Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Lection: Psalm 46, "Easter, 1916" (Yeats)
Trying to make sense of something that is senseless is not easy. You already know that I think.
When someone we love dies, when our lives are turned upside down by something the doctor tells us, when the phone rings in the middle of the night or when a relationship breaks apart, we are left stunned and at a loss for words.
That’s how I feel when I think about 9/11 and about much that has happened in our world and in this country since 9/11. It’s been twenty years, but for me it seems like yesterday.
As a few of you know, Charnley and I were living in New York City on September 11, 2001. She was working for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Hospital in Human Resources, and I was on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue. That day was election day and we voted at P.S. 116 on our block and left one another on the corner of 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue at around 9:00 a.m. She headed north to her office, and I headed cross town to the church at 5th Avenue and 29th Street. What neither of us knew at that moment, was that an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and that another plane had flown into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. When I reached Park Avenue South and 32nd Street, people were looking downtown at a large cloud of smoke. A man with a cell phone said that he thought a small sightseeing plane had hit the World Trade Center.
By the time I reached my office, traffic was beginning to stop, and the street was full of people pointing and crying. We hooked up a T.V in the lobby of our office building and for a time just wandered around in shock. I walked over to Sixth Avenue where you could look downtown directly at the Twin Towers. I was there when the South Tower fell, but it was hard to tell what was happening because of the smoke. When word rippled through the crowd, people reacted with shock and anger and tears. People hugged total strangers.
Meanwhile, Charnley’s office closed, and she went back to our apartment with a consultant who had just arrived in the city by train and a young girl from her staff who lived outside of the city and was terrified and had nowhere to go. They turned on the T.V. and heard that blood was needed at the hospital two blocks from our apartment, so they headed over there to give blood. After a short time standing on line, they were turned away because the hospital had figured out by that point that they were probably not going to need blood. Outside of the Emergency room on the street, dozens of doctors and nurses stood waiting with wheelchairs and stretchers for the injured who never came. One of the saddest truths of that day was that almost no one made it to the hospital. People either escaped or they died.
By the time the north tower collapsed, we had organized ourselves at the church to do what we could. We began to list the people we knew might be working in the Twin Towers. We opened the Fifth Avenue doors, we set up land-line phones that people could use, we put together a prayer service for noon and set up a table to give people water. We put on our robes and stood outside in the crowd milling around on the street just talking to people.
The next eight hours are a blur and the next few days are a bigger blur, but by noon, people covered with dust from the building’s collapse began straggling up Fifth Avenue walking home. Many of them stopped to talk. Many of them went into the church just to rest and pray or use the facilities or to make a phone call since nobody’s cell phone was working at that point. And that’s what we did for the next several days, we listened, we tried to give comfort, we worshipped—we rang the bell and the sanctuary would fill beyond capacity with people anxious to sing together and pray, and we stood on the street just talking to people who needed to talk.
Looking back from the perspective of twenty years I want to share a few observations. In the limited time I have, I can only scratch the surface, so these remarks come with an invitation for further conversation with any of you.
Observation one: the human spirit is amazing and when evil runs into the human spirit—which is exactly what the people who hijacked those planes were up to, the human spirit may flounder for a time, but the human spirit comes through because the human spirit is really one with the Divine Spirit. That’s how I understand the fire fighters and other first responders who ran into those buildings. That’s how I make some sense of what happened that day and that’s how I understand and deeply appreciate the scientists and the first responders and all the medical people attempting to help during this time of Pandemic. When we trust one another and the facts, we are all capable of a lot more than we think.
Observation two, when something bad happens, the worst part is the fear. I spent the first few hours after the attack working in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I found myself glancing up afraid that I might catch sight of another plane. Rumors abounded. A mosque in our neighborhood was excavating a basement, were they really planting bombs? Don’t ride the subways, there is an attack scheduled for Friday on the trains. Some of the same conspiracy theories born then are still festering in the dank ignorance that empowers the science deniers and fear mongers today.
One of the biggest challenges in this life is to live by faith and not by fear and that is a decision we are called to make every single day of our lives. Fear is real and worry is fear’s best friend but living by fear is not living—living by faith is living. So many angel messengers appeared that day and in the following days with that message, that I became convinced that the Holy One was speaking.
Observation three, it's OK to be angry—in fact when something like that happens, it is downright healthy to react with anger. There was plenty of anger, but since anger is what flew those planes and killed all those people to begin with, the anger we were feeling in response to the attack needed to become a pathway to healing and not an excuse to join the people who live their lives angry. Whole groups of people in this nation are living that way and that is tragic. Anger is either a dead end with the emphasis on the word ‘dead’ or a passage to the positive. Dare I suggest that being angry enough to do something loving is the way of Jesus?
Observation four, and this relates to the one about anger: there is no future in revenge. I suggested a few days after 9/11 that we offer to send every young person in the Arab world to Harvard rather than seek revenge for what happened. That sounds crazy I know, but it’s hard for me to see what we as a nation achieved with our twenty-year wars that thank God might be ending. One recent study (Watson Institute, Brown University) revealed that these wars have cost $6.4 trillion dollars—a number beyond comprehension, but in simple terms around $20,000 for each person in this nation. And that is not counting the 800,000 human beings lost in the process, including so many of our beloved young people whose service and sacrifice is beyond measuring. I am not a foreign policy expert, and I am not a politician, but I do follow the Jesus who talked about the futility of revenge.
Observation five, bad religion leads to bad politics and crazies are crazies no matter which religion they practice. When human beings confuse their ideas about God and what they believe God might want them to do, with God or when human beings justify what they want to do anyway by appealing to their understanding of religion, you can almost guarantee that the religion being practiced has very little to do with the transcendent reality that is glimpsed from time to time on the far side of our human experience.
God is not what is in the book whether that book is the Bible or the Quran or Vedic scripture. God is love and where love abides God resides, God is forgiveness, and when we forgive and find a way to give, God is hovering near. God is present when humans embrace one another across borders and find ways to break down walls that separate or differentiate based on race, ethnicity, or orientation.
If pride or patriotism drives love out the door and creates enemies to enhance identity or to preserve privilege, then the amazing ability of the human ego to justify its behavior takes over and people are bound to get hurt and God will once again be found weeping on a pile of smoking rubble left behind by the next act of human idiocy or idolatry.
Observation six, when you find yourself caught up in something overwhelming, do something human and whatever you do it will multiply. Two stories. Shortly after we got started talking to people on the street, a member of the congregation in her late eighties showed up to help. She just showed up. The water table was her idea. We did that every year in June for the Fifth Avenue Pride Parade, because that’s what Jesus said to do with thirsty people. And so following her lead we began offering ice water on that hot day and pretty soon, people trudging up Fifth Avenue covered with ash from the falling buildings and many people who needed to be with others joined in to help. Total strangers were helping her hand out water. It wasn’t heroic, it was tiny compared to what others were doing at Ground Zero, but it was the love of Jesus. That’s one story and here’s another.
Most of us on the staff of the church and many of our members were customers at a tiny drug store on 29th Street just off Madison. The pharmacist was a devout Moslem. At our first staff meeting after the disaster, one of the administrative assistants brought up our pharmacist and ask for prayers of understanding in our community. She then decided that it would be her mission to stop by his store everyday to assure him of her friendship. Many of us joined her. It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t heroic—it was just the love of Jesus.
In the next few days, leading up to the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I hope you will take some time to remember the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and the people who have died since because of the hate that burned on that day. May our mourning and our remembering bring meaning to our living and to our loving. That’s the way of Jesus. Amen.