I had never been able to talk about the events of September 11, 2001 in a sermon, and whenever I heard anyone else do so, I would inwardly cringe. My mind would wander, my ears shut down. I might even try on a little righteous indignation: how dare the preacher use such a significant, searing event as a sentimental sermon illustration, almost guaranteed to elicit an emotional response.
Until one day, right around the time of controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” I overheard a conversation between several folks while at my local YMCA in North Carolina. I listened to them, presuming to know what New Yorkers were like, and how New Yorkers thought about the events of September 11. I realized that I did know what it was like, I could share that with them, and I would preach about it.
I wrote my story. I wrote my sermon. I established what I imagined was my authority to preach this sermon, by being a citizen of New York City on that day, by being one of the 8 million people living in the aftermath of this tragedy. It wasn’t a tragic story. I was fortunate to be in midtown; I lost no family or loved ones in the tragedy, but still, I had a story. I had something to say!
But I did not preach it.
When the time came, the story was still too raw to be shared. I preached the sermon, without the story, without the details that gave weight to my authority to preach such a sermon. But that was okay. Everyone has a story about that day. Everyone has the authority to speak about what happened in their life that day and to try and make sense of the ways the world changed, no matter what in part of the country you lived.
On Sunday, September 11, 2011, ten years later, I’m still not sure what I am going to say in my sermon that day. I know I will preach the good news of Jesus. I know I will say something about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I believe it will be easier to say, however, because it will not just be “my” story, but “our” story. The community where I currently serve consecrated their new worship building in September of 2001, and that will be part of our story that day as well.
For those who are curious, here is “my” story:
I lived in New York City for eleven years. I was living there on September 11, 2001. I have not ever referenced 9/11 in a sermon before, and I must admit, when I hear people talk about it in sermons or speeches, I tend to tune out. Rather than hearing the speaker’s point, my mind is back in New York, arriving at work around 8:20am, remembering an incredible blue sky as I walked from my apartment in Queens, past the houses with the small front yards, one in particular covered in Morning Glory vines, the blossoms open, a deep blue, that complimented the sky. And I enjoyed the sky as I walked from my building the two and a half blocks to the subway station, to get on the train that would take me under the East River to arrive on 59th Street and Lexington, on the East side, in mid-town Manhattan.
And then I remember walking into my office on the second floor of the church where I worked, passing our IT guy, who was stationed at his desk, outside my office, and him saying, “Go look at CNN. Some idiot has flown a small plane into the World Trade Center.”
It really is one the strangest days of my life, because the next vivid memory I have is being up in one of the meeting rooms of the church on the 3rd floor, a very tasteful room, with wood paneling, and a large flat screen television that someone had donated to us, watching CNN with the rest of the staff, now knowing it was not a small plane that had accidentally flown into the building, but a passenger jet filled with people, deliberately flown to create an enormous bomb. And I remember one of my co-workers, the Rector’s administrative assistant, reaching out her hand, as the second tower fell, as if she could somehow stop it there on the screen, and hold it up and save it from collapsing.
The church quickly became a refugee camp of sorts after that. We were right on Park Avenue, and everyone headed uptown from the Financial District, up to the Bronx, or up to find a way back to the suburbs of Connecticut, New Jersey, or Long Island, came streaming uptown. Many were sprinkled by the ash that now blanketed all of lower Manhattan. All of them tired, afraid, in shock, and in despair that such a thing could happen in our city. We gave out glasses of lemonade and water. People were sitting on the steps outside, sitting in the pews inside: waiting, resting, praying. The priests took turns leading psalms, and those who wished could join in: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
It was a very humbling moment to realize that in the midst of all that pain, and all that chaos, the most powerful thing that we could was pray. I stayed calm the rest of the day, helping in the church, helping to organize the church members who came to help. The subway trains going to Queens were running again when I left the church that evening. My husband Michael met me at home, and it wasn’t until I was sitting, watching the news, watching the response of people all over the world - creating shrines, holding prayer vigils, leaving candles - for the people of New York City, that I broke down. People all over the world, holding the cities of New York and Washington DC in prayer, in their own particular way - I cried and I cried and I cried, again humbled beyond words at the power of people coming together in love and concern and compassion.
I pray that in our world now, ten years after that day, we remember that in the midst of devastation and despair, we found hope. I pray that we remember always the vulnerability of our humanity, no matter what race, creed, tribe, tradition, or belief we may hold. I pray that we work to find ways to respect that vulnerability rather than to demonize and blame anyone who is “other” than where we find ourselves.
Mostly I pray that our story will follow God’s story, and that we can share God’s story of love in all that we are and all that we do, no matter where we find ourselves.
And that is my story.