What follows is a text version of my sermon on the 10th Anniversary of September 11th. (also an audio version) It’s now several years later, but this still sums up nicely my feelings on every new September 11th. Hope it’s helpful to you…EF
Ten years ago this morning, on the Sunday following September 11th, I walked into the old sanctuary of Northaven Church to deliver the sermon. I had not been sleeping well. Nobody had. The whole world had been crying and screaming at our televisions, in confusion, pain and anger.
You should know that I have never before, and never since, been so terrified to preach a sermon. I remember walking by Billy Crockett, who was sitting in an aisle seat, just before we began worship. I touched him silently on the shoulder, and he looked back at me and said, “Preach the word today, brother…we all need to hear it…”
And I thought something in that moment that I did not say to him. And what I thought in that moment was: “And what exactly IS that word? What DO we need to hear?”
In a sense, even today, ten years later, I feel the same way and am asking the same questions. So much has happened. So much has changed. So much has healed. So much has not.
As this rattled in my head the past few weeks, I recalled a phrase I heard, over and over, in the weeks following September 11th…on websites…in print….on billboards….in emails that got passed around. And, this month, ten years later, I have seen that same phrase again. In fact, I saw in yesterday on two billboards out in front of churches here in the area:
“Let Us Never Forget.”
And I thought: “As IF any of us ever will forget. How blessed it might feel to one-day be rid of this horrific memory….how blessed “forgetting” might be.”
The clearest plain-meaning of the phrase “Let Us Never Forget” applies to the victims. And, certainly, on this 10th Anniversary, we should remember them. At the end of our worship today, we lit candles to remember the 3,000 people who died. We did that on the Tuesday evening of the original September 11th..threw open the doors, broke out the old Christmas Eve candles, and lit candles of peace.
Let us never forget those who died.
We also remember that great and powerful sense of national unity that existed in the weeks following….that incredible can-do spirit that seemed to spiritually transcend party and politics. We were one nation. We were all New Yorkers. The feeling was palpable. Out of our joint grief came a joint sense of unity.
Let us never forget this.
But this week, something else dawned on me. I’m slow, because it apparently it took me ten years to ask this next question. Ten-years after September 11th, it finally dawns on me that that the phrase “Let Us Never Forget” presupposes a prior-question.
The question is: WHAT do we choose to remember….and never forget?
What else would God tell us to “Never Forget?”
Has that ever dawned on any of you? Because as I said, ten years of ruminating on this it’s just dawning on me that, spiritually, the answer to this question is not as self-evident as it ought to be.
Do we never forget…..the Trauma? Shock? Fear? Anxiety?
Or do we never forget….the repeated challenge of the Bible to “Fear Not”
Do we never forget…the desperate search for personal and national security?
Or do we never forget….God’s Golden Rule? Jesus’ challenge to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
Do we never forget….Pain….Anger…Revenge?
Or, do we never forget…the spiritual truth that violence often leads to more violence?
What is it that we “Never Forget?”
The spiritual truth September 11th continues to teach all of us is this:
What we remember, what we hold onto, what we allow to penetrate into our souls our consciousness, our spirits, our bodies…matters. It makes a difference what we choose to “Never Forget.”
In the immediate weeks following the original September 11th, if you asked me what I could not forget, I would say: grief, sadness, fear, anxiety, paranoia, anger, confusion.
September 11th was terrorism. And one of the clear and stated objectives of terrorism is fear and anxiety. We should all “Never Forget” that.
Take your mind back, and recall how much we feared in the days after 911…
Was the attack actually OVER?
What else might happen?
Was it safe to fly?
Were buildings safe?
Was opening the mail safe?
What does the color-coded warning system mean?
Should we buy “duct tape?” (Remember duct tape? The 2001 equivalent of “duck and cover” school drills…)
Remember all of the stories of planes delayed for searches?
Remember the new security at airports?
I am not saying these fears were wrong. They were what they were. And ten years later, can’t you feel the fear and anxiety creep back into you, even as you are reading these words right now?
What I am asking is: Do we continue to hold onto all of this today?
I believe a seething fear, anxiety and terror crept into our individual souls and into the soul of our nation on September 11th, 2001. And it continues to reverberate inside of us, even today.
We REMEMBER it. We do not FORGET it. It affects us still
As I was preparing this weekend, Bill Stoner, one of our own members here at Northaven, wrote me an email which, more than anything else I’ve read recently, summed up precisely what I’m talking about here. And, with Bill’s permission, I would like to read a portion of it now. Bill writes:
“I was a flight attendant for American for 18 years, including over 9-11. A back injury had me grounded at the time, but I returned to flying the first of October. Then came the 2 rounds of extensive FBI checks on all employees, then the two day-long classified training sessions on how to respond to attackers in the air. Then came the photos we had to carry with us–terrorists who were being hunted. Then the company statement to all American crew members that because of the multiple thefts of crew uniforms and badges, “just because someone comes on your plane in uniform with an ID doesn’t mean they really are a crew member.” We were taught how to lock down the aircraft, how to pick passengers as guards, how to tie a passenger to a seat, to always keep a full pot of hot coffee, and what to do with a corkscrew. On each flight we had specific areas to check–for explosives. If we smelled almonds, to physically drop whatever we’re holding and rush to the oxygen tank–or there would be heavy casualties.
I wound up diagnosed with depression and luckily worked out of it. But as the post 9-11 years ensued, the level of danger we crews had to keep in mind never diminished. Always stay alert, be ready. The turning point was a flight back to Dallas. I always worked first class which meant I was primarily responsible for protecting the cockpit. I was in the galley, a Super 80, and heard very heavy running from coach towards first class. Nobody runs in the aisle. I grabbed the always open corkscrew, became incredibly sad that I was ready to try to kill someone, and as the stomping got close, I stepped into the aisle, corkscrew held like brass knuckles, and there was an overweight kid, 7 or 8, clomping up to the bathroom. I was ready to slit his throat or ram it into his eye. I decided I was ready to quit. And Jim agreed. Thus I retired about 6 months later.“
Bill told me yesterday he’s never gone around broadcasting this story, but that he’s never shied away from it either. His story deeply moved me, and I’m grateful he’s allowing me to share it.
Because although our own fear and anxiety…our own sense of insecurity and constant vigilance perhaps did rise to the level of those who worked in aviation such as Bill…or those who lived in New York and Washington….all of us felt some level of this increased anxiety, didn’t we? This consistent fear of the “other”….the lurking, menacing, danger that might be out there.
I know that it changed air travel forever for people with dark skin. I’ve mentioned this before, but in the wake of September 11th, Dennise has been taken out of line and personally searched EVERY TIME she has traveled. The only times she has not have been when we’re traveling together, and I hand our travel documents to the security people myself.
My dear musician friend, Tom Prasada-Rao, who is of Indian descent, had master tapes of a CD he was working on confiscated by security in the weeks after 911, and he never saw them again.
And just one month ago, another songwriter I know, Vance Gilbert, who is African-American, apparently caused his airplane to turn around and head back to its gate. He’s a fan of vintage aircraft, World War II airplanes. And somebody noticed…and was afraid of….a book he was carrying in his carry on bag, about vintage World War II planes.
These examples speak to the way “the world has changed” since September 11th, and changed in terms of our continuing insecurity and our fear.
Collectively, our insecurity, our fear, our anxiety allowed us to justify War in Iraq. I know many of you, like me, had grave doubts about that war from the very beginning.
As I have said many times over the years, there was, at the time the Iraq War began, no way to justify it from a perspective of so-called “Christian Just War Theory.” The case, theologically and spiritually, was not made. Events of the past ten years have done nothing except prove that truth. Admission after admission of government officials of that time, have shown that there was no just cause for that war….other than our fear, anxiety…and an ill-conceived theory of “preemptive war.” Our fear, anxiety and anger has led to violence…which always leads to more fear, anxiety and violence.
Remember what we should remember: one of the goals of terrorism is FEAR and ANXIETY. This is one thing we should “Never Forget.” But we do. Far too often, we gave into fear
But God also speaks to us a message of “Never Forget.”
And God’s message to us gives the expression “Never Forget” a whole new, and powerful meaning..
Faith tells us: “Never forget the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Faith tells us: “Never forget that Jesus EXPLICITLY rejects the theology and practice of “an eye for an eye.” and challenges us to “love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute you.”
Faith tells us to not forget this story from the Gospel of Luke. In this short passage, Jesus has sent the Disciples out among the people. In fact, in this case, some of his Disciples had just returned from a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were hated and despised rivals of the Jews. Theological and political cousins, but somehow the fiercest of enemies.
The Samaritan village had refused to welcome Jesus’ disciples.
The disciples say, and this is an exact quote from them: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
The Disciples are clearly operating out of the theology and practice of “an eye for an eye.” They have not understood what Jesus has been trying to teach them.
And so, The Gospel of Luke says, Jesus “turned and rebuked them.”
Jesus will not stand for retribution. Jesus will not stand for perpetuating a cycle of violence. Jesus does not stand for fire being called down from heaven. And so, it seems to me, on the Anniversary of 911, the best way we can REMEMBER those who died is to continue to commit our lives, and our being, to the hard and challenging principles our faith teaches.
I want to be clear. Very clear: None of this is easy. And eye for an eye is easy. An eye for an eye is deep inside our biological DNA. Hurt me. Hurt my tribe. Hurt my people, and I, or we, will make you pay. That is something we cannot forget, because it’s deep and innate. It is perhaps even a part of our genetic wiring. BUT! Even if we don’t forget that, we are not forced to act on it either. We have the choice, always, in every moment, to act a different way…to respond in love. September 11th changed many things, but it did not change this.
God reminds us to never forget these truths:
— Love your neighbor as yourself.
— Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
— Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
These are not just tangential or secondary truths. They are not optional, applying only at times when we are not fearful, afraid, or when we have not been attacked. Friends, these are the primary truths at the heart of the Gospel.
And on this tenth anniversary, THEY are a part of what we should “Never Forget.”
There is one final story that I’ve been following off and on in the past few months, and it’s a story that wraps up all these things we forget and remember in a horrifying way, but with great truth too. It is a horrifying story, and I tell you this at the start.
Even as the fires of September 11th were still burning in New York City, the smoke still rising, a local man, from our own community here, Mark Stroman, walked into a gas station in Mesquite. The date was September 21, 2001…my birthday, in fact.
Behind the counter was a young man named Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan.
Mark Stroman looked at Rais Bhuiyan and said, “Where are you from?”
“Excuse me?” replied Bhuiyan.
But before Bhuiyan could say anything else, he felt pain the right side of his face. He had been shot a point blank range. Rais Bhuiyan would survive the shooting. But, it would later be discovered, Mark Stroman had already killed another convenience store worker, Waqar Hasan, back on September 15th. And on October 4th, he would shoot, and kill, yet a third man, Vasud Patel, at a third convenience store in our area: Mom’s Grocery store, right here in Dallas, Texas.
Once arrested by the police, Mark Stroman admitted that he had killed the two men, and attempted to kill Rais Bhuiyan, in a twisted attempt to avenge the attack of September 11th. He would tell police that he sought-out his victims because they “looked like they were of Muslim descent.”
He also told police that “we’re at War,” and that he had done “what every American wanted to.”
You see, friend, Mark Stroman had done what many were doing at the time. He misunderstood the phrase “Let Us Never Forget” as a call to violence and vengeance. His was certainly an extreme case. But how many other countless cases of suspicion have occurred? (I’ve already named a few). How many of us can stay we are, even today, totally free from the fear and paranoia, and anxiety of that time?
As you might imagine, Mark Stroman was convicted of the murder of his third victim, Vasud Patel. And since the crime was a hate crime, he was sentenced to die. And, in fact, Mark Stroman was executed, just a few weeks ago now. Almost ten years after his crimes.
Like many death row inmates, in his last years Stroman became quite remorseful for his actions. I am sure some will doubt his sincerity. We can never know what goes on inside another human being’s heart. But here’s what Mark Stroman in the later part of his life:
“At that time here in America everybody was saying ‘let’s get them’ — we didn’t know who to get, we were just stereotyping. I stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists and that was wrong…Killing another human being is not something you can forget…If there is another terrorist attack in America, please don’t stereotype people. Please don’t become a Mark Stroman.”
Of course, it is ironic that not all of the men he attacked were Muslims. They literally died, they were chosen, simply because they looked like the MIGHT be.
Stroman’s story has one more powerful twist to it, however. One of the things that apparently broke his heart open in his later years, and helped him to finally understand the depths of his own hateful acts, was that the victim he shot, but did not kill, Rais Bhuiyan, became a fierce advocate for sparing his life from the death penalty.
Rais Bhuiyan credits his Muslim faith for helping him to forgive Stroman. He set up websites, wrote letters, pleaded with authorities to spare the life of the man who had shot him. He attempted to meet Stroman to seek reconciliation. He spoke in open court about his desire to see Stroman’s life spared. Here’s a quote from Rais Bhuiyan:
“Some people have said I’m crazy, that I’ve lost my mind trying to save someone who deserves to die. Some attack my Islamic faith, telling me it preaches violence or hate. But we use religion as a scapegoat. If I give you a knife, you may use it for cutting paper. You give the same knife to a doctor, he could use it for saving a human life. If you give it to a robber, he will use it to rob people. The problem isn’t the knife, it’s the people holding the knife. It’s the same with religion.”
Bhuiyan still carries more than 35 shotgun pellets in the side of his face. He has lost sight in one of his eyes. But he has not lost his spiritual sight. And what he no longer carries, what he chooses to forget is a hatred toward the man who tried to kill him.
On the day Mark Stroman was executed, just hours before that event, Bhuiyan and Stroman actually talked via mobile phone for a few brief moments.
Bhuiyan said: “Mark, you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious… I forgive you and I do not hate you. I never hated you…and this is from the bottom of my heart.”
Stroman thanked Bhuiyan for being such a supporter and advocate for sparing his life. Stroman told Bhuiyan that he loved him and “you touched my heart. I would have never expected that.”
Bhuiyan replied, “You touched mine too.”
That was the end of their conversation. A few hours later, Stroman was executed, over the protestations of his victim.
I suppose seen from one angle, this is just another continuation of the cycle of violence that begets more violence. Stroman killed others. He has now been killed. Violence begets violence.
September 11th killed 3,000 innocents. But it begat wars and roadside bombs. Far too much collateral damage to count. Perhaps too painful to count.
But there is one quote that Rais Bhuiyan says in a recent interview that I totally agree with. He says this:
“It’s time to take a new narrative on the 10th anniversary of September 11, one of passion, forgiveness and tolerance.”
We are forgetful people.
If you want to know one of the main reasons I think human beings have religion in the first place, it’s because we’re forgetful. We forget the important things, and we remember the unimportant ones. We forget the powerful, bedrock faith and love God gives to us; and we remember, sometimes hang on to, fear, hate, anxiety and worry.
But God keeps speaking. God calls us understand that God does not desire fire called down fire upon the heads of our enemies. In fact, God rejects that response. Instead, God challenges us to never forget something entirely different:
“Put aside your anger, your hate, your bitterness, your fear…your anxiety,” God says.
“Put those aside, best you can. Hard as it is. Do not act on them. You do not HAVE to act of them. They will not serve you,” God says.
“Never forget: to love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Never forget: to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Never forget: to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
As we look back at September 11th today, and whenever we say the words “Let Us Never Forget,” these are the things God hopes we mean.