Sermon Preached at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem
September 12, 2021

Proper 19, Year B

The Reverend Canon Donald D. Binder, PhD

This morning I would like to take a point of personal privilege to reflect with you for a few moments on the commemoration of a tragic event that was not only significant for my family and nation, but indeed for the entire world. I am speaking, of course, about the cataclysmic events of September 11th, 2001, which took place exactly twenty years ago yesterday.

My family and I had just moved to Northern Virginia, a mere 25 kilometers southwest of the Pentagon, where one of the four highjacked aircraft would soon crash.

On the TV that morning, we had already seen a video of the first plane exploding into the World Trade Center in New York City. At first it seemed to everyone like a tragic accident. But as I was driving over to the church where I had just become Rector, a report came over the radio: another plane had crashed into a second of the towers.

As I heard those words, my heart suddenly sank. One plane might be an accident. But two planes had to be a deliberate attack.

A feeling of anxiety began to well up inside me.

As I went on to gather my staff for our weekly meeting, we began with prayers for the victims and the horrendous situation unfolding before us. But a few minutes into the meeting, a parishioner suddenly burst into the room to tell us that a third plane had just exploded into the Pentagon.

We abruptly ended our meeting and got onto our phones to call the families of parishioners whom we knew worked in that building. We also made calls to reassure our loved-ones and to make sure that they too were safe.

As we now know, nearly three thousand persons died that morning. And although the attacks took place in New York, Virginia, and on a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, the victims were not just Americans. Citizens from 90 countries were lost on that day.

I was reminded of this fact two years ago when I was at the World Trade Center Memorial with then-Archbishop Suheil and Ibrahim Faltas. That’s when I learned that one of Bishop Suheil’s cousins had been among the victims. We couldn’t find his name on the memorial that evening, so I looked it up online and returned the next morning to pray over his inscription and to take a picture for the family. His name was Ramzi Doany. A Jordanian citizen, he was only 35.

Closer to my home, thankfully, none of my parishioners were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. One of them should have been, but his office was being renovated so he had been temporarily moved elsewhere in the complex. But he and many of my parishioners knew people who had died that morning in what remains the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

The day after 9/11—twenty years ago today—several hundred of my parishioners gathered in the Church courtyard for a sunset memorial service. There, we offered prayers for the victims and their families, lifted up our nation and the nations of the world, and shared in the Lord’s Supper. At the end, a bugler played “Taps” in the distance, leading tears to well up in most of our eyes.

Yet while there was certainly anxiety in the aftermath of that horrific day, what I remember most is that the people of my nation, and of many nations, came together in solidarity.

We were united in expressing our care and support for the victims and their families, as well as in our righteous anger at those who had perpetrated this dastardly deed. Indeed, for weeks and then even months, we were as one people. Democrats and Republicans; rich and poor; male and female; black, white and brown. We were all one.

Would that I could have bottled that sense of unity to keep it forever! But it couldn’t last. Such is the fallen human condition.

And here is where I finally turn to our Scripture. For James, the First Bishop of Jerusalem, knew all too well about the fallen human condition. He knew all too well that, although humankind was made in the image of God, sin had long since corrupted that divine imprint. James saw this as being most apparent when you examine closely the words that we speak when we come under stress.

“No one can tame the tongue,” James wrote. “It’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

That was true back then, and it remains the same today.

Only more so. For back in James’ day, at best, your tongue could get you in trouble with a crowd of a few hundred, if you spoke loudly enough.

Today, you don’t even need to open your mouth. You can let your thumbs do all the work. In less than 280 characters, you can offend, rile, and otherwise antagonize millions of people within seconds. In fact, if you’re important enough, that number can easily reach into the billions. That’s because the international press is eager to chime in to further stir the pot. For them, it’s easy click-bait, with each additional click-through helping to add to their own sense of self-importance—as well as the company revenue stream.

And so, what James talked about with respect to a relatively small audience has now escalated into big business. Outrage begets outrage as the Twitter and Social Network wars explode. Over the last few years, this has indeed become a worldwide pastime.

And it is all to our detriment.

Whether or not we participate in those verbal volleys, we’re all affected by them. That’s because we are not islands unto ourselves. We are part of a worldwide community where discord can beget discord, rumor can beget rumor, and distrust can beget distrust.

We’ve seen this now over these past 18 months. For although our world faces a common enemy—a mindless yet persistently destructive virus—unlike twenty years ago, this crisis has not brought us together. Instead, it has driven us apart.

Thus we have vaxers versus anti-vaxers, pro-maskers versus anti-maskers, restriction advocates versus those demanding individual freedoms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there haven’t been legitimate debates throughout this whole pandemic about what to do and how to respond. Of course there have. And we’ve all participated in them.

What I’m talking about is less concerned with the content than with the tone. For the rhetoric has too often become overheated and vitriolic.

James understood this as well.

“The tongue is a fire,” he writes. “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

And then, as if he were prophetically looking forward towards both the rhetoric of our day as well as the flames that surrounded Jerusalem last month, James writes, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”

It didn’t take much to start a verbal forest fire back then; it takes even less to do so today. As a result, we have all ended up roasting in a pandemic-inflicted international hell.

And so what to do?

Winston Churchill had one suggestion. “Don’t speak,” he once said, “Unless you can improve on silence.”

Well, that’s a nice and pithy proverb. That problem with it is that Churchill didn’t follow his own advice! In this, he was true to James’ axiom that the tongue cannot be tamed by human effort alone. Particularly in today’s heated climate, the temptation to apoplexy is irresistible.

Beyond that, there’s the question of just what constitutes an improvement on silence? In the moment, that’s a hard one to figure out even for the wisest of us. But that, of course, is one of the reasons we are gathered here in this Cathedral this morning.

In the Great Commission, Jesus charged his Apostles to teach and baptize. Now we often think of salvation as a one-time event. We learn of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we confess him as Lord and Savior in our Baptisms. Or, if we’re baptized as infants, we personally reaffirm that confession in our Confirmations.

But in our Gospel, Peter also confessed Jesus as the Christ. The problem was, he couldn’t hold his tongue afterwards. For when Jesus started speaking about his own sacrificial death on the cross, what did Peter do? He rebuked his own Master!

This in turn provoked some serious correction from Jesus about what the Way of the Cross entails.

And so, in our baptisms and initial confessions, while we might cross over the threshold of salvation, it doesn’t end there. We need first of all to hear the lessons of discipleship over and over again—each Sunday at a minimum. But more than that, we need to repeatedly invite the Holy Spirit to purify our hearts to lead us into obedience to those same lessons.

For the disease of sinfulness is like a cancer that never truly goes away; it’s only ever in remission. We need the healing of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis to keep that disease from recurring. Through our prayers and through the reaching out of our hands for the Holy Sacrament, we receive the cleansing and renewing power of God’s Spirit to transform and renew our inner lives—to transform our very character.

When that happens, over time, there is no poison left to spew. Instead, it has been replaced by God-given words of loving encouragement—and when necessary, admonitions of gentle correction. Here, we must remember that among the Fruits of the Spirit mentioned by the Apostle Paul are kindness and gentleness. If we find ourselves missing those fruits in our lives, then we need to fall back on our knees in repentance, seeking God’s grace to restore them to our hearts.


A few days after the tragedy of 9/11, I climbed onto my bicycle and pedaled up the Potomac Trail to Washington DC. There, I approached the Lincoln Memorial, dismounted, and sat at the feet of the likeness of a man who had witnessed my nation suffer through so many sorrows.

After offering some prayers and a taking a time of reflection, I went inside that shrine. There, from one of the walls, I re-read Lincoln’s words of healing spoken to the nation at the end of America’s bloody Civil War.

Although they were words addressed to that specific situation, their sentiments are nevertheless universal. Indeed, they apply nearly seamlessly to the situation of our world today.

And since those words were derived from Lincoln’s own reflections upon Scripture, they are words with which I will conclude, offering them as a profound reminder of the many challenges still facing us all:

Lincoln said:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” Amen.