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Where Was God on 9/11?

September 12, 2011

“Where Was God on 9/11?” Psalm 91 © 9/11/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Note: This sermon, with minor updates and corrections, is a reprise of the one I preached on 9/30/01 at First Presbyterian Church, Owensboro, KY. I chose to use it again for the 10th anniversary remembrance of the 9/11 attacks.

“You will not fear…the arrow that flies by day or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand….” I can no longer hear those words from long ago without connecting them with the modern-day arrows that pierced buildings and the heart of America on September 11. And though the author thought of 10,000 dying in battle, I will read the psalm and think of those dead in buildings, in planes, and on the ground.

Those events, still very much with us a decade later, make the claims of Psalm 91 all the more astounding and problematic. What are we to say to families who lost husband or wife, mom or dad, son or daughter, brother or sister? To people who lost friends? That their loved one did not love God and therefore was not protected from harm? That those got down the stairs and into the street or who happened to be late for work or otherwise detained that morning were somehow more deserving of God’s rescuing care? What do we say to the weeping CEO of Cantor-Fitzgerald who lost most of his staff, but survived himself because he was taking his child to kindergarten?

It’s easy to misuse or misunderstand this psalm. Christians throughout the ages have done it. They have worn quotations from it in amulets around their necks, like a good luck charm. The whole idea that every person has a guardian angel arose from a reading of this text. And lest we question that the claims of the poet could be twisted to a use he did not intend, just remember what the devil said to Jesus in our Lord’s temptation. As he encouraged him to jump off the highest point of the Temple, Satan quoted Psalm 91: “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” If the devil may assume a pleasing shape, as the bard said, he can also pervert the word of God into something that will serve the father of lies.

What the poet is saying is not the easy assurance of someone far removed from danger or of somebody who had never suffered. It is not cock-eyed optimism or a view on the world through rose-colored glasses. Life in the ancient world was hard and full of danger. An invading army or a band of outlaws could strike without warning. Sickness and early death were common. That’s why the new creation was seen as a world in which there would no longer be such a high rate of infant mortality, why it was envisioned as a place where people lived to be 100 or more. The voice we hear in the psalm is from one who lives in a hard world and has experienced its terror, its demons, its slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Given the military metaphors he uses, he might even have been a soldier or king. Yet he can still say to another, to us, with sincerity and hope: “[The Lord] will deliver you…cover you…under his wings you will find refuge.” He kept trusting in God because he knew what the apostle would later say: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Even slaughter. Even destruction by demonic forces. Even the conspiracy of every malevolent power to do us in. Nothing. Because God is faithful. God is there. God is a refuge and fortress. Like the old gospel blues song says, “Jesus is the Rock.”

Oh, really? So where was God on September 11? A young elder and friend named Bill Duncan was kind enough to share with me a forwarded e-mail that offered some possibilities. The writer asked: “Where was God? Where was God on the morning of September 11, 2001?! He was very busy. First of all, he was trying to discourage anyone from taking these flights. The four flights together could hold over 1000 passengers, but there were only 266 aboard. He was on four commercial flights giving terrified passengers the ability to stay calm. Not one of the family members who was called by a loved one on one of the hijacked planes said that passengers were screaming in the background. On one of the flights he was giving strength to passengers to try to overtake the hijackers. He was busy trying to create obstacles for employees at the World Trade Center. After all, only around 20,000 were at the towers when the first jet hit. Since the buildings hold over 50,000 workers, this was a miracle in itself. How many of the people who were employed at the WTC told the media that they were late for work or they had traffic delays? He was holding up two 110-story buildings so that two-thirds of the workers could get out. It was amazing that the top of the towers didn’t topple when the jets impacted. Contractors who worked on the twin towers have stated that with the impact from the jets…the towers should have fallen within the first ten to fifteen minutes after being hit. They stayed upright for close to, if not over, an hour.

“He was also there before September 11, 2001. He was there when the Pentagon was being renovated. He knew what materials needed to be used to keep hundreds of people from being annihilated by a screaming jet missile.

“You may indeed have people ask where God was. He is where he has always been: watching over his children. He was in the towers, on the jets, and in Washington. He was there to comfort and console. He was waiting to be called upon. He was in the midst of chaos, with each person involved and with their loved ones. He is still there, and he is also with each of us.”

Food for thought. The psalmist would particularly agree with the last paragraph. God is there if we look for him, open our eyes to see him at work. If we call to him. God is busy in the midst of pain to heal wounds and mediate conflict, to work for an end to evil and for a world where justice is done and suffering is no more. God is where he has always been: working in the world where people need assurance and hope and peace. The death and destruction we have known raise questions about the presence, goodness, and power of God. But if we doubt God is there in the midst of suffering, we need only look at the cross. There we see the proof of God’s amazing love, the extent of God’s sacrifice for us, the transformation of weakness and death into a power that changed the world. The ultimate way God delivers us from evil, protects us from harm, is to give up himself in the person of his own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus died, but remember: in light of the resurrection, we call that day “Good Friday.”

James Russell Lowell never saw a jet or a skyscraper; he could not define the word “terrorist.” But he had witnessed evil at work. Here is his poetic testimony to what God does in times when the wrong seems to triumph: “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong. Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own” (“Once to Every Man and Nation” 1845).

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you….”

That is the promise of God. May each of us claim it for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our nation, in these times and always.

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