In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you remember these words? “We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead and for those who love them. On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel. Now comes the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read. They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life. They are the names of people who face death and in their last moments called home to say, ‘Be brave. And I love you.’ They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers and prevented the murder of others on the ground. They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States and died at their posts. They are the names of rescuers, the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others. We will read all these names. We will linger over them and learn their stories. And many Americans will weep. To the children, parents, and spouses, and families, and friends of the loss, we offer the deepest sympathy of the nation. And I assure you, you are not alone.”
So begins the speech, the sermon really, that George W. Bush gave here in this Cathedral on September 14th, 2001. Twenty years later, his words are still fresh and poignant. Twenty years later, we too gather in this sacred space to come before God, to pray for the missing and the dead, and those who love them. Twenty years have passed, a whole generation of young people have been born and grown up with 9/11 as just another moment in history. And while perhaps the passing of years has lessened the shock of that tragic morning, when the sky was so blue and the weather so perfect, I know for many of us who lived through that day, who lost loved ones that day, the grief, the loss and the pain are only too real and present all these years later.
A lot has happened since September 11th, 2001. We’ve seen three presidents, lived through two wars, experienced a serious recession, and we’re working our way through a global pandemic. Just to name a very few of the events that have transpired during these years. I wish I could say that we are much better off than we were then, but I’m not sure that we are. I wish I could say that the world is a much safer place now, but I’m not sure that it is. I’m glad that bin Laden is gone, and that Al-Qaeda is greatly diminished. I am glad that for the last 20 years, we have been much safer from attacks by foreign terrorists on our homeland, but there is still far too much fear and hatred out there. Still too much violence, too much death. And while thanks be to God, we have experienced less foreign terror, we seem to have increased the homegrown kind. We’ve lived through 20 years of war and those same young people who know 9/11 only from the history books have never known a time when America was not at war. Wars where too many civilians have died, and too many brave men and women in our armed forces have given their lives or big pieces of their souls in defense of our country. So what are we supposed to do with today? First, we remember. We remember those who died, the husbands and wives, the brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, who died that day. The nearly 3000 innocent souls who lost their lives in the most tragic and horrific way. We remember them. We honor their lives. We mourn their loss. We continue to work our way through the grief that 20 years later is still with us. Second, we continue to pray for and stand with the family and friends of those who died. The parents who lost children, the children who lost parents, the widows, widowers, siblings, whose lives were changed forever on the morning of September 11th. They continue to need us, and we have a duty to them.
But most importantly, for my purposes this morning on this anniversary, despite everything that happened on that day and on all the days since, we must find and hold onto the hope. We must lift up and live into the highest ideals we have as a people. The best of who we are when we are at our best. In our gospel for this morning, Jesus lays out to his puzzled and protesting disciples the truth about what it means to be the Messiah. He tells them that he hasn’t come to seek power. He hasn’t come to raise an army and defeat the Roman occupiers. Rather he has come to serve and sacrifice himself in the name of love. And he tells them that those who would follow him must also live lives of service and sacrifice, that they must be willing to pick up their crosses and follow him in the name of love. That today, my friends, is the key for me, the heart of the matter, the good news that propels me forward. See, we are strongest. We are at our best when we too are willing to serve one another, sacrifice for one another, love one another, almost as much as we love ourselves. On 9/11, we witnessed immense tragedy, but on that day, and on the days that followed, we also saw America and Americans at their best. In the 343 firefighters and first responders who rushed into danger, who raced to help the stricken and the stranded, who gave their lives trying to save others, we see the power of love at work in the world. A power that is far greater than anything hatred or violence can achieve.
We are honored this morning to have so many men and women amongst us who are still, still willing to run towards danger for the sake of others and not away from it. They represent America at her best. They represent the kind of love that Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples this morning. Moreover, in the everyday Americans who during the days that followed 9/11 gave blood, sent supplies, wrote checks, raced into the city, or did anything they could to help, we can see the same kind of holy love in action. It’s a love that brings us together. A love that doesn’t have boundaries. See, the terrorists wanted to tear us apart on September 11th, but that fateful day brought us together and brought out the best of who we can be.
These and so many other acts of sacrifice and service are what I want to hold on to today, what I want to lift up. Here is where I find the hope for the future. The hope for our nation. Yes, we are a people divided to a degree we have not seen in a long, long time, but it need not be so. We have witnessed a better way. We have seen what we can do when we stand together, when we rally around one another, despite our differences. As Peggy Noonan said in the Wall Street Journal just the other day, “There is a big unseen current of love that hums through the world.” That current, that current has God as its source. That current is what Jesus came to show us. That current is exemplified by his life and by his death on the cross. That current can easily be overlooked or taken for granted or dismissed as romantic wishful thinking, but it is in fact, the source of our hope and all of our strengths.
In closing, there is within our Episcopal church tradition, an old prayer for the dead that says, “Grant, oh Lord, we pray thee, that the offering of their lives may not have been made in vain. That we and all thy people may hear the call to nobler living, which sounds in our ears from the graves of those who have died. That we may dedicate our lives anew to the work of bringing in thy kingdom on earth. That so out of years of sin and misery and loss, there may arise a better nation and a better world.” My brothers and sisters, as we remember and mourn all those who died on 9/11, let us leave this place today determined to honor them, not only with our prayers and our memory and our grief, but with our actions. And the bravery and sacrifice of so many of them, we have been shown the nobler way as that prayer said. We have been shown the way forward. That is the way of love. It requires us to stand against hatred and all its forms. It requires us to work for justice. It requires us to never seek vengeance. It requires us to reach beyond our own selfish concerns for the welfare of others. And most importantly, it requires us to learn how to love our enemies.
We owe these dear departed souls, our best efforts. We owe them our determination to build a better nation and a better world. We owe them. We owe them.