Some anniversaries are joyful occasions, but not this one.
Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001 – as none of us can or should forget, al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners. Two were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third was crashed into the Pentagon. And the fourth was heading toward Washington, D.C., but crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers bravely overwhelmed the terrorists.
Almost 3,000 people died, 25,000 were injured, and many others suffered long-term health problems. 9/11 stands as the deadliest terrorist attack in recent history.
In response, the United States launched a War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. This group had been protecting al-Qaeda terrorists and refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, who took responsibility for the attacks. After 10 long years, bin Laden was located in Pakistan and killed in a U.S. raid.
So how did 9/11 affect us?
The act of terrorism was like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in that it drew Americans together in the face of a common enemy. The motto “United We Stand” appeared everywhere. Flags were flown, and churches were packed. Muslim organizations quickly condemned the attacks, and President Bush made an appearance at an Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. He spoke of the valuable contributions that Muslims made to the United States every day, and called for them to be treated with respect. Partisan differences were put aside, and the government restructured itself in a number of ways, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
September 11 was a day of horror, but it pulled Americans together in a beautiful way.
The prophet Isaiah has words that are appropriate for this anniversary. They not only take us back to 2001, but they point us to the future and lay a challenge before us. “The Sovereign Lord helps me,” says Isaiah; “I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). These words matched the attitude of our country in the days after 9/11. We turned to God for help, and we found that God upheld us. We showed unity and resolve, setting our faces “like flint” on the challenges of national security and respect for our brothers and sisters.
We were not disgraced, and for that we can be thankful. But the challenges of 2001 are not behind us. If anything, they are bigger than ever.
“Who will contend with me?” asks Isaiah (v. 8). After 9/11, the answer was al-Qaeda. But today, our greatest threat is domestic terrorism. The people who attacked the Capitol earlier this year were extremists from our own country.
The challenge before us, 20 years after 9/11, is to stand up together. We need to face our challenges as united Christians alongside other people of faith in a truly United States of America. But how do we do this? How do we overcome our polarization and stand together again, as we did after September 11, 2001?
The first step is to grasp our mission in the world. The prophet Isaiah is talking about a servant when he says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher” (v. 4). And exactly who is this servant-teacher? Isaiah thought that Israel itself was God’s servant. Later, members of the Christian church saw Jesus as the servant in these words. In either case, the role of the servant is not to be a master who rules but a servant who teaches.
If we are going to follow Jesus, then we need to be such servants as well. As servants of God, we are to be teachers of grace and truth and justice. We are to treat others as we want to be treated, and to see everyone as a good creation of God, made in the image and likeness of God. We are to lift people up, not knock them down. Help them, not hurt them. Love them, not hate them.
Do you know what Osama bin Laden said soon after the 9/11 attacks? “It has become clear that the West in general and America in particular have an unspeakable hatred for Islam.” That statement was a lie, but it is an ongoing challenge for us to prove that those words remain untrue. In all that we say, we need to use the tongue of a teacher, that we “may know the word that sustains the weary” (v. 4).
That’s our mission, according to Isaiah: To teach God’s ways and to offer “the word that sustains the weary.” To serve a world in need, to encourage the people around us, and to develop relationships that are respectful and honest and open. Islamic extremists reach out to people who are feeling angry, vulnerable and isolated, so our job is to make connections with the least of our brothers and sisters. Isaiah says that God wakens the servant’s ear “to listen as one being instructed” (v. 4), meaning that we servants of God have a lot to learn by listening.
Yes, that’s a good thought, for sure. But the translation of this line offered by the New American Standard Bible is even better: “He awakens my ear to listen as a disciple” (v. 4). To “listen as a disciple” is the challenge for each of us, isn’t it? Listen to what Jesus is saying to each of us. Listen to what God is saying to us. Listen to what Muslims and Jews and people of other faiths are saying to us.
Our job is to teach and listen and learn, as we grow into servants of God who are nothing less than “a light to the nations” (49:6). That’s our God-given mission in the world.
Next, we are challenged to cooperate with God. “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears,” says the servant in Isaiah, “I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away” (50:5). God is calling us into a better future, and our challenge is to follow where God is leading. We are being rebellious when we turn around and follow other voices.
Peter Marty is a Lutheran pastor who is concerned about preaching in a time of deep political polarization. He has noticed that many worshipers are ready to assign a political motive to everything a preacher says. Preachers get in trouble for saying too much or too little about Black Lives Matter, about the Capitol invasion, or about the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
In the face of these challenges, Marty tries to preach sermons that help individuals to “meet God or be met by God.” He tries to say things that “reveal Christ’s presence in the world.” Yes, he certainly feels called to reflect on cultural and political events, but he tries to do so in a way that offers new insights and fresh perspectives. He is not interested in lining up with partisan political positions.
But there is a problem, according to Marty: “Many Christians now interpret faith through the prism of their political ideology.” It’s true for Christians on the right and on the left. And this approach is the opposite of what Isaiah recommends. Our challenge is to let the Lord God open our ears, and not rebel against God when we hear a challenging word. In a world of partisan politics, our goal should be to cooperate with God and move forward in God’s way.
If we understand our mission and cooperate with God, then we will make an amazing discovery: God will help us. The prophet Isaiah knew this, which is why he said, “The Sovereign Lord helps me; therefore I will not be disgraced” (v. 7). In the face of any hardship, Isaiah was able to keep moving forward, because the Lord was offering assistance. The God “who vindicates me is near,” said Isaiah. “Who will contend with me? Let him come and face me” (v. 8). This line can also rightly be translated “Let us stand up together.”
Such words were inspiring in the aftermath of 9/11, and they can be helpful to us today. We are always stronger as a community than we are as isolated individuals, so the challenge for us is to trust God and, rather than face off toward one another, stand up together.
We can do this by refusing to fall victim to fear. The command “Do not be afraid,” along with the closely related phrase “Have no fear,” is one of the most repeated phrases in the Bible. It appears about 80 times throughout the Old and New Testaments. This command is grounded not in wishful thinking, but in the conviction that Almighty God is willing to fight for us – if we allow it.
Yes, God will fight for us when we are battling illness in body, mind or spirit. God will help us when we are feeling lonely, overwhelmed or confused. God will assist us in the face of any difficulty, and God often does this through members of the church, the body of Christ. It is in the Christian community that we are best able to stand up together.
But we also take a stand for God when we build bridges in the wider community. “We are dividing into hostile tribes,” says retired General Jim Mattis. After four decades in the Marine Corps, Mattis knows that our internal divisiveness is often more threatening than our external enemies. Our focus should be on “rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions,” says Mattis. God will help us with this, if we allow it.
We can use this anniversary of 9/11 to grasp our mission in the world, cooperate with God, and trust God to help us. Twenty years ago, the motto was “United We Stand.” But now, more than ever, is the time to stand up together.