September 21, 2014
On the night of September 13, 2001, Barbara Lee – a second term Congresswoman from Berkeley, California was up late wrestling with a big decision.
Two days before - on September 11 - she had been in her office on Capitol Hill when the planes hit the twin towers and the Pentagon.
A little more than 48 hours later, she was in a meeting with her Democratic colleagues as they debated a resolution that would authorize the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”(That was what the resolution said – and it has become an important part of the justification for many of the things that have come to pass over the ensuing 10 or so years –including things like Guantanamo Bay, secret renditions, enhanced interrogation techniques, and drone strikes.)
The debate among the leaders in the meeting that night boiled down to two things:Worry that the language in the resolution was too broad, too open-ended and not definitive enough -on the one hand. And the strong desire to present a united front and show support for the President in the aftermath of an attack on our nation.
After much debate, the Democratic leaders left the meeting that night having decided to vote in favor of the resolution when it came before them the next day – on September 14.
Which is what led to Barbara Lee’s sleepless night on September 13.
She understood the need to present a united front. But as a social worker who had been trained in psychology – she knew that it was unwise to make big decisions in the midst of shock and grief and fear – and she was concerned that because of that shock and grief and fear, Congress was about to givevery broad and undefined powers to the President.
And so she stayed up late, talking to advisors and friends, thinking, wrestling, weighing.
The next day – in the morning of September 14 – the Senate voted 98 to 0 in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force and sent it to the House to vote on later that evening.
At noon that day, there was a Prayer Service at the National Cathedral. Barbara Lee, still not sure how she was going to vote, decided to skip the service so that she could have some time to make up her mind.
As she stood in the Congressional Cloak Room, drinking a can of ginger ale, she said that something came over her and she decided that she needed to go to that service.
And so she ran out to the buses lined up outside the Capitol building to take members of Congress to the Cathedral for the service.
She got to the Cathedral about 30 minutes before the service started and sat, listening to the organ play, thinking about the people who had lost loved ones, thinking about the country’s grief and shock, thinking about the vote that she had to make in a few hours.
And she started to pray – she talked to God about how her heart was telling her one thing – that the wording was too broad, but her head was telling her something else – that this was a time for unity.
The service began with a speech by the President and then the congregation sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And then Reverend Nathan Baxter spoke and read a passage from the prophet Jeremiah – chapter 31 – “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Then he prayed –
for healing of the nation’s broken hearts –
for comfort of those who had lost loved ones –
and then he said,
“Let us also pray for divine wisdom, that as we act, we do not become like the evil that we deplore.”
Barbara Lee says that at that moment, she felt peace come over her and she knew exactly what she was going to do.
That evening, the House of Representatives took up the vote on the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution. In the end, the vote was 420 to 1. Barbara Lee was the only person in the House and the Senate to vote against the resolution.
Back in the Congressional Cloak Room after the vote was taken, many of her colleagues pleaded with her to change her vote – telling her that this vote was going to be the end of her career.
She refused to change it.
And she did pay a price for her vote – not that price – she’s still a member of the House of Representatives – but in the months that followed, her office was inundated with angry letters and death threats –60,000 letters actually – calling her a traitor, a terrorist, and worse.
Still, Barbara Lee stood by her vote – still stands by it.
And whether or not you agree with the choice she made on that day in 2001, you have to admit, it was an act of incredible courage – to stand for something that she thought was right and to do so knowing that you are really truly standing alone.
And she did it because she took seriously the position of trust that had been given to her by her constituents.
But even more, I think, because she chose to respond to the urging that God placed on her heart during that prayer service and in the days before – the promise that we were capable of being more than people bent on revenge and destruction – more than people who acted out of fear – the promise that we could respond to this evil thing that had happened without allowing it to overtake us or cause us to disregard our wisdom or lose our soul – the promise that God shared in our heartbreak and that God was with us in the midst of our fear – and God would be with us as we picked up the pieces and that no matter what, God would find a way to pull new life out of the devastation of what had happened to us – and of what we did in response to it.
Because that is what God does.
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is a God who promises to be present to be among us, to be with us – to bless us with life that is abundant.
That is the God that Joseph knew. Joseph whose story of transformation from spoiled brat to hero of the people is told over the last 12 books of Genesis. Granted, Joseph would not be anyone’s choice for a brother. He was the favorite, and he knew it – and loved to tease his brothers with these dreams he had about how one day they would all be bowing down to him. Though, to be fair, he came from a highly dysfunctional family – dysfunctional like, Dr. Phil would love to have them on his show dysfunctional. Which may explain why his brothers chose to respond to his annoying teenage bravado by first plotting to kill him and then opting to sell him into slavery instead.
Once he got to Egypt, Joseph wound up getting the cushiest possible job that someone in his position could get - - put in charge of the household of a powerful official in Pharaoh’s court. Until, as we heard today, the official – Potiphar’s wife takes a “special” interest in him – and he refuses to reciprocate.
He chooses integrity. And as a result, her accusation lands him in prison.
But the story doesn’t end there. Because one of the people Joseph meets in prison arranges it so that he is able to help Pharaoh by interpreting some troubling dreams – which leads him to his own powerful position as Pharaoh’s close advisor – guiding Egypt through a famine and eventually being able to meet his brothers again – and to offer them forgiveness and reconciliation - so that the promise God made to his great-grandfather Abraham continued.
The promise is that God is with us.
It’s the promise of the covenant.
It’s the promise of our baptism.
It’s the truth that we rehearse every time we say “The Lord be with you.”
The promise is not a guarantee that life will be free of suffering – it wasn’t for Joseph, it wasn’t for Jesus– it isn’t for us.
But ultimately, the promise is that no matter where, no matter why, no matter how broken or how unsure or how far out on a limb we are – God is with us, and God will never leave us.
In the fourteenth century, a woman who has become known as Julian of Norwich experienced visions of Christ which she later wrote about in what are now the oldest surviving books written by a woman in the English language. She’s most famous for sharing with the world words that God said to her – that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
Those words continue to touch us and inspire us and move us – because they are words of promise – not a promise that all will be perfect or that all will go according to what we plan or hope or want or that all will be free of suffering or hurt or pain – Julian knew about suffering and hurt and pain.
And she knew a God of Promise. She lived for that promise that God’s intention for us is life. That God’s promise means that ultimately, in the end, love wins. Justice wins. And so all will be well – and all will be well – and all manner of things will be well.
May you know God’s promise and live for it.
May you live with boldness and courage.
May you seek truth.
May you stand up for what God tells you in your heart is right – and know that even if you are standing by yourself, you are never alone.
God is with you.
All will be well.
Thanks be to God!