Sermon: 9/11 TEN YEARS ON
Preached on 16th October 2011
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
I was due to preach last month, on Sunday 11th September. I had written my sermon in good time because of my daughter’s wedding the week before. Then my wife’s father died, and we were precipitated into preparing for his funeral. Canon Mark McIntosh kindly stepped into the breach, and it was appropriate for my American colleague to preach on the anniversary of 9/11. However, my planned sermon would not go away; indeed, the media coverage of the 10th anniversary reinforced my sense that in 2001 we had lived through a defining moment in our history. It was one of those days we instinctively know mattered and would go on mattering for decades to come. And my own bereavement – so different from what was experienced by the loved ones who perished that day, because it was long expected – still seemed to connect me more closely with the heartbreak at the heart of things.
I was on the rota to preach on the evening of Tuesday 11 September 2001 at a service in Sheffield for the licensing of new ministers. It was a day to tear up what I had prepared and start again. Here is part of what I said:
With these images of burning and destruction in our minds as we gather here to worship God, what can we say to one another that will help? What can we say to God? In one sense, we can say nothing for we need time to take this in. We simply stare, appalled, at the spectacle we have witnessed and are silenced by what human beings can do to one another…. Today is a time to be silent when the fragility of life and the reality of death feel very close. When we begin to speak again, what we shall say is that the praise of God and the pain of the world cannot be kept apart. And whether the pain of the world is felt in the tears of a solitary sufferer or in the anguish of an entire nation, it is what we are about as God’s people and it is what God himself is about. Therefore, it is what the ministry of each of us must mean if we are to be true to the crucified One who sends us into the world in his name. I would have wished that we would remember today, the 11th September, for happier reasons than we undoubtedly will. But this is the cruel reality of the world in which we are called to ministry. We always knew it was a broken world into which we were sent in the name of Christ our healer.
Before 9/11 I had contributed to a book of essays Calling Time: Religion and Change at the Turn of the Millennium. My piece was called ‘A Threshold of Fear and of Hope’. It explored the idea that entering the new millennium might be like crossing a frontier to another country: they do things differently there. This seemed to me more than just turning over the calendar and writing ‘2’ at the start of each year. It would mean crossing a significant threshold, a kairos moment. I said:
We remain beset by deep uncertainties about the future, wanting both to embrace hope in the face of new possibilities, yet afraid in case tomorrow should turn out to bring catastrophe to our world. We do not yet have a map to guide us, only a few compass bearings to suggest a general direction. This gives the turn of the millennium a double-edged feel. Consciously, we approach it in the expectation of having something to celebrate. Unconsciously, we perhaps face it with a certain degree of trepidation.
At the time, some thought this a bit far-fetched. Yet this first decade of the millennium has surely brought us into a strange land where we do not always know how to sing the Lord’s song: the calamity of 9/11, our realisation in the west that there are those who hate us and everything we stand for; the war on terror, security pervading our daily lives on an unheard-of scale making us feel even more insecure; and if that were not enough, a global economic crisis that is probably the worst for more than a century and which will take years, maybe decades, to recover from. The world is not the same as it was. We have all had to learn to live in this unwelcome exile where it feels as though ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’, where precarious times make us very afraid for the safety of our world and the future of our children.
If any good came out of 9/11, it is perhaps that there is now a greater awareness of how Christianity, Islam and Judaism are one family of faiths. Paradoxically, as radical fundamentalists of all three traditions try to erect ever higher barriers of hatred, thinking people increasingly recognise Christianity’s origins in Judaism and Islam’s debt to both; and how these Abrahamic faiths, committed to the worship of the one true God, impart a set of values, ethics and a concern for justice that is unique in religion. We should not collude with the gloss often put on acts of terrorism that they are primarily about religious hatred. Religion (by which I mean the wildly distorted reading of it by radical fundamentalists) is the pretext, not the cause. This hatred we have now come to recognise has many different and complex origins, some historical, some contemporary. It’s a noxious cocktail of unhealed memory, powerlessness, dislocation and envy. These can take on the mantle of religious fervour, but it is spurious. Intelligent religion sees through it and names it for what it is.
In today’s New Testament reading St John speaks of what lies at the heart of religion. ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ And again, ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…whoever fears has not reached perfection in love’. Is this a clue about how our world could become a better place? It is important not to be simplistic about this: John is writing about personal relationships not the clash of civilisations. Yet our future and the world’s must depend on learning how to live in open, unafraid relationships of giving and receiving, where we truly love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.
I would not be a Christian if I did not believe that faith holds out the promise of a better future. This promise belongs to the kingdom of heaven that is not yet among us. But even as we long for it and wait for it, we glimpse its life-changing effects, motivating and energising us so that we do not capitulate to helplessness and despair but are aroused to give ourselves to God’s work of justice, truth and love in the world. This risks sounding rhetorical and grandiose, the sort of impossible ideal preachers like to talk up. This is where today’s reading helps, because whenever we embrace the kingdom of God and live its path of truth, we make a difference. It is costly to love in the way the gospel requires of us, but we have no choice about it. If we heard the voice of wisdom calling out to us in our first reading, we know that it is folly to live any other way.
This means trying (and I like that humble little word) to imitate the one whose words and works were life-changing for those on whom he turned the light of truth and looked with the gaze of love. For then we find that as his heart speaks to our hearts we begin to face the future with equanimity, and even with hope. In bewildering times, we are right to be suspicious of easy speeches, grand designs, quick fixes. If we think this is Christianity, we have not been paying attention. Yet we can be sure of Love’s great ways. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We do not lose heart.
Proverbs 4.1-18, 1 John 3.16-4.6