Saturday, January 17, 2015

9/11:  Responding to Our National Emergency

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 16, 2001

It is with a deep sense of humility that I stand before you this morning; with a deep sense of my own inadequacy at a time like this. At a time of horrendous, heart-rending tragedy like this one, words might come easily (or not), but they almost always ring at least a little hallow. If only there were words that I could speak that could “make everything better”—some simple turn of phrase that could lead us from darkness to light, that could take away the sadness, that could comfort those in pain.
There are, of course, no easy verbal formulas for “making everything better”. Yet the times demand that we bear witness to the horror we have witnessed—and that so many of our fellow Americans in New York and in Washington are still experiencing. The times demand that we bear witness, and that we come together, in community, to stand together, to support one another, to help one another through this dark night of our national soul.
We bring so many feelings to this day; so many emotions well up within us, blending differently in each of us surely, but nonetheless there (to one degree or another) in all of us:
First of all, of course, there is grief—a deep and profound sadness—over the terrible loss of life. Those of us who didn’t experience personally the horror of last Tuesday can’t imagine the terror and despair of those who did. We are numbed to think of the thousands killed—the hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) directly, personally touched by this tragedy—“The ripples of pain [that] continue to radiate further and further” from ‘Ground Zero’ at the World Trade Center (or the Pentagon). Family members, colleagues, friends, neighbors, associates—a list that grows more personal as details emerge each day—someone’s daughter; someone’s son; a fianc√©; an expectant mother; visitors from overseas; a father; a brother—thousands and thousands of names will emerge—each representing a precious human story—a precious human life. All of these dear departed souls are our precious human brothers and sisters—of every conceivable race and religion, every class, every occupation, every lifestyle, every nationality, every age—in that magnificent melting pot which is New York, which is America, which is our world.
It is inconceivable that these human spirits of ours could be strong enough to withstand such a devastating blow. But (greatest miracle of all, perhaps) the human spirit is that strong. The human spirit survives in the souls of those touched by these tragedies, in the hearts of those heroes working so diligently still, hope against hope, to find survivors, to bind up the broken, to clear away a path amid the destruction for life to go on once again. The human spirit will survive the destruction of September 11th, as it survived the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag and the killing fields of Cambodia; as it survived the bomb blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden and Oklahoma City.
Our human bodies are weak—beautiful, amazing, but so destructible. But the human spirit will survive because it is so much greater than these flesh and bone bodies of ours. The human spirit will survive because it is part and parcel of the eternal, indestructible, holy and integral, interdependent Spirit of Life. And Life is eternal. And though our bodies wither and fade like the flowers of spring, our spirits abide, forever and ever, amen.
There are other feelings within us too, of course: There is anger in our hearts as well this day: Anger at such an unspeakably cruel and vicious acts. As much as I often disagree with the policies of our government (and especially, perhaps, with those of the present administration)—as much as I believe that America has serious questions to ask itself about how it relates to other nations and peoples in the world—as much as I yearn for justice for all people in the Middle East, including our Palestinian brothers and sisters, whose cause too often has been overlooked, in my opinion—in spite of all these things, I nonetheless have very little patience with any commentators or observers who want to find ways to explain away—rationalize—the evil of last Tuesday. 
Terrorism as a means of political communication can never be defended. Evil like this can not be allowed to stand unchallenged; it has to be faced down, directly and powerfully and unitedly. In the meantime, all other political divisions go to the sidelines. There will be time enough for them later. As Forrester Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City has written: “It is hard, I know, to curb the passion for vengeance. When we see Palestinian children dancing in the street to celebrate the slaughter of our neighbors and loved ones, how can we help but feel a surge of disgust and anger, the very emotions that precipitate hatred. But the Palestinians are not our enemy. Nor are the Muslims. This is not, as some historians would have it, a war between civilizations. It is a war between civilization and anarchy, a war of God-demented nihilists against the very fabric of world order.”
Indeed, this is a conflict in which all men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit can be our allies—American and Palestinian and Pakistani; Christian and Jew and Muslim; socialist or capitalist; Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green-- All of us can join together:
To bind up the broken;
To bring the good tidings;
To build up ancient cities,
Raising up devastations of old;
Sealing up divisions of old,
Birthing a new world
Of justice, equity, and compassion
From the ashes of the old:
A world where justice shall roll down like waters,
And peace like an ever-flowing stream…
There are other feelings that mingle within us as well, of course—different feelings that sometimes contradict each other: There’s fear; we’re afraid. Afraid of what the future—of what history—might bring. All this talk of war (however justified some of it might be) does not exactly lay our hearts to rest. Many of us might have a deep sense of personal fear, as well. I know I did earlier this week: I felt a certain unease, a sense that I (and especially, those I love) might not be safe—that the horrors of New York and Washington could very well be visited down upon us, in the flicker of an eye…
After 9:00 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, we all awoke to a changed skyline: a world somehow more foreboding, less friendly. I was reminded of some words of Wordsworth:
Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,
Have something of their friendliness resigned,
Another if I would I could not find,
And I am grown much older in a day…
The events of the past week make us all feel much older, perhaps. We have seen with our own eyes horrors we could only imagine. The skyline has changed: Those things that seemed so important on Monday, had vanished right into the air on Tuesday. As a nation, before Tuesday the 11th, we seemed so enamored by triviality; we were, perhaps, “amusing ourselves to death”. Perhaps now, we have grown up as a people. But growing up is hard to do sometimes…
We have witnessed horror. But we have also witnessed great heroism and compassion. More than 200 firemen and women and police officers, probably lost, as they rushed to help those in need—think of the countless others who died, too, as they tried to help—perhaps as they stopped for a moment on their own rush to safety to help someone who was struggling—until it was too late for both of them: What an incredible toll—“Greater love knows nothing more than this—that a man or woman should give up his or her life for another.” 
“Where is God in all of this?” many people are asking. I’ll tell you: that’s where God is—God is in the midst of all of us here today, as we struggle to come together and make sense of all this. God is in the midst of all people of goodwill who will not let hatred and terrorism extinguish the fires of love in their hearts.
Perhaps that compassion—that sense that we are all in this together—that we share in an inescapable garment of destiny, as Dr. King said—is trickling down to all of us, in ways big and small. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but I really sense—on the street, at the post office, at the grocery store, even in traffic—a new civility, a politeness, a gentleness among strangers that I didn’t sense before. That compassion, I think, is extending in circles beyond those we know, those we care about. At our Stoughton Clergy Association meeting on Wednesday of this past week, right here at this church, all of spoke of our concern—Protestant, Catholic, UU, Jew alike—for our Muslim friends and neighbors, our concern that no group be scape-goated for the crimes of madmen. We don’t want to repeat the tragedy of the Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. That’s at least one lesson most of us have learned, at least.
Who knows how many Arab-Americans, how many men and women of the Muslim faith—were victims of the carnage at the World Trade Center. Let us not compound the tragedy by becoming like those we hate, and unleashing further terror, albeit government sponsored, upon the world. Of course, those responsible for these crimes must be brought to justice (and even though I am a lifelong Universalist, born and bred, something inside me knows that at least a dozen-and-a-half of those men have met with Allah’s wrath as He read of their crimes in the Book of Life: How dare they bloody their Islamic faith with such despicable deeds!).
But may we pray for our leaders at this sad and difficult time, and may we pray that they be guided by compassion and by wisdom as they seek to respond to this tragedy.
For how, in truth, shall we remember those who have perished? Not in vengeance and retribution. Not in the specter of a million civilians—children, women, men—killed in “our name”. No, but:
In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
We remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
We remember them.
In the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring,
We remember them.
In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
We remember them.
In the start of the new year, and when it ends again,
We remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength,
We remember them.
When we are lost and sick of heart,
We remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
We remember them.
So long as we live,
they, too, shall live,
for they are now a part of us,
and we shall remember them—forever.
(from Roland B. Gittelsohn, adapted)
Blessed be. Amen.

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