Note: this was preached the week after the Sunday after 9/11.
"The New Normal"
Perhaps you've been hearing, like I have, the phrase "getting back to normal" this past week. At the opening of the stock exchange, and the reopening of certain streets in Lower Manhattan, as some people return to their jobs, our nation is "getting back to normal." Or perhaps you've heard these same commentators, or government leaders, urging us to "get back to normal." They mean, I suppose, that we should start up our daily routines -- mow our lawns, feed our children, go to work and to worship, to shopping. And in a sense, we are getting back to normal. The twenty-four hour news coverage is over, unless you are watching CNN or the Fox News Network. Television has returned to regular programming, with interruptions for brief updates and speeches. We have begun watching our favorite sports teams again. Regularly scheduled meetings are not canceled any more. I hear airplanes flying over my home -- their regular flight path -- again. In a sense, we are returning to normal life, settling down from a sudden feeling, a week ago last Tuesday, that maybe the world was coming down around us.
But when people urge us to "get back to normal", there's always long pause, like it doesn't sound exactly right. Then there's an effort to define themselves. Once I even heard someone say -- "but it will be a new normal." Yes, people will go back to work, they'll go back to the ordinary routines of their theirs, they'll go back to balancing checkbooks, and worrying about their children and watching sports and listening to music (instead of news reports) on the radio. But it will not be the same somehow -- and I'm not sure we even want it to be the same -- because the images that we have seen since Tuesday, September 11th have changed the way we look at the world, and perhaps the way we behave in the world. It has been a defining moment for us as a nation. Now that we have experienced this kind of terror, this kind of hatred, this kind of destruction, unleashed -- how can "normal" be the same?
From now on there will be a new normal. Those who are interested in defining these things point to a loss of innocence, or a loss of a sense of security in our lives as Americans. There is also a new patriotism around us -- as flags wave from homes and cars, are displayed on highway overpasses, sold on street corners, waves by children carrying signs that read: 'honk if you love America.' There is a new sense of unity: we don't ask if those who display the flag are conservative or liberal, Catholic or Jewish or Muslim. There is a sense that we are all in this together -- even though we are not sure yet what "this" is. There is a new sense of fear as well -- with broadcasters speculating about new and creative forms of terror which had been unknown before, with airline passengers putting up with inconvenience for security's sake, with some foregoing airline travel at all. There are fears regarding our economy, and fears regarding strangers among us. Just a few days ago Northwest Airlines took three Arab Americans off of one of their flights. The reasons: the other passengers had voted that they wouldn't ride with them. The three took a Delta flight.
So this "New Normal" that we talk ab out can be positive or negative, with both positive and negative consequences for our nation. If September 11 turns us into a fearful nation that drowns out dissenting voices, that would be a terrible conversion. If September 11 turns us to vengeance rather than justice, that would be a terrible conversion. If September 11 makes us forget that our most precious freedoms are the freedom to speak, to worship, to gather, to work, that would be a terrible conversion. If September 11 makes us into our enemy, that would be a terrible conversion.
But is on September 11 we gained a new sense of unity, a new sense of appreciation for diversity, and for the freedom that has led so many people from so many places here, that would be positive. If on September 11, our eyes were opened not only to evil, but also the preciousness of each human life, that would be positive. And if after September 11 we return to our normal lives determined to do something of values, to do something courageous, that would be positive as well.
As Time correspondents put it last week: "When one world ended at 8:45 on Tuesday morning, another was born, one we always trust in but never see, in which normal people become fierce heroes and everyone takes a test for which they haven't studied. As President Bush said in his speech to the nation, we are left with both a terrible sadness and a quiet unyielding anger. He was wrong, though, to talk of the steel of our resolve. Steel, we now know, bends and melts; we need to be made of stronger than that now --" but there is no material substance strong enough -- now that we have realized how truly vulnerable we are.
It seems to me that this would be our faith community to know a "new normal" as well. What do I mean by that? I mean this would be a good time to go about our normal activities, to go to work and to feed our families, help our children with their home work and pay the bills. This would be a good time to go about our normal activities -- praying and serving and working and resting, but seeing the world in a new way, and acting in the world in a new way. This "new normal" for us would not simply come about because of September 11, but in response to the defining moment of our lives -- the death and resurrection of Jesus -- who we call both son of God and son of Mary. What does the story of his life and death say about our world, about us, about God?
--First -- this story says that the one who is stronger than steel, the God who is immortal and invisible, became human, became vulnerable, for our sake. God became one who knows and experiences our agonies, who suffered and died at our own hands. --Second -- God did this because for some reason God loves us -- all of us -- friends or enemies. As the author of 1 Timothy writes: "Christ Jesus, himself human, gave himself a ransom for all." -- Third -- as it turned out on the third day after Jesus' crucifixion, the love of God was stronger than the hate that put him to death. We know this -- even as we grieve -- even as we search for understanding -- even as we struggles with our fears.
What does this new normal look like and how can it help us in the days ahead? In all humility I can'[t tell you exactly what it will look like. But I have a few glimpses -- a few postures. First, the new normal will look like people on their knees. Not in humiliation, but in prayer and remembrance, in confession and in vulnerability. It is a position of strength, not weakness, that at the same time we remember our wounds, we also confess our sins, that we pray both "forgive us our sins," and "as we forgive those who sin against us." From our knees we recognize our vulnerability . We see that along with all the other members of the human family, we are dependent on God. From our knees we confess our vulnerability, our blindness, our attachment to material things, our lack of trust in God. From our knees we realize that God alone is our refuge and our strength, and that God's mercy is our only hope. And on our knees we know that God is merciful.
The new normal for Christians will also look like people who are sitting -- sitting and learning, sitting and listening. We will sit across table and speak with people and pray with people who are different than us. We will study God's word and learn more about the God who was willing to come here, to become one of us, and to fight for us by dying. We will learn more about the God who, like a fireman on a mission, ran toward death and destruction in order to rescue us. We will learn about the God who hates injustice -- whose wrath burns against those who cheat the poor. We will learn about the God who loves all people -- including our enemies -- and desires for them to come into his care. We will also sit and learn and absorb and we will want to understand -- we will have a passion to understand -- to understand God, to understand God's son -- to understand all the people that God loves.
The new normal for Christians will finally look like people who stand up straight. The "new normal" will lead us out to serve one another, support one another, love one another. The new normal will life us up and give us God's strength -- stronger than steel -- both to fight and to love. The new normal will lift us up to re-build what has exploded -- but to rebuild on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. The new normal will give us courage to befriend and protect our neighbors who are persecuted because of their religion, and to give comfort to our neighbors who are broken and grieving. But mostly, the "new normal" will be people standing and serving and going and giving -- being faithful in small things, in ordinary ways, in their ordinary lives.
To kneel, to sit, to stand -- these are ordinary activities. We kneel to bathe a child, to plant flowers, to scrub floors. We sit to eat together, to work and rest, to listen. We stand to show respect for an elder, to give someone our seat, to go and do something. These are ordinary activities, ordinary postures. They are also the postures of worship. As we engage in these ordinary postures -- singing, praying, listening, learning, serving -- we live a "new normal", putting our lives in the hands of the one who died and rose for us.
Even in the midst of these uncertain times, we can trust him. Especially in the midst of these uncertain times, we can live for him. For his love is stronger than steel that bends and melts, his love is stronger than hate that destroys and explodes, his love is stronger than fear that runs away -- and he lives for you.