This is an auspicious evening, and it’s one in which there is some tension. On the one hand, we gather for the first time in this style of worship, which is both ancient in our tradition and new to Christ Church Cathedral. We sing, pause, and pray in ways that intend to remind us of God’s deep peace which runs—like water from a sacred well—beneath all of the things on the surface of our lives that would disrupt God’s peace. On the other hand, we observe today the fifteenth anniversary of that singular event of our lifetimes which spoke so powerfully that we had—and still have—difficulty finding words to counteract the horror of September 11, 2001.
In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words. His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning. Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people. As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion. But too often today, publically and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens we feel, like the hundredth sheep in Jesus’ parable, a bit more lost.
Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11. Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war. On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we’d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day. Both extremes felt emotionally like being cast ever further from the sheep herd, more and more lost in some strange wilderness.
But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves. On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”[i]
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.”[ii]
In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?
But, lest we forget, there were other words that day. From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line. Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.[iii] It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic. What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background. The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices. But the callers are more often steely and intent:
A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”
A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”
The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There’s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”
These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror. Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves. [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”[iv]
Perhaps never have we felt more like lost sheep than on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed and the towers crumbled. But we know that love never stops seeking the lost sheep. We know that love will not give up. We discover again in those telephone messages that even lost in the wilderness, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides. And what is love, but God, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power? With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any wilderness, found and embraced by the Well of life.
In my memory, the word “triumph” was used too often around 9/11. But what would it mean if we said, with Archbishop Williams, that love triumphed that day? Pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic; love that does not run away; love that seeks the lost; love that is faithful in the face of any threat. As we prayerfully reflect on this fifteen years past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we’ll remember that we are never lost.
[ii] Williams, Rowan. Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.
[iv] Williams, 5 & 3.