Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Preach One: September 13

Preached in Middle and Upper School Chapel at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Ridgeland, MS

Isaiah 35:5-7; Psalm 103; Romans 12:9-21

I can't believe I'm old enough to even consider starting this sermon with the words, "Back when I was in school..."  Things were a little different back then, though.  We used big books called encyclopedias to write research papers, danced all night to Duran Duran, and the bigger we could get our hair, the better.

Change is good, right?  Things change so fast these days, though, that even you are old enough to say, "Back when I was little..."  Just ten years ago, in your lifetime, the world was a much different place.  There was no Face book.  No Twitter.  No texting.  In fact, lots of people didn't even have cell phones.  I didn't.

If I'd had a cell phone ten years ago, I probably would have called home the moment I realized I was not where I was supposed to be.  It was September; we had moved to New York City in August for me to begin my seminary studies.  We had just started getting used to the sounds that surrounded the quiet seminary close - city buses braking at the corner, subway cars rumbling deep below,  taxi cabs honking at pedestrians, airplanes on their low approach to La Guardia, sirens and car alarms and shouts in every language.

We knew that something was different, though, when on our first day of class the sirens became more constant, more urgent, drowning out all other sounds as emergency vehicles began rushing down to Lower Manhattan.  We knew that everything had changed when, by the time the sun set on that awful day, the city that never sleeps was completely still.

In the days and weeks that followed September 11, we returned to class, and traffic returned to the streets; airplanes wouldn't return to their flight path over the city for months.  One afternoon, I tucked my ten-month-old in his stroller and headed for the Hudson River, just a few blocks west of our apartment.  We walked along the river for a while, watching the boats to our right and the Westside Highway to our left, where the median was still full of handwritten signs thanking firefighters and other first responders for their heroism.

It was later in the day than I realized, though, and getting dark quickly.  I wasn't sure how far we had walked, but knew I couldn't get home before light was gone.  I didn't have a cell phone, and anyway, ten years ago cell phones were just...phones.  They weren't smart.  I knew that the subway line back to the seminary was nearby, and as the streetlights flickered on, I turned down the next street.

It was Canal Street, the farthest south one could go without security clearance in those days.  Police cars and fire engines lined the street, now a staging area for those going on to do recovery work at the World Trade Center.  Red and blue lights flashed everywhere, workers were moving gear and equipment between vehicles, crates of food and water spilled out of Red Cross vans, and hundreds of rescuers waited to start their shifts.

In the midst of all the activity, I couldn't find the entrance to the subway, and now quite anxious, I asked a police officer if he would point me in the right direction.  He did.  In fact, he walked me to the subway entrance.  And then he carried my son, stroller and all, down the stairs to the turnstile.  And then he pulled two subway tokens from his pocket and sent us through.  And then he waited until the train came.  And then...

...And then what?  I went home.  But that officer...did he then go take his place sifting through the still-smoldering debris?  Did he report back to his precinct, from which who knows how many others had been lost?  Did he go home to wash the dust and ask from his clothes and hair?

It feels strange to tell you this story, this single small moment of kindness extended from one stranger to another, one neighbor to another, when there are so very many other far more extraordinary stories from that time to tell.  Soul-gripping, awe-inspiring stories of courage, compassion, sacrifice, generosity, endurance, and grace.  And yet, though small, this was a moment of kindness, of taking time not simply to point someone in the right way, but to walk with them in it, even if just to the end of the block, or the bottom of the stairs, even if just to wait with them until the next train comes.

So it is, I believe, that every moment holds for us just such an opportunity.  Every moment, every encounter, holds opportunities to not just speak kindness but to do kindness.  Not just to offer comfort but to be comfort.  Not just to show compassion but to be compassion, to live compassion, one single small moment at a time.  After all, it's how we were made, in the image of God who is, we just read, full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  We were made in just such an image.  How would it be if moment by moment, encounter by encounter, we chose to let that image shine through rather than letting our shadow side show, full of fear and anxiety, quick to judge, and of sometimes great cruelty?  Those are choices we can make, too...

Compassion - Love, which is to say, God - was chosen by the police officer on Canal Street that night.  It was chosen over and over in countless moments throughout the city in those days, and in Washington, and in Pennsylvania.  It has happened overseas in countless moments where women and men still serve in the name of ending terrorism.  It happens every day in this city when volunteers like you prepare meals or donate clothes or provide tutoring or clean up a street.  It happens right here at school when we choose in any single moment, no matter how seemingly small, to be how we were made to be, full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Our small moments add up, and before we know it, the whole world has changed.  "Only the smallest part of humanity wishes and acts upon the destruction of others, "writes Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.  "Those of us who believe in a world where we live together, are far larger.  The problem is we just haven't made our case compelling yet."

If it feels strange to hear that your story is so deeply a part of the story of September 11, I submit to you that our ability to make the kinds of compelling choices people made on that day begins right here and now.  Practicing that kind of compassion is the best way we can honor their soul-gripping, awe-inspiring heroism.  Our ability to choose love and kindness and courage begins in the classroom, at our lockers, on the stage, on the field, on the sidewalks, in our city.  Two days after September 11, singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer wrote a new song, prefaced by the words, "Courage, friends - the world is still filled with the finest of people."  To those people, including, I believe, you and me, she sings, "So don't tell me hate is ever right or God's will - these are the wheels we put in motion ourselves.  The whole world weeps, and is weeping still.  Though shaken, I still believe the best of what we all can be.  And the only peace this world will know can only come from love."

Ten years from now, when you're almost old enough to say, "Back when I was in school," what stories will you tell about how things are different than they used to be?  What stories will you tell about when everything changed?  How will you by your stories, your choices, your moments, your encounters, make the case for love more compelling than the case for fear?

Let your love be genuine; hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.  Love one another, and outdo one another in showing honor... Take care of God's people in need, and show kindness even to strangers...

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.  Never repay evil for evil... If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Amen.

Artwork: Photographs of banners outside St. Paul's Chapel, New York City, 2001

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