Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 11, 2011

2011.09.11 “9/11 Ten Years Later: What Song Shall We Sing?” – Exodus 14: 19 – 15: 2

“9/11 Ten Years Later: What Song Shall We Sing?”
Pastor David L. Haley
Exodus 14: 19 – 15: 2
September 11th, 2011

For several weeks now, every time I tried to begin this sermon, I’d find myself looking at a blinking cursor on a blank sheet of paper. How does one begin put into words the range and intensity of emotions we felt – and still feel – when we think about 9/11/2001, and all that has occurred since?

I began to think maybe I’m not the right guy for the job. Those who study grief and recovery from traumatic experiences say that the duration and intensity of it is directly related to how intense and personal the life-threat experience was to you. If you personally experienced it, that’s the worst. If it happened to someone you loved or knew, that’s next worse. If your life circumstances are similar to those who were victims, then your identification and empathy with the victims may be intense.

So even now, ten years later, many of us still have strong emotional reactions to 9/11, because what happened that day affected and indeed overwhelmed almost all of us.

Did we know someone who worked in the World Trade Towers, or the Pentagon, or someone who happened to be on one of those four doomed planes? Did we hear those last calls of fathers and mothers to spouses and children, or about those firefighters writing notes to their families before they responded, because they knew they might not come back? Has anyone from our family served in the military, been deployed, or – worst of all – been killed or injured in the endless war of the last ten years?

My point of contact has been in two ways. In my last parish, in addition to being a pastor, I was a firefighter/paramedic for 17 years. I watched 9/11 happen from inside a firehouse. As we watched those towers burning, we knew members of the FDNY were heading up the stairwells, to attempt fire suppression and rescue, because that’s what firefighters do. So when the towers collapsed, it was sickening to think how many surely died. Indeed, of the 3,000 who died that day, 343 of them – almost three times the number of people sitting here today, if you can visualize that – were FDNY firefighters. Men who died doing their everyday job, but became the first line of defense in a terrorist attack.

My second point of contact was this: as the years of the decade passed, in 2006, a year after he graduated from college, my son Chris told me he was thinking about joining the Marine Corps. I told him that was noble, but there was a war on, and did he realize he could get killed?

He did join, and, honestly, I was so proud of him that day he completed the 13 weeks of Marine boot camp in San Diego, and earned the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. However, I could not look at his graduation picture in his dress blues for two years, because, at that time, there were too obituaries that looked just like it.

As you know, in the last year of his four year tour, Chris deployed to Iraq, in the fall of 2009 and early 2010. Thankfully, the violence had calmed down at that time, and thankfully, he was in a safe place, and made it home early and safely. But I can’t tell you how anxious and frightening that time was for me as a father. You just live in absolute fear that one day the phone is going to ring, or worse, that two Marines in dress uniforms are going to knock on your door. Which gave me a deep empathy for all those fathers and mothers and spouses whose doors they have knocked on, or whose loved ones are deployed in harm’s way.

During that time, when Chris was far away and I couldn’t help him, I volunteered to be a Chaplain for Chicago’s own, the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, here in Chicago. The unit served two tours in Iraq, during which they lost 15 men. They are now preparing for a tour in Afghanistan next year. Think about those fathers, and mothers, and spouses again.

Because you see, here’s the thing: whatever we might think about the politics or the wars, once you raise your right hand and solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over you, so help you God, where they say you go, you go. And when that first bullet whizzes past your ear, all the politics in the world goes right out the window. As for as your family, as the old saying goes, “When your son or daughter enlists, you get recruited.”

For most of a decade, while most of the country did as they were told and went shopping, the less-than-1% of our population in the military have born the burden of these wars, physically, emotionally, socially. Over 6,000 have been killed, and 16 times that number wounded, some with physical and emotional injuries that will scar them the rest of their lives. For every one of those, there is a family.

And, it’s not just them: add to that the estimated hundred thousand others who have died as a result of the actions taken since 9/11, many innocent victims, women and children. Here in Skokie, we have many Iraqi refugees, some Sundays some of them worship here with us.

So, in light of this, on this 10th year anniversary of 9/11, we might rightly ask, what song should we sing? A song of lament, like the prophet Jeremiah sang of his people so long ago:

“O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1)

Sadly, since 9/11/2001 there have been a lot of days where we feel like that.

Should we sing a song of triumph over our enemies, like Moses and Miriam sing in today’s Old Testament lesson, following the defeat of their oppressor Egypt?

I’m singing my heart out to God — what a victory!
He pitched horse and rider into the sea.
God is my strength, God is my song,
and, yes! God is my salvation.” (Exodus 15: 1, The Message)

Some said, even though it’s our prescribed Old Testament reading from the lectionary for today, this is the worst possible text to read today. Indeed, some recommendations were NOT to read it, or at least censor it, in case some Christians do not understand that not everything in the Bible is prescriptive, but sometimes just descriptive.

And, in fact, God’s deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt is one of the most important events in the Old Testament. After the 400 years of bondage they went through, you can understand why they might want to jump up and down and break out in songs of victory upon its end, just as African Americans did, sometimes using this same imagery, at the end of slavery. But did they really have to go so far as to describe the Egyptian dead lying on the seashore? After all, after 9/11, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the dead we have seen, and as even soldiers will tell you, it is a sobering sight.

Through the centuries, rabbis struggled with this story. Did the people have to wade in the water first, before God parted the water, or did they wait until the sea retreated? Was it appropriate to rejoice in the deaths of the Egyptians? To answer such questions the rabbis developed the midrash – stories to fill the gaps, to deal with the contradictions and questions.

One such story makes it even clearer. According to a rabbi, the angels were rejoicing over the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea — playing their harps, singing and dancing. “Wait,” said one of them. “Look, the Creator of the Universe is sitting there weeping!” They approached God and asked, “Why are you weeping when Israel has been delivered by your power?” “I am weeping,” said the Maker of the Universe, “for the dead Egyptians washed up on the shore — somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s fathers” (Albert C. Winn “A Way Out of No Way: Exodus 14:5–31, in Journal for Preachers”).

So, even today, ten years later, a song of triumph might prove hollow. Since 9/11/2001, we haven’t had any clear victories to sing about. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were ambiguous from the start and drag on to this day. And while many cheered the death of Osama bin Laden, his death has not turned sorrow into joy or filled an empty place at the table. What song shall we sing?

I would suggest that as Christians, called by Jesus to be salt and light in the world, called to be peacemakers, each of us should find some way to sing a song of hope, something to make the next decade – indeed, the future for our children – brighter, and more promising and hopeful than the past.

For example, in Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times on last year’s anniversary of 9/11 (September 10, 2010), he told the story of two women who found each other and began to sing a song of hope through sorrow. Susan Retik and Patti Quigley lost their husbands that terrible day. Both were pregnant with babies their fathers would never see. They never expected to be pregnant widows yet it was that terrible reality that connected them with widows in the nation we had named our enemy.

These two American women started an organization called “Beyond the 11th” dedicated to helping Afghan women who were widows like themselves. As of last year they had helped more than 1,000 Afghan widows start businesses to support their families. And get this: all the work done by “Beyond the 11th” over nine years has cost less than keeping one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for eight months.

These two women sang a song not of revenge or retribution, but of new life and connection. Who knows how things might be different now, if all of us – in our own way – had joined their song? Who knows how much more hopeful the next decade might be if we – each and every one of us – could find a way to do so.

Because the world has changed, and not always in the way we think. We live in a global community, where what happens in Afghanistan affects the way we live in America, in Chicago. We rub shoulders with religions other than our own, such as Islam, and the way we treat them, as Jesus taught us, should be the way we want to be treated. As the 16th century English preacher John Donne reminded us:

“No man is an island,
entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main .
. .
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”

Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad is one of our country’s best preachers, and is a former pastor in New York City. She reminds us that ten years ago we sang “God, Bless America” as a fervent prayer out of our fear and brokenness. As a prayer the song sings of deep gratitude for our country “from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans decked with foam.” But when the song becomes a prayer for our country alone, she says, we need a song to remind us of the breadth of God’s love beyond our borders. Now, she suggests, we need to at least join in singing a second verse to the song:

God bless the world we love,
Stranger and friend,
Go before us, restore us

With a hope that despair cannot end.
Ev’ry people, ev’ry nation,
Mighty ocean, heaven’s dome.
God bless the world we love
Our fragile home.
God bless the world You love,
Our fragile home.

[I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Barbara K. Lundblad for her very helpful commentary on Exodus 14: 19 – 31, ”On Scripture,” found at Odyssey Networks, for September 11, 2011]


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