Remembering “The Falling Man”
The memories are imbedded so deep within us that we can never escape them. And yet, the reality of that day is still beyond our comprehension.
The story of “The Falling Man” took me back to the World Trade Center towers as I tried to imagine what it was like for people to decide to leap out of the Windows on the World restaurant to plunge 106 stories to the ground below. But it’s beyond me.
I remembered my first visit after 9/11 with a member of my congregation who got out just before the Towers fell, escaped across the river and drove all the way back to Florida.
And I went back to what it was like to attempt to preach on the Sunday after the attack.
No Simple Words
In our Twitter culture, we like to try to put big ideas into brief phrases; to edit the large story down to a munchable size. I pulled up the sermon I preached on that Sunday in hopes of pulling out a few tidbits to share with you, but there’s no way I could do it. If ever in my years of preaching there was a time when I was “given” the word to speak, it was that day.
Most people felt it was God’s word for us that day. A few people didn’t like it. They walked out the door and never came back again. But rereading it fifteen years, there’s not a word I would change. It still challenges me to live more deeply into the way of Christ.
So, it’s attached below. If you take time I read it, I pray that it will speak the Word to you again.
Grace and peace,
15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2001)
Text: Luke 19:41-44, John 11:28-37, Romans 8:31-39
We’ve been listening this fall for Jesus’ answers some of the very real questions of our lives. We interrupt that series today, the way all of our lives were so ruthlessly interrupted on Tuesday morning, to listen for what Jesus might say to us in the vacant silence of that place where the World Trade Center used to stand, in the smoldering shadow of the Pentagon, in a hole in the fields of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Our ears have been filled with the non-stop words of reporters, politicians, commentators, historians and generals, but we gather here to listen for a different word:
a word of healing for the gapping wound in all of our broken hearts,
a word of hope in the chaos of this hate-filled world,
a word of wisdom for us to be faithful to the gospel,
and a word of courage that we not become the mirror image of the evil we deplore.
We’ve gathered here to listen for a word from Jesus. And if we listen with our hearts, here’s the first thing we will hear. It’s recorded in John 11:35. In the old King James Version, it is the shortest verse in the Bible. Like me, I’ll be some of you memorized it as children so that we’d have a verse to quote in Sunday School, utterly incapable of understanding what it would mean to repeat it at a time like this. John simply says, “Jesus wept.”
If we listen today, we will hear Jesus weeping over the awesome reality of human suffering and death.
The truth is that Jesus had good reason to weep. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were the best friends Jesus had. But Lazarus had died. By the time Jesus got to Bethany, his friend had been in the tomb for four days; just the way yesterday marked the fourth day since the bodies of God-only-knows how many people were entombed in the rubble in New York and Washington.
When Jesus got to Bethany, Mary and Martha met him on the road. I picture them falling into his arms, pounding on this chest. Warren Pattison told me this morning that his New Testament professor said that to really get the feeling of the text, you need to hear them saying, “Jesus, where the hell have you been!” That’s not what the text says, but that’s how it feels when they cry, “Jesus, if you had been here our brother would not have died.” And we’ve seen those grief-stricken sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, companions and friends lining the streets of Manhattan, holding up a picture of someone they loved as much as life itself. John records Jesus response. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” (11:33)
We’re not talking about a polite, little lump in the throat here. This is not a little dabbing of the cheek with a hankie. The Greek verb is a strong, visceral word that contains some of the anger that all of us feel in the face of death. It’s a surge of grief and pain that explodes somewhere in the basement of our soul and vibrates through the whole framework of our being.
And who among us has not known that kind of emotion this week? Some of us remember Pearl Harbor. Many of us remember the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Most of us remember the explosion of the Challenger. All of us remember Oklahoma City. But none of us has faced anything like this. The only place I know to begin is with that kind of grief that shakes our souls.
Jesus wept. When John says that Jesus — the one whom he identified as the Son of God, the one who revealed God’s likeness in human form – wept, he is saying that the infinite, Almighty God has taken our suffering, our pain and our grief into himself. I am not big enough to take in this kind of suffering, but God is. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said that we do not have a high priest that cannot be touched by the feelings of our infirmities. In Jesus, the infinite, Almighty God knows our sorrow and shares our tears.
With you, I’ve tried to take it in. I’ve tried to imagine what it is like to walk through lower Manhattan. But I cannot comprehend it. My mind is not big enough to take it in. But God is. God is big enough to take in the whole weight of our human suffering and pain, and by the power of the resurrection, our suffering, sorrow, and grief can be redeemed.
It’s here, standing beside the tomb of his best friend, that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25) He shouted into the darkness of the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out! Looking a lot like Boris Karloff, still wrapped, John says, in his grave clothes. For this one, brief, shining moment, the power of life in Jesus Christ triumphed over the power of death. Jesus defeated death, not with more death, but with more life. Jesus overcame evil, not with an equal power of evil, but with the overwhelming power of good.
The power of life in the risen Christ can turn our grief into laugher, our sorrow into dancing, our death into new life. But first, there were the tears. First, Jesus wept. The first word we hear from Jesus’ tears is a word of comfort in our sorrow, a word of hope for new life in the face of death.
There is one other place where the gospel writers say that Jesus wept. It comes right on the heels of the raising of Lazarus. It was the day of that palm-waving procession into the city of Jerusalem. The people shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But Jesus knew that the road he was following would lead inexorably to a cross. When they came down the Mount of Olives, he could see the Holy City, spread out before him in the clear, morning light, the dome of the Temple gleaming in the sun. It was the symbol of everything the Hebrew people worshipped, honored, loved and trusted. It was enough to take your breath away. It was like looking across the Hudson River to the skyline of New York. It was like standing on the Virginia hillside and looking across the Potomac to Washington. And Luke records:
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
The first time Jesus wept his tears were pastoral. They were tears of compassion in our suffering and pain. This time his tears are prophetic. They are tears of sadness over what might have been. Jesus wept over a city that did not know the things that make for peace.
It’s clear that the people who attacked our cities on Tuesday were fanatics; so fanatical that they were willing to die for their destructive ideology. It’s pretty clear that they were radical fundamentalists. Like all radical fundamentalists — whether they are Americans who abuse the name of Christianity or Muslims who abuse the name of Islam — the one thing they have in common is their absolute conviction that theirs is the only truth and that it must be defended at all costs. They were fanatics and they were radical fundamentalists, but they were not stupid.
They knew what they were doing. They hit us where they knew it would hurt the most. They hit us in the two cities that symbolize our national life and values more dramatically than any others. They hit us in what my friend and fellow pastor, Randy Ashcraft, called “the twin towers of our cultural idolatry.” They hit us in the symbols of the two things in which this culture actually places its trust: our economic power and our military might. You want to hurt Americans? Attack our trust in materialism and militarism. And so we weep over the desecration of the cities we love.
And Jesus weeps with us, just the way he wept over Jerusalem. Standing in the long line of the Biblical prophets:
Jesus weeps over a city where innocent people are crushed in the rubble of senseless destruction.
Jesus weeps over a world in which a historically-marginalized minority resorts to fanatical terrorism to vent their hostility and frustration.
Jesus weeps over any city or nation that places its ultimate trust in wealth or power.
Jesus weeps over a world in which nations are quicker to marshal their resources for war than they are to marshal their resources for peace.
Jesus weeps over towns and cities where innocent people are abused, intimidated or insulted simply because they worship in a mosque or carry Arabic-sounding name.
Jesus weeps over faithful people who call themselves Christians but are tempted to lay aside the Sermon on the Mount when they pick up their flag.
I haven’t the faintest idea what the most appropriate military or political response to this crisis should be. I do not claim to understand all of the history that has brought us to this point. I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it will mean for the international community to deal with the sinister evil of terrorism. But I do know this.
I know that the greatest risk for Christian people in this kind of crisis is that we will be fail to be Christ-like. The great risk for followers of Jesus is
that we will too easily trade the rule of the Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus for the rule of violence that that has been inflicted up on us;
that we will abandon Jesus’ call to peace in the apparent necessity of war;
that we will silence the good news of God’s love for the whole creation in the thunderous call for vengeance;
that we will surrender the highest ideals of our nation’s heritage to the same forces of bigotry and hatred that exploded among us on Tuesday morning;
that we will allow the same forces of evil, hostility and violence that shattered our buildings to penetrate our souls.
Whatever we do, whatever our nation’s leaders call us to endure, let us at least remember who we are as follower of Jesus Christ. Let us pray that our lives, our minds, our hearts, will continue to be challenged, shaped and formed by his Spirit. And may our hearts be broken by the things that broke the heart of Jesus, the things that caused him to weep for a city that did not know the things that make for peace.
One more word from Jesus as he weeps beside Lazarus tomb. John records that when the people standing around the tomb saw his tears, they all said, “See how he loved him!”
The tears of Jesus are the human expression of the infinite love of the Almighty God for his bruised and broken creation. They are the visible sign of the love of God that loved this whole, sin-cracked creation so much that he gave his only Son, that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.
Jesus said there was no greater love than this, that a person would give his life for a friend. And we’ve seen that love made real this week.
We saw it in the firefighters who went up the stairs into the inferno while those who escaped were coming down.
We saw it in the heroism of those who caused that USAir jet to crash into the fields of Pennsylvania rather than destroy more lives in the capitol.
We saw it in the fire department chaplain who lost his life while giving last rites to others.
We’ve seen it in the doctors and nurses who exhausted their bodies trying to put other bodies back together.
We see it in the hands of construction workers who have labored without end to work their way through the rubble.
We see it in the ordinary people who wait five and six hours to give blood.
We’ve seen it in the prayers of faithful people who have gathered in churches, and mosques, and temples across this nation and around the world to be united in their faith in God.
Like the tears of Jesus, each of them is a finite, human expression of the infinite love of God. And each of them calls us to a new and deeper commitment of our lives to be the agents of that love in the world around us, to surrender our lives more fully to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
There will be many more words spoken. We will all attempt to put language around this incomprehensible tragedy and attempt to make sense of this difficult and dangerous time. But through it all, may we listen for the word that Jesus speaks to us through his tears, and may we be bound together in that love of God that will never let us go.