Hope and Freedom
By Charles Rush
July 4, 2010
Romans 8: 18-25
(mp3, 7.7Mb) ]
is is the July 4th weekend, so I chose a text
that lifts up the ambiguity of the historical existence and the great hope of the future to which we aspire. I read this from Romans Ch. 8, towards the end. Paul says, “I consider the suffering that we are living through at the present time not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. For all of creation is eager with longing. And one day it shall be set forth in liberty. We know that the creation is groaning in travail up until now -- not only the creation but indeed we ourselves. We who have the first fruits of the spirit grow inwardly waiting for our adoption and redemption, and for this hope we are saved. Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? So we hope and wait with patience.”
Paul writes about a very profound spiritual
reality. The near opposite of hope is, in its non-lethal form, a low-grade,
resigned dread that something which can go wrong will and that somehow,
someway, we have it coming to us. It is said that resignation forms the base
notes on which the fugue of Irish personality is played.
Part of the Irish resignation is due
to their tragic history and part of it, I maintain, is simply the weather.
we were in Ireland, it rained every day from May 15th-August 15th… every day.
And today’s forecast is… rain, but a gentle rain… Day after day this went on. I
was at a B & B, reading the comments from people staying there. Some
Irishmen left this. “Today the mist and drizzle finally lifted. At last, I
could clearly see the rain.” That is resignation.
For all our
international problems, America remains such a palpable place of hope. My wife
gets to see this every year practically. She teaches at PS 1 Elementary School
in Elizabeth, where her students are a sea of black and brown faces from all
over the world, come here to have a better life.
She teaches Nursery School. Every fall she has the parents
come to class one day for a presentation. Every year, some one comes to see her
the next day. It is usually a working father. Usually they stop her before
class. He brings someone with him. And he reads in Spanish, while the friend
with him translates into English.
“Dear Mrs. Rush, yesterday was one of the proudest days of my
life. When my son Miguel stood in front of the classroom and spoke to you in
English. I couldn’t hold back my tears. My son will grow up to be an American
and he will have a better life. God bless you and may God bless you for what
contrast to resignation, breaks through, often in the midst of tragedy. Hope,
it is said, is always on the horizon, always just a glimpse. But that is all we
need at the moment, just a beacon to remind us of where we are headed.
hope rising out of the ashes September 12th or 13th, when those firemen found a
tattered flag in the ruins and raised it, not in a tribal drum beating
nationalistic way… but as a reminder that the great ideals of “justice and
liberty for all” had not been extinguished. Out of the rubble and ruin, it was
a beacon on the horizon to remind us where we need to be headed, not just
Americans, but all of us collectively.
We were in
Europe the summer after that happened and I was slightly surprised by two
things. First, people would sometimes ask me where I was from. I would usually
say, “I live in New Jersey, in the suburbs of New York City.” Almost invariably
there was a pause. Almost everyone would say, “I’ll never forget where I was on
September 11th.” Or, “Our thoughts and prayers were with you.” Sometimes they
would just touch me in silence. Or in one case, a rather inebriated Scotsman
said, “When you finally find that bastard Bin Laden, the Highlanders will be
right behind you. We’re a wee army but we’re mean when we’re mad.” Because all
of them wanted to ask, and a few did, “What was it like on September 11th?”
You can say,
“Well, we lost 9 people in our town.” You can say something obvious and banal.
I wish I could have told them all our simple, human stories… Like one of our
neighbor here in town who was headed to her job on the NYSE that morning. She
got off the ferry, walked through the World Financial Center, over crosswalk
and decided to go downstairs out on the street because it was such a beautiful
day. She heard the explosion, stuff falling. She and a friend ran up to the
corner, looked up and saw, what… they didn’t know… fire… Then she turned and
went through a revolving door into building #5, down a long corridor when she
saw a whole bunch of other women with babies. One woman, right near her was
carrying two babies. As mothers will do, she said to her, “give me one of those
babies.” The woman wouldn’t. Again she asked. No… It was a responsible worker
in the Day Care Center. Finally, she relinquished one of the babies.
The whole crowd reconnoitered out in front of St. Paul’s
Church, accounting for the kids, when the teacher realized someone was missing,
handed off her child to another woman, and headed back.
At that point, there was another boom, and people just
started moving east, these two women had dropped their commuter gear and were
carrying infants, one 9 mths, the other 11 mths. They got to the Seaport,
collared the concierge at the hotel, started making calls when they looked up
to see the huge dust ball coming at them.
Worried that the kids would have to breathe in the dust, they
made the executive decision to head north. At the Brooklyn Bridge an F-16 flew
past, very disconcerting, and then one of them suddenly worried this might be
an attack, maybe the bridges would be next. Away from the bridge. She said,
‘let’s head to Chinatown… nobody cares about Chinatown.’… Military strategy…
All the while they are running, walking, jogging… Cell phones don’t work. So
our neighbor is just beaming out prayer messages to her husband, to her own
children… everything is going to be all right. And she is beaming out prayer
messages to the Mother of the baby she is carrying saying, “She is okay; it’s
going to be okay.”
Finally, they get to a friends apartment on the lower East
side, turn on the TV…Eventually, they mention the Day Care Center on T.V. and
flash a number to let people know the babies are okay. They call. The mother of
the baby calls. Meanwhile, our neighbor is remember again all the stuff about
formula, feeding infants. 6 hours later, having traversed a long, long way on
foot, mother and child are reunited. And by the way, all three of them- Mother,
Child, and our neighbor, will be together in a couple days.
I wanted to
tell people the human stories, that we weren’t extras in a Bruce Willis movie,
but this was our life, going to work… But you really can’t. Sometimes a long
silence was the only way to communicate.
And the other thing that surprised me was my heart. Here I
had the chance of a life time, a great adventure, I was on my own, overlooking
the cliffs of Scotland and the dramatic North Sea, wind in my face… and, and,
and I was crying… suddenly overtaken by this deep sadness.
At first, I
thought I was losing my grip. But it occurred to me that it was just a sad year
and for most of us going through it, we were just trying to be good neighbors
to those suffering the worst of the tragedy.
morning, I don’t want to dwell so much on the past as look forward in hope to
where we are headed, the higher ideals to which we ought to pledge ourselves. I
am thinking of the profound aspirations of Lady Liberty who stands in the
harbor. On her pedestal, the familiar words:
"Keep ancient lands your storied pomp!"
cries she with silent lips.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Her visage inspires literally billions of people around our
world because the noble ideals of freedom, of people being able to pursue
happiness and control their own destiny, the ideals of participatory democracy,
of human rights for all regardless of creed, ethnicity, religion, gender or
social status, the ideals of justice- all these stand out as in noble bold
relief against the stain of wanton terrorist destruction. These ideals have
been hard to build, hard to live day in and day out. But the hope and promise
they embody can help to heal the arbitrary wounds of the past, they can shape
for us some meaning in the midst of social ambiguity, they can fill us with
commitment and purpose, guiding us like a beacon through storm tossed seas.
has a deep and profound impact on the social imagination of Europe. Of course,
many of them remember fondly emigrating to our country. I was on Rathlin Island
on the northern coast of Ireland. There were once 1000 farmers on Rathlin.
Today there are 70. I found a memorial about the potato famine. There was a
plaque remembering the day that 800 people emigrated to America. In one day… The
Irish people left behind remember the better life their cousins made for
themselves. They are grateful for the idea of America. But…but the Obama
administration or the Bush administration, that is a different matter.
Europe is in
a very different place from the United States, especially in terms of military
power. The European nations, by and large, have systematically under-funded
their armies, relying on the United States to provide protection during the
Cold War and afterwards. Meanwhile, we have grown more and more powerful, and
developed a whole new generation of military technology, gotten better
organized, developed better training, unmatched by anyone else in the world.
by and large, have relied on diplomacy and selective foreign aid to deal with
difficult foreign situations. And they have some notable successes, not the
least of which is the remarkable transformation of Germany in the past 50
years. The European hope, best articulated by the French, is a comity of
nations, where no single nation has enough power to act unilaterally, so all
are forced to negotiate a resolution until consensus is reached. That is the
way the European Union works and they would like to see the United Nations work
So when our
European allies look at us they are conflicted. They admire the ideals of our
country, they admire the considerable economic and cultural achievements, but
they also fear us, and they envy us, and they resent us. Watching the
United States, criticizing the United States has become a national pastime for
several European nations. What they fear is the preponderance of concentrated
power. As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts
absolutely.” Today Europe would say that “unilateral power corrupts unilaterally.”
to a debate on BBC 1 radio from Oxford. The proposition was “America is a
power for good.” They had one speaker for, one against, followed by
questions from the audience, closing comments, and then the audience voted and
then the BBC allowed listeners to vote across Great Britain. Our virtues were
listed, our vices catalogued. Then the vote. The proposition failed 70-30. I
have to admit, I was a bit stunned. 70% of sober English people, our best
allies, said that our power was not a force for good. It is hard to hear, and
yet, if there is any country in the world that knows realistically how
difficult it is to handle disproportionate international power, it would be
Great Britain. There are 72 nations around the world that make up the British
Commonwealth. The sun never set on the British Empire at its height. And their
vices in the Colonial era still impact them today, as in Zimbabwe. Of all
countries, they know of which they speak when they talk about the corruption of
It is difficult
to hear, even it if it true because there is an undertone to the editorials in
Europe that says that, in some sense, we deserved what happened to us on
September 11th, not because of any single thing we have done, but because this
is just what happens when you have a preponderance of power. It is simply the
price that you pay. That kind of undertone not only reveals the ugly face of
envious resentment, it also profoundly misunderstands the real nature of
terrorism, almost willfully hoping to keep it in someone else’s back yard.
aside, of all people Christians, with their realistic understanding of human
existence, ought to understand the very real dangers that attend an imbalance
of power. I will mention just one example of that danger, one that is presently
in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, President Bush said that it would
not be enough to simply arrest those responsible for the attacks. Instead, he
said, we have to systematically attack the underground roots of terrorism. Then
he went on to declare a war on terrorism. We know what he meant to say
and why he said it. But we also ought to understand that such a declaration
makes even our allies nervous and it should. It is a little like a Minister
declaring war on sin. The scope of the campaign is so wide that you could never
declare that it is over, nor could you ever really win. Sin on a personal
level, like terror on a social level, are realities we need to corral and
contain, but won’t be eradicated, not in our life times. Just as all of Europe
cowered when the Church had the power to arrest sinners during the witch hunts
of the 17th century, so all the nations of the world today are fretting over
just how much intervention American military power intends to justify in this
wide open war. We need to make sure our leaders set limits. And we need to make
sure that we can communicate to our allies what those limits are.
And yet it
also strikes me that the failure to exercise power in the face of clear and
present evil is not virtuous either. Interestingly, Europeans widely
acknowledge this and understand it is their besetting temptation. They admit
that while they are afraid of the unilateral exercise of American military
power, when Slobodan Milosiveic was wreaking ethnic cleansing in Serbia and
Bosnia, the Europeans could not have put a military solution in place that
would have stopped him like the Americans did. Their political process to build
consensus was way too slow, and their military organization slower to
coordinate still. Had not the Americans assumed the lead, they acknowledge that
thousands more people would have perished needlessly.
But we will
need the hope of the high ideals in the next couple decades will be more
important than ever because, for better and worse, in the Court of World
opinion, we will be on our own to shoulder the responsibility for the decisions
in foreign policy, and the mistakes we make, in particular, will be subject to
vociferous critique with something of a condescending moral tone to it. It is
much easier to critique than to craft a plan of action and it is much safer in
an era of terrorism to let the United States be the target for the Free World.
Europeans are more than happy to lie low and let the effigies of Uncle Sam and
President Bush be burned in the streets of Jenin. They don’t come out and
directly say it, but they expend considerable effort to create some distance
from the U.S. and to deflect responsibility, hoping against hope, that
terrorism will only hit American targets. It will work for a while, perhaps a
So we will
need hope because in the next chapter that has opened before us after the Cold
War ended, we are going to have to exercise power without much gratitude from
any one in the world and quite a lot of critique. It will be difficult but it
will mature us. And we will make mistakes, profound ones. All the more reason
for us to keep our gaze fixed on the noble ideals of freedom, human rights,
self-development, justice- not just for ourselves, but ultimately for every
one, even those people that are presently attacking us.
should be hopeful, too, remembering that those who wreak anarchic havoc in
terrorism are actually few in number. We need to remember, too, the generosity,
the comfort, the hospitality that this tragedy unleashed.
reminded of our fine Canadian neighbors in a small town in Newfoundland,
Gander, Canada. Immediately after the World Trade Towers were hit, planes were
grounded all over the world ASAP. 36 of those planes, mostly commercial
airlines flying back from Europe descended on a small airway in Gander, a small
town of 10,400 citizens. All in all, there were over 6000 stranded passengers
sitting on the runway that day- a veritable cross section of our world, I might
add. A woman pregnant 33 weeks into term, a Saudi prince, an Orthodox Jew, a
princess from Nigeria.
Word went out and the whole community of Gander responded.
The bus drivers in Gander were actually on strike at the time the planes landed.
They mobilized and suspended their strike, drove to the airport, and began to
drive the “plane people” wherever they needed to go. School gyms were opened,
military hangars were outfitted with cots, community hall and churches were all
converted into temporary dorms, and all of the elderly people on the planes
were housed in private homes.
No one was allowed access to their luggage, so clothing was
provided in some cases; showers were offered, pharmacists called in emergency
prescriptions all over the world, restaurants served free meals to people
without access to cash, fireman delivered toys to the little kids on the
planes, and they even got the dogs and cats off the plane to tend them. The
bakery stayed open late. Apparently, the local Canadian Mounties even donned
his ceremonial red uniform the few days that the “plane people” were downed
because that is the way foreigners think the Canadian police dress all the
time. School was canceled. Meetings were called off so the whole town could
show hospitality to “our guests” as the citizens of Gander called them.
important to remember how much goodness was unleashed that day, goodness that
surrounded and enveloped the evil that terror would produce.
I love the remark of one elderly Dutch woman that was
stranded in Gander. She was overwhelmed with gratitude and the simple, profound
kindness that she experienced there. Some 50 years earlier, when she was a
child, her town was liberated from the Nazi’s by some Canadian soldiers. She
was telling the story of that liberation to some of the citizens of Gander and
she looked around at the hospitality they were providing people, and she said,
“You wonderful Canadians have not changed.”
Writing about Gander, Jim Defede said this, “[The citizens of
Gander] affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt
such humanity…If the terrorists had hoped their attacks would reveal the
weaknesses in western society, the events in Gander proved its strength.” And
so did you. I watched the deep, abiding humanity in people doing for each
other, people hugging one another, people holding each other up, people helping
out, volunteering, being surrogate Dad’s and Mom’s, friends that were a real
community support like an extended family.
And since then, we’ve shed some of our New York cynicism.
We’ve rid ourselves of some callousness and vanity. We now understand what
heroism really looks like. We have a renewed appreciation of what is really
real, what is spiritually real, what is meaningful.
Evil will be
with us always. I think it is important to remember the goodness that enveloped
evil that day. The ultimate hope of Christianity is that God will finally
envelop all of our compromise, all of our evil in Divine goodness. In prospect
of that let us prepare the way now, releasing goodness and healing, living out
our highest ideals, not just for ourselves but in such a way that more and more
of the world can live them too. Peace, Courage, Strength be with you. Amen.
version of this sermon was preached by Rev. Rush on September 8, 2002
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