; and ends with the possibility that any or all of us can have direct experience of the transcending mystery of the universe, from which experience we might be able to draw new moral and ethical insights to share with all those to whom we are connected, and with whom we are bound together by covenant. Therefore, we find that we religious liberals cannot really use this criterion to determine whether a war is just.

Indeed, we are not entirely comfortable with any of these three classic criteria for what constitutes a just war. As Unitarian Universalists, we have two ultimate authorities: first, our individual consciences; second, the communities to which we are bound by covenant. So our determination of a just war is made not because someone in authority over us says that a given war is just, nor because we wish to punish someone else; and while we require good intentions, good intentions alone are not enough of a reason to go to war. Rather, we look to our individual consciences, and to our abiding understanding of the transforming power of love.

Because we recognize the authority of individual conscience, we are going to find Unitarian Universalists with a wide range of understandings about what constitutes a just war. Among our ranks, we have many veterans who have served in the armed forces and who are proud of what they have accomplished through their service. We also have conscientious objectors who have refused to serve in the military on moral and religious grounds, and who are proud of their adherence to principle. I have talked with both veterans and conscientious objectors who say that their Unitarian Universalist faith gave them strength as they lived out their very different choices.

Therefore, as a religious lbieral I don’t think it’s possible to describe a war as just, any more than I can describe a war as purple, or fuzzy. If I describe a war as just, what do I say to the conscientious objector who feels all wars are unjust? If I describe a war as unjust, what do I say to the veteran who served honorably in that war? As a religious liberal, I find that I am not inclined to make some straightforward, abstract judgment about whether a given war is just or unjust. There is no easy determination; which is so often the case for us religious liberals — there’s no one easy answer.

Wars are big, messy. A soldier has a very different experience of war than does a child. As we heard in today’s reading, a child in Belfast in 1940 could be fascinated by the pieces of shrapnel she found; she must have had a very different experience from the pilot of the plane that dropped the bombs on Belfast. It’s impossible to reduce war’s bigness and messiness to the point where we can all them unequivocally just or unequivocally unjust. There are moral consequences of going to war; or of not going to war; and whatever action we take, we are bound to face up to those moral consequences. Any action we take is going to have good consequences and bad consequences. We make the best choices we can, but we can never make perfect choices, and so we often have to deal with the unintended consequences of our choices; and we have to deal with the consequences of the choices made by people we are in relationship to.

Nor can we pass off blame for unintended consequences onto someone else, but because of our understanding of relationships and of covenant we should not do that. I have opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, and it would be easy for me to say that, because of my opposition, I am not responsible for what happened in Abu Ghraib prison; but I have to accept responsibility for what happened there, because of my deep connections to this country. It’s easier to say, “Don’t blame me, I voted for John Kerry,” or to say, “People who oppose the war are destroying this country.” It’s easier to point your finger at someone else and say, “I didn’t do it — it’s them.” But if we’re going to get serious about the transforming power of love, we cannot divide the world up into “us” and “them.”

In our Western religious tradition, Jesus of Nazareth remains one of our most influential teachers and prophets. Jesus offered some cogent advice for healing human relationships. He said, treat your neighbor as you yourself would like to be treated. Herein lies the true core of our Western tradition. Treat your neighbor as yourself; and remember that every other person is, in some sense, your neighbor. When war happens, it gets in the way of us treating others as neighbors; and therefore we do all we can to bring war to a close and to achieve a just and lasting peace.

In the love for all human beings, therein lies healing for us all. In that direction lies the path to a just and lasting peace. We come to this place of sanctuary each week in order draw strength in these troubled times. May we use our strength to go out and heal the world, one human relationship at a time.

Remembering

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.

Reading

The first readings was a poem titled “11th of September, 2001” by Maggi Pierce, and it was read by the poet.

Excerpt from “With a Wrench of the Gut,” an article from the New York Times of Wednesday, September 7, 2005

“Mark Scherzer, like perhaps thousands of New Yorkers, finds himself looking up with mild panic when he hears a plane flying low, or a sudden noise, even though, he says, the attack “has significantly receded in my consciousness.”

“Steven DeGennaro, 34, stops by the wall of victims near ground zero once a week on the way to the Staten Island ferry terminal, to look at the name of his cousin. Then he boards the boat, hoists a Heineken, and thinks.

“Four years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers seem trapped between a daily life free of the terrible memories of that day, and an inability to fully forget. Many go for weeks or even months without thinking about it at all, but then feel eerily transported back to that morning by a sudden sound, or the sight of a police officer searching bags in the subway, or a certain hue of the sky….

“Sunil Chugh, 25, who lives and works in Jackson Heights, Queens, has a daily reminder of of a neighbor who died. ‘They never moved his car,’ Mr. Chugh said. ‘It is still parked outside his house, and his picture is in the car window with a sign that says “September 11, 2001″. Every day, I pass by that and I look and I think….”

SERMON — “Remembering”

I don’t know about you, but I thought I had pretty much gotten over nine-eleven. I did my grieving. I even got my HMO to pay for therapy because I had been helping people in the congregation I was then serving and hadn’t had time to deal with my own grieving. All that’s four years ago now. I know children who are six or seven who really have no memory of the terrorist attacks. My own memories are fading — what with the war in Iraq, and violence on our streets, and ongoing news of drugs and poverty and hunger, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that happened back in 2001 had receded into the dusty back corners of my memory. So I thought.

But as I followed the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and the desparate relief efforts, and the political fingerpointing, I find myself remembering once again. And I have been finding that other people are finding the same thing — this new disaster is bringing up memories of nine-eleven.

You heard a reading from a New York Times article that said, in part: “Four years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers seem trapped between a daily life free of the terrible memories of that day, and an inability to fully forget. Many go for weeks or even months without thinking about it at all, but then feel eerily transported back to that morning by a sudden sound, or the sight of a police officer searching bags in the subway, or a certain hue of the sky….” Even if you’re not a New Yorker, even if you were basically unaffected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, even if you’re six years old and have no direct memory of those events, you are still affected — because what happened on September 11, 2001, affected our society at large. The attacks have become a part of the memory, the mythos, of this country. I had gotten sick of people saying, “The United States has been forever changed by nine-eleven” — I’m still sick of hearing that platitude, but it’s true, too. We cannot forget — we are unable to forget. As a society, we find that we cannot forget.

Which brings me to Frog and Toad. Frog and Toad are reading a book together, a book about brave people who fight dragons and giants, people who are never afraid. “I wonder if we would be afraid,” asks Frog. “We look brave.”

To which Toad responds, “Yes, but are we [brave]?” As it turns out, Frog and Toad are not particularly brave. At the end of the story, they wind up hiding in a closet — but if you are confronted with a snake who’s much bigger than you and who greets you by saying, “Hello lunch!” I think you have every right to run away as fast as you can. Indeed, in all the situations they faced — hungry snakes, avalanches, and so on — Frog and Toad did the right thing by running away. Bravery can take many forms. But I’m not sure Frog and Toad did the right thing by continuing to insist that they are not afraid.

So I’m going to come right out and say it: After nine-eleven, I am afraid. I was afraid of many things before nine-eleven, I was afraid of crime and violence and poverty, and I still am afraid of all those things. But now I’m also afraid of terrorism in a way that I wasn’t before. Now I’m afraid of this new postmodern world of ours where there are people who really really hate us here in the United States, who hate us because of our culture and our lifestyles and our deep love of our democracy. Sometimes I like to say to myself, but if they only knew me personally, they would like me! — but I know in my heart that some of the hatred that is directed at the United States is so strong, that there is no real possibility of them ever knowing me personally. After nine-eleven, I am afraid. I suspect many of you here this morning have also been a little more afraid since nine-eleven.

There’s the fear, and then there’s the anger. I know we’re all good religious liberals, and religious liberals never get angry, do we? We’re too nice to get angry. We have polite discussions, and study issues to deepen our understanding of other cultures and of oppressed peoples, and we vote on resolutions of concern, but we don’t get angry. But I am angry about nine-eleven. I am angry at the twisted minds that could kill themselves and innocent people by flying a jetliner into the World Trade Center or teh Pentagon, or into the ground out in Pennsylvania. I am angry at death toll. I am angry that children were killed. I remember the faces of the people I knew who had friends and co-workers who died on the planes, and I am angry. I read the news stories about the surviving husbands and wives and children of those who were killed on nine-eleven, and it breaks my heart, and I find that I am indeed angry. I suspect that many of you are just as angry as I am — if not angrier.

And here’s where I really struggle. As a Universalist, I believe that every human beings is worthy of dignity and respect. The old Universalists said that God is love, and because God is love all persons will be saved. Like those old Universalists, I reject any religion that tries to tell me that some people are going to be punished for all eternity for their sins. I cannot accept a universe that is based on punishment, on vidictiveness, on hatred — I cannot accept a universe that is run by some angry God who threatens us into good behavior by dangling us over the fires of hell. I am a Universalist, and I tell you that there is no hell — I tell you that the most powerful force in the universe is love.

So the most powerful force in the universe is love — yet when we are full of fear, when we feel abiding anger, it’s hard to remember that the most powerful force in the universe is love.

Maggi Peirce tells me that she wrote her poem, the one she just read for us, after she heard about a man who jumped from the burning, collapsing World Trade Center — and he stretched our his arms as if he were flying. Maggi says news stories about this man interviewed his sister, who said this was typical of him — he always embraced life. Maggi writes in her poem:

“But one flew. We have all dreamed of flying. Salute this one small mortal who, taking his life into his own hands, winged his way earthwards with such aplomb.”

We have all dreamed of flying.

It is easy to succumb to fear and anger. It is equally easy to insist that we are not angry and not afraid, to insist like Frog and Toad that we are brave — all while hiding in the closet or while hiding in bed under the covers. And it is easy to blame politicians for our woes, to blame the president, or more recently to blame the head of FEMA, or to blame anyone at all. But by hiding in the closet, or letting fear and anger rule over us, or blaming the politicians — none of those actions affirms that love is the most powerful force in the universe.

And each of those actions ultimately makes us smaller and less human.

Maybe you are perfectly happy hiding in the closet, or blaming the politicians, or remaining afraid and angry. That is understandable, and perfectly OK. But let me suggest an alternative. I suggest that we begin with forgiveness — we forgive the politicians (who, after all, are limited human beings just like us), we forgive ourselves for feeling afriad and angry, and maybe we even find it in ourselves to forgive the twisted minds who could fly those jetliners into buildings. We forgive, and we still hold people accountable for their actions. We must hold others and ourselves accountable for our actions. But remember that forgiveness is something takes place in our own hearts. It is not a gift that we bestow on other people; it is not even a gift that we give to ourselves. We forgive in the hope that we can heal the universe. We forgive trusting that forgiveness will take the weight off our shoulders, will allow us to open our arms, and embrace life.

I try to imagine what it would be like to stand near the top of a burning World Trade Center, knowing that there was no hope of escape. Would I have the courage to leap out into the unknown, arms spread wide, embracing the universe? I don’t know if I could do that or not, but I salute that one small mortal who could, and did — who took his life into his own hands.

We have a choice. The memories will be there, and they may come back at odd moments. But let us choose to embrace life, to embrace love. In forgiveness, we can find a fresh start, we can turn to the work that awaits us — the new work of Gulf Coast relief, the ongoing work of ending hunger and poverty and violence. Let us choose to embrace life, to embrace love. It will take courage, but in doing so, we will bring new hope to a world that desparately needs it.