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Out of the Depths – 9/11/2011

READING[i]

Narrator: “Taken from an article in the online news source The Onion, dated September 26, 2001. NEW YORK—Responding to recent events on Earth, God, the omniscient creator-deity worshipped by billions of followers of various faiths for more than 6,000 years, angrily clarified Her longtime stance against humans killing each other Monday.”

God: “Look, I don’t know, maybe I haven’t made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again. Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don’t. And to be honest, I’m really getting sick and tired of it. Get it straight. Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand.”

Narrator: “Worshipped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, God said Her name has been invoked countless times over the centuries as a reason to kill in what She called “an unending cycle of violence.”

God: “I don’t care how holy somebody claims to be. If a person tells you it’s My will that they kill someone, they’re wrong. Got it? I don’t care what religion you are, or who you think your enemy is, here it is one more time: No killing, in My name or anyone else’s, ever again.”

Narrator: “The press conference came as a surprise to humankind, as God rarely intervenes in earthly affairs. As a matter of longstanding policy, She has traditionally left the task of interpreting Her message and divine will to clerics, rabbis, priests, imams, and Biblical scholars. Theologians and laypeople alike have been given the task of pondering Her ineffable mysteries, deciding for themselves what to do as a matter of faith. Her decision to manifest on the material plane was motivated by the deep sense of shock, outrage, and sorrow She felt over the Sept. 11 violence carried out in Her name, and over its dire potential ramifications around the globe.”

God: “I tried to put it in the simplest possible terms for you people, so you’d get it straight, because I thought it was pretty important. I guess I figured I’d left no real room for confusion after putting

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it in a four-word sentence with one-syllable words, on the tablets I gave to Moses. How much more clear can I get? But somehow, it all gets twisted around and, next thing you know, somebody’s spouting off some nonsense about, ‘God says I have to kill this guy, God wants me to kill that guy, it’s God’s will.’ It’s not God’s will, all right? News flash: ‘God’s will’ equals ‘Don’t murder people.'”

Narrator: Growing increasingly wrathful, God continued:

God: “Can’t you people see? There are a ton of different religious traditions out there, and different cultures worship Me in different ways. But the basic message is always the same: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism… every religious belief system under the sun, they all say you’re supposed to love your neighbors, folks! It’s not that hard a concept to grasp. I’m talking to all of you, here! Do you hear Me? I don’t want you to kill anybody. I’m against it, across the board. How many times do I have to say it? Don’t kill each other anymore—ever! I’m serious!”

Narrator: Upon completing Her outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and She wept.

SERMON

If you were born before that date and were old enough to remember now, you have a story about where you were on September 11th, 2001 – where you were when you heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Each of us has a story – we heard from the radio, or from a coworker, or an urgent phone call. A few of us in the room this morning were actually in this building on that day; there was a playgroup for young children meeting in Hale Hall downstairs, and the parents found out something serious was going on when my predecessor, our Minister Emerita Sylvia Howe, came down to let them know. I was still in college then, on a small, insular campus in the Hudson River Valley. There were two televisions shared by a thousand-odd students, and it took a while for the truth of what had happened to sink in to the student body. We wouldn’t learn until later that the planes that struck the World Trade Center had likely flown over our heads – the hijackers had used the Hudson as a roadmap, following the river south to New York.

Each of us who lived through it has a story and an experience of that day. The experience unites us, and ties us together, forming an unhappy fellowship. The singular characteristic of an event like September 11th isn’t that it was more painful for any one person than any other terrible crime or traumatic loss of life. The thing that sets that day apart is how broad the suffering was; a whole nation touched suddenly and sharply by death and grief, and a sorrow stretching far out ahead into an uncertain future. When we are truly in the grip of sadness – real, deep, painful sadness – our world is upended. Everything seems wrong and out of order. Normally, that level of sorrow is something we go through privately. A father dies, a best friend gets cancer, a daughter tells us she never wants to see us again; the grief and the hurt might be shared with us by a small circle of other people, but for most of the world around us, nothing has changed.

Ten years ago, it was different. There was still the immediate circle of everyone who had lost a person they loved in the attacks. But out beyond them there was a far wider circle, a whole nation of people struck in the heart as well, and pouring out tears for folks in a far away city many of them had never even set foot in before. There is a teaching in both the Muslim and the Jewish traditions that whoever takes a single life, it is as though they had murdered the entire world. This felt as though the taking of three thousand lives had somehow taken someone precious from every person in the country, far beyond the bounds of their actual family and friends. The private suffering of a terrible loss was instead played out very, very publicly. And because we had all gone through it at the same time and the whole country was in the same circle of grief, we didn’t have a friend or a partner or a therapist we could collectively call up or break down with. There was no one to reach out to who cared about us, but wasn’t connected to the catastrophe we’d just experienced, who could listen to us talk it out and hold us while we cried. We had no collective national support system to handle our collective sorrow. Instead we muddled through together.

It can be tempting, very tempting, in the face of our own deep anguish, to run from it – to try to burn it out with anger, or hide behind a false wall of calm. But that is a dangerous and self-destructive impulse, because as hard as it is, sadness isn’t a bad thing. It is a perfectly sane response to tragedy and loss. There is still a place for anger in the face of grief – anger has its purposes as well but when we try to make it a replacement for our sadness, we can end up stuck in anger, and unable to get out. It is only through sitting with our tears and permitting sadness just to be, that we can reach the hope of a renewed life after the loss. We just heard our choir sing beautifully lines from the 130th Psalm. It begins from a place of deep sorrow: “Out of the depths I cry to thee,” writes the

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Psalmist, calling out to a listening God, “Let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” The singer is eagerly awaits the return of hope, “More than those who watch for the morning.”

The waiting is hard, but it is made easier when we do not do it alone. Despair gives way to hope most readily when we have a partner or a friend or a religious community to call on to share our trials, not to stop the tears from falling, but to dry them when they have run their course. This is what I would wish for any of us in our private pain, and in our hours of need, when we lie awake and wait for the dawn

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of hope.

In the reading which David and Elizabeth just offered us, we had the image of a frightened, angry and terribly saddened God, giving a press conference just after the September 11th attacks. The events were so horrible and so wrong that she fell to just shouting at humanity desperately hoping that this time we would hear her, this time we would listen. And then finally, hoarse and overcome, she simply began to cry. We each imagine the Divine in different ways, but we could do far worse than to understand God as someone who loves us all enough to be frightened and angry and brokenhearted when any one of us does harm to any other. In its way, that is what the grief that flows naturally from every tragedy does. It reminds us that what has happened should not have been, as the still small voice within cries out that the world ought to be made better than this.

Ten years later, we might debate if we live in a finer world than we did just after the towers fell. But we would agree, I am certain, that there is still much work to do – for the will of God is still invoked to divide people, and not to connect them. But the next ten years remain unwritten, and now more than ever our country needs people and communities who are determined to build hope and wage peace, affirming life even in the persistent reality of death. I look out at you this morning and I believe that I see many such people, and one such community. Today we begin another year of worship and service together. May it be a bold and hopeful one.

 


[i] Adapted from The Onion, “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,” http://www.theonion.com/articles/god-angrily-clarifies-dont-kill-rule,222/

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