Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon Delivered on September 11th, 2011

On the TV, the radio, in the papers, on the internet and all over the blogosphere, at home, at mealtimes, in bars and offices, in coffee or water cooler conversations, the painful question is still asked:

Where were you on the morning of September 11th, 2001?

My story is very unexciting. I was on the beach that morning, ten years ago. With my family and two dogs. It was a beautiful morning, as most of us remember. Breathtaking, in fact. Things seemed to be going well. You recall I had begun parish ministry on September 1st, and it was very early days for me.

That was a morning when all seemed simple and at peace.

Where were you?

All of you have your story to tell. About where you were, what you were doing, and how you heard the news that day.

Some of you, I know, were in Manhattan, close at hand. Others at a distance. Still others, like me, heard the news on the radio, or saw it on TV.

And of course there are thousands who cannot answer the question – but we know where they were. They were in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or the four hijacked planes.

And they were also on the scene immediately after the attacks, and in the weeks and months that followed. How many first responders and rescue or recovery workers had their lives shortened by the toxic environment in which they toiled, and have subsequently died?

That morning ten years ago we witnessed catastrophic devastation, carried out by human beings on human beings. Countless lives were torn apart, and it has been said that the world will never be the same again. I don’t know about that, but it is natural enough to believe that no-one else has known the destruction and mutilation that we have experienced. How?

Because even a brief glance at the pages of history will make us realize that the attacks of September 11th 2001 are only unique because they are in recent memory. They are more real because we have seen them, and because we remember them.

And because of that living experience, one that was poisonously violent, we hurt even more, and we question even more.

Why? Why did it happen, and how do we respond ten years on as people of faith – Christians who somehow believe that God loves the world.

Our response is critical – not just as individuals, but as the Church. How do we respond in the face of raw evil?

A few weeks after the attacks I found myself at the site where the towers had stood. Beware the smell, people had warned me – but the most powerful smell that day was coming from the fried onions and hotdogs being served by countless vendors. And God bless them for being there!

It was an unexpectedly numbing experience, simply to stand there at a short distance from where recovery teams were working. I wanted to feel something, see mental images, hear words, be spiritual. But nothing came. I couldn’t be spiritual, such was the overwhelming sense of horror and death.

And it is at times such as that that traditional prayers, prayers committed to heart and memory since childhood, are at their best. For they speak when we cannot speak. They express what we cannot express, and they carry us when we cannot spiritually walk any further.

Thy kingdom come;
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

At one moment those words seemed tepid consolation in the face of such sacrilege, but the next moment, as I was walking away I knew that nothing could be further from the truth. You see, read the correct way, which I believe was the intention of Jesus when he taught his disciples that prayer, those words have the power to look evil in the face, and defeat it.

Oh, we can render the prayer passive and sentimental if we understand it to be some form of assurance that everything will be all right in the end because we have this vague notion that God will wave a magic wand and make it so.

But that prayer is not saying that at all. It is a prayer of engagement – engagement with God and engagement with the world. And it is within that relationship, that dynamic of faith, that evil can and will be defeated.

For if we say that we are praying for God’s will to be done, then we are the ones who have to make that happen. And that means confronting all those parts of creation that are clearly not in accord with God’s expressed purposes of love, justice and hope.

Our response must be spiritual, rooted in the scriptures in which this God has revealed a divine intention; our response must also be political, and economic, and where needs demand, use robust military force.

Faced with another great evil in another age, certainly a far greater evil, that of Nazi Germany, the imprisoned pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words when so many people felt deepest despair at what was happening to the world:

The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to hell.

Today we have remembered the dead of ten years ago. All over the nation, and in other nations, this is a day of grief for thousands as they are once again reminded of their loss.

But in faith and Christian optimism we have to do so much more than look back. In that faith we now look to tomorrow, and the day after, and the year after. In God’s name we cannot, we will not, abandon the future to hell.

Thy kingdom come.

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