I wondered about the things I said on the Sunday morning after 9-11. So I retrieved my sermon from that day, September 16, 2001 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. I am still in the place where I was on that day, still trying to preach sermons to my people. So, I wondered, what do I remember about what I said and felt and thought. Turns out I had a record. Some of these thoughts still help me. Some cause me questions about where we have come since then. You decide.
NRS Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
This text from the Old Testament is perplexing. Amid this very poetic description of the decline of life, there is a reference to the almond tree blossoming. How can hope blossom among such unpromising circumstances? Indeed, that would be an excellent question for us today after the terrorist attack on our nation this week. At least part of the answer is found in the first verse, when we are told to “remember.”
We all have a story that we will tell of this week for the rest of our lives. It is about where we were when we heard about it, or what we did in response. Most of us will tell of sitting, glued to the television, hour after hour, as the entire country shut down, first in shock, then realization and horror, and then in brokenness and grief, and finally in “cold rage,” as it was described.
You children have heard your parents and grandparents tell these stories before and they sounded dusty and old. We tell you where we were when President Kennedy was killed, or where we were when the Challenger blew up in the sky and detonated our illusion of endless technological progress. Some can remember when President Reagan was shot and almost died.
You may even have grandparents or great grandparents who can tell you about sitting around a radio on December 7, 1941 and hearing President Roosevelt announce the unthinkable—that the United States had been attacked and the war that seemed so far away had now come into our homes and our country and our families. Then came stories of young men who went away and many who never came home again.
The point of those stories was this: life will never be the same again. This is one of those kinds of weeks. It is a defining memory for our whole country. Each of us have corporately grieved for people we never knew existed on Monday. We have watched, transfixed, as the story gradually unfolded. Some of us rushed out to do something—give blood or wave flags or pray, something
There will come a day for justice, and a day of retribution, but it is not today. Today is the day of remembering. But remember what? We will remember the attack, always. Those images, captured on video, gruesome and yet hypnotic in their horror, again and again, of one plane, then the other, penetrating a building filled with people from all over the world, like an intruder breaking into a house at night while we slept in innocence.
They were people like us, going to work, whether that work was to prepare lunch for visitors in the restaurant or insure the flow of economic possibility for the world, people who kissed their children goodbye and people who came in early to beat the traffic. There were people with a meeting before they left town on a trip and thousands of little stories, now fused and melted into a single tragic tale of gigantic proportions.
The planes invaded the thin, trusting skin of those buildings, buildings where millions of us had gone on our trip to New York and stood on top of the world and looked down to see forever. Ripped into them, uninvited, unexpected, commandeered by demented agents of hate and evil will. They came will precise calculation to commit the largest mass-murder in American history. But they did more than kill innocent human beings. They murdered our security, our sense of safety and peace and of the troubles of the world being far away.
We will remember the extraordinary rescue effort and the thousands of heroic deeds of ordinary people who put themselves out and sometimes in harm’s way because it was the right thing to do. People who came from everywhere. People who died trying—police and firemen and women, even a chaplain who perished as he ministered in the name of Christ.
We will remember the grief and the loss, too large for even 80 channels of cable to document. It spilled out of New York and touched every corner of our country. Again and again we heard of last goodbyes, some matter of fact, not realizing that when they blandly kissed goodbye or left a note or said, “See you tonight. Be sure and stop by the store on the way home” that it was the end. We listened to a CEO, his life broken with grief over his own employees. We saw the poor restaurant workers from Windows On the World, wandering the streets with pictures of their fellow workers, mostly immigrants from everywhere, decent, working people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, rich, poor, executives and clerks, custodians and captains of industry. We heard of cell phone goodbyes from the doomed airliners. Fathers and mothers, realizing that they would not get out, calling to leave a goodbye on the answering machine. We shall never forget those goodbyes. And the unforgettable agony of those thousands and thousands of people who must wait and wait and wait to learn the likelihood that they already dread to be true but cannot begin to embrace until their broken body is found—their father, their mother, their sister, their son, their friend.
We will remember the extraordinary sympathy of the entire world. Today, indeed, John Donne’s oft and over-quoted line, “Ask not for whom the belle tolls, it tolls for thee,” has been a reality. Weeping across the world. As it was rightly said, in a global economy, this was an attack on the entire notion of society in the name of an anarchist band who would renounce it to return to a medieval sectarian version of it. The world shuddered in absolute revulsion.
This sympathy was spoken in prayer vigils, public declarations, at Friday sermons in mosques across the Middle East, in public declarations, in notes, in every imaginable way. The world does not know much about America, but it does know about New York and Washington, and if they have been anywhere, they have probably been to New York City. We will remember the palace band in London playing the Star Spangled Banner and flowers and cards piling up.
We will remember the surge of community and patriotism that was fired into passionate pride—we are one nation after all. And for all those jokes about New Yorkers and the bureaucrats in D.C., when trouble comes we are one people, no matter where we came from, how rancorous our debates, how different our views, we are one in our love for this place and its heritage and its ideals. Criticize them all you like. We may even join in now and then, because that’s what freedom means. But kill our countrymen and we rise up, together, to mourn and bury the dead, to clean up the mess, roll up our sleeves, and stand together. You cannot divide us this way. We are one nation.
And there were some sad and forgettable things, too. People lashing out, shooting windows out of mosques, threatening strangers without bothering to know them. If you have Arab-American neighbors and friends, this is the week to call them and reach out. Hate is not the majority response. I do not blame Arab Americans or Islam, any more than I want people in the world to think Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson represent all Christians, or that the Klan or militias, because they claim to be Christian, are representative of us. But we will remember what people said and did.
The danger is not that we will ever forget this week but that it will so obsess us and fixate us in our anger or pain that we cannot see how to go forward. Our President and leadership have had the awful task of helping us, coming together, coordinating, scrambling. Their weight has been terrible. This week it is not the President who feels my pain—I have felt his and prayed for him, again and again. And they have promised us that we will again be secure, we will recover, we will survive, and that they will turn our entire focus on attacking terrorism in the world and bring the guilty to justice.
I have only told you what you have already seen and experienced. I have added nothing new to it. You were there. These are your memories, too is your memory, too. I do not need to say, “Remember.” You will. Always. And you will tell your children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces and students and friends about it. For the rest of your life. You will remember.
I come today not to add to the memories but to focus them. Ecclesiastes 12 is a “summing up.” It is told from the vantage point of old age, a man who has lived life fully and now faces the grave. He is considering all the foolish things of life, things he himself has done and once thought to be the point of it all—eating and drinking, buying and selling, celebration and rejoicing, working and playing. Things he once did like you and I do—with all our heart and all our soul and with all our might.
We invest ourselves in career and family, leisure and hobbies, interests and passions. As Americans we tend to always do it with all that we are—“we’re number one!” Life goes along, sometimes so quickly, as we find ourselves moving on a path that partly we picked and partly picked us by our abilities and gifts and talents. We move and walk and then run, giving ourselves to them.
Because we live in a land of freedom, we can pursue those inclinations as far as our energies, opportunities and abilities will let us go. It brings great rewards and often prosperity to us to do so. They have created a culture of prosperity and security unprecedented in human history. They have led us forward to developments that have made life better throughout the world by our technology and medical advances. They have enabled us to create a society that draws people from around to world to come here. Work, achievement, education and opportunity are the cornerstones of our way of life.
Yet they are not who we are and they are not what gives us life and hope. There is something deeper that sustains us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
On Tuesday morning, those planes slammed into the two great symbols of our national power—our economy and our military might. It was a blow not only on a human level, but an intended damnation of our entire way of life. “Take away their economy and their might, and there is nothing there.” That is the belief of our enemies. And sometimes we seem to prove them right by our moral and material excesses.
But they were wrong. What happened after the shock wore off was that we turned to what was always deepest and near at hand. We have prayed—on television and radio, in churches and special services. We have turned back to God. We have turned to one another.
Funny that we would put it that way—“turned back.” As though we could get away from God or leave God. But there is great truth here, truth that we should not miss, for it is the most important truth. Life is not about what we have or who has it. We knew it all along, but it has come forth this week and we know it to be true. It is about the recognition that we are all God’s creation, made in the image of God. That life is precious and fleeting. That we are neighbors, and that we belong to one another, and that we ought to care about each other.
Has it just been me, or are people speaking to each other more respectfully and tenderly to one another this week? I know it may wear off soon, when there is some routine again, but let’s bask in it while we can. We are seeing the depths in one another in this crisis, and it says, “We are not an economic system. We are a community of brothers and sisters who care about each other.”
Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 is a description of old age—the loss of strength, vitality and energy. His point is this—better to remember it when you are young, and then when you are old it will be there for you. Life is not about how much you have or who you are. Life is not about admiration or wealth. It’s about God and the people in your life. It’s about being an honorable person who knows the truth—God is God, and we are not. It’s about realizing that life can come to a halt, any time. Better live every day in that awareness.
Remember. You are not the creator. But you have choices. You are free. As Jacques Ellul reminds us, free does not mean independent—that we do not need anyone else. Free does not mean “autonomous,” that we can do as we please without regard to God or others. Free means we have choices and that God allows us to have them. We can build buildings or destroy them. We can love one another or kill each other. Which depends on our choices and our remembering who is who.
Strange that we would have to remember God. The creation is all around. But as Ellul also reminds us
…God does not impose himself on us. He does not crush our humanity with his revelation. He is utterly discrete: ‘remember.’ You can forget him, cast him aside, fail to concern yourself with him. He will not come to you, enraged and threatening, making you take him into account or bend your knees, filling your view or obliging you to obey him. No, he remains hidden and patient.
God does not force our obedience. He asks for it. He permits us the high privilege of freedom and responsibility. We can forget and destroy ourselves and each other. Or we can remember. We don’t have to do it as weirdly as John Donne did, sleeping in a coffin to remind himself that he would die. But we live better in this awareness of mortality. A woman in my last church once commented to me at the graveside of her aunt, “It’s funny, but I don’t often feel like life is real. I go through the motions. Standing here, today, I feel a sense of reality.”
I think I know what she meant. It felt “alive.” To have things in right order, to remember the Creator and that we are only creatures who will one day die, is to be alive. In the sadness of sorrow we often redirect our lives.
That’s why, in spite of the sorrow and pain and tears, in spite of the fear and the insecurity, in spite of the anger and frustration, I feel very alive today. In spite of the death and tragedy, I feel very alive. I have stopped thinking about a lot of things that seemed to matter but don’t. I have thought over and over about what does matter.
I have called on God. Not for myself but for others. Over and over. I have been alive as I thought about others and cared about them. As I have been able to forget myself and pray. God did not cause this but God remains, waiting, for all of us to remember that we are not God, that we will die, and therefore that we should live as tender stewards of this life and of the people around us who are created in God’s image. Through our own folly and sin, God is helping us to remember that life is precious, life is God’s, life is a gift.
In this terrible vulnerability, we have seen some things. Terrible truths, but also wondrous opportunities. That is the story of the cross—it declares that life begins not where we think it should, with us who are alive, but in the depths of grief and loss and darkness and despair. Jesus died on the cross, victim of every horrible and terrible motive and perversion that we have seen in the face of evil this week. He died at the hand of those who thought, finally, that might and power and fear and intimidation and violence were finally the answer to every problem. And they were wrong.
The greatest words in human history are “and on the third day.” On that day, when Christ arose, we not only found a clue to hope in the afterlife, we discovered a profound spiritual reality. It is not in strength, either of economy or might, that we find out what matters most in life. It is in the vulnerability of love and the indestructibility of hope. Those words, “on the third day” vindicated the cross, God’s way.
America’s tears, America’s wound, America’s concern for each other have opened a door of possibility for us this week. It is there that we remember—there is a Creator and we, the children of that God, must remember him when we are strong if we are to understand where to turn when we are broken.
We will never forget this week—not the horror, not the sadness, not any of it. I hope that we will remember forever. And most of all to remember that as an entire world we have seen the futility of human will and power this week. There is no immunity from suffering and evil. It visits itself on us all eventually. A malevolent evil can always have its day.
But it is not the last word. The last word is God. The last word is eternal love. Force and hatred and wickedness plays itself out and causes its wounds, but it is destined for the pit of hell. Love will swallow it whole and it shall be no more. Remember the love of this week. Remember the vulnerable tears we have shared. Remember neighbor love. Remember the tolling bell. Remember the Creator and that we are creatures. If we do, there is hope.
Ellul, Jacques. Reason for Being: A Meditation On Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1990.