Sunday, September 11, 2011

What language shall we use - A sermon preached on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
19 Pentecost – Proper 13 – September 10/11, 2011
Solemn Observance of the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001
Romans 14:1 – 12; Ps. 103; Matthew 18:21 – 35
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

What language shall we use?

    Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive..."

            Last month, we took our St. Paul’s J2A Youth group to New York City on and Urban Adventure….This group aged 15 – 18 went for a weekend to have fun, to be together; to learn city skills, work on interpersonal skills and have conversations about faith. 
            On Saturday morning, we went down to Ground Zero….It is a construction site now.  A new steel and glass tower is rising on the very place where the twin towers and other World Trade Center buildings once stood.  It was teaming with people that Saturday morning….We kept silence and said a prayer in front of Ground Zero as people whirled around us.  We then went into St. Paul’s Chapel directly across the street from Ground Zero.  St. Pauls’ Chapel is a part of the Episcopal Church. St. Paul’s became a sanctuary and an oasis for first responders throughout the aftermath of 9/11.  Today, in addition to functioning as a church, St. Paul’s Chapel has become a shrine to 9/11,  
            It is likely most of us remember where we were on 9/11. Even today, ten years later, 9/11 stirs up things in us, painful things; grief, sadness, anger, loss.  We live with an ache.  We also live with fear. 
            Today, this 10th anniversary, we are forced to wonder: can we get through this day without incident?  What do we do with these feelings?  How do we manage them in a way that is healthy?  Can we manage them at all? What are the lasting effects and what is the lasting legacy of 9/11 in each of our lives?
            I need to say it now:  As marred by tragedy as that day was, not all the events of September 11, 2001 were dark…There were the heroic actions of firefighters and EMTs, of policemen and military personnel at the Pentagon, of ordinary people helping one another. 
            Many people asked on that day, and many people continue to ask, “Where was God?” My response is always, right there; right there in the selfless sacrifice of all those people who did not think of their own safety, but acted for the sake of others at great risk, and in far too many instances, at the highest cost.  Greater love hath no man than this, Scripture says, than to lay down his life for his friends... (John 15:13).  On September 11, 2001, that greater love was shown over and over and over again….That’s where God was….That’s where God always is….That is my conviction.
            God could also be found in another place on that day.  God could be found in the maternity center at Boca Community Hospital.  As the world reeled in anguish from the attacks, Laurie A., wife of Eric, mother of Lee, Torie and Elizabeth, gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl; Caroline…I went to the hospital that day….
            I went because I always try to go to the hospital when a baby is born to one of our members.  But I also went that day because I needed that affirmation of life….God was there that day….God could be found in that hospital in the love of that family….God was there in the grace of that precious baby child Caroline. In the midst of the solemnity of today’s observance, we will sing to her and celebrate her birthday and remember that God was there too that day!
            Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City on September 11th.  He was at Trinity Church Wall Street, very close to Ground Zero.  At the time, he wasn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was the Archbishop of Wales. A thoughtful writer and theologian and a deeply spiritual man, he had been invited to speak at a conference on spirituality hosted by Trinity Church.  Courtney Cowart whose video reflections on 9/11 we are going to present after the service, was at the same conference.[1]  
            When the first Tower fell, everyone in that surrounding lower Manhattan area had to evacuated. From his experiences of that awful day, Williams wrote a book, Writing in the Dust:  After September 11[2].  It’s a short book, but very thoughtful.  
            Two insights in William’s book struck me as particularly important.    In the first chapter of the book a chapter titled “Last Words,” Williams made the unsettling observation that there was a great contrast of language that day between the terrorists who used religious language to justify their heinous acts, and the non-religious language of those on planes and in the Towers who used their final moments to express their love to a person dear to them. It was a contrast between what he labeled the “murderously spiritual and the compassionately secular.”[3]  Williams writes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love.  They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by some inarticulate message on the mobile….”[4]   
            In the book’s second chapter, “Answering Back,” he has another insight about language. He writes, “The day after, there was a phone call from Wales, from one of the news programmes, and I faced a familiar dilemma. The caller started speaking to me in Welsh, which I understand without difficulty, but don’t always find it easy to use in an unscripted and possibly rather complex discussion.  I had to decide:  if I answered in Welsh, the conversation would go on in Welsh, and I had some misgivings about coping with it.”
            “I am spoken to; I have some choices about how to answer.  It seemed a telling metaphor at that particular moment,” Williams observes.  “Violence is a communication, after all, of hatred, fear, or contempt and I have a choice about the language I am going to use to respond.  If I decide to answer in the same terms, that is how the conversation will continue.”[5]  It’s a provocative observation.  Two wars and a high number of military and civilian casualties have occurred in the wake of 9/11. Terrorism has not abated but, instead, has grown and spread since that tragic day ten years ago.  What language will we continue to use?
            Of course, there were many and various responses to 9/11, and there continue to be….And responses differ and especially if one is directly connected to the events of that day.   The anguish is still raw for those who were there; for those who escaped and survived; for those who lost loved ones in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania….None of us can speak for them.  None of us can, or should tell them how to feel….how to respond, how to grieve.
            Still, if we are honest, we must acknowledge that 9/11 seduced too many of us into modes of lasting hatred, fear, anger, prejudice and vengeance …Because of the despicable actions of zealous Islamists, we paint with a broad stroke and are angry with all Muslims.  Hate crimes against Muslins in this country have soared since 9/11.  There are on-going battles about having Muslims in our communities, over allowing them to build Mosques. 
            In many ways, this is an understandable and very human response to acts as heinous as those which took place on 9/11.   Still, we must ask ourselves, what has happened to us as Americans since 9/11? What language do we speak?  Is it the language of our core documents:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…[6] Or has anger and hatred led us to stray from these?
            What language do we speak as Christians?   I can’t help but be struck by the appropriateness of the two readings for today.  I didn’t pick these readings for today’s service.  They are appointed by the lectionary according to the normal cycle for Year A. Today, Christians across this country, not only Episcopalian; but Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist and all the others who share this Common Lectionary are hearing these very same lessons….
            They are hearing Paul’s words to the Romans, We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's (Romans 14:7 – 8).  That’s Gospel news to me as I think about those who died on 9/11.  They inspire me as I consider those who made the ultimate sacrifice…We do not live to ourselves… Each and every fireman who entered the inferno of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon knew that.  The passengers who fought with the highjackers over Pennsylvania knew that.   
            But we must also hear Paul’s challenge from his Letter to the Romans:  Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10).         
            How can we not pass judgment on those who acted with such brutality, with such a callous and heinous disregard for human life?  How can we not despise them?  And yet, their judgment does not belong to us.  Judgment belongs to God alone.   If we insist on judgment, what do we do about the judgment which must be rendered upon us as a nation that has dropped hundreds, thousands, of bombs; launched drone missiles, since hostilities began in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing innocent civilians, many of them women and children, labeling these casualties with the misnomer “collateral damage?”   What about the language of judgment here? 
            And what do we do with today’s Gospel reading concerning forgiveness?  What about Peter’s question, “Do we need to forgive as many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)  What about Jesus’ response, which really doesn’t mean “seventy-seven times;” it means we are to forgive our brother or sister countless times! (Matthew 18:22).
            And that parable, about the unforgiving servant!  How could we have that parable on this day of all days? (Matthew 18:22 ff).  Who is that unforgiving servant in the story?  Who are we in that story?   Are we the one’s owed the debt?   Are we the ones who show mercy?   Are we the ones to whom mercy is shown?   Oh, this painful, difficult business of forgiveness! Aren’t there some things we are allowed not to forgive? How can we ask or expect those whose husbands or wives or sons and daughters were brutally murdered on that day to forgive? 
            I can’t answer that question.  Each person must answer that question for him or herself….Each and every one of us must always answer that question for him or herself.
            I can, however, ask another question….What is the cost to us when we don’t forgive?  What do we do to ourselves?  Do we not allow ourselves then to be victimized over and over again by a reliving of the wrong done to us?  Do we not then give tremendous power to those who have wronged us?  What kind of people will this make us?  What kind of people has it made us?   Forgiveness is not only a matter of grace we extend to others, it is an act of grace we extend to ourselves and a means of grace by which God heals us and makes us whole….This is the language and the reality of forgiveness.  Does this language, this Christian language, have anything to say to us on this day?
            On Friday a story appeared in Episcopal Life On-Line about events that day at Ground Zero and at St. Paul’s Chapel.  I want to share some of that article with you.  It’s titled “Responding to the 9/11 attacks, St. Paul's Chapel answered act of evil with language of love.”[7]  It’s a story of contrasts.  Here’s some of what it says: 
     In the days after the World Trade Center towers fell, heaven and hell stood side by side in lower Manhattan.  St. Paul's Chapel in New York became the focal point of a remarkable effort to support the workers at nearby Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hundreds of volunteers from myriad vocations, religions, ages and income levels ministered to firefighters, construction workers and others working in what they called “the pit.”
     "For me, it became apparent very early that the pit was a symbol of suffering and death and darkness, which I began to equate with Good Friday, and St. Paul's was the symbol of new life, rebirth and hope, and therefore a symbol of Easter,” said the Rev. Fred Burnham, retired director of the Trinity Institute at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, in Manhattan.
     Burnham and Courtney Cowart, who handled grants for spiritual formation and development at Trinity Church, were preparing to videotape meditations with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (then archbishop of Wales) and others when the terrorist attacks instead sent them running for their lives.
     Directed by security to a rear stairwell after the first tower fell, Burnham recalled, “we were choking and having difficulty breathing there as badly as we had inside the building.” Realizing they were likely to die, the group shared a profound moment that changed his life“What we discovered in that moment was how love and compassion transcend all evil,” Burnham said. “It was in that moment that I realized that I was not afraid to die but also recognized that the real meaning of life was in relationships. … It was as if out of the darkness of that near-death moment came total realization both of love but also of liberation from fear.”  That liberation soon led to action.
     On Sept. 12, 2001, Cowart said, Williams preached: “Yesterday, we were spoken to in one language, and we now have a choice of in what language we respond to the conversation that was initiated by the attack.” And he asked, “What is the language of Christians?”  At St. Paul's, the language was love. Burnham and Cowart helped organize the volunteer effort and, later, to spread the word about what happened at [St. Paul’s].
     Burnham recalled firefighter John Misha telling a reporter [at St. Paul’s Chapel]: “Every day, I spend most of my time on my hands and knees, digging for body parts with my bare fingers.”  Then he went on to describe evil, darkness, suffering, death, in all the vivid language of somebody who spent that much time in the pit and who knew hell. Then, like he was rising out of hell, he stood up as straight as he could, threw out his chest, sucked in air, threw his arms into the air, and with a huge grin on his face and tears running down his cheeks, he said to her, “And then I get to come here....”
     “'When I walk in the front door of this place, dripping with blood, they hug me, they kiss me, they bring me in and treat me like I'm a member of the family. I have never known such respect anywhere ... And I sit and cry and weep, and I am born again."
     Master crane operator Joe Bradley recounted sitting on a curb in the middle of the night when young Salvation Army volunteers, sporting pink hair and bandanas, gave him water and cold towels and put dry socks on his feet. He thought about when the Yankees won the World Series.  “I'd always thought that's what New York was all about, those kind of heroes,” he said. “It was the little girl with the pink hair that became my hero that night.”
     "I've learned a lot about good and evil," he said. "I've learned a lot about the power of prayer. I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks or those Broadway people, but now I know them all. ... They are the heroes."
     “Standing on St. Paul's porch and viewing the pit, one could see two choices for the world,” Cowart said: “The future that leads to the destruction of the site, or the future that leads to the kind of community and life that we saw was possible at St. Paul's [Chapel]. ...”[8]
            Today we remember a very dark day and a series of murderous, inexcusably hateful acts….It is, in many ways, a Good Friday experience….But our story, our language, refuses to leave it there….Oh we acknowledge the reality….We are not in denial….We know there was death and nightmarish suffering….We know there is grief and nightmarish suffering still….But we are a people who place our hope and confidence in a God who is Love….We are Easter people and we declare that the falling towers are not a final word, as devastating as their fall was to us.  No, we declare, that light which was shown on 9/11 in the heroism and self-sacrifice of so many; in the passengers who fought with the highjackers over Pennsylvania to avoid further catastrophe.  We declare that that light rose from the dust and ashes of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, refusing to be consumed; that that love and light, Easter love and Easter light rose and reclaimed that awful day and reclaims it still; that it reclaimed us then and reclaims us now as people of the light, as people of the always victorious Easter light.  

[1]  See Dr. Courtney V. Cowart - Reflections on September 11th, 2001 at
[2]   Williams, Rowan Writing in the Dust:  After September 11 (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002
[3]   Williams, Chapter 1 “Last Words” 6ht paragraph Kindle edition location 72 - 73
[4]   Williams, Chapter 1 “Last Words” 6th paragraph Kindle edition location 34 - 37
[5]   Williams, Chapter 2 “Answering Back” 2nd paragraph beginning at Kindle location 73 - 75
[6]  From The Declaration of Independence.
[7]   Sheridan, Sharon “Responding to the 9/11 attacks, St. Paul's Chapel answered act of evil with language of love” which appeared on Episcopal Life On-Line on Friday, September 9, 2011 – See

[8]   Sheridan

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