September 11, 2011

 

ON NINE ELEVEN

 Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 11 September 2011

 

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:   II Chronicles26: 3-10

Reading from the Psalter:                                          Psalm 61

Reading from the New Testament: Revelation 21: 1-4, 22-27

Reading from the Gospel:                Matthew 7: 12-14, 24-27

 

Obviously 9/11 does not always fall on a Sunday.  This year it does, but that will not happen again until the year 2016, and after that it will not occur again until 2022.  How the events of 9/11 2001 will be recalled on those future Sundays we cannot now know, although as 9/11 takes on, ever more inevitably, the character of history for growing numbers of the population, we must suppose it may well be regarded in the same way as the assassination of President Kennedy nearly fifty years ago or as Pearl Harbor, seventy years ago this coming December.  If in becoming history the events of 9/11 become a part of the deep national psyche rather than a festering wound, which we still, like a kitten, like to lick at, then that will be something of real significance.  For like those earlier tragedies, there are lessons to be absorbed into our inmost beings from 9/11.

We like to say that we can recall exactly what it was we were doing on these tragic occasions, but as the years pass, fewer and fewer of us can do that.  Probably fewer than 10 per cent of the population of this country could tell you what they were doing on the morning of December 7, 1941.  Perhaps fewer than 50 per cent could tell us what they were doing on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. And since 10 per cent, at least, of the current population were not born before September 11, 2001, and about 10 per cent of those alive that day have since died, the percentage who can recall what they were doing that day is inevitably decreasing.  Whether we like to admit it or not, 9/11 is becoming history rather than a current event.  But before it becomes just another date in the history books we should pause on this Sunday and remember while it is still somewhat fresh in our minds, and seek to draw out our own lessons from the events of that day, rather than being told what the historians have to say about those events.

Not everyone is going to see and understand the events of that day in the same way.  And obviously for those who died on that day those events have a very different perspective from that of those who survived and those who are alive to remember.  The vast majority of us were just onlookers, and while we may have gazed aghast at what we saw developing on our television screens that morning, we were just an audience to the events, dramatic as they were, and our response was not dissimilar from that of spectators at a theatrical drama.  We were certainly caught up in the moment, and the drama probably affected our attitude to life as great drama should.  But we were not the characters in the drama.  Yet it was not just a drama; it was a reality show, completely unscripted and virtually unedited.  But neither were those physically involved strictly participating in a drama or a reality show.  This was life, this was death, this was life and death in the raw.  And those actually involved in the events of 9/11 had only their gut instincts and their moral and religious beliefs to guide them.

For those who had simply gone to work that day at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the bulk of the passengers on those four aircraft, this day was a day of great tragedy.  They had no inkling of what was to happen until it happened, and by then it was too late.  Their lives were simply snuffed out. Death came to them uninvited and unexpected and very few could do much except to use their cell phone to call a loved one, if they had the moment of time to do so.  From their deaths, we can but learn the lesson that Death comes inevitably, but not always when we expect it or have prepared ourselves for it. There was a time, especially during the Second World War, when we used to pray regularly in the course of Sunday worship in the Church of England that the Good Lord would deliver us from sudden death. Like so many things that have happened in recent decades, that prayer has been dropped from regular use. The events of 9/11 surely suggest that it should still be a part of our prayers.  We do not know ahead of time when we are taking our very last breath, and certainly hundreds of those working in the towers of the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon that morning did not know.

But it was not just Anglicans and Episcopalians who worked in those buildings.  There were people from all manner of Christian traditions, and not only Christians but Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Buddhists and Zarathustrians, and people of no religious faith as well.  And as they came from all manner of religious and non-religious belief, so they came from scores of nations around the world, especially in the World Trade Center.  We hear so much of these events as an American tragedy, and in some sense it is, as we shall see in a moment, but it was more than that.  Yet we are told that ten per cent of those who died in the World Trade Center were not citizens of this country.  It was an international tragedy that just happened to take place in New York City and Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Thus far we have thought of those who did not know that they were facing Death until Death struck and took them.  But there were others who knew they may not or could not survive, and went to face Death with their eyes wide open.  We all of us, who were watching the events on television, will  always recall those pictures of New York City fire personnel marching into the doomed buildings knowing full well that they would not come out alive.  What we should always keep in mind is that commitment to something other than their own interests.  This was something that they were in fact prepared to do every day, rain or shine.  How I wish we could see that same commitment, that same self-sacrifice in all men and women.  They showed it, as emergency workers have always shown it, every day of their lives, every hour of every day of their lives, every minute of every hour of every day of their lives.  Perhaps, since so many of those involved were Roman Catholics, it is part of their religious training and discipline, which is carried over from Sunday into their working week.  How I wish we could see the same level of commitment in all those who call themselves church people.  But how often do so many of us succumb to the temptation to stay at home  – because it might rain, or because I am too sleepy?  While we thank God for the devotion and loyalty and self-sacrifice of those who died in the service of  others, perhaps we should vow to emulate them by committing ourselves to the cause of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And while it might seem inappropriate to say so, there were nineteen others that day who also showed the same sort of devotion to a cause.  It is not a cause with which many or any of us would identify, but the nineteen hijackers surely showed the same measure of commitment to something bigger than themselves. And this was no spontaneous act of commitment.  They had known for days that they would die on 9/11, and they could have backed out at any time.  There had been twenty hijackers and one did opt out at the last moment.  But the others methodically followed their orders.  They waited in airport departure lounges, they took flights to Boston and Newark and they waited again in departure lounges.  Whether we approve or disapprove of their cause, they too can surely teach us about the importance of total commitment, without complaint but with total obedience, no matter what the cost.

And then there is another group of individuals who showed extraordinary self-sacrifice.  These were the passengers and cabin crew members of United flight 93, among whom was a resident of St Lucie County, Cee Cee Lyle.  These are people who are often overlooked when we think about 9/11, but these are people whose deeds on that day are the most exemplary.  Four planes were hijacked that morning, and three of them were flown into buildings in Manhattan or Arlington.  Everybody on board those aircraft died, but so did people working in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and emergency rescue personnel in New York and Maryland as well.  But that was not the case with United flight 93.  The passengers and the cabin crew on that flight knew they were doomed, but they chose to do something to prevent others from dying.  They could not prevent the hijacking, but they did everything necessary to prevent the hijackers from attaining their objective.

There has been much speculation as to what was to have been the fourth target, but it would seem that the pattern was that it should also have been the Pentagon.  As I argued in an article in the Parish newsletter in late 2001, the objective of Al Qaida that morning was to strike at the symbols of United States power, rather than at United States citizens.  And the symbols of United States power, par excellence, were the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  In almost vulgar terms those buildings were perceived as taunting the rest of the world.  Economic power was perceived as vested in the towers of Wall Street, and military power was, and still is, perceived as being vested in the sprawling pentagonal walls of the United States Defense Department.  That might not be the way that these buildings were perceived within the United States, but surely we can understand how others might understand what is meant when news reporters write and speak of “Wall Street” and “the Pentagon”.  It is almost as though these edifices and institutions have taken on a life of their own, a life that reaches out tentacles gobbling up the wealth and the liberty of other nations.  It was the existence of these institutions as virtually living powers that provoked the hostility and even the hatred of those who saw the wealth and the power of the lands that they loved and held precious being consumed by those who to them were foreigners.

We in the West all too easily forget what may be read in our Bibles, perhaps because we do not read them enough, and because we do not read them through the eyes of those who wrote the Scriptures.  Were we to do so, we would not make as many serious mistakes in our dealings with other peoples as we so frequently do.  For example, as we heard in our reading from II Chronicles this morning, there would seem to be a propensity among rich and powerful nations to build cities with towers and fortresses.  That was what happened in ancient Judah in the time of King Uzziah.  For half a century, the Jewish Kingdom had been the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean region.  Uzziah had been able to extend the boundaries of his realm to cover much of what we today would call Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine and even Saudi Arabia.  He was able to send fleets of ships down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, to the coasts of East Africa and of the Indian subcontinent, and across the blue waters of the Mediterranean to the shores of North Africa and southern Europe.  He imported vast amounts of commodities from these areas, using the wealth to build cities and garrisons across his extended realm. And this display of economic and military power gave rise to hostility and hatred among those peoples who were dominated by the power of Uzziah’s realm.  But as we learn from the words of the prophet Isaiah, in the year that King Uzziah died there was a great change, and when his son died a few years later, that change revealed itself most obviously in attacks on the towers of those garrisons and eventually of Jerusalem itself.

Now Uzziah had reigned in the eighth century before Christ, that is twenty seven hundred years and more before 9/11, but history over those three millennia has shown that nations that create empires and extract wealth from other peoples and dominate them with military power always and without fail are destroyed.  The Bible tells us of the fall of many of those great powers, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, and the realm of Uzziah and his son.  Our history books tell us of the fall of the empires of Alexander the

Great and of the Caesar’s.  And in the last century, from 1900 on, we have seen the collapse of empire after empire.  Where today are the empires of China and Japan, of Germany and Austria-Hungary, of the Russian czars and the Ottoman sultans and the British emperors of India, of Spain and Portugal, of France and Italy, of Belgium and Holland?  What is the extent of the British Empire today?  Gibraltar, Bermuda, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, the BVIs, the Falklands, St Helena and Diego Garcia!  Altogether that is probably less territory than that of the state of Florida, and its total population less than that of greater Miami!  How shallow today sound the words of Land of Hope and Glory!  “Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set.”  The sun, which once never set on the British Empire, these days hardly rises on its territory!  And the descendants of those residents of the first colonies to claim their freedom from that once vast empire in the 1770s, men and women who rose up against the political towers of Westminster’s Parliament and the commercial powers of the square mile of the City of London, how those descendants have forgotten that recent history!

Uzziah and his contemporaries should have been familiar with the truth expounded by the Psalmist who had written, “Except the LORD build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.  Except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”  Uzziah and his son might have ignored the words of his ancestor, but a descendant of Uzziah, some seven and a half centuries later certainly did not, as we heard in our Gospel reading this morning.  Repeatedly the Psalmist had described the Lord God as his rock, and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urged his followers to build their lives upon a rock, for only then would they truly live, truly survive.  Our lives, whether as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, and even as a global entity are meant to be based solidly on the Lord and what he has revealed of himself in the teachings of the Hebrew prophets to old Israel and in Jesus, the one and only true prophet to the New Israel.  We need to take time to listen very seriously to the teachings we find in, for example, Micah, who lived one hundred years after Uzziah’s great empire fell.  He taught that the Lord God requires of us that we act with justice, that we love mercy and that we practise humility.  Dare I suggest that we do not always see such an attitude on the part of every citizen and resident of this country, even among those who would call themselves Christian?  And when Jesus taught about relationships, it was not of revenge but of forgiveness, not of the use of power in ones own defence and to ones own advantage, but in the service of others.  Indeed Jesus went so far that it was said of him that he had rescued others but had not sought to save himself.

Jesus died upon the cross and as he did so, as the evangelists tell it, the great curtain in the Temple, that separated the presence of God from the unholiness of man, was rent asunder from top to bottom.  There was no need for the Lord God to be hidden, no need for a thick curtain covering a sanctuary which only the High Priest could enter once a year, after purifying himself.  There was no need for a special building in which it was said that God chose to reside among men.  Instead, as we heard in our second reading, an entirely new city was created, one in which God dwelt, one in which there was no need for any light other than the glory of God, one which was not brought into existence by men at all but by God.  This is a city in which all that is evil is unable to abide, a city in which there is no sorrowing, there are no tears to be wiped away.  The source of power and the source of inspiration is open to all.  Such was the life and such was the city that the self-sacrificial death of Jesus brought about.

What a contrast that is to the man who was the inspiration behind 9/11.  Instead of openness, we now live in a world of suspicion.  Instead of freedom, we are constrained at every turn.  Instead of joy, so many face grief and sorrow as loved ones, and I do not mean just those of the Western world, but deep in the lands of the Middle East and elsewhere, as loved ones are lost to Death, to horrendous injury, to the tragedy of having to live life with peril and danger at every turn and from every passer-by.  Jesus chose after his resurrection to appear openly in the company of his followers and to his oppressors.  Osama bin Laden, by contrast, went away and hid, almost as though he was behind an impregnable curtain, separating himself from others, only deigning to appear on taped television programmes to make solemn and threatening announcements of condemnation and hostility.  And when he was eventually discovered, unlike Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who faced up to his accusers and told them to take him and spare his followers, Osama was hiding in the inner chamber of a house, surrounded by high walls.  And when faced with his accusers he chose to hide behind the skirts of women.

But let us not gloat over the death of Osama bin Laden, because he claimed that death was what he sought.  Rather let us be prepared to show a degree of remorse, for on the third day after 9/11(and how ironic it was on the Third Day) it was declared that bin Laden would be brought to justice, and for a moment many of us, perhaps foolishly, believed that leaders of the world who claimed to be Christian would indeed heed the words of Micah, and would take notice of what Paul wrote on one occasion, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures.  “Vengeance is mine.  I will repay,” says the Lord.  Yet that is not what happened and, instead, we have behaved in precisely the same way as those we are told to regard as enemies.  So far, in the past decade, we have seen the virtual collapse of the United States economy, the exposure of the weakness of its military power, and so many of the marks of the decay of a fading world power.  The unity of purpose, that prevailed a decade ago, as we considered what had happened and praised the heroism of so many, has become dissipated.  It is almost as though what bin Laden sought to achieve has been achieved.

And yet … and yet.  Just over seventy years ago, another man who believed that he had a worthy cause sought to destroy those whom he regarded as the oppressors of his people.  On the night of December 29, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the destruction of the City of London, the supposed seat of the economic power of the British Empire.  That night wave after wave of aircraft rained down incendiary bombs on central London and much of the city, the symbol of British economic power, was destroyed in the flames, and buildings collapsed in their hundreds.  A few days later my Mum took my sister and me to visit the site, as so many mothers in New York and New Jersey took their children to Ground Zero, and she took the time to explain what had happened and why.  After World War I, the victorious allies had beggared the defeated, forcing Germany into total insolvency in making reparations for what had happened.  As my Mum spoke, we stood in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, which, in a way that Londoners still regard as miraculous, had survived the air blitz.  There is a classic photograph of the dome of St Paul’s with its golden cross rising above the flames from the incinerated buildings surrounding it on that night. She reminded us that after World War I, Britain and France had been in the vanguard of those seeking revenge, and by the end of 1940 France had been captured by the Nazi armies, the British army in Europe, including our own uncle, had barely escaped from Dunkirk, and now London and other British cities were going up in flames.  My Mum was a good church woman, and she knew her Bible, and as we stood there in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral she reminded us of the words that the apostle had written. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, says the Lord.

Perhaps it is a co-incidence, but it is surely a happy co-incidence, that the place of worship in which those involved in the tragedy of 9/11took shelter was also dedicated to St Paul.  I am humbled that, like its namesake Cathedral in London, the church there in Lower Manhattan is also a place of Anglican heritage and worship.  May be I am sentimentally foolish, but I believe that one of the things that the Anglican Church and the Anglican Communion has always done well is to offer open arms to those in need, whoever they are.  We are here to witness that we are called to live the sort of life proclaimed in the message of Micah, revealed in the life of Jesus – to extend love, to show mercy and to behave with humility towards others.  It is not the towers that we build and the garrisons that we create that will bring in the New Jerusalem.  It is living lives that put others first that brings real hope, lives of sacrifice as we see in the life of Christ.  We saw that in the actions of the men and women of the New York Police Department and of the Fire Department of New York.  We saw that in the actions of the passengers and cabin crew of United flight 93.  And it is the sort of life that we need to live.