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9-11 Sermon

September 11th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Faith and the City


It has been an usually quiet day in NYC, even with all the events marking this somber anniversary.  Still, we had a very well attended interfaith service at the church this afternoon.  I delivered this homily during our morning worship, and some of you asked that I post it here.

All good blessings to you,


“Thou Art With Me”
A Homily on the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11-01
Psalm 23 
September 11, 2011
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church


Psalm 23 (KJV)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


There are so many stories.

It seems like every journalist in this country, every blogger, every television crew has been searching for a unique 9-11 story to tell this week.  Accounts of that terrible day have been cycling non-stop on New York 1, the Discovery Channel, and all the news networks.  They are everywhere—in the papers, on the radio, in magazines, in theatrical presentations.  There are so many stories, and so many different angles on one immense story.

Last week, I stayed overnight in our homeless shelter.  We started talking about 9-11, and, of course, every person in the room had their own story.  One fellow, Kevin, explained that he was staying with his brother over in New Jersey that day; and he was supposed to get up at 8:00 AM to let the ATT guy into the apartment to hook up the cable.  But Kevin overslept.  So, the cable guy called Kevin’s brother, who was just about to enter the World Trade Center, and his brother hopped back on the PATH train and returned to Jersey.  “Me being a slacker,” Kevin declared, “saved my brother’s life.”

Other accounts are so distressing, so shred-your-heart sad, that we can barely stand it.  We have all listened to voices break as family members tell of final cell phone calls from the upper reaches of the towers.  Perhaps you heard the story of Alissa Torres this past week.  Ten years ago today, seven months pregnant, Alissa kissed her husband Eddie goodbye, and sent him off to the first day of his “dream job” working at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor of the North Tower.

All week long, people have been telling stories like this.  They have described the loss of parents and friends, spouses and coworkers—2,819 faces.  These ordinary people were going about their day: window washers and waiters, bankers and brokers, parking attendants and pilots, flight attendants and messenger boys.  These were people with hobbies and favorite foods, annoying habits and big dreams.  And then, in a few terrifying hours, they were all gone.

Our tremendous grief this day is also laced with stories of sacrifice and bravery.  We remind each other of the firefighters and the police officers, the EMTs and the passengers on those planes—people with hearts so big that they pushed fear aside to attempt the impossible.  Their stories humble us.  They inspire us.

There are also countless, literally countless, stories that spider-web out from this central story.  There are soldiers who have fought bravely and intelligence analysts who have worked tirelessly to prevent another such attack.  There are peace advocates and diplomats and mission workers who have labored to build bridges across the chasms that divide us.  There are stories about engineers and architects and ironworkers who have been rebuilding the Trade Center complex; endowing it with symbolism and gravitas appropriate to the loss that occurred there.

What are we to do with all of these stories?

Some admit that they have avoided the television this past week because the human trauma there comes in doses that are simply too much to bear.  Others argue that it is time to move on.  They accuse the media and politicians of exploiting this anniversary.  I hear the caution in this criticism.  “Don’t be manipulated.”  Yet, I honestly feel like the media are reflecting something larger.  People really do seem to need to talk about it.  This past week, everywhere I went, cab drivers, our homeless guests, people on the six train, parents walking their kids to the first day of school, everyone was telling their story.

Most people over the age of twenty have a memory, an especially keen memory, of that clear blue sky of a day—whether they watched it play out on television, or whether they walked through ashes and a swirl of papers to get home.  Some have come up with a name for the masses who had the images of the attacks seared into their minds by the looping video.  They call us “The 9-11 Generation.”

Is that us—the 9-11 Generation?  Are we at the tenth anniversary of the defining event of our lives?

In last decade, 9-11 has certainly played a huge role in our political debates, our foreign and domestic policy, and even our own personal planning.  Maybe this, whether we like it or not, is the hallmark of our generation.  Yet, before we accept the title, as if we have a choice in the matter, I think we should consider one basic question: Why does September 11, 2001 loom so large in our collective memory?

I’m sure its no surprise, but I want to suggest a spiritual answer to this question.  I think 9-11 links us together because on that day we came face-to-face with a malevolent force that cared not one whit for who we are, but that wished to extinguish us.  On that day, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, we walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” together.

Most of the time when people face death in this world, they do it alone, or with a a few family members and friends.  In his powerful book, In the Valley of the Shadow, James L. Kugel, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, describes his state of mind after being diagnosed with a highly aggressive and likely fatal form of cancer.  He writes:

After the initial shock, I was, of course, disturbed and worried.  But the main change in my state of mind was that – I can’t think of a better way to put it – the background music suddenly stopped.  It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. (p. 2)

Kugel is right.  We spend our lives bouncing along to the beat of the background music.  We juggle appointments and priorities.  We make a billion decisions: the movie or the party, the hotdog or the hamburger, blue jeans or khakis.  We engage in endless conflicts with co-workers and family members.  A little ribbing here; a snide comment there.  We root for our teams, vote for our parties, and try to put some money away for retirement.  Then along comes death—our mother keels over at a pizza joint, a doctor holds your x-ray up to the light and frowns—and suddenly everything  “normal” drops away.  In Kugel’s words: “the music of infinite time and possibility” suddenly goes silent.

Most often, people experience this profound silence on their own.  Death shows its face, the background music ceases, and yet the rest of the world chugs merrily along.  If you’ve been there—staring death in the face—you know how strange it is to watch others go about their normal lives while you face an apocalyptic loss.  It seems so wrong that the great poet, W.H. Auden, once asked the rest of the world to pause out of respect for his heartache:

 Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.[1]


It is a plaintive request.  One that the world almost always ignores.  Almost always.  That’s the thing about 9-11, that’s the experience of this generation.  Ten years ago today, the background music went silent for everyone.  As one of the guys down in the shelter put it, “Man, in the weeks following 9-11, we were one.  We knew what mattered.”

It would wrong, of course, sick even, to cultivate nostalgia for 9-11.  Too many lives were shattered that day.  Yet, it would also be a mistake not to remember the remarkable unity that we shared in the days and weeks following the attacks.  We walked through the valley of the shadow of death together.

Out of that unified experience came a remarkable outpouring of charity.  It also stirred up an interest in religion—in this city and across this country.  This past Friday, I received a very kind email from Tom Tewell, my predecessor here at FAPC.  In it, Tom passed along his blessings for this service.  He also recalled all of the people who flooded to the church in those days; all of the professions of faith; all the adult baptisms.

Some say that the 9-11 bump that churches experienced was nothing more than a shallow, self-interested fad.  We are under attack.  We could die.  We better get some God.  Maybe, but I have to confess that I find this analysis to be shallow.  When the background music clicks off, as it always does when the forces of death crowd around us, we don’t suddenly become delusional.  On the contrary, we get clear-headed.  When the static is silenced, we hear things that have been drowned out for a long time.

When the psalmist walked through the valley of shadows he heard: the thump of a staff on the roadbed.  He heard the clink of plates—a table being set, a feast being prepared in the presence of enemies.  He heard the pop of a stopper being pulled from a jar of precious oil.  He heard the sounds of a good shepherd, a holy comforter who stands by us in the most difficult of circumstances, binding us up, anointing our heads with oil.  My cup overflows.

True, the whole episode does take place in a bleak valley—a deadly place.  But, that’s the power of the psalm.  It doesn’t deny death or enemies.  These things are real, says the psalmist, but they cannot claim me.  When the background music goes quiet, when death comes, I will not be alone.  Thou art with me.

Thou art with me.

Isn’t this the hope that drew people to the church in the days following 9-11?  Isn’t this the faith that tethers us to another shepherd—one from Galilee?

In Jesus, we say that heaven came to walk alongside us, to suffer like us, and to die the death that we will someday die.  To some this looks like defeat pure and simple, but to us, like the disciples on Easter morning, it looks like a friend making good on a promise: “I will be with you always.”

We cling to this promise as we think of those who lost their lives ten years ago today.  And at the same time, this promise clings to us.  It stalks us every day of our lives.  Don’t you love that line in the psalm, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”  Goodness and mercy follow us!  All week I have been rolling that verse around in my head, and then it hit me.  They are dogs.  Goodness and mercy are faithful dogs.  The hounds of heaven have my scent, sings the psalmist.  They will follow me wherever I go.

Will we welcome their companionship?

This is the pressing question that Psalm 23 leaves with us on this solemn day.  This generation has walked through the valley of the shadow of death together.  So?  Now what?  Will we return to the billion decisions, the petty squabbles, the background music, and once again give all our energy to that futile dance?  Or will we dare to do for this world what God has done for us?  Will we pour oil on the heads of the suffering, and set tables for those who hunger?  What better memorial could we give to those who died ten years ago then becoming caretakers of heaven’s hounds—then promising to cavort with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives?

Please stand and join me in the unison prayer for peace which can be found printed in your bulletin.

[1] Wystan Hugh Auden, Funeral Blues (Song IX / from Two Songs for Hedli Anderson).

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Katie CummingsNo Gravatar

    Thank you, Scott. I really needed that. We were living in D.C. on 9-11. My husband Phil was in a morning meeting in the Capitol building; he saw and smelled the smoke rising from the Pentagon as he and hundreds were trying to evacuate from the mall area. It was our particular part of the valley of the shadow of death that day. God is with us still.

  • Roslyn R GregoryNo Gravatar

    Oh, such a wonderful account of the remembrance of 9/11/01, as well as bringing to life the 23rd Psalm. While we were not in NYC for this sermon, I so very much appreciate being able to experience it by reading it here. Thank you, Scott! I plan to share this with many others.