9/11 the Tenth Anniversary sermon

I was in the office.  I’d only been at St. Barts for a few months.   I’d gotten to work early because I needed to finish some paperwork before driving to Rochester.  Doreen, a parishioner, was volunteering, taking calls and organizing the mail.   I was listening to the radio when it seemed to turn off suddenly.  At least I think it did.   It came back on with the announcement that the towers were struck.
I made some phone calls to my friends who were working there.  One person watched from his office not too far from the towers.  I called a parishioner in White Plains who had once worked there himself.   But my memory remains foggy, and only the emotional impression remains.

Once assured that nobody I knew was hurt, I drove to Rochester.  In a daze, I switched between the radio, mix tapes and silence.   Confusion on the radio, a ballad by Richard Thompson, silence.  And again.   The roads were quiet and empty.   I don’t remember any cops, and the church car was a 6 cylinder Buick that drove beautifully over the speed limit.  I think that’s what I drove.  Or it could have been the Volvo.

Many of my memories are not truly my own, nor are they of that particular day.  I’ve seen the photographs of people jumping.  I have friends who were there.  I do remember the urgent feeling of needing to do something, but also knowing I could not, except to ensure that my own people, my own network, my own tribe, was alright and out of harm.    But the images and words I do remember are deeply intertwined with the media, with NPR, CNN, and with the various stories that followed.  For I did not see the people jumping.  Those are other people’s memories.

I do remember stories:  the financial executive who started a salsa studio; the hedge fund manager who decided to enter culinary school; the stockbroker who left after a colleague said, “We now have a new annuity product.”  Some moved to the country; some went to church.  I know one frightened priest who fled the scene and abandoned his church, and others who shepherded children to safety.

Still, my engagement is limited.  War is news and often entertainment:  I know so few people invested in it.  My engagement is through the heightened security at airports and football games.  I remember the protests against the Iraq war, how most Americans opposed it, and how it didn’t matter.   I remember, I remember, I remember, but they are not my own experiences.  The memories reflect a collective memory of which I am a part.

So we remember.  Why?  I’ve been hearing the mantra “never forget” over and over, which I suppose has the purpose of preventing me from doing what I might like to do, which is precisely that: forget.  Although yes, I appreciate “never forget” as a mantra:  it offers a chance of unity, of togetherness that is the sentimental salve for trauma’s shock.  It’s like our mutual salute or secret handshake.  We went through this together, and for a moment we were kind to each other, we helped each other, we were loving, awesome people.  So let’s not forget that.  Let us tell the lie that our trust is sealed in each other, the glue will never dissolve.  When people say “never forget” that’s what I hear, although I’m suspicious of words like “never” and “forever.”  Personally, I want to forget all sorts of things.  I used to think we could forgive and remember, but I’m not even sure I see the value in that.

Here’s another question:  What do we want to remember?  For I suspect that our memories, even our particular grief, or our individual sorrow, is redemptive.  It might feel like that sometimes.  We feel better after a good cry; it’s righteous when people care for each other after a terrible event.  Perhaps after our collective suffering we have a glimpse into each other’s humanity.  I like that, but it’s not the grief or its memory that opens up the only place for God’s grace.

For the men who hijacked the towers and aimed them at the symbols of American might had their own memories.  They were also tortured by grief.   They had their own stories that they believed would redeem their acts.   But they held their grief and turned outward, and saw the enemy.

After the twin towers were destroyed, didn’t some cheer?  I was horrified, of course, and tried to deny anyone would do such a thing.  But yes, some did.  Yet, I have also cheered at the fate of my own enemy.  I’ve delighted in a competitor’s failures.   I’m not above getting revenge, of being victorious, even if it’s a cheap shot.   Payback, that’s an easy feeling to enjoy.

Clearly, the attack was terrifying.  It was also a big mistake on the attackers part.  We may be the least horrible empire in the history of the world, but we’re still an empire.  And the mechanisms of state are sure about what response is required: complete annihilation of the enemy.   This is what happens when an empire gets attacked:  they unleash their entire fury.  It will be to teach a lesson; to break the will of the weak; to demonstrate the effective use of power that few other countries have or can wield so easily.

So there are plenty of events I’d like to forget.  I have no intention of remembering the men who hijacked the planes.   I would like not to ruminate upon the hatred that caused it.   Nor shall I sentimentalize the heroes who never felt like heroes, but felt like they were simply doing the right thing through natural, essential, profound acts of being human.   I suspect it will not be the last terrible event I will see, and hope I have the fortune to survive whatever terror happens.

But we remember: the temple destroyed by the Babylonians.  The Jews scattered across the empire.  Their spiritual home obliterated.  In response, some stayed in Babylon, learned of the culture, and almost forgot who they were.  Others sat by the banks of the river and sang songs.   Some idealized the past.  Others gathered people to remember the past and to lay claim to a distant future.   They remembered the temple but kept the prayers and sang the songs.

For Christians, we remember the cross, the slaughtering of an innocent victim.  We remember our own participation in it.  But it does not end there.   For the only reason we remember that murder, is because of the resurrection that followed.  He could have been collateral damage, excess population, another example of how might  makes right, that we love our friends and hate the losers.  But the report we tell is how he was seen again, without resentment, without judgement.  If it had not been so, the terror that had marked us would have kept us invisible.

Some have said that today should be a mournful, melancholic day.  I appreciate that.  And so in the prayers we say the names.  We sing the anthems of loss and victory.  But today’s day is fundamentally a resurrection day.  That while some idealize the past, others assimilate and forget, and still others hunt for enemies; it is enough to gather the people, tell the stories, and share the truth:  that the world need not be this way.

Although the towers have fallen, our temple dashed to ruins, in voice we say that the God of peace has not been defeated.  The prophets have said He still lives.  Through the earthquakes and hurricanes, through the destruction of the temple, and even through the murder of the innocent victim, our memory has been transformed.  We no longer ruminate upon our victimhood, nor await the time for us to get even.  Instead, the power of that memory is used for us to build monuments to our loving God, one that has lifted us above the destructive rage that would suddenly engulf us.

The God of peace beckons us to hear this:  may we not be so enslaved by the violence done to us; may we be liberated to find the grace within our own redemption; may the forgiveness we know soothe the sorrow in our soul.

We remember this first, that the God of peace was raised from the ashes of Golgotha, and out of the terror and violence of empire, a hope remains, a grand hope, who declares the Kingdom of peace will come.  Though our hearts were once hard and prepared for battle, let us now gather the people, and about the God of peace, who victoriously overcame the power of death at the hands of the violent, let us say:  He. Still. Lives.

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