Progressive Christian Channel
Texts of Terror and Transformation: A 9/11 Sermon
Exodus 9:11: "And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians."
This is from one of the plagues that God sent down on the Egyptians for refusing to let the people of Israel go free. God told Moses to take ashes from the kiln, toss them in the air, and the ashes then made boils break out on the skin of all the Egyptians, including Pharaoh's magicians, who were trying to undo the spells that Moses was working against them—leaving the people of Israel alone, of course. The irony in this plague is wonderful, because the kiln was probably one of those used by the Jewish slaves to bake the bricks used to build the cities of the Egyptians.
Think of the ashes raining down on New Yorkers after the collapse of the World Trade Center. I think of my next door neighbor, who is a volunteer search and rescue fireman, who went to Ground Zero to work for a couple of weeks and now has a chronic cough. Think of the way that terrorists turn the tools of civilization against itself: high-tech aircraft destroying high-tech skyscraper buildings. The ashes from the slave-operated brick kilns were turned against the slave-keepers. But what goes around can come around other ways, too. The terrorists turned civilians into targets, and in so doing turned a huge population of American civilians into a galvanized force against terrorism, instantly. When the people of this enormous and fractious nation get organized behind one clear goal, the results are truly awe-inspiring. 9/11 had the exact opposite effect of what was intended by the people who perpetrated it.
Leviticus 9:11: "The flesh and the skin he burned with fire outside the camp."
Well, this is only the third book of the Bible, and already we get a sense of just how bloody and violent the book gets. This passage is about the origins of the cult of sacrifice in the Jewish rites. The best parts of the bull were burnt on the holy altar as a sacrifice to atone for sin, but the rest of the animal was burned outside the confines of the community. This passage is at the beginning of the long biblical record of the principle of substitutionary sacrifice—that something or somebody must die in order for things to be made right between God and humanity. In the New Testament, this practice culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus, who was understood by the early Christians to be the final and ultimate blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humankind.
While the origins of this concept, that God demands blood sacrifice, are now shrouded by the mists of history—since this is pretty alien to our culture today—the legacy of it lives on in our hope that there will be redemption for the death of 3,000 people on 9/11, showing that their lives were worth something, not just because they were precious human beings, but worth something that can give us redemption. Their lives were payment for a future in which terrorism will be put to an end, in which the conditions that breed terror are corrected. Our hope is that the lives lost on 9/11 ultimately will be seen as a sacrifice for a higher purpose that will ennoble humanity.
This concept is a powerful one in our culture today, one that motivates our actions, hopefully not out of revenge, but out of an effort to have a positive outcome that will redeem those three thousand lives as lives not lost in vain. We now have a chance to give a new and more positive meaning to this ancient concept of sacrifice.
Jim Burklo is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of "Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians" (2008) and "Open Christianity: Home by Another Road" (2000). Jim regularly blogs at ProgressiveChristianity.org.