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Psalm 46

Isaiah 31.-13

Romans 8.31b-39

Twenty Years Later

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Steve was a volunteer firefighter in the department I served as chaplain.  On September 11, 2001 he was among a group of first responders who answered the call and went into the breach in southern Manhattan for mutual aid, search, rescue and recovery.  He spent about a week side by side with not just New York City teams, but also with folks who, like himself, left his home and family to come to the aid of others.  It was a thread that was woven into his life, because he eventually became a police officer in the Newtown, Connecticut PD, and was one of the first to arrive at the Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shootings there in 2012.  By then I had moved to another community, but I happened to be back in town the week after Sandy Hook and ran into Steve.  He looked horrible.  The stress of having to witness, first the carnage in New York, then in Sandy Hook, had aged him visibly.  He had lost weight, looked haggard, and had an air of constant exhaustion, and frankly, who could blame him?  He had seen and experienced just about the worst that a first responder could.  Five years ago, at age 48, Steve succumbed to the lung cancer that was brought on by his week at Ground Zero.  His name is inscribed on the 9/11 memorial at Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset, New York.

On this twentieth anniversary weekend of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attempt on the Capitol which only got as far as Shanksville PA, we paused yesterday to remember all those who lost their lives, either in the attacks themselves, or in the attempt to rescue as many people as possible.  The stories of sacrifice and heroism are multiple, and every one is heartrending.  This is why we remember, or in words that are perhaps more appropriate, this is why we never forget.

It wasn’t always so.  On December 7, 1961, the twentieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there considerably less recognition of the date.  A memorial service in Hawaii featured a few minor dignitaries.  President Kennedy remarked how the day was a reminder that “this nation is a leader, a teacher and a doer of unsurpassable deeds,” then went on to give a speech on foreign trade.  And on December 7 1961 the New York Times ran an editorial observing how much had changed since the sneak attack that launched the United States into the maw of World War II:  “As the first shock waves spread over America,” it read, “it would have been hard for us to believe in the future that is now the present.  It would have been hard for us to believe that those who were our enemies are now our friends.  But so it is…  The old hates are dead.  We gain little by new hates.  On this day of memories there is no value in resentments against whole peoples.”

Contrast this notion with the vituperation and animosity directed at Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11 and it is clear you and I live in a very different world.

“Be still - and know that I am God!   I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46 is a powerful statement of the presence of God in the midst of catastrophe, crisis and calamity; you can hear how it seesaws between both natural and anthropogenic upheaval, and the calm and succor wrought by the spirit of God.  On the one hand, the mountains shake into the heart of the sea, the waters roar and foam, and the mountains tremble with tumult.  The nations are in an uproar, kingdoms totter and wars rage to the ends of the earth.  And yet – and yet.  We will not fear.  God speaks, and the earth comes to a standstill.  Wars cease to rage, weapons of mass destruction are broken, shattered and burned, and a river of peace flows through the city of God.  Be still, and know I am God.  When planes scream out of the sky, when buildings shatter and fall, when good men and women perish at the hands of hatred, when endless war consumes nations, God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.

I remember that September morning, which was as clear and crisp and azure as yesterday’s was, and as the news of unprecedented terrorism spread, and we had no idea what to expect, how many planes might still be in the air, who might be targeted next, and who was behind it all, something very telling occurred.  Folks began drifting into the church, one or two here, another one or two there.  They didn’t know where else to turn, so they came to church.  I remember there were about a dozen and a half who found their way into our offices, and right then and there we circled up, held hands, sang and prayed.  We found solace and hope in one another, we found solace and hope in the presence of God.  And the next Sunday?  September 16, 2001?  People literally poured into church.  Folks we hadn’t seen for a long time.  Folks who only came on special occasions.   Folks who never stepped foot in the church before.  Churches and synagogues across the nation were filled that weekend, filled with people who did not know quite where to turn, but who organically understood that if there were any words of comfort, if there was any hope, if there were any answers, if they were to be found anywhere, they could be found in the presence of God.

Isaiah knew this long ago.  He recognized that the temptation is strong to believe we can rely on ourselves, on the thoughts of our imaginations.  Isaiah went further, because he also recognized that humanity puts a lot of stock in its own might and armor.  “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong.”  Alas for those who believe their military might can save them.  Did it save us twenty years ago?  Will it save us today?  Has the past twenty years of war make us any safer today?  I imagine one might argue this both ways, but I have not talked to one returning service man or woman who thinks the conflict made much sense.

It is not unusual in a time of serious crises, in times of war, in times of death and destruction, to ask the question, “Where is God in all this?”  And it’s a good question, asked by the Hebrew people during their time of exile, asked by multiple Old Testament prophets, and very likely asked at the foot of the cross.  But I think there is a better  question, because “Where is God in all of this” implies God is the cause of human calamity.  The more fitting question, because it is so germane, would be “Where is your faith in all this?”  This is the question that brings the answer we need instead of the answer we want.  Is our faith in our chariots and horses and soldiers, in our fighter jets and missiles and battle drones?  Or is our faith in the God who “breaks the bow and shatters the spear and burns the shields with fire?”  Is our faith in our stock portfolio and our investment strategies and our 401ks?  Or is our faith in the Christ who cautions those who follow him, the Jesus who said, “You will be arrested and persecuted, betrayed by parents and relatives and friends… some of you will die and you will be hated because of my name?”  Where is our faith?  Remember, faith is not a convenience, it is a commitment.  And while faith has certainly brought us a sense of comfort and solace  and peace in those days and times we need them most, faith is neither a safety net nor a security blanket.  But we do know that faith is stronger, more dependable and more enduring than any human initiative or institution.  When people ask, “Where is your God?” the Bible contrariwise turns and asks us, “Where is your faith?”

Our faith looks into the pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center and declares, “God can be found here.”  Faith sees firefighters and police officers rushing into the chaos, undeterred by the danger to themselves and insists, “God can be found here.” Faith sees young men and women returning from an endless war in body bags, or missing arms and legs, and declares “God can be found here.”  Faith can look into the division and suspicion that has seeped into most corners of America in the past twenty years and insists “God can be found here.”  It can be difficult to see, which is why we need to look, not through the lens of ideology or partisanship or going for the gotcha, but rather through the eyes of faith.  And let me be even bolder:  if we do not do the hard but essential work it will take to overcome the deep suspicion and mistrust that currently divide our nation, if we cannot or will not look past our disagreements to see how much we need each other, if we will not search for the holy in the human whose convictions and ideals are in open conflict with our own, then we have learned nothing from the past twenty years, and the 9/11 terrorists will have been successful in their bid to divide and destroy.

On Friday September 14, 2001 I was on one of the first flights allowed back into the sky on my way to officiating at an interfaith service of marriage on Nantucket.  As the Jewish bride stood with her Christian groom, we witnessed how two young people of different heritage, different history and different faith could look past their differences and declare their common humanity as seen through the eyes of love.  As seen through the eyes of love.  And we said, “God can be found here.”

And isn’t this the place we saw God twenty years ago, and still do today?  In the strong arms of the rescuers, the ones who charged into the breach because it was the right thing to do, even at the risk of their own lives, in the gentle hands of doctors and nurses, in the inextinguishable hope that fills the human heart, in the solidarity of complete strangers, in our determination not to let hatred cajole us into hatred, in our steadfast refusal to be tempted by the empty satisfaction of revenge, in the insistence of people of faith – whatever faith they hold in their hearts -who stand as one in times of deepest need and yes, even deepest despair, and declare without reservation, “God can be found here.”

As Paul wrote to the Christian church in Rome, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen.

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