SJF • Proper for 9 11 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSGLittle did our liturgical commission know, when we chose the readings and wrote the prayers for this anniversary of September 11, 2001 that before the ink would be dry on the Sunday bulletins another disaster of even greater proportions would have struck our country. Four years ago, who among us did not watch with horror, either in person or looking at our television screens, as those twin towers slowly collapsed upon themselves in a truly awful display. And how many of us did not have a similar feeling just a short while ago watching that rainbow colored pinwheel spinning on the weather-map, filling the Gulf of Mexico from one end to the other. I watched with growing concern as the outer edges of that pinwheel brushed against Florida and the Gulf Coast, moving slowly and inexorably northward, bearing down on New Orleans with menacing deliberation, spinning like a technicolor buzz-saw.
(Is 61:1-4; Ps 31:1-4,21-21; Rom 8:31-39; Mt 5:1-10)
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Truly we have seen horrors we never would have thought we’d see in these last few years — devastation, hardship, distress, injustice, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. All of these things have come, and yet the people have endured.
And more than endured. Even now, a mere handful of days after the greatest devastation ever to strike our land, ancient prophecies are being fulfilled. The ruins are being built up, the devastations raised, the ruined cities repaired — in New Orleans, in Gulfport, in Biloxi, and at the site of the World Trade Center.
Yes there have been disagreements, there has been a share of blame passed around, we have seen exposed the depths of racism and classism that still in infect our country — and yet... in the midst of it all the blessed ones still take their stand. The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, the mournful are comforted, the meek receive theblessing of their inheritance, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled to satisfaction in knowing that the right will be done. The merciful give and receive mercy, and the pure of heart see the face of God in those they serve, even as those they serve see the face of God in them; for such peacemakers are rightly called the children of God and bear his likeness.
For ultimately, my friends, it isn’t about the buildings; neither the great twin towers that stood so proudly, nor the towering edifice that will take their place, nor the little frame houses on the Gulf Coast swept from their foundations as cleanly as crusts and bones and remnants are scraped from a dinner plate. No, it isn’t about the buildings.
Just the other day on CNN I saw film clip of the holy Eucharist celebrated last Sunday on the site of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, in Gulfport Mississippi. The beautiful old church was completely gone. All that was left was the flat foundation. If you knew no better you’d think it was a tennis court. But the parishioners had set up a folding table as an altar, and managed to scrape together enough lawn chairs and deck chairs and folding chairs to hold most of the congregation. And the priest, Fr James Bo Roberts, with tears in his eyes and choking voice said: “I want you to imagine the beautiful church that once stood here: a beautiful white frame building, with a tall steeple. And inside picture the woodwork of the pews, and a red carpet, and the cushions. And I want you to know that that’s not Saint Mark’s Church and it never was. ‘Cause I want you to take a good look to your left and your right, and look at all these nasty people sitting next to you, dressed in all manner of ways, and some of them haven’t shaved for days, and I want you to know that that’s St Mark’s Church.”
Truer words were never spoken my friends. We learned after the destruction of the World Trade Center that those twin towers, as powerful as symbols as they were, were not New York City. New York City — the spirit of New York City — was in the people of the city. New York City was in the police and firefighters and emergency medical technicians who risked their lives — many of whom lost their lives — in the work of rescue and recovery. The City was in the restaurant owners who opened their doors for weeks on end providing free food and hot coffee to those working at the pit. The City was in the clergy and lay people who served as chaplains and counselors to those bereaved. The Spirit of the City was in all of these people who said, we will not be defeated; we will prevail, we will rebuild; this is the living spirit of New York City.
For the spirit of our city, of any city, lives in its people or it doesn’t live at all. The spirit of the French Quarter in New Orleans, for all its wrought-iron balconies and charming street corners, doesn’t live in those buildings and squares. It lives in the heart of the music and the soul of Mardi Gras, in the confluence of the Creole with the Cajun, the zaydeco, Louis Armstrong’s gravel voice and soaring trumpet, and the tales of Boudreaux and the mischief he got up to — I gar-on-tee!
It has always been this way, beloved. The spirit of Jerusalem was not in the Temple — no my friends, that Temple was torn down and is no more! And in the New Jerusalem that is to come, John the Divine saw no Temple in the City. But the living spirit of that holy city is in the holy people still; it is in the hearts of God’s faithful people wherever they are, in whatever city, in whatever state or nation.
The spirit of the church doesn’t live in stone and stained glass, as beautiful and inspiring as they are. The spirit of the church lives in the people of the church or it doesn’t live at all. The spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, lives within us — and that is why nothing can separate us from him. Hardship, flood or famine, assaults by enemies, or assaults by the forces of nature — “no, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us... and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And this is why I say, in spite of all the pain and suffering of 9/11, in spite of all the pain and loss caused by the dreadful hurricane Katrina, in spite of the destruction of of the Temple, and in spite of all the hardships endured by the people of God in the centuries since, this is why I say the Lord is wonderful and blessed are his works. The Lord is wonderful and great, and he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city. He has shown me the wonders of his love in a city besieged by enemies who struck down our towers, by raising up brave souls to rebuild the devastations, and to comfort the wounded and to bury the dead. He has shown me the wonders of his love in cities besieged by walls of water, by tempest and wind and wave, in the courage of those who gathered up the homeless, who brought them food and water, and carried them to shelter.
And most of all he has shown me the wonders of his love in a city in which the powers of politics and religion conspired to kill an innocent man and put an end to his teaching and ministry. For those powers did not prevail. The love of God is stronger than the hate of man. The weakness of the Son of God is stronger than the power of the world. And the power of God, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, is stronger than the forces of nature or the forces of human sin — stronger than death, stronger than life, than angels or rulers, than that which is or that which is to come, than the powers in the heights or in the depths, stronger than anything else in all creation.
This, my beloved, is wonderful — the wonders of God’s love in a besieged city. We are always under seige in so many ways. Danger and illness await us even in the most peaceful times, and in these unquiet days who knows what assault may come against us from earthly foes or the forces of nature. But have no fear — be not oppressed nor brokenhearted; leave off mourning and sorrow, and faintness of spirit; for the day of release has come, the day of liberation and gladness, freedom and release, purchased for us, my brothers and sisters, outside the walls of that other city long ago, on that little hill called Calvary. It was there that the Son of God bound us to himself with the bond of his sacrifice, when he gave his life as a ransom for many, besieged as he was by his own people who conspired with the Gentiles, who crucified him outside the city walls. It was there that Christ Jesus died for us, who was raised, and who is at the right hand of God to intercede for us. It was there that the cross of Christ first towered over the wrecks of time, it was there that the cross was planted, to display the glory of the Lord, and the wonders of his love.
So let us rejoice and give thanks for the remembrance of his saving grace, for liberation in him from the tyranny of sin and the oppression of mourning. Let us raise our eyes and our hearts, filled with the Spirit of God to do the work God gives us to do: to rebuild the devastations and repair the ruined cities, to lift up the poor and the refugee, the prisoner and captive, and to bring the Good News of God’s salvation to the world, through Jesus Christ out Lord.+