In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. September 11th, 2001, that unforgettable day forever arched into the consciousness and memory of all of us when an outrage of unspeakable horror and evil happened. An outrage that was universally, roundly condemned, and rightly so. And stands condemned, as evil forever. On that day, the hearts of the world reached out in deep sympathy and condolence to you all who had lost loved ones, to all who were injured in New York, here in Washington and in Pennsylvania, to you all in this nation so traumatized. As one coming from outside the United States, may I speak on behalf of the rest of the world, that our hearts still go out in compassion and sympathy, as you still wrestle with the consequences of those traumatic events of that day, that awful day, that we are today commemorating. The world stands by you, trying to wipe the tears from your eyes. And we can only say how awed we were at the examples of extraordinary courage and selflessness demonstrated at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and elsewhere, even on the doomed flights, especially of those who prevented their plane from targeting the White House and the Pentagon. It made us proud to be human when we saw such amazing examples of true magnanimity and greatness and self-sacrifice.
Listen to my text: “But now, Jacob, this is the word of the Lord, the word of your creator, of him who fashioned you, Israel: have no fear, for I have redeemed you. I call you by name. You are mind. When you pass through water, I shall be with you. When you pass through rivers, they will not overwhelm you. Walk through fire, and you will not be scorched. Through flames, and they will not burn you.”
You will certainly have felt on that day that you were passing through fire and wading through torrential waters. So you would attest to that. What you’d find more difficult was, “Do not be afraid,” says God, for God said, “I am with you.” God claimed you for God. No, not that. For goodness sake, where was God on that day to have let such a horrendous thing happen?
On many occasions, back home in South Africa, when ghastly things were happening in our struggle against apartheid, often the cry went out from our people, “God, where are you? God, do you care? God, do you see?” And we would tell our people that wonderful story in the book of the prophet Daniel, of the God whose servants had been cast into a fiery furnace. And then, and then, God didn’t stand at a safe distance giving useful advise — “Guys, when you go into a fire, it would probably be sensible to put on protective clothing.” No, fantastically, God entered the fiery furnace, and was there side by side with God’s servants in their anguish and agony, because this God was Emmanuel, “God with us,” God with us in our suffering, in our oppression and in our anguish.
You have probably heard the story of the little Jew in the concentration camp, humiliated and taunted by his Nazi guard. And one day he is asked to clean out the restrooms, and the Nazi guard standing above him taunts him, and says, “Where is your God now?” And the little Jew replied quietly, “He’s right here with me in the muck.”
Our God is the one who is right here, who was right there as the planes were hitting their targets, as passengers sat knowing that they were going, rushing into a fiery, explosive death. God was there as the buildings crumbled, there in the blinding, choking dust in the rubble, in the depths of collapsed buildings. In the anguish…(Cathedral chimes are heard…and Bishop Tutu is silent through their ringing…).
….God was there in the anguish of the movement, in the darkness, in the bewilderment, in the senselessness of it all. God, Emmanuel, is still here. God with you. For God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, wiping away your tears, pouring balm on your wounded souls. On that day, you wonderful people of this great country awoke to find that you, that you were fragile, you were vulnerable. For so long bad things had happened to other people a long way away. Often the action was something that could be watched on television screens. It wasn’t surprising you might have begun to think of this nation as invincible, the only super power with a sophisticated, hugely expensive, defense system, that compounded your devastation and bewilderment.
Dear friends, in many ways, it is to say we, all of us, are vulnerable, fragile. For vulnerability is of the essence of creaturehood. Only God is ultimately invincible. The Bible has wonderful imagines of God holding back the waters of chaos that seek to overwhelm. God holding back the desert that seeks to take over the arable land. For it is only because God restrains the forces of evil that you and I are able to beat it off/to be at all (?). And the Bible has this incredible image of you, of I, of all of us, each one, held as something precious, fragile in the palms of God’s hands. And that you and I exist only because God forever is blowing God’s breath into our being. And we exist only because God keeps us in being. Otherwise, we would disintegrate into the nothingness, the oblivion, from which God’s fiat has brought us.
And so, God says to you, “I love you. You are precious in this fragility and this vulnerability. Your being is gift. I breathe into you and hold you as something, as something precious.”
And so you come to know a little, the insecurity, the sense of helplessness, that so many of your sisters and brothers out there have experienced as their daily lot. The mother in a refugee camp, the Afghans bombarded by the Soviets and then the Taliban and then blazed under a new government, and now and again, mistakes happen, and people are killed.
You are a great people. You are generous to a fort. My family and I can attest to the generosity we’ve enjoyed from many in this land. You have inspired the struggles for justice and freedom in many parts of the world. In your love for freedom, in your respect for the rule of law, in your passion for justice, our freedom over the viciousness of apartheid was due in large measure to your wonderful support. God says to you, “I have a dream. Please help me to realize it. I dreamed that this world will become a better world, compassionate and caring, gentle and sharing, forgiving and forgiven, reconciling and reconciled. I have a dream, says God, that the lion will again lie down with the lamb, the sword will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.
But in this family, there are no outsiders. All, all are insiders. Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw, not some, but all, all to me.” Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsie, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist, Pakistanian, Indian, ….all, all belong.
And it is a radical thing that Jesus says that we are family. We belong. Sometimes we shocked them at home when we said, the Apartheid State President and I, whether we liked it or not, were brothers. But the truth of the matter is that when Jesus says we all belong, there is a radicalness that we have not yet fathomed. That we are members of one family. So Arafat and Sharon belong together. Yes, George Bush, Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein, God says, all, all are my children. It is shocking. It is radical.
And that is why we are here as Church, as a faith community, to be the salt, the light of the world, to say the war against terrorism will not, cannot be won, unless, unless the war against poverty, against disease, against ignorance, is won. All those things that can make people desperate. That is why we are here to say, no, there isn’t such as collateral damage. It is people of flesh and blood such as those who died on September the 11th. That is why we are here as Church when we say the ethical family applies from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. To say if we are family, we cannot go on spending huge amounts of instruments of death and destruction when a very small fraction of those budgets would ensure that our sisters and brothers—everywhere—would have clean water, would have enough to eat, would have a safe home, would have accessible health care.
We, we as the Church, as the faith community say, we belong together. We are family.
You remember the defiant ones, the two convicts shackled to one another escape and fall into a ditch of dirty water, and one of them almost made it to the top, but can’t because his mate is still down there, and he’s shackled to him, and he slithers down. The only way they can ever make it is up, up, up and out together. We are bound to one another. We can be human only together. We can be free only together. We can be safe only together. We can be prosperous only together. And God cries out to you wonderful people in this incredible land, God says, “Please help me; please help me realize my dream that my children will wake up one day and know that they are family. And then, and then, and then we may see the fulfillment of the vision of wherever I looked I saw a vast throng which no one could count from all races and tribes and nations and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb; they were robed in white and had branches in their hands, and they shouted aloud, “Victory to a God who sits on a throne and to the Lamb.” All the angels who stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures prostrated themselves before the throne and worshipped God saying, “Amen. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving, power and might, be to our God forever and ever, Amen.”
The transcript and audio versions of Desmond Tutu’s Sermon are temporarily used with permission by Desmond M. Tutu. All rights reserved.