Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)
The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)
On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?
We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.
It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”
By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.
Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.
I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.
All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?
I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?
But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.
God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?
And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.
God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.
Praise be to God. Amen.