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On Sunday, September 12th, I preached a sermon about September 11th and about evil. Unfortunately, I forgot to hit a very important button to get the live stream to work! So, below is my original sermon manuscript. Since I do not use notes when I preach, the sermon that was actually preached varied a bit from this one...but it is my thoughts more organized and easier to read.
This week, Mary Helen and I were talking with Emma before youth. We were all wearing our Witness shirts, talking about how we have all played the clarinet, and just in general talking about how different things were for all three of us as we grew up and, in the case of Emma, are still growing up. I don’t even remember what Emma was telling us about, but I do remember saying, “Things were so different in my day—oh, the good old days.” Mary Helen stopped me and said, “Pastor, you didn’t grow up in the good old days. I grew up in the good old days.” It was interesting to have this conversation the week of the anniversary of 9/11. Every generation has a turning point, it seems, due to a tragedy of some sort. For some, it was Pearl Harbor, for others, JFK’s assassination, for others still, the Vietnam War. For my generation, it was the events of 9/11.
Twenty-one years ago, before the tragic events of that day, we lived in a very different world than the one we live in today…we lived in my version of the good old days. I remember when I was seven or eight, I went with my mom on a flight to and from New Jersey. When the plane landed in Texas, mom said, “Are you ready to see your dad?” I said, “Yes!” And my little legs walked/jogged as fast as they could off that plane, up that walkway, and to the entrance of the gate where we landed. I saw my dad waiting for us to get off the plane. I remember giving him a big hug and him asking me all kinds of questions about things at grandma’s house. He walked with us from the gate to the place where we would collect our luggage. Little did we know that would be the last time that my dad would be able to meet us at a gate of an airport.
On September 11, 2001, I was ten years old. The morning started off like any other. My parents dragged us out of bed, made us waffles, forced us to eat breakfast and let us watch Hey Arnold or Saved by the Bell. Then they forced us to get dressed and ready because we would still have to pick up my cousin, Ryan, on the way to school. For whatever reason, we were running a little bit behind schedule that morning and I remember when we got out of the car, I took a look at the clock in the car. It said 7:48. Which probably meant we had two minutes to get to class, so you know I hustled down the hall, in-between buildings, and made it to my classroom just in time before the bell rang.
I don’t remember the exact time or the reason we were switching classes, but we were doing just that when a teacher was walking by us and said to our teacher, “Hey—did you know the World Trade Center was attacked?” My teacher looked at her, confused, and said, “What? In New York? Attacked?” Instead of going to class, those of us in the 5th and 6th grades were gathered in a large room with our teachers and we all sat there and watched the news the rest of the morning. We saw the footage on repeat for hours. We were actually watching the news when the towers collapsed live. We saw the footage of the pentagon on fire. We heard the rumors that would later be confirmed as true that a plane that was headed toward the White House had been stopped by passengers and landed in a field.
I remember feeling afraid that day and being confused and worried. We asked a lot of questions of our teachers…Why would someone want to attack us? Did we do something wrong? Will anywhere else be attacked today? Are we safe? What’s going to happen? Are we going to go to war? Who would do something like this? Who would be willing to kill themselves in this type of attack? Our poor teachers, who were also trying to process the information themselves, didn’t really know how to answer us. They tried their best, but it was clear they were trying to figure it all out, too.
It was a scary day and I remember by the time my parents made it home, my mom who grew up in New Jersey was a wreck. She had spent the day trying to get a hold of her sister to make sure she hadn’t gone to the World Trade Center for bank business that day—apparently it wasn’t uncommon for her job to go there from time to time. My aunt was safe, but my mom was still incredibly upset. I didn’t understand it because I had never been to New York City. I couldn’t comprehend how big of a deal it was. I had never seen skyscrapers before and I had never seen 3,000 of anything, let alone people—10 year old me struggled to comprehend some of the magnitude of that day. My mom tried to explain to me that these towers were so big that on foggy days, you couldn’t see the tops of the buildings. She explained that all types of people worked in those buildings and that because they were so big, there were people who never had a chance to get out and died. Innocent people who would never see their families again.
The news was on all night in our house. We continued to watch the coverage. We watched the president’s response. We heard about how the planes were full of innocent passengers. It was a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from. This nightmare that became our reality was one that left us feeling suspicious of others, feeling afraid of people who looked or worshiped differently than us, and we were constantly on alert—would there be another attack? If so, where would it be?
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I’ve spent this week re-watching the footage via various documentaries…the one I have found the most thorough is the one called “One Day in America.” It is a multiple-episode documentary that recaps the entire day of September 11th from the viewpoints and video footage of first responders, media, and survivors. As a 30-year-old adult, watching the attacks on television hit me a lot differently than it did 20 years ago. I understand the magnitude of the situation. I can better comprehend the video footage I saw over and over and over as a 10-year-old. This was not just a terrorist attack on our country. This was a trauma that was done to human beings by other human beings.
One of the survivors shared a tragic story and he said it took him three years of counseling to be able to get that attack into a place in his mind that wasn’t something that haunted him on a daily basis. He then said something I found to be very true and real and just the problem with that day. He said, “Human beings aren’t supposed to see that type of tragedy done to other human beings.” In essence, he is saying that human beings aren’t supposed to see evil done to other human beings.
On that day 20 years ago, we saw evil in so many ways and forms displayed across our television screens. We saw it in pictures in newspapers and magazines. We heard the stories of people who were separated from friends and who were desperately searching for news of their family and friends. There were so many missing for so long. We heard the phone calls from the united flight that crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. Evil was all we heard and saw and it was just so hard to take in. It was hard to understand and difficult to process. Evil is not something we are supposed to encounter.
And yet, events like 9/11 are terrible reminders of just how evil we as humans are capable of being. It leaves us fearful and jaded and insecure. It leaves us wondering…why? And, inevitably, it makes us start to think about suffering and death. It is in these tragic, evil moments, that we desperately look for peace. We desperately look for answers. Some are quick to say “Everything happens for a reason.” But I don’t believe that—I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. It is because of these big, evil events that happen that I cannot believe that everything happens for a reason AND that God is loving.
I do believe, though, strongly in Jesus Christ. Every Christmas, we talk about Jesus being born and one of his names being called Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus was God with us. Jesus lived a real, human experience. He hurt, he felt pain, both physical and emotional. He experienced evil, the very same evil we experience still today. And even though he experienced all this evil, he still had love in his heart for even the most hard-hearted and evil of them all. He created a way for all people to be forgiven, for all people to be with him forever. In the book of Romans, there is a selection of scriptures we read at funerals and I think that it’s appropriate to read today as we remember such a dark time in our human history and as we continue to face evil even today…
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God, and if children, then heirs,heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
This is one of my favorite scriptures. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. There is no evil power in this world that can stop Emmanuel, God with us, from continuing to be with us. I believe in these tragic moments of history that Jesus stays with us, is with us, and cries with us. We are never alone. The people who died, who suffered, who lived to tell the tale and have PTSD, God is with each and every one of them. He was with them then and is with them today.
And God wasn’t just there in the midst of the suffering and death. God was there in all the people who helped one another. God was there in the first responders who risked it all to get as many people as they could to safety. God was there in the people who were trying to exit the building, who helped the injured as best they could. God was there when someone was crying and in footage you see someone coming up behind them and wrapping their arms around them. Even on that terrible, evil day, when so many people lost so many loved ones…there was a glimmer of hope in the people who stepped up and did what they could to physically help others, to pray with others, and to offer hope with others.
We are twenty years removed from that terrible day where evil was at it’s worst and on a large stage, but even though we are removed from that big event, evil is still all around us. Thankfully, we have not seen it again on a national level like we did that day, but evil is still here. When we see people do evil things to one another or say evil things to one another, it makes us want to give up hope. Sometimes, it even sucks us in without us even knowing it. And before we know it, we can find ourselves saying and doing evil things, too. If there’s anything that I hope this sermon reminds us is that we don’t have to live as people who fear evil, or who live our lives afraid of what may happen to us. We can live as people of hope and as people of love and as people who, on even the darkest of days, have a light inside of us and light named Jesus who is beside us in all things and moments of our lives. Let’s be a light that shines. Let’s be a light that reminds people that evil does not have the final say. Let’s be that beacon of hope and goodness that this world desperately needs.