My fellow resident assistants and I had stayed up late the night before preparing for the arrival of 90 college freshmen who would be coming in a couple days, so the knock at the door around 6:30 in the morning was unwelcome. The professor who lived in our dorm, Mary, said “Colin, I think you’re going to want to see this. Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. Julie may be down there.”
My girlfriend Julie had graduated the year before and worked in downtown Manhattan, so I groggily checked my email — and sure enough, about an hour before she had sent me a note: “I just saw a plane crash in the building next to us. I’ll call if I can but the phones aren’t working. Going home now.” I tried calling her cell but the circuits were busy.
In shock I took a shower, deliberately taking my time as my mind tried to make sense of what had happened and what its effect would be on Julie and on the people of New York. When I finally made it down to Mary’s apartment and saw the image of the burning buildings, and not long after, their collapses in real time — as I listened to an hysterical Julie sharing her first-hand experiences with the horror of the day when her call finally came through — it soon became clear that this day would make its mark on all of us, on some its ultimate mark. Nearly 3,000 people died in Manhattan, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, including some 400 first responders, on September 11.
It’s been fifteen years since these nonsensical acts of violence. I can’t make sense of them any more today than I could then. But God gave us minds so that we might try.
I think today’s Scripture readings track the complexity of the journey that each of us, and the nation as a whole, has been on. Our reading from Jeremiah is one of divine judgment: the prophet sees a “fruitful land” made into a “desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” According to Jeremiah, this angry and powerful God had sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem as punishment for their misdeeds. Sure, God had relented before destroying them all, but I think this prophecy’s message to Jews and to us so long after can still be eye-openingly simple: divine justice is scary. Better to follow the good path, because you, your family, and your nation might not otherwise be safe.
But surely in the 21st century our empirically-trained, post-Enlightenment selves don’t buy that line of thinking, right? Indeed, besides a particularly contemptuous remark by Jerry Falwell in the days after 9/11, few would say then or now that God had anything to do with these attacks. But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think more of us might say that divine justice was involved in Osama bin Laden’s death. And more of us still say with some frequency, perhaps even without really thinking about it, “Everything happens for a reason” — this idea that there is an underlying thread of intelligibility, of sense-making, to what happens to ourselves and others in this life.
But 9/11 didn’t happen for any particular reason, or at least any reason we humans could ever comprehend. It’s like trying to understand a recent cancer diagnosis in a dear friend who has young kids and who is my age. We can all think of plenty of tragedies that aren’t going to make sense to us from our mortal vantage points.
Why insist, then, that this world ought to make sense? Because if it doesn’t, this life can feel quite terrifying quite quickly. But maybe it’s time that we have the courage to stare reality in the face and accept the danger inherent in our daily lives, a danger that no wall or TSA agent or antioxidant smoothie can ultimately save us from. The reality that we are smaller and more vulnerable creatures in a wilderness that is larger and more threatening than we would care to imagine. Accepting our existential vulnerability and need for help can free us from the illusion of control and self-constructed safety over this unpredictable world around us.
Now all this is tender territory for all of us and shrouded in mystery to be sure. But I invite us to consider seriously today’s Gospel of diligent searching of the lost until they are found. The stories point to a God out there who loves each of us so much that God will seek us out, however scared and lost or forsaken we may feel, and bring us home in joy. And just in case you think you might be the exception — that God won’t bother to seek YOU out, too — pay attention to what happens in the story. The shepherd leaves all 99 sheep to seek the one that is lost — which, frankly, doesn’t seem like a great idea . . . I’d probably be happy with a 99% success rate personally — but 99% isn’t good enough for God. Each of us is included in this Good News.
Now what this doesn’t mean, as we already know, is that God will protect us and those we love from terrorism and cancer and car accidents. There are natural laws that govern this life, and there is the gift of free will — which, frankly, doesn’t always seem like the best idea either — for it is a gift that leads to great, great suffering in this world and reveals the evil that is among and within us. It just so happens, however, that our free will also leads to great and glorious examples of loving sacrifice that reflect what is divine in our nature. Apparently, God thought that the profound love made possible by our free will was worth the disaster it would sometimes wreak.
But the beauty of loving sacrifice doesn’t make it any easier to be the daughter of Robert Parro, an Engine 8 New York firefighter who was my age when he died rushing up the North Tower’s stairs trying mightily to save lives as the building collapsed. It didn’t make Mary’s grief any easier as Jesus hung on the cross. If we can’t depend on divine protection from the natural laws and human sin of this world, what can we rely upon? God’s promise to us is that we will never be forsaken, we will never be lost to God, we will never cease to be sought, in this life and in the life to come. Every sheep counts and is precious in God’s sight.
You might think that you don’t like God’s approach as I’m describing it and might wish that God threw more laser-guided lightning bolts that picked off the bad guys with precision while shielding us from harm. In other words, you might wish God would take a more powerful and straightforward approach to meting out justice in this life and spend a bit more time protecting the rest of us.
But I’m not convinced that God is choosing the weaker path. It’s just that God works through the human family and its limited faculties to help us make the sense we can in the aftermath of tragedy. Take the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. When I visited in April it was clear that this site had been constructed with the same sense of sacredness and painstaking care as the National Holocaust Museum or Arlington National Cemetery. What was most striking to me was the way in which the memorial ushered us down literally to the foundations of the stricken buildings, exhibiting to us the very place where the first bolts had been pounded into solid Manhattan bedrock. I believe that meticulous and loving exercise of sifting through the wreckage to the very profundities of the destruction — knowing all the while that so many thousands had died everywhere they stepped — left this memorial’s makers with a perspective more nuanced and constructive than our nation’s first responses to the terror.
|The new Tower in New York (photo ©SForsburg)|
And while America’s longest-running war, by a long shot, marches on in Afghanistan, back in New York there lie two gaping and hauntingly beautiful holes where the Twin Towers once stood, a memorial that has fully plumbed the depths of the tragedy and honored its victims — and there is a rebuilt tower that soars 1,776 feet into the sky, declaring for this century that we strive to be a nation independent from the colonizing and controlling power of fear. The renewed possibility that this tower represents sits next to the pain of 9/11 without trying to replace, deny, or forget it. That is beautiful, even if it still falls short of making sense of this tragedy.
God’s gift of our minds, and particularly our imaginations, make all this inadequate and beautiful sense making possible. Consider Hamilton, the wildly popular Broadway musical. It follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, a less-remembered founding father who emigrated to New York as a teenage orphan. The play is an ode to New York and to America, and it grapples with the question of how each of us will be remembered, especially in the wake of tragedy. In the moments before his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton ponders the terror of leaving this life too soon, even as he begins to trust the larger human family to carry on his work:
Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints — Hamilton, “The World Was Wide Enough”
We humans of every faith and creed can trust each other to carry the tune and to pick up the parts of the great unfinished symphony to which we belong only for a time. Each of us will be remembered and thus honored, and maybe that’s enough — perhaps it is the only sense we can make of the nonsensical. So today we remember the victims of 9/11. Every day God remembers them and holds them in God’s arms.
We Christians belong to a story that has been told for millennia and will be told yet again. It is the story of a victim of unspeakable tragedy who discovered, for all of us, that senseless violence is not the final word. Rather, Jesus experienced God’s love, God’s ultimate power, as mightier than death. That’s the love that’s seeking you out, and me — that’s the Shepherd who, if we let him, will pick us up in his arms and carry us home.
The Rev Colin Mathewson
11 Sept 2016