September 11, 2011
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Growing up, I can remember occasions when people would say, “Do you remember where you were when you heard?”
For my parents and their friends, the question was about the news from Dallas, November 22, 1963, that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
For my generation, it was when President Reagan had been shot. And again in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster took place.
September 11, 2001. Where were you when you heard?
I was at home, listening to the radio, working on the computer. I went downstairs and turned on the TV, and saw the reporters and anchors trying to piece together what had happened. We didn’t know much right away. No one did. But we saw the images, replayed over and over again.
What I really remember of that morning was the shock, and then a feeling of profound dread. Not dread that there would be more attacks, although that fear came occasionally. But dread for how human beings react to trauma. It is part of the human condition, part of the human tragedy. We revert. We regress. Something within us goes back to junior high school and when we get hit, we hit back; when we get hurt, we hurt others, whether we can reach the one who hit us or simply the one who is closest.
Later that morning of September 11, I was at church. We rented the education building to a private school, and the third grade class was in the library, watching coverage on TV. They asked me to step in and say something to the children. I have no clue what I said. I just can’t remember. But I do remember having no clue what to say.
One of the boys in that class asked if we could pray. He prayed for all of those who were there to get out safely. And he prayed for whoever would do something like this, because there must be something wrong in their life for them to want to do something like this.
A decade later I am coming to realize that the horror of that day, and the hope that came from it, were both present that morning. The dread for how people would use these attacks to escalate violence, to foster fear, to build upon all of those things that led up to such attacks. And the moment, in that boy’s prayer, when suddenly we realized our common humanity, and we realized once again that if we are going to make, we are going to have to figure out that we are all in this thing together.
Following September 11, we witnessed miracles. People in New York were nice to one another! We read stories of the heroism of ordinary people. We learned about those who carried coworkers down flights of stairs out of the towers, and about those who were running up the stairs, firefighters running in to rescue people while everyone else was running out.
We heard stories of the Canadian airports landing over 200 American planes to help clear the airspace, and people taking stranded passengers into their homes.
We saw the walls of photos, people trying to find news of loved ones. When time had passed, and it was clear that it was no longer a rescue operation, but a recovery operation, we saw the work done at Ground Zero, how everything would stop when a body was found, and carried out with respect.
Since 9/11, we have seen other tragedies. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Tsunamis in the South Pacific. Earthquakes in China and Japan. The phrase “compassion fatigue” was coined, because burnout just didn’t seem to cover it.
Since 9/11 have been engaged in the longest wars in US history. These wars are being fought with a volunteer military, meaning we have a much smaller segment of the population carrying a much larger burden than ever before. In Iraq, more US service men and women have been killed than the number of victims on 9/11. In Afghanistan, the numbers are just over half that of 9/11. That does not count the many more who have been injured. We have learned the phrases IED, insurgency, up-armored, and closed head trauma.
We have witnessed a great improvement in the way service men and women are welcomed home by society from the days of Vietnam. But we have yet to come to grips with the toll that war takes on them and their families.
On the home front, we have gotten used to living at security level orange. We take off our shoes at the airport, and get frisked before boarding a flight. We remember duct tape and plastic sheeting becoming the modern equivalent of the bomb shelter in the back yard. When an attack happens anywhere in the world, we immediately think Al-Qaeda. Even if it turns out to be a militant Christian in Norway. Eventually, Osama Bin Laden was found, and was killed. And it seems little has changed.
Today, on television and radio, in blogs and on-line chats, we will hear it debated whether we are safer today than before. We will continue to debate security versus freedom. We continue to hear each side of the political aisle continue to paint the other side with the radical fear we learned on 9/11. We continue to hear caricatures of Islam, rather than seeking to know who these people, our neighbors, are.
And yet…on this, the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I find myself hopeful. Not optimistic, but hopeful.
My hope comes in the prayer of a third grader, who prayed for the attackers as well as the victims. Maybe only a third grader would think to do so. It was naïve. It was socially and politically frowned upon. It was…what Jesus would have done. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Pray for your enemies; love your enemies. In our pain, it is easy to forget the Gospel.
I find hope in the stories, all too easily washed away in the media frenzy and the political rhetoric, of people who used the memories of their loved ones who died on 9/11 as a source of courage and compassion.
Jay Winuk lost his brother, Glenn, that morning. Glenn was a lawyer working one block from Ground Zero. When the planes hit, he helped get his co-workers out of the building. Glenn was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT in his home town of Jericho, New York. He did what firefighters do. He ran into the towers to see if he could save people. He was found in the rubble of the south tower, his medic bag at his side.
Jay wanted to honor his brother, to mourn his loss, to find a way to make meaning out of it. He writes:
How best to honor those lost and, for that matter, those who rose in service to get our nation back on its feet in the aftermath of the attacks? What could we do, many of us wondered then, to ensure they would not be forgotten by future generations?
He and some of his friends put together a group, called My Good Deed. They work with communities to make September 11th each year a day of service, a day of kindness, a day of helping out their neighbors.
Following the tragedy of 9/11; in the wake of the natural disasters, political upheavals, economic collapses, unemployment and war, I say to you there is hope. That hope is found in the ability of people to do the best that they can to love one another; to honor the memory of those who have died by offering ourselves to the possibility of making the world a better place, one life, one community at a time.
Maybe it is naïve to think that love can win in a world so full of hate, so wounded, so fearful. But it is for just such a hurting and wounded world that Jesus came. It is for just such anxious and fearful world that he gave his own life. It is for just such as us and our world of neighbors that he was raised.
There is hope. And it is found when we love one another. Just as Jesus said.
Thanks be to God. Amen.