Preached in Christ Chapel, Gustavus Adolphus College on
November 9, 2001
 Well, the Federal Reserve has cut the prime rate by another
half-percent. . . . Things are looking up for the New York Stock
Exchange; a few days ago, I heard, it closed at its highest level
since September 11. Inflation is well within acceptable margins.
Unemployment's up a little . . . but even five-point-something
percent unemployment isn't alarming - especially if you're not one
of the unemployed. If you've been to the Mall lately, you'll have
noticed that everything is on sale. I always say, when you can save
that much, it's a shame not to spend.
 President Bush, basking in stratospheric approval ratings,
urges us to do our part to "Keep American rolling!" Moved no doubt
by patriotism, corporate America is certainly doing its best to
help us get our lives - and their profits - back to normal. Go
ahead - Buy that re-designed Camry sedan: "You know you want it."
No-interest financing - no payments for six months or a year.
 So many things cost so much less these days. Which of us
public-spirited consumers can - or wants to - resist the
all-American impulse to get and spend? Besides, we're exhorted, if
we stay away from the malls - if we don't buy stuff, or get on
airplanes and go places. . . . Why, those terrorists will have won,
won't they? Let's show them! Let's get back to normal!
 When I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, I was
just leaving my high school chemistry class. November 22, 1963, was
a kind of watershed for me: the beginning of a loss of political
innocence hastened and intensified by the Vietnam War, by fallen
heroes like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F.
Kennedy, by the bloody 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago,
by Kent State, Watergate, and Richard Nixon's resignation. For many
young people like me, for whom mornings were marked by eating a
bowl of Cheerios at home and saying the Pledge of Allegiance at
school - politics would never get back to "normal" again.
 Years later, I was asked to go to Central America to
"accompany" the Salvadoran Lutheran church, which was being
persecuted by the armed forces of its own government because it
stood with the poor. El Salvador's government, half of whose annual
budget was supplied by the government of the United States, waged a
costly, harrowing war against a rebel army of university students
and landless peasants. The rebels fought to overthrow what has been
"normal" in Latin America for centuries: a social, political, and
economic system that ensures the prosperity of the wealthy few and
the impoverishment of the rest.
 In El Salvador I learned to recognize the sound of
helicopter gunships and M-16s, all paid for by U.S. taxpayers like
me. An American, I was safer than any Salvadoran. My job was to
help the churches help those who had been driven from their rural
homes by soldiers whose uniforms, ammo, and rations came from my
country, and whose commanding officers the U.S. military had
trained. If I ever got scared, I could leave on a jet plane within
hours, Samsonite luggage and MasterCard in hand. Such ironies were
not lost on me. Whatever I thought might have been a "normal"
perspective on my country changed . . . after I saw my country from
 You could say that each of these experiences was a crisis.
Each pulled the rug out from under what was "normal" for me. Each
confounded my expectations, threw me off-balance. Whatever I was
using to calibrate risks and possibilities blew a fuse. Each time I
had to re-calibrate, figure out new criteria, new ways of
measuring, even new names for what was now only partly
familiar--certainly not "normal."
 Since September 11, I have found myself walking around in a
bit of a haze, somewhat distracted, and - sometimes - deeply sad.
It's a little like a hangover, to tell you the truth - a September
11 hangover. A colleague told me she felt as if she had been going
through an identity crisis all fall. "What am I supposed to be
doing?" she asked me, as she'd asked herself a hundred times. I
understood her question; it was about our lives, our selves, our
 Something changed on 9/11. Perhaps it wasn't the world that
changed. After all, people in many parts of the world live with
terrorism every day. It is intentional or collateral, sudden or
gradual, material or spiritual--and at least in some of it, the
United States is implicated.
 Perhaps our world changed. Perhaps we saw our
vulnerability. It's been there all along. Perhaps we all saw, all
at once, that we aren't really in charge. Were we ever? Perhaps we
realized, for one split second, what we share with all of earth's
people: our mortality. Perhaps for once we heard "God bless
America" as a prayer, rather than as an assumption.
 A very long time ago, political leaders sometimes consulted
with serious theologians, among them a man named Reinhold Niebuhr.
Just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Niebuhr
wrote: "We could not agree upon the peril in which we stood as a
national community until the peril was upon us. . . . And we could
not agree upon our responsibilities to the victims of aggression
until we had been joined to them, not by moral act but by
historical fate." * As the dust settles around Ground Zero in lower
Manhattan, Niebuhr's 60-year-old observation is downright
 The Exodus text we heard a few minutes ago comes in the
middle of a longer passage sometimes called "the commissioning of
Moses." From a burning bush God calls Moses to make a dramatic
career move. The first words out of Moses' mouth - "Who am I that I
should go to Pharaoh?" - reveal his reluctance to take the
assignment. Moments later, he asks another question. As circumspect
as it is - "What shall I tell those Israelites when they ask me
your name?" - I can't help thinking that Moses is really asking God
from his own heart: "Who are you?" This morning I am less
interested in the name God reveals, than I am in Moses' questions -
in what seems to me to be a profound vocational crisis, once he
realizes that God really does expect something of him.
 I hope at least some of this hangs together. . . .
 I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do now. But "getting back
to normal" doesn't seem to be a live option. To tell you the truth
- I'm glad about that. You never know what might happen when you
start talking to Pharaoh about freeing those slaves.
* Reinhold Niebuhr, "History (God) Has Overtaken Us," in
Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of
Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. by D. B. Robertson (Gloucester, Mass.:
Peter Smith, 1976), p. 293. I thank my colleague Garrett Paul for
putting this book in my hands.