This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The first readings was a poem titled “11th of September, 2001” by Maggi Pierce, and it was read by the poet.

Excerpt from “With a Wrench of the Gut,” an article from the New York Times of Wednesday, September 7, 2005

“Mark Scherzer, like perhaps thousands of New Yorkers, finds himself looking up with mild panic when he hears a plane flying low, or a sudden noise, even though, he says, the attack “has significantly receded in my consciousness.”

“Steven DeGennaro, 34, stops by the wall of victims near ground zero once a week on the way to the Staten Island ferry terminal, to look at the name of his cousin. Then he boards the boat, hoists a Heineken, and thinks.

“Four years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers seem trapped between a daily life free of the terrible memories of that day, and an inability to fully forget. Many go for weeks or even months without thinking about it at all, but then feel eerily transported back to that morning by a sudden sound, or the sight of a police officer searching bags in the subway, or a certain hue of the sky….

“Sunil Chugh, 25, who lives and works in Jackson Heights, Queens, has a daily reminder of of a neighbor who died. ‘They never moved his car,’ Mr. Chugh said. ‘It is still parked outside his house, and his picture is in the car window with a sign that says “September 11, 2001″. Every day, I pass by that and I look and I think….”

SERMON — “Remembering”

I don’t know about you, but I thought I had pretty much gotten over nine-eleven. I did my grieving. I even got my HMO to pay for therapy because I had been helping people in the congregation I was then serving and hadn’t had time to deal with my own grieving. All that’s four years ago now. I know children who are six or seven who really have no memory of the terrorist attacks. My own memories are fading — what with the war in Iraq, and violence on our streets, and ongoing news of drugs and poverty and hunger, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that happened back in 2001 had receded into the dusty back corners of my memory. So I thought.

But as I followed the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and the desparate relief efforts, and the political fingerpointing, I find myself remembering once again. And I have been finding that other people are finding the same thing — this new disaster is bringing up memories of nine-eleven.

You heard a reading from a New York Times article that said, in part: “Four years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers seem trapped between a daily life free of the terrible memories of that day, and an inability to fully forget. Many go for weeks or even months without thinking about it at all, but then feel eerily transported back to that morning by a sudden sound, or the sight of a police officer searching bags in the subway, or a certain hue of the sky….” Even if you’re not a New Yorker, even if you were basically unaffected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, even if you’re six years old and have no direct memory of those events, you are still affected — because what happened on September 11, 2001, affected our society at large. The attacks have become a part of the memory, the mythos, of this country. I had gotten sick of people saying, “The United States has been forever changed by nine-eleven” — I’m still sick of hearing that platitude, but it’s true, too. We cannot forget — we are unable to forget. As a society, we find that we cannot forget.

Which brings me to Frog and Toad. Frog and Toad are reading a book together, a book about brave people who fight dragons and giants, people who are never afraid. “I wonder if we would be afraid,” asks Frog. “We look brave.”

To which Toad responds, “Yes, but are we [brave]?” As it turns out, Frog and Toad are not particularly brave. At the end of the story, they wind up hiding in a closet — but if you are confronted with a snake who’s much bigger than you and who greets you by saying, “Hello lunch!” I think you have every right to run away as fast as you can. Indeed, in all the situations they faced — hungry snakes, avalanches, and so on — Frog and Toad did the right thing by running away. Bravery can take many forms. But I’m not sure Frog and Toad did the right thing by continuing to insist that they are not afraid.

So I’m going to come right out and say it: After nine-eleven, I am afraid. I was afraid of many things before nine-eleven, I was afraid of crime and violence and poverty, and I still am afraid of all those things. But now I’m also afraid of terrorism in a way that I wasn’t before. Now I’m afraid of this new postmodern world of ours where there are people who really really hate us here in the United States, who hate us because of our culture and our lifestyles and our deep love of our democracy. Sometimes I like to say to myself, but if they only knew me personally, they would like me! — but I know in my heart that some of the hatred that is directed at the United States is so strong, that there is no real possibility of them ever knowing me personally. After nine-eleven, I am afraid. I suspect many of you here this morning have also been a little more afraid since nine-eleven.

There’s the fear, and then there’s the anger. I know we’re all good religious liberals, and religious liberals never get angry, do we? We’re too nice to get angry. We have polite discussions, and study issues to deepen our understanding of other cultures and of oppressed peoples, and we vote on resolutions of concern, but we don’t get angry. But I am angry about nine-eleven. I am angry at the twisted minds that could kill themselves and innocent people by flying a jetliner into the World Trade Center or teh Pentagon, or into the ground out in Pennsylvania. I am angry at death toll. I am angry that children were killed. I remember the faces of the people I knew who had friends and co-workers who died on the planes, and I am angry. I read the news stories about the surviving husbands and wives and children of those who were killed on nine-eleven, and it breaks my heart, and I find that I am indeed angry. I suspect that many of you are just as angry as I am — if not angrier.

And here’s where I really struggle. As a Universalist, I believe that every human beings is worthy of dignity and respect. The old Universalists said that God is love, and because God is love all persons will be saved. Like those old Universalists, I reject any religion that tries to tell me that some people are going to be punished for all eternity for their sins. I cannot accept a universe that is based on punishment, on vidictiveness, on hatred — I cannot accept a universe that is run by some angry God who threatens us into good behavior by dangling us over the fires of hell. I am a Universalist, and I tell you that there is no hell — I tell you that the most powerful force in the universe is love.

So the most powerful force in the universe is love — yet when we are full of fear, when we feel abiding anger, it’s hard to remember that the most powerful force in the universe is love.

Maggi Peirce tells me that she wrote her poem, the one she just read for us, after she heard about a man who jumped from the burning, collapsing World Trade Center — and he stretched our his arms as if he were flying. Maggi says news stories about this man interviewed his sister, who said this was typical of him — he always embraced life. Maggi writes in her poem:

“But one flew. We have all dreamed of flying. Salute this one small mortal who, taking his life into his own hands, winged his way earthwards with such aplomb.”

We have all dreamed of flying.

It is easy to succumb to fear and anger. It is equally easy to insist that we are not angry and not afraid, to insist like Frog and Toad that we are brave — all while hiding in the closet or while hiding in bed under the covers. And it is easy to blame politicians for our woes, to blame the president, or more recently to blame the head of FEMA, or to blame anyone at all. But by hiding in the closet, or letting fear and anger rule over us, or blaming the politicians — none of those actions affirms that love is the most powerful force in the universe.

And each of those actions ultimately makes us smaller and less human.

Maybe you are perfectly happy hiding in the closet, or blaming the politicians, or remaining afraid and angry. That is understandable, and perfectly OK. But let me suggest an alternative. I suggest that we begin with forgiveness — we forgive the politicians (who, after all, are limited human beings just like us), we forgive ourselves for feeling afriad and angry, and maybe we even find it in ourselves to forgive the twisted minds who could fly those jetliners into buildings. We forgive, and we still hold people accountable for their actions. We must hold others and ourselves accountable for our actions. But remember that forgiveness is something takes place in our own hearts. It is not a gift that we bestow on other people; it is not even a gift that we give to ourselves. We forgive in the hope that we can heal the universe. We forgive trusting that forgiveness will take the weight off our shoulders, will allow us to open our arms, and embrace life.

I try to imagine what it would be like to stand near the top of a burning World Trade Center, knowing that there was no hope of escape. Would I have the courage to leap out into the unknown, arms spread wide, embracing the universe? I don’t know if I could do that or not, but I salute that one small mortal who could, and did — who took his life into his own hands.

We have a choice. The memories will be there, and they may come back at odd moments. But let us choose to embrace life, to embrace love. In forgiveness, we can find a fresh start, we can turn to the work that awaits us — the new work of Gulf Coast relief, the ongoing work of ending hunger and poverty and violence. Let us choose to embrace life, to embrace love. It will take courage, but in doing so, we will bring new hope to a world that desparately needs it.