Sunday, September 11, 2011

Homily for the Anniversary of 9/11

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight [Sirach 27:30].

Jesus ben Sirach wrote those words early in the 2nd century B.C., but his observations seem as pertinent today as they were then, his conclusions as true today as they were then. All of us, individually and collectively, surely have had our share of experience with wrath and anger, and have certainly seen their consequences. Being sinners, as we all are, we may also, in our own lives and in our own behavior, also have hugged wrath and anger all too tightly, whether for our own good or the good of the world.

Ten years ago, we witnessed, we lived through, wrath and anger at their worst, as the sunny serenity of an absolutely beautiful late summer New York City morning was suddenly transformed into an experience of horror beyond anything most of us had ever imagined we’d see so close to home. At that time, I was an Associate Pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Parish (the Paulist “Mother Church”) in New York City. After Mass and breakfast, I walked to John Jay College to vote in the Primary election for Mayor. Walking home, I looked at the perfectly blue, cloudless, late summer sky and observed that, on such a beautiful day, I should force myself to get out of the building long enough to spend some time in Central Park later in the day. When I got to my office, my fellow associate startled me with the news of an accident (as it was initially then thought to be) at the World Trade Center downtown. I walked back to the rectory to turn on the TV to catch the news, and then “in real time” (as we now say) watched, with ever escalating horror and anxiety as (to use yet another cliché of that day) “everything changed.” And how quickly, everything changed! Already at 8:45 the North Tower had been struck and soon at 9:03 (precise times indelibly engraved in one’s memory) the South Tower would be struck. Our country was being suddenly and savagely attacked, and we all got to see the ugly face of evil in a way my generation had never really experienced it before.

Soon, even the corner Starbucks shut down, as police barricades went up, closing our street to regular traffic. From the seemingly self-enclosed world of an assisted-living facility in Brooklyn, my 99-year old aunt telephoned, concerned for the safety of those she knew in Manhattan. For days that stretched into weeks, we went around in a daze, past churches and firehouses draped in black, past posted pictures of missing persons who would never be found, staring at the vacant place in the skyline, as military jets patrolled the now grimly gray, but otherwise empty sky. We watched over and over again as TV told and retold the story, punctuated by occasional accounts of heroic courage and poignantly loving final conversations – powerful lessons not just about how to face death, but how to live a life that makes sense.

Ten years later, we still remember – and mourn – those whose lives were wickedly cut short on that day of terror. Our ability to remember one another is one of the things that makes us most distinctly human. When we remember those who have died, we acknowledge our common humanity with them. And we also recognize our continued relationship. Remembering the dead is a fundamental and universal human need, which we neglect at our peril. (Benjamin Franklin once said that, to understand a community, one should visit their cemetery.)

From earliest times (and down to today in the Church’s daily prayer and in every Mass), the Church also has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers on their behalf. St. Monica famously said to her son St. Augustine: “I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” So, besides being a fundamental and universal human need, remembering the dead is also a religious duty, that expresses our faith and our hope.

Meanwhile, of course, life goes on. The world, with its seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continues to challenge us. The scriptures we just heard do not directly address the many social challenges and political policy choices which our nation now faces and will continue to face in the future. They do, however, say something very important about who God is, what kind of relationship God has chosen to have with us, and what kind of people we are being called by God to become.

So we are assembled here today – as every Sunday. We come as individuals each bringing his or her own worries, fears, and hopes, and also as citizens collectively concerned the security of our country, conscious – as world events continue to remind us – of how perilous life can be and how fragile the network of social bonds on which we depend for our survival. But, also and above all, we are assembled here in this holy place, in this our parish church, around this sacred altar, as members of the Body of Christ, whose own death and resurrection teach us that death no longer has the last word in our world and so challenge us to follow him and so find love in a hate-filled world.

Homily for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 10, 2011.

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