I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’
Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.
It’s a date seared into memory.
Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.
The date the unthinkable happened.
A date that would be shared by all
and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,
would be incredibly personal too.
The date they were attacked
when they never thought they could be:
their’s was a nation too strong.
They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’
And yet they were
By an enemy from far away.
An enemy they didn’t know
and would never really understand.
Their enemy razed the city.
that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth
reduced to rubble.
And there was much heroism.
For a time
the nation appeared rudderless.
And the familiar language of faith
stuck in the throat.
Not long after the attack
there were deployments.
Deployments of the nation’s
best and brightest
and, too often,
the tragically young.
The deployments split families.
Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.
Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.
Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.
Or if they would return the same person.
They named the deployments Exile.
a date that seemed to change everything.
A date they’d always remember.
where I was.
Working in the mailroom at Princeton
my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife
who was in the hospital dying of cancer.
The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.
The TV was on mute.
And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings
we were on mute too.
Until the tower fell
and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.
Then we watched
what everyone else everywhere else watched:
the towers falling one after another
as though they were made of sand or ash
the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives
the firemen forsaking their lives
the bodies falling from broken windows
having chosen what they took to be a better fate.
I remember Vince, a Catholic,
his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red
as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:
‘Just where the hell is God right now?’
For the first time Vince had just realized
that ours is a God who isn’t always useful
in a crisis.
I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.
And that was the first time I realized
even religious words
just won’t do.
I remember that afternoon
at the elementary school where I tutored
all of us determined not to tell the children
what had happened.
The adults all had tears in their eyes
but tried to smile them away for the kids
who knew better even if they didn’t know what.
like everywhere else
felt like a funeral home.
I remember the lanes of Route 1
running north in to NYC empty
traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.
I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment
blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’
I remember running into a classmate that evening.
Joseph was Egyptian.
He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA
by passersby too angry and too scared to learn
that he was, in fact, not a Muslim
but a cradle Presbyterian.
I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.
My first sermon ever.
The pews were filled to capacity.
But more notable than how many were there
was who wasn’t there
who would never be there again.
I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold
with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles
and what floor of which tower they worked on.
I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.
It was inadequate.
Words just wouldn’t do that day.
I remember my counseling professor
the Wednesday morning after.
All of us in class still shaken and numb.
Someone asked him how we should respond
He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah
and then told all of us who were married
that we should respond by going home
and making a baby.
I remember how that struck me
and maybe inappropriate.
I didn’t understand what he’d meant
until I held my son for the first time
six years after that Tuesday.
I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with
before he shipped off to basic training
and who knows what else.
I remember the first time I flew after 9/11
from the Newark Airport
looking around me
scared and suspicious
in a way I wasn’t raised to be
and had never been before.
I remember after I was appointed here
going to visit at Walter Reed
maybe for the first time
both the tragedy
and the honor
in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.
I remember the conversations I’ve had with you
5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years
since that day.
Listening to you tell me about your deployments
and learning how your work is far more complicated
than what fits onto a bumper sticker
whether its red or blue.
Listening to you tell me
what its like
to hold your family together
while your spouse is deployed.
What it’s like
when your little kids have trouble remembering
the parent who’s not there
what it’s like
when your teenager starts to resent
the parent who’s not there.
What it’s like
to have a baby
with your husband not there.
What it’s like
to listen to the news
is the only psalm
out of 150
that can be dated reliably.
because its poetry
you have to guess at the context.
So Psalm 51
‘Against you and you only, Lord
have I sinned’
we guess is about David
and his sin with Bathsheba
and his murder of her husband.
Or Psalm 72
‘Give the king Your judgments, O God
And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’
we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.
With most psalms you have to guess.
But not Psalm 137.
Psalm 137 was written just after it happened
just after the enemy
and took the nation’s strongest citizens away
Psalm 137 is very obviously written
by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.
It’s written in response
to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:
Where is your God now?’
Now that your city’s in ruins
Sing a song for us of your God
Sing us a song of Zion
A praise song.
how these victims respond.
Notice what they do.
They don’t plaster over the pain
with piety or platitudes.
They don’t try to justify their faith.
They don’t defend God
with answers or explanations
They don’t take the bait.
They don’t answer.
They don’t sing a song of Zion.
They don’t avenge.
and they remember.
life as it was before
and should be again.
what was done to them
who and what was lost.
And they plead for God
to remember them.
When they were victims
when they couldn’t sing
when they couldn’t praise or pray
when they couldn’t answer why this had happened
when no other words would do
God’s People remembered.
The psalmist even writes
if God’s People don’t remember
music and praise and prayer
won’t just be difficult
it will become impossible:
‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember…’
As painful as remembering is
says the psalmist
will be even more painful.
Because without remembering
you forget the way things were
and you resign yourself
to the way things are now.
Or you resort
to the ways of the world.
For the victims of the exile
for God’s People
memory offers hope.
Remembering is resistance.
To remember is to refuse to be a victim
to remember is to not lose sight of
to not let God off the hook for
the way things should be in this world.
As a pastor
words are my job.
Words are what you pay me for.
Standing in the pulpit on Sundays
when something happens to you
when you come to my office looking for advice
you expect me to have a word.
But on days like this
I don’t much want to be a pastor.
Because on days like this
I’m suspicious of words.
I’m mindful that it’s religious words
murderers say to themselves
to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.
I’m mindful that no words of mine
(or any pastor)
can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.
I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation
to exploit a terrible experience
just to make a pious point.
On days like this I’m suspicious of words
because I know
maybe better than any of you
how often we use religious words
to deceive ourselves
and cover-up our pain.
I could preach you a sermon
about how new life comes out of death
about how light shines in the darkness
about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world
about how ‘suffering produces endurance
and endurance produces character
and character produces
And it’s not that those things are not true.
It’s not that those things are inadequate.
It’s that those words are premature.
Ten years is still too soon for those words.
there were many preachers who were quick
to get to the affirmation and praise.
And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.
But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.
And in the Bible
the People of God never do that.
They never rush prematurely to praise
Nor do they retaliate.
In the Bible the People of God
grieve and protest and complain
with sorrow and rage and anxiety
for years and years and years and years and years.
So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue
and do what people like you in the Bible do.
those who died
the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.
those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since
and the families who’ve born them
the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives
but war and fear and terror.
Take this psalm as your cue
and remember how united we were after that day
and how unafraid we were before that day.
Take this psalm as your cue
and remember what was done to us.
Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.
Take this psalm as your cue
and call on God to remember
that he’s promised us better.
When no other words will do