Jeremiah and 9/11

“I looked on the earth, and lo; it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins…” (Jeremiah 4:23-26b)

“I don’t suppose any of us who were alive on that day will ever forget the morning of September 11, 2001, fifteen years ago today. I was living in New York City, serving as ecumenical officer for The Episcopal Church. A number of us were in the Chapel of Christ the Lord at the Church Center for Daily Morning Prayer. Someone burst through the door and said, ‘A plane just hit the World Trade Center!’

We finished our prayers and took the elevators back to a small break room on our floor where there was a TV. Initially, we assumed like everyone else that this was some tragic accident or perhaps some misguided soul committing suicide in a dramatic way. As the morning unfolded and we watched, with the whole world, the awful events of that day, the cold grip of fear entered our hearts as we realized that we were a nation under attack – from whom, we knew not.

My initial concern was for (my wife) Susanne, who was staying at General Seminary and attending a meeting of deacons. The phones wouldn’t work and it took some time finally to make contact, to know that she was safe, and that they too were watching the events from the seminary which was actually closer to what later became known as “Ground Zero” than I was. All morning long, we watched not only the television, but from our eighth floor windows looked down on lines of people, some still covered with ash, walking in a dazed fashion north and away from the charred ruins of what had been The Twin Towers. There was an eerie silence in the city.

The next days were chaotic for New Yorkers, citizens of the United States, and around the world really.  Of course, all flights were cancelled in and out of New York, Washington, and elsewhere, and our first thoughts were how to get Susanne home. We finally secured tickets for her on an Amtrak train back to the Midwest, and when I took her to Penn Station, it looked like a railroad scene out of an old World War II movie.  Everyone was milling around, looking for family and friends, and trying to get out of New York. We got her onboard and she arrived home two days later.

The Bishop for the Armed Forces and Federal Chaplaincies, George Packard, had put a sign- up sheet up at the Church Center for clergy willing to serve as volunteer chaplains for rescue workers, first responders and others, and I believe I was one of the first to sign up.  It took days … to get all that organized though and the effort would last for many, many months.

As not only, ecumenical but interfaith officer, I began getting calls for educational material about Islam once the “jihadist” word began to spread.  Clergy and lay leaders wanted to help their people understand that, if these were indeed Muslim terrorists, they did not represent mainstream Islam and that Muslims were not our enemies. Even President George W. Bush made that clear in the early days.

We had almost no material on Islam as most of our interfaith dialogue had been with the Jewish community to this point; very little with Muslims at least on the national level.  Eventually, Episcopal Relief and Development provided an educational grant to my office and we were able to hire a Christian scholar of Islam, Lucinda Mosher, and she worked hard to get out educational material, develop a web site, and did a good bit of teaching around the Episcopal Church herself as the months and even years wore on.” (From With Gladness and Singleness of Heart by Christopher Epting)

Our nation made many mistakes in the wake of 9/11. But we did some things right as well. The Episcopal Church responded sacrificially right at Ground Zero. St. Paul’s, a chapel of Trinity Church, Wall Street, was somehow spared serious damage and was immediately opened as a respite center for first responders, medical personnel, and later construction workers. It was in that little church that Susanne and I, along with many others, counseled and prayed with those who were seeking to facilitate the recovery effort at what became known as “the Pile.”

Food and water, fresh socks and clothing were distributed. And, “George Washington’s pew,” a famous tourist attraction at St. Paul’s Chapel, became the location for massages and foot treatments to be given to any worker who asked for it. I always thought our first President – himself a kind of “first responder” — would probably have been pleased! We celebrated the Eucharist at noon every day there as well, praying for those who came…and for those who couldn’t.

I was proud of our church as well – and other churches and faith communities – when we tried to make it clear that whatever response the United States might make was not a “war on Islam,” but an attempt to bring the terrorists who had caused this horrific attack to justice.

Jeremiah said, in our First Lesson this morning, “I looked on the earth, and lo; it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins…” A perfect description of what 9/11 looked like! But Jeremiah didn’t end it there. The “weeping prophet” speaks the Word of the Lord as saying, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” (4:27)

We still don’t understand all the complexities that led to something like 9/11 happening. Still less do we understand why earthquakes in Italy, floods in Louisiana, and wild fires out West take place. What we do know is that God’s grace and healing touch can take place, precisely through the compassion and heroism of those who seek to respond in the Name of God.

Particularly as Christians, we know that the way of the cross is the way of life. When our Presiding Bishop, then Frank Griswold, walked into the smoke filled Chapel of St. Paul on the day after 9/11, he saw a small crucifix on the high Altar. And he said, “It was as though those tiny arms of Jesus were opening out to the whole world, embracing all the pain, and offering his love in return.” That’s what it means for the way of the cross to be the way of life.

There is a prayer in our Prayer Book office of Morning Prayer that Bishop Griswold was probably thinking of that day. It’s for use on Fridays…but perhaps an appropriate way to end these reflections on the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001. Let us pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.” Amen.




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