I preached this sermon this morning. I used the lectionary texts: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10. This sermon addressed the events on this day 15 years ago.
At this hour fifteen years ago I was in Manhattan. However, I was at the seminary about eight or nine miles uptown from the World Trade Center. Even that far away, though, fear was very real and very present. We knew that planes flew into each of the towers. One of the seminarians called her husband to tell him that she was OK, only to tell us that a plane flew into the Pentagon, where he worked.
The seminary cancelled classes. Ironically, one class (the one I was in) was a depth psychology class entitled Aggression, and the other a theology class entitled Heaven and Hell.
Though we had a television in the student lounge, I stopped watching shortly after the second plane crashed. I didn’t carry a laptop or have any other device to track the news. As the morning unfolded, bits of news filtered through the seminary. News came from the student lounge. Probably some listened to radio. Many probably got word of mouth from telephone conversations. It was hard to sort out what was fact and what was rumor. We also didn’t know what to expect or what catastrophe would happen next. Telephone service was spotty as a major switch was an ancillary casualty of the attack. I remember hearing that Grand Central Terminal was locked and several minutes later learning that it was open.
I don’t know when, but at some point that morning getting out of the city became my overriding goal. Two of my classmates came from Massachusetts as well. They had the same idea. I said, “If we can get to my car, which is at the end of the line on Metro North, I can get you to Pittsfield. And then you can get anywhere you want to go in the state.”
Somehow we got a call through to Metro North. Information said that they were taking people out of the city. There was no schedule. They were not selling tickets. “Just get on the train,” the person said, “they will make every stop on the line.”
We left the seminary to go the train station at 125th Street and Park Avenue. We walked out of the building to Broadway, but no cab was taking passengers. We walked the five long blocks to 125th Street for the crosstown bus. The bus was free.
The morning was traumatic for everyone. As we rode the bus people shared their stories. “Where were you coming from?” “What was going on?” “What did you hear?” These snippets and fragments helped all of us put more pieces into place to get a fuller picture of what was going on. We got to the station, which was the first stop after leaving Grand Central. When the train arrived it opened its doors. The train was already packed – standing room only. No one complained. At each stop as people left the train, people stepped aside to let them off. Despite the anxiety and fear, people seemed to keep their cool.
We got to my car and back to Pittsfield.
Over the following days we heard and read stories of selfless and courageous actions many people took in the wake of the attack. We heard stories of heroism and sacrifice. Countless police and fire departments from around the Northeast, including from Pittsfield, sent volunteers to help with the aftermath. I remember that for a few weeks after the attack the people of this nation had a sense of solidarity with one another. We were one America filled with compassion and united by our common humanity.
It’s gone now. I’m not sure when we lost it. Today, we are a nation divided: by race, by wealth, by sexuality, by gender, by education, by ethnicity, and by any other distinguishing characteristic. We’re split over politics and police. Over urban and rural. Over foreign and native. We seem to be quick to anger and slow to forgive. Tolerance seems in short supply. Everyone seems aggrieved. No one has patience. Then again, maybe it only seems that way to me. I do feel, however, that the sense of community and solidarity we had in the weeks following the attacks that day are missing now. Was our solidarity a shared sense of identity, that we were all Americans, or was our shared solidarity a response to our common fear? Did we feel we had common cause with each other and that our safety and welfare were a function of our neighbor’s?
When Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he spoke before a mixed crowd of Pharisees and scribes and tax collectors and sinners. Through these parables he told the tax collectors and sinners that though they might feel lost and discounted, they mattered to God as much as the Pharisees and scribes.
What we lost as community as the horror of 9/11 faded still matters to God. Generosity, compassion, gratitude, mercy. They are food for our souls. Tolerance, patience and trust give us strength. Hope is our motivator and our aspiration. Love is our antidote to fear and undergirds all our labors that foster and nurture true community.
Through his teachings, Jesus might tell us “Though 9/11 was an unfathomable horrible, never-to-be-experienced-again, event, for a time you instinctively lived generously, compassionately, and gratefully. Your capacity to love one another, even strangers, helped you to overcome the terrible fear of that day.”
Like the shepherd who left 99 sheep to find the lost one or the woman who swept and cleaned feverishly to find the lost coin, we should exert the same effort to find what we lost. It’s that valuable. Living as we do now with our frayed and fragmented relationships will only wear us down bit by bit. This life saps our souls. Try to recall those few weeks of solidarity. Try to imagine how life would feel when daily living is filled with the spiritual values of generosity, compassion, gratitude, mercy. How different our lives will feel if we can trust each other, even strangers, and experience real tolerance and patience. Would we feel uplifted when we have something for which we can truly hope? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our lives were undergirded by love so we don’t have to live in fear? We need to live in a manner that nourishes our souls.
These are values we lost. We can get them back, but we have to work for them. It’s not that we will chase after sheep or tirelessly sweep floors. We’ll get them back when we live righteously: practicing kindness, offering compassion, having tolerance, learning forgiveness, and embracing mercy. It will come when we live life intentionally infused with gratitude.
Living our lives by serving others, such as doing community service and mission work will recover these values in the lives we lead. I’m not bold enough to proclaim that individually we can change the current state of the world, but I have full confidence that we can make a difference in this community when we work together for the common good. We will recover the feeling of satisfaction for making a positive difference in our community and it will make our community just a little bit better than before.
We lost our way, but as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1:13b-14) By God’s mercy we are loved. By God’s mercy we can recover those values and nurture the true community we experienced fifteen years ago. Let us not let fear and those who exploit it further divide us. Let us, rather, bridge the differences by working hard to find those lost values which make for true community and in so doing nourish our souls.