Yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, I spent a good chunk of the day on airplanes and in airports. Admittedly, I wasn’t too worried about my safety, but the travel did call up eerie feelings all the same. I can still remember in the days after 9/11, living “inside the Beltway” in northern Virginia, where the sights and sounds of fighter planes, Apache helicopters carrying a full complement of weapons and the scores upon scores of other sorts of military aircraft were the only aircraft we saw in the skies for weeks.
We were on our initial approach to Atlanta yesterday at 8:46 a.m. EDT, the time of the impact of a plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center ten years earlier. Our pilot, his voice quavering, came over the “p.a.” and asked flight attendants and passengers for a moment of silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the attacks. I peered out of the window at 10,000 feet, looking at the rolling hills of northern Georgia, while the memories of all the images of that day ten years ago came racing forward in my mind’s eye. Then (in what I was to learn was a completely unscripted moment), one of the flight attendants sang “The Star Spangled Banner” — clearly, somberly and soulfully. Passengers clapped quietly in a respectful, reserved fashion. I continued to look out of the window and instinctively “crossed” myself as I said prayers for those who died and those who live without loved ones and all of us who live in the aftermath of the events of ten years ago.
In the Atlanta airport, all of the television monitors were tuned to cover the remembrance ceremonies from every conceivable angle. As I walked down the concourse, not only was I treated to the sounds of speeches and tributes from loved ones of the victims and various dignitaries and politicians, but I was also assaulted by the incessant analysis of “what was happening” and “what it all means” by the folks who were reporting on the observances. I found myself wishing everyone would simply be quiet. All the words attempting to make meaning out of meaningless acts of inhuman violence, even as well-intentioned as they were intended to be, seemed inadequate and forced.
Words of course, are the preacher’s stock and trade. I suspect if I had been in my usual role yesterday, I would have felt it incumbent upon me to (as my son used to call it) “say some words” at the time of the sermon. I was fully aware of the Gospel reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary — and couldn’t get over the irony. The passage for this particular Sunday after Pentecost comes around every three years and “just so happened” to be the “Good News” the Church in this country had to hear on a day which commemorated such horrifically bad news.
I am always reminded that, while the Gospel holds up a description of what it is like to be “Kingdom” people, we are often still very much up to our eyeballs in the circumstances of the world surrounding us. I kept wondering how boldly I could proclaim the necessity of forgiveness, when I was so unsure I had actually done the work of forgiveness myself. I also began to wonder about the ways in which we preachers can sometimes sound so glib…as if we’ve managed to fully embody the words that roll so easily out of our mouths. Then I started to think about the ways over the past number of years I have “held forth” as if what I said in a particular sermon was actually important. I began to think about how the call to proclaim the Good News to the gathered people of God might call for less words, more measured words, more carefully chosen words — not for fear of offending one’s hearers, but out of respect for the weightiness of the office of preacher.
Sitting in the Atlanta airport, praying to God for peace in a world of war, I could only think of three things to do. Make the sign of the cross. Shed a few tears. And be quiet.