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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 11, 2011

A Meditation on 9/11

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
—W.H. Auden, fragment from September 1, 1939

I had just been with a family visited by serious illness. I was in the car and turned on my radio. That’s when I heard the news. A plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers, there were reports of other planes gone missing. Reporters were confused, and the odor of fear hung in the air. I was heading back to the church I was serving at the time, fortunately not a mile from where I heard this. Still, I did drive a little faster than wise. Once inside the building, I rolled a television out from the closet we kept it, and the staff and I watched as another plane struck and the towers fell.

I felt a hollowness. I don’t know how else to call it. And then within that space poured worry and confusion.

Over the next days we learned what happened. Ultimately, nearly three thousand people dead. The most Americans killed on our soil since the horrors of the civil war. And we began to hear the stories, stories of such sadness that I still choke when I hear them. And we began to hear stories of heroism, stories of such bravery that I find it hard not to weep when I recall them. A small band of passengers on one of the hijacked planes, learning what was happening fought with the terrorists. They died sparing the intended target, we’re not precisely sure, either the White House or the Capitol.

And we reacted. Some of what we did I think necessary, some misdirected for other reasons, without a shred of genuine justification. The wake of our vengeance has been terrible. The mastermind of this horror is now dead, as are most who were directly involved in this plot. But fighting continues. Ten years of conflict, wars raging across the globe, small and vast fires consuming so much.

And our world is now different.

The question for us as we gather together on this day, ten years after, is how do we deal with all this? How do we approach such a thing? And what do we do? What does our liberal faith tell us that allows us to act with some grace, and some honor, as we strive to build lives in a much harsher and more dangerous world, or rather in a world that is harsh and dangerous and from which we, so many of us, thought we were insulated, and have learned we are not.

Today we are invited to open our hearts, to open our minds, to find the great way of not knowing. And out of that, to reclaim our connections, and to act.

So, how to approach all this? What good news is there that can inform our decisions and our actions?

A small story. I was, just a little while ago, as hurricane Irene was racing toward us, standing in Ocean State Job Lot, throwing cans of sardines, tuna & salmon into my cart, food that I figured would go into the back of the pantry against worst case scenarios, something I long felt I should do, but had never quite gotten around to. Feeling good about my success in collecting discounted tins of protein I headed toward where I hoped to next find batteries.

As I turned onto the aisle, my way was blocked by a man a bit younger than me talking to a woman a great deal older than either of us. I couldn't tell if they knew each other, of if he just decided to impose upon her age, in that way people sometimes do with the extremely aged and small children. He asked in a friendly enough way, if with just a hint of condescension hanging in the back, if she were worried about the hurricane. She was in addition to being obviously very old, very small and a bit hunched over.

She straightened up with that question to a full nearly five foot tall. And she replied, "Hah! I made it through '38! And, I've never been afraid of anything since..." ’38, if you’re not from these parts is also called the Long Island Express. It was a horrific hurricane, perhaps the worst in American history.

Hearing this immediately took me back a couple of days. At the end of that week as Jan & I were getting ready for a small dinner with a visiting Zen priest from Atlanta, itself just ahead of our annual weekend with old friends at Tanglewood.

Auntie, who was vacuuming the living room carpet, plopped herself down in a chair and sighed deeply. I asked what's up? She said her leg, the other one than the one that had a blood clot back in January, now hurt just like the one in January did. I asked how long it had been like this. She replied it started two weeks ago. Now, just the prior week she had an ultra sound on the leg which had the blood clot to see if it was well and duly gone. It was. Being auntie, she hadn't thought that she was beginning to have similar pains in the other leg might mean anything. Until now.

I stifled a sigh and I called her doctor's office. We then ended up spending just shy of eight hours at the closest emergency room. Suspecting such could be the case, before leaving I called and canceled the dinner. The priest and I have known each other for well over a decade as correspondents, but had never actually met in the flesh. So, this was a small sadness. However, in the face of this more pressing issue, even if it turned out to be nothing, well, still it needed doing. No regrets.

They took pictures of her leg and just for the smarts of it, her chest. The good news was no clot. But we didn't even have a chance to congratulate ourselves before the doctor, why are they getting so much younger every year, continued. There was bad news. They saw a spot on her spine. They also found a fair amount of fluid in one lung. Asked about this she said, oh yes, I've been having trouble breathing. Again, didn't feel the need to check in on that…

We went home, and as per instructions, I called and set up an appointment with her oncologist for the first available, which turned out to be Monday. Jan and I talked and then canceled Tanglewood. It has been a good ten-year run. Oh, well. Life is like that. But having heard all this and what it could mean and then having us leave didn't feel right. And, what with the hurricane rolling madly toward us, all in all, probably the smart decision.

So, I've been watching auntie, whom we usually refer to in her absence as the hobbit. She's taking it all in stride. She expressed a wave of anxiety about how this might prove devastating financially for us, a thought no one in a fair society should ever have to think. But mainly has been concerned that she’d finished one of her talking book Vampire romances and was worried about getting the sequel in a timely manner.

I find myself thinking of auntie. I find myself thinking of that elderly woman responding to the question about this hurricane moving steadily toward us. Some of this obstinacy in the face of bad things is foolishness, no doubt. That hadith of Mohammed, trust God, but tether your camel, traced across my brain. Such optimism doesn't, or shouldn't replace getting some batteries, water and sardines.

And... I found my heart swimming with admiration for our foolish bravery, we humans. Small acts. Big ones. As I began to think ahead to my sermon on the tenth anniversary of nine/eleven, I thought of many things. Of the ancient enmities that came together in that act, of our own communal complicity, of the evil people do to each other in the name of nation and religion, and for gain, small and great. But, the image that most hangs in my mind, in my heart from that time are those eyewitness descriptions of those firemen and cops racing into the towers as everyone else were trying to escape.

There has been some discussion on Buddhist blogs of late in response to a recent book about a terrible fire at a rural Zen center and of the five people who stayed when all the rest were evacuated. All luck of the draw. And how whether they had stayed or left affected each person.

Heroes. Heroic acts. And, for me, really, while I shiver as I think of the firemen racing into the towers, as I think of young Zen monks trembling but, because circumstances threw them into it, stayed with axes to try and hold off racing flames, as I think of that little old lady squaring her shoulders in a moment of defiance against all the power of nature, as I think of my auntie, silly hobbit, hearing her cancer may have spread fatally, wanting her next book...

In the face of it all, at our best, we straighten up, and we stand up, and we do what needs doing. Not always, Of course... Not always... But, often enough.

And, right this minute; perhaps good words to hear. A reminder. And a hint.

So, what to do?

On that 11th day of September 2001, just before the first tower fell, trapped on the 105th floor where he worked for the investment bank Cantor-Fitzgerald, 32 year old Stuart Meltzer just had time to make one phone call. He called his wife. She wasn’t at home, so he left a message on their answering machine. “Honey, something terrible is happening. I don’t think I am going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children.”

The wisest words are almost always small words. But they can summarize it all. Stuart Meltzer sets the stage for all of us, sets the conditions for our finding of perspective, for our coming to wisdom. Five days after these terrible events I found myself in the pulpit of that church I was serving, forced by circumstances to speak. There was context of course. There was anger and a visceral desire for vengeance. There was also our communal part in this. Foolish and stupid things our country was involved in that helped to set the stage. Many choices for those words that I had to speak.

But I found my inspiration in reports of firemen and policemen racing into the towers when anyone in their right mind was racing away. Ten years later and I find my mind filled with stories of people calling out, many, most perhaps, finding their last words going to answering machines. And it was Stuart’s words that most inspired me, gave me courage to speak, then, and again, now.

“Honey, something terrible is happening. I don't think I'm going to make it." He confesses a real, if hard truth. We all will die. There is no doubt, even though we can cloud our awareness of this fact for a time, we, each and every blessed one of us will die. But, when we allow ourselves to truly understand our passingness, that we only occupy this life for a brief time, then we find things can click into place, we can find harmony and balance and most important of all, we can find that precious perspective. Within this experience of perspective, of how we are beautiful and temporary, we can distill out of our ordinary passing experience, enough.

And what is that "enough?" Stuart said it in the face of his dying: "I love you." So powerful, so simple, so truthful of everything that makes us human. Love is the most mysterious force on this planet. No wonder we use it as the fundamental synonym for God. Love is the longing of the human heart; it is the knowing that even in our temporariness, we are also connected. As the hymn tells us, as we open our hearts, love will guide us.

But, even those words, "I love you," if left alone, don't fully take us where we must go. I remember the experience of a dear friend of mine so many years ago, going before the ministerial fellowship committee, the group of lay leaders and clergy who decide whether an individual is ready for ministry. My friend preached his sample homily for them on the nature of love. At the end of the homily, during the time when the committee is asking the hard questions, delving, probing, to see if this individual really is ready to step out into service, helping people in the rawest of times, they asked the hardest question. "What do you say when you run out of sermons on love?"

Well, we've seen that time and we've been given an answer. Stuart tells us. "Take care of the children." Not kill our enemies. Not seek a terrible vengeance. Not create rivers of blood. Take care of the children.

Of course we need to seek justice. And, sadly, we’ve seen how that can turn on a heartbeat into something else. Hard times have followed these past ten years. So many dead, Americans, Iraqis, Afghanis, others. So, many. Too many. Of course, the karma is complex and fault can be found everywhere.

We rarely can control what happens to us. But, we can control our responses. Here is the heart of the song, sung to us from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center, the lesson, the only lesson we can pull out of this horror that will ease hurt and heal wounds. Passing as we are, we are woven together into a great mystery. That mystery is love. When we know love, we go can forward to give our hands and our lives to care for the children and each other. Let us not miss it. It is the blessing that pours forth for all of us from that terrible moment at the World Trade Center, flowing like life-giving waters, like an ever flowing stream.


Blessings on the whole world.

Blessings on us, on our children and friends and lovers and families.

Blessings on America.