Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
This sermon was prepared by the Rev. Scott Wells for the Universalist National Memorial Church pulpit for September 16, 2001. Note the date.
1 John 4: 16-21
I didn’t cry on Tuesday until the evening, though many people cried all day long. To cry in grief depends on feeling grief, and until evening it hadn’t hit. Shock and horror set up residence first; then, confusion followed. My responsibilities here required that I evict these, and to let them return later. At that point, there was no time for sadness. I say this because many here, I suspect, spent Tuesday with memories of feelings, and now recall Tuesday in feelings: both feelings too hard to handle, and feelings deferred because the public good demanded our full attention. In this sanctuary, then, let us rest. We may find rest in peace, and we may find peace in God. This is the peace that passes understanding: but how could we expect peace now?
Because it was a Tuesday, normally a slow church day, I woke up late. I had breakfast as usual, and sat before my computer to check my email, as usual. When was my brother Chris going to fly into town? I expected a word from him. I wanted to send a plan for circle dinners to the church administrator to improve church fellowship. That’s a bit of mid-week housekeeping. I started looking up alternate vendors for Christmas wreath fund raising. Perhaps we could raise a few more dollars this year. Nothing special should have distinguished September 11 from any other day.
Out of habit, I pulled up Yahoo.com, for news headlines. It’s good to be in touch, and sometimes a headline inspires a sermon illustration or a prayer. There was a short, cryptic article about one of the New York towers being hit. I didn’t understand it but I recognized it. I felt the news more than I read it. I walked in circles near my computer before abandoning it for the television, where I then sat and stayed absorbed. I saw much; I saw too much. By this time, the second tower was hit. I reeled in memory to what happened in Oklahoma City on another clear and beautiful morning. Soon the towers would fall, and the Pentagon would be struck, and then comparisons with the Murrah Federal Building would grow pale. It is good to be in touch with daily news, unless the news is intolerable. This un-ordinary day was full of rumors of war.
So, it was an un-ordinary day, and each person here can testify to that. Let us tell our stories when we can. Those in sensitive government offices, and those downtown, have special stories of the chaos. Walking to the church, I recalled the hurricanes that threatened my childhood in Louisiana: first came the exodus, the fear, the grasping for goods and news. Then the quiet, listless waiting, and then the uncontrollable force that bore down on everything.
After calling a few other ministers and making plans, I came down to the church to open it up for prayers. I knew our building must be open, even as I knew we would be asked to bear open our souls to one another. A crowd of people stopped by here, including two sets of foreign tourists. Neither the Japanese couple nor the Slovakian students had the English to express their sentiments. Both sets were scheduled to go to New York the next day. What if their plans had been different, earlier? A few neighbors attended the small service that evening; I knew there were many services Tuesday, including one up at All Souls. I didn’t want to be alone.
I did not cry that day until about eight o’clock when I walked up 16th Street to attend the tail-end of the vigil at All Souls. I passed the Polish Embassy, and its flag was limp in the still night air. It was lifeless at half-mast. Then I cried, slowly. I cried because the Poles, who weren’t attacked, expressed as a nation its lament for my nation. My people were hurt, and many killed, and they participated in the hurt, and prepared themselves for sympathetic pain, and the decent rites of condolence.
The day’s horror at last became real when it was witnessed by others, and in that moment I realized that the American people were being made victims of the same terror. We are being co-opted in a story of someone else’s composition.
Dearly beloved: I come to write a new story: a new story of health from God.
The Liberals’ Options
The story is how we make sense of disasters. How then are we to answer the question of “why”? Why did this happen? Why did so many people die? Why does cruelty and hurt ever have the upper hand?
Each person will write a script, in time, that answers that question. The answer might be good, or bad. Some will do it intentionally, and others will stumble upon a story haplessly. There is the deliberate search for understanding, and accidental imposition. No amount of education, or advanced social standing, or even a chosen faith will necessarily direct us into the path of understanding, but we can make the decision to try and understand what happened from the faith we are building. We should try and build the story of our own recovery from the faith we had before Tuesday, the faith we built up in better days.
Of course, some people are headed towards coarser emotions. Many people will speak of vengeance today. Some, I fear, will use vengeance to purge their feelings, and as a result will only find the resolution that vengeance will bring. This will become their story, but it is not peace. It is not whole. It will not last. For these, I pray for peace. I pray for them, so that this disaster will not brutalize them; so that these hard-hurt ones will not become extra victims of the terrorists. I have been advised by other Unitarian Universalist ministers to speak out against the episodes of retaliation against Arabs, Afghans, Muslims in our own land, and those who can be mistaken for them. I know this fear from personal experience, and do pray for calm, forbearance, and tolerance for those who would take justice as a possession, and would make violence out of it. Watch out for, and befriend those who have had old wounds re-opened. Many of these same Arabs, Afghans, and Muslims have their own stories of past hurt and violence — many escaped violent nations and oppressive governments — and these are being exposed, and yet there is no forum to express this doubled and trebled grief. Be then the peace of Christ in the world for them.
Yet I cannot stay with vengeance. I know this congregation well enough to trust that you will not menace the innocent, or insight violence, or use the moment to become cruel. We are, I believe, ones who know to not cast blame, and to befriend the trembling. I trust the friends you bring, and I hold in faith those who have arrived here this morning to offer prayer and receive comfort. Anger is yours, perhaps, but vengeance is not yours.
We have a duty to understand, and from understanding uplift the troubled.
The Basic Target
One of the subjects that has gone largely unexplored is what did the terror organization hope to accomplish by attacking American targets; that is, what was the philosophy that inspired the leaders and their operatives. What is evident today is how carefully the plan was constructed to hurt as many people as possible, both bodily and psychically. The plotters pitted symbols of freedom and prosperity against each other in extreme violence. They used the vehicles that large numbers of people use to knit our world together as missiles. These airplanes came from eastern cities and were destined for western cities: no part of the nation can escape involvement. The human loss will rewrite our common story as Americans. The targets were the homes of our economic strength and military strength. If the fourth airplane had reached its suspected target, the Capitol, democratic institutions would have had a more visible target. In fact, democracy and liberal governance were attacked, but I wonder if a greater target was set as the victim.
This target was human unity. Whatever the political goals, terror depends on destroying bonds that show how alike human being are. Terror breeds suspicion and hardness to last generations. How can we say God is the God of all people if we would want others harmed? Because it relies on brutality, terror can never achieve final happiness for the people who inflict it. A story of pain continues.
Thus the best and most encouraging response to the disaster was expression of unity. For me, the strongest evidence of this is not the American response, which is both bold and brave, but the overseas response. I saw this in the Polish flag. We saw it in unprecedented outpourings of sympathy in London. To hear our national anthem played in England and Canada shows those people were willing to wed their national images with ours: to transcend both of them. Among the first messages of concern and condolence the church received were from Unitarian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers from Great Britain and Ireland. These words made it easier for me to carry one. Perhaps most poignantly, we saw the flowers left by the Russian people: old enemies have been bound together. These public expressions speak to me as a Universalist. I have trusted that sympathy leaps over national boundaries. We are not alone.
There are teachings more basic than universal salvation in Universalism. We learn, and understand, and abide in the certainty of human unity, and that God has a purpose in this unity. It is indestructible. The love of God is our story.
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. The author of the first letter of John wrote lines which have sustained millions of people, including generations of Universalists; I chose them today because we need rich, spiritual food. One of these lines is engraved above the altar (literally written in stone) and it is remembered by its first three words, “God is love.” In mature faith and in the best situation, might enough to draw out the essential ramifications of the Gospel. For those growing in faith, and in grim times as these, we should remind one another of what gifts — and what responsibilities — God’s love brings.
John writes: here is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We are bidden to hold a perfect love. We do not need to despair, thinking that this love is without flaws, or personality, or disembodied. John does not judge our love if we fear, but encourages us to find love’s loose ends and tie them together.
This love, though godly, is not undermined by our partial knowledge, limited ability, and finite lives. Though difficult to accomplish and often hard to find, perfect love does not require of us more than a human being can give. This access is God’s gift to us. Perfect love means a love that is whole and complete.
A whole and complete love puts our own needs to care, and to be cared-for in balance. This is the love described by the Apostle Paul who says this love “patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In short, perfect love is so well connected into every part of our lives, and understands the wider world so well that it responds with equal strength in good times and bad. Perfect love is comprehensive in its sympathies.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.
This is that day. There is no need to put it off for some future existence. We must be brave. To have perfect love is to make its accomplishment our story. It is to draw close to God, not for the sake of pious attention-seeking but to learn to live in the world. Experiment with your love. Let it examine your feelings, even your rage and unspeakable sorrow. Let it explore the temptation to blame and lash out. Let it test your willingness to help and to be present in the face of evil. Let your love be like God, who made the heavens and earth out of chaos and nothingness.
Therefore, hear these words of Hosea Ballou:
If we agree in brotherly love, there is no disagreement that can do us injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.
Dearly beloved: Love one another. Continue to apply this love in generous acts of kindness, tolerance, peace-making. Hear one another patiently, so that we might heal one another.
Be the peace of Christ.
Be perfect love.