Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Sermon for 9/11 on Romans 14:12

Let me be honest with you: I stand in this pulpit today with some trepidation. In the book of Job, the main character loses everything he has through a series of disasters, and the very best thing his friends do is to stay silent for seven days. They simply sit with him, for a full week, while he mourns the loss of his children and all his possessions, a kind of silent ministry of accompaniment. It’s when they start to talk and interpret for Job, try to tell him why this has happened, that things get very bad, and they get it badly wrong. Sometimes silence is truly our best response in the face of disaster.

Still, you know me: I do tend to prefer to process things out loud. So I’m going to stand here this morning, and try very hard not to get it badly wrong.

The other day I heard someone on the radio say, “Every year when the summer is coming to an end, and the days are getting a little cooler, I know it’s coming. The anniversary. And I don’t want summer to end, because I don’t want to remember that anniversary.”

What does it mean to remember? Years ago someone pointed out to me the fact that the word “remember” is made by putting together re- and –member, that to “re-member” is to “put things back together again.” When we remember, we are putting things together for ourselves. So, I will make this claim: at the heart of what we are doing when we remember, is the act of putting ourselves back together. Who are we? Who we are is intimately tied up with the things we remember.

This week remembering has been unavoidable. Early in the week it began—last Sunday, in fact. The radio and internet and newspaper and television coverage of that anniversary, this year, the tenth anniversary of the day we call 9-11, which so conveniently also happens to be the number we dial on a phone when we have an emergency. We had a great national emergency ten years ago today, and none of us who are over a certain age can forget what that day was like. We remember. Where were we when we heard? What were we doing? Who did we call first? How did we spend the rest of that day and the day after, a day on which we learned that our nation was under attack?

One radio program this week interviewed people to find out what they were doing on September 10. I tuned in towards the middle of that program, so I didn’t hear what the rationale was for hearing stories of September 10, but I’m going to guess it had to do with putting that frightening day in perspective… what ordinary things were we about that we might be inclined to forget? Our days tend to be made up of ordinary things, and it just might be that these are the things we value, so it might be good to remember them, especially at times of great crisis.

Now those of us in parts of New York and Pennsylvania have another horrible day, or collection of days, to remember. In 2006 our area suffered what was then called a 500-year flood, which I suspect will soon be renamed, as we have suffered an even worse one now, just five years later. One thing I have learned in my life is this: trauma brings up trauma. As we have been going through these last days, wondering whether our loved ones and homes and businesses and places of worship and places of commerce would be affected, and then learning the sometimes devastating answer to that question, most of us couldn’t help remembering that other flood. I stood near the Court Street Bridge in Binghamton the other day talking to a woman who had been rescued from her home five years ago, and even though the home she now lives in was bone dry, she was still shaking. Her body, her soul, her whole being remembered that other flood. While her rational mind was telling her she would be alright, the rest of her was putting it together that, well, last time she wasn’t alright. And who knows if it will be alright this time?

What does it mean to remember? It means to put things together, the pieces of our lives, and the lives of those around us. Remembering helps us to forge our identities, who we are, what our lives mean. This is why conditions and diseases that affect the memory are so devastating to us. Who are we without our memories, even the terrible ones? “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a film about intentional forgetting, and the title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, in which a lover’s only comfort following a tragic love affair is the ability to forget. In the film, a scientist has invented a process by which memories can be removed, and the people who tend to take advantage of that process are people with painful memories. Without giving away the ending, I think the movie makes the case that it might be better to remember nevertheless.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome concerns different ways people have of remembering who they are. Paul’s community is made up of people from disparate backgrounds, and so they remember who they are in different ways. Some remember who they are by worshiping God on a particular day, while others believe that all days are equal when it comes to worship. This probably refers to the tension between Jewish followers of Jesus, who were strongly inclined to worship on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as commanded by Torah, while those who came to follow Jesus from other religious backgrounds wanted to worship on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week. Another way people had of remembering was the eating of or abstaining from particular foods, and this debate also cut to the divide between Gentiles and Jews. Jews abstained from certain foods as outlined in Torah, as well as from meats that had been used in Gentile religious ceremonies. Gentiles did not have these restrictions, but considered themselves to eat what they wished.

They have different ways of remembering, yet all these folks are followers of Jesus, committed not only to him, but also to their faith community. And they have a responsibility not to let their differences in remembering harm either of those commitments. And so Paul does the equivalent of saying, “Hey, remember this: what were you doing on September 10, 2001?” Paul reminds them of the essential truth of their identities, the one that both undergirds and overrides their differences in remembering. He says,

Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. ~Romans 14:6-8

It is not enough, sometimes, to remember who we are, Paul reminds the community. Sometimes we need to remember whose we are as well: If we live, we live in God. And if we die, we die in God. So, eating or abstaining, Saturday or Sunday, fire or flood, living or dying, we belong to God.

We belong to God. So we gather to worship God together, even when the pumps are still running in the basement. We belong to God, so we spend all day and all night (running on cookies and caffeine), caring for the gifts God and our forebears have left in our charge. We belong to God, so before we go home to nap we help our elderly neighbors to get their furnace started again. We belong to God, so the minute we are on our feet again—no, even before we are on our feet again—we start trying to figure out how we can serve the devastated community all around us.

After the September 11 attacks, David O’Brien, an historian from the University of Dayton, Ohio, became obsessed with reading the stories of those who had died. He was astonished at what he found. He wrote, "There were so many stories of self-sacrifice, not just by the first responders, but by people fleeing the building. There was this revelation of goodness… Our people, my people, were tested and, for a shining moment ... they were found worthy." [i]

The eyes of faith cause us to remember in certain ways, to put things together not only through events but also by their meaning. The historian David O'Brien looked at the events of 9/11 and saw an Easter story—good rising out of the ashes of evil.” Unlike certain politicians, I wouldn’t ascribe meaning to events such as hurricanes or floods beyond the information science can provide. But I will join O’Brien in saying that our responses to these events have great meaning. As I read in a poem this week,

In those days,
we finally chose
to walk like giants
& hold the world
in arms grown strong with love
& there may be many things we forget
in the days to come,
but this will not be one of them.[ii]

If we look back at disaster, we can also look ahead at what our response tells us. And if our response is soaked in the fact that we belong to God, then we can look forward with confidence… we belong to God. In fire and flood, in national emergency and calm peacetime, in waking and sleeping, in working and resting. In the ordinary things that make up most of our days we belong to God. And so we gather together to worship, to sit at God’s table, to gain strength for the work ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Jonathan Costello, Press and Sun-Bulletin.

[i] John Blake, “Four Ways 9-11 Changed America’s Attitude Toward Religion,” CNN Religion Blogs, September 3, 2011,

[ii] “Story People,” September 11, 2011

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