Breathing Space: a 9/11 sermon
Preached on 9/8/2002
Twenty years from now you may still be asked “where were you on September 11th?” Like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger Explosion, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall, moments of surprise, shock and terror that sear our collective experiences in our minds forever.
Consider where you were the day before? The weekend before? I was here, having driven back the long six hours from Rocester. My father was dying. The day before he had told me, for the last time, “Good-bye.” An atheist, he nonetheless said to me, “and perhaps I’ll see you afterwards,” and with his typical, mischievous, broad smile. He was offering me something, anything, a memory of him to hold while he was still lucid.
The next day I got the apartment ready for visitors.
I remember preparing for mass and trying to write my sermon, halfheartedly.
And it was a beautiful week-end.
What happened the day before? Someone died after a long fight with cancer; Wasn’t there an earthquake that killed thousands? Wasn’t someone’s son murdered that day? Or you, maybe you found out you needed chemotherapy, or you knew someone who died in a car crash; or did you yourself drive drunk the night before, daring God to keep you alive? Where were you the day before? The week before? What terrible things did we do?
How may women were raped in the Congo that week? How many children got sick from unsanitary water supplies? Who fled slavery?
Where were you the day before?
I can tell you I thought not of Chechnya being bombed by Russians; or Chinese Christians being killed by Muslim Indonesians; the starvation of thousands in the Sudan, or the sickness of children in Iraq. I thought not of you, or my ill congregants at White Plains Hospital. I was thinking of one thing. I was thinking of my father.
I was thinking of my father and living life without him, what it would be like to live alone, an orphan, without him meeting a future wife or holding his grandchildren, to only hold him as a fading memory.
It’s hard for me to imagine thousands of people dying. Three thousand? It’s so many. Do you know three thousand people? One thousand? The numbers magnify. What of those killed by institutional negligence; or even deliberately. The ones murdered by Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin. Ten thousand? Five million? Twenty Million? As the typhoons swept Bangladesh one year killing hundreds of thousands, the writer Annie Dillard wrote how she can’t conceive of it. Her young daughter says, “it’s easy. Just think of dots. Lots and lots of dots.”
Dots, swept into the Bay of Bengal, swept away into the deep.
It’s easier to think of dots than human beings. And when conducting a war, it becomes crucial to reduce human beings to dots. Can you imagine 100,000 Iraquis killed? Or a few thousand Americans? Each American hurts more. For each American has a body, war breathing body with the potential for love, a family that cares for them, joys and failures, plans and frustrations. The Iraquis, the enemy, any enemy, remain dots.
Numbers cannot convey all that pain and sorrow, of 100,000 families. Imagine losing one son, twenty years old, his life before him; an entire extended family. Imagine it’s your son. Your daughter. Your father, your mother. Now magnify it by 100,000 times. Can you? Can you imagine it?
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, God is there.” Why? Why does he say this? “Breathing Space,” the Archbishop of Wales (now Archbishop of Canterbury) writes. For when we affirm and love someone we allow for breathing space, a place to exhale, to fill our bodies with oxygen, to fill our bodies with a love that stands up in spite of our overwhelming sorrow. When we encounter someone there is the opportunity to be liberated from fear strangling us, for face to face we do not have just the enemy and outsider, another atomized and irrelevant dot, but a living person, a breathing person.
A retired solder once told me about urban combat he’d conducted when we invaded Grenada. He was a Ranger, and now battling street by street, house by house, with Cubans. “I had only three weeks before I’d be discharged. Then this.” He turns a corner and meets a man. Their eyes lock. He sees a soldier, an opponent, an enemy, a living body; they are both filled with fear, their faces fixed in terror, and they both know the next step. The American is faster. “He was a man,” the solider says, “and I’m going to live with this for the rest of my life.” It’s easy to send a dot into oblivion, but much harder to send a man to hell.
It’s asked a million times, every day, “why this tragedy,” or “that tragedy.” Where was God? Perhaps the question got more intense on September 11th. For normally we are shielded by a provincial media and fortunate to have avoided war on our continent for nearly 140 years. But it’s the same questions when terror strikes: “where was God?” or “What could we have done?” or “Who’s in charge, anyway?”
The archbishop responds, “all I have is words.”
Jesus affirms this: when we face each other, see each other as bodies, as made in God’s image, as concrete and living beings, as individuals with particular habits, sorrows and joys, He enters our consciousness. Not through statistics, the numbers that make us like grains of sand, bubbles upon the foamy sea, as collateral damage, but as one person to one person, through the steady of love of those we call by name. For as the twin towers were about to fall, the dying would call to tell their love in those futile moments, expressing a pointless love in the face of a senseless crime. They created “breathing space.”
Jesus makes sense only by this: pulling people together, taking one image of love and placing it before the dying, affirming faithfulness through a gratuitous, powerless pointless love, triumphantly making room for someone else, even though the walls are falling all around and nothing will be salvaged.
And so we, also, are left here to create breathing space, to affirm love, pointless and faithful in the midst of tragedy, where nothing can be salvaged, the towers of our satisfactions and hope falling around us. Here is where God enters. It’s enough. It’s not enough. It’s what we have.
On the Twin Towers
Sent via my enewsletter the week of the anniversary of 9/11/01.
It’s the eighth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers. That morning, I called people who I knew worked in the area, and after doing what I could, began to drive up to Rochester to be with my father, who died the next day.
Several new people came to church that Sunday. One family is now an active member of the the church. I wasn’t there, but in my absence, the Rev. Allen Shin preached that Sunday. As the spirit would have it, he had been downtown at Trinity Church, shepherding young children with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was there to give a talk.
It was a rough time. Some were heartbroken, angry, defensive, righteous, eager for a fight, determined to administer justice. All these sensibilities are real and appropriate. One parishioner said, “we should bomb them,” although she was unclear about who “they” were. Others simply wrestled with trying to figure out, why would this happen to us?
What the archbishop argued for was “breathing space.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. The archbishop noted that as the mob was about to stone the adulteress, he just sat in the ground, writing. Perhaps all Jesus was doing, was giving the demons time to walk away. Saying “I love you” offers space. Sometimes all we need is some time, spacious time, to gather ourselves, and think clearly.
Peter Stienfels once wrote about the Archbishop’s reflections upon a conversation with a rabbi after the war in Lebanon: “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”
The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”
“Terrorism, is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” What will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”
It is a tough message. In a politically polarized environment, our first task is to recognize in each other the image of God, that admits that we all have fears, frustrations and questions. Perhaps we have to stop participating in the madness that elevates the spectacle and drama of emotional conflict. Instead, we are called to stand on that stony and thorny ground.
We must not rely on the easy platitudes that reveal our defensiveness or demand war. It is to simply recognize the truth that we can each find ourselves pulled in the direction of violence.
Jesus merely says stop. And without looking at us, He waits, and draws in the sand. The demons then depart. And so we hope.