Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
September 11, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
There is no way that I cannot remember my own life experiences every time the anniversary of 9-11 rolls around each year. There’s no way I can stop from remembering it, in part because I had been a priest in the late 90s. I left a church that I was serving in New York City in 1999 just before 9-11 happened. And also it’s because I went back to New York in part because I wanted to be there in the first part of the 2000s. Every year is an opportunity for me to reflect. This year seems to be more pregnant with meaning than others because it’s 15 years now that we celebrate and remember that day. We remember that day because it’s important for us to remember it.
Because in fact everything that has happened in our world since then, has been affected by what has happened at 9-11 in one way or another. The New York Times this morning in its editorial said that we now live in a world in which you see something, say something and fear everything. Nine eleven is all around us. The way our nation is. The way we relate to one another. The way we understand outsiders and insiders. The way we see the interaction between religion and politics. The way we understand international relations. The endless wars that we find ourselves fighting. The aftermath of 9-11 is always here.
We tend to forget the humanity and sacrifice and compassion and bravery of that day. We tend to forget it. Maybe it’s human but I think the remembering those sacrifices. I think remembering the bravery. I think remembering the ways in which so many first responders went to their deaths to – in the midst of trying to help people. I think those are things that we’re duty bound to remember. We’re duty bound to remember them because when you’re in the midst of conflict. When you’re in the midst of a clash of cultures as we seem to be. When you’re tempted to fear everything, it’s important for you to retain the humanity you have.
One of the ways you retain that humanity is by remembering people who have been most human, most compassionate, most loving. It helps you negotiate your own life, your own community. It helps you think. I can’t but remember today not because I’m still somehow traumatized by what happened. Although I have to admit that as soon as it happened on Tuesday, September 11th 2001, I remember looking at the sky and seeing this incredible blue sky. I had this deep need to go back to my parish in New York and to go to Ground Zero and to mourn the loss of those towers like you would mourn the loss of a body. One month later I went back and I remember somehow getting access to Ground Zero. I knew someone who knew someone, and sometimes that happens and I was able to get in there and I prayed.
It was like when I go and want to touch someone who has died. You know how when you want to touch someone who has died. You want to place your hand on their body. I’ve gotten over most of those traumas. In part because I was at such a distance. Memory is a moral exercise. When we remember something, we’re honoring what has happened. We’re saying that that memory is part of our present and still determines our future. It’s important for us to remember today. Today I want to focus on one image that comes up in my mind again and again. It’s of father Mychal Judge who was the chaplain to the fire department in Manhattan. He was a Franciscan priest, and had an incredible ministry during his life. Not only to the firefighters but through to everybody in primarily Chinatown in Manhattan.
Mychal Judge was there in the North Tower on 9-11 when the South Tower collapsed. He had gone in to be with his firefighters. He some reports say was giving last rights to one firefighter who was gravely injured. When the South Tower came down, the debris blew through the North Tower and he was struck in the head and killed. The picture that I have before you today is of Mychal Judge being carried out of the North Tower by his fire fighters. By his men. There are people who call this the American Pieta. It’s a moment in which you see a person who is mortally wounded but yet loved and whose own wounds were caused by love.
Mychal had a prayer during his life that he used as he would go about New York City. He had an incredible heart for anybody who was marginalized. For anybody who was excluded. For anybody who was poor. His prayer was this, “Lord take me where you want me to go. Let me meet who you want me to meet. Tell me what you want me to say and keep me out of your way.” This prayer has been so important to me because so often you have to ask yourself the question where is God wanting me to go? What is God wanting me to say in this instance? How can I moderate my own self in the process? How can I disappear so that my ministry can be truly transparent and God’s light can shine through it?
All of us are called to be saints. Saints are people for whom that life of giving is particularly transparent. Saints are not perfect people. They’re not people who haven’t made mistakes. They’re not people who somehow are able to float above everything we experience in life. Rather they’re people who are able to give themselves. So often if you’re like me you find reasons that you cannot give to others the way I said does. You can’t be like Mychal Judge or Mother Theresa because you’re not celibate. Or you have a family. Or you have career. Or you have other things that tie you down. Or maybe you’re just not holy enough. Or maybe God doesn’t speak to you in the way that you would hope or as clearly.
I think that’s a way of providing a little bit of distance, a little bit of comfortable distance from what we might be called to do in any instance. Also I think is because we tend to think of saints and we see them at moments in which their best self is present. We don’t remember often when a saint’s worst self is present. When you and I think about what it means to be called to do anything that God would want us to do – at least if you’re like me and I suspect many of you are, you think about the times in which you have been your worst self. You think that that keeps you from being your best self for God. God is interested not in your best self alone. God is interested in your whole self. God is interested in your whole self.
What makes saints special, what makes our lives Godly are those moments in your everyday existence in which we give our whole self. In fact, those moments in which we have our worst self in which our worst self emerges. Those sometimes more than being our best self can be a great learning opportunity for us. We begin to see in stark colors what it means to truly be connected to God. When I was first ordained, I was serving a church in New Haven, in inner city New Haven. It had a soup kitchen attached to the church. I was working there and I was trying to be a graduate student. I was trying to be a priest and I was working so hard. I didn’t have a discretionary fund but I did have $50.00 every now and then in my pocket. I would give that away and be there.
Over time I got a little bit discouraged. Because one time a guy was drunk and he wanted money from me and he began to threaten me. I had to learn some different ways of coping now that I was wearing a collar. Then one time time I was walking through the lunchroom. This guy turned to me and he said, “Support.” At that moment it just hit me, I don’t know. You get triggered. I said, “I don’t have any. My pockets are empty.” He said, “I need your prayer.” I knelt down and held his hand and I asked him, how could I pray for him? He told me his troubles and we prayed. That was a moment in which I wasn’t my best self, but it was a moment in which I learned a little bit of what it means to give your whole self to God.
What kind of community we’re called to be as Christians when we’re truly present to each other as whole selfs? We can do a lot. In other words, by looking at some of the incredible work of the people who died on 9-11 and thinking about our own life trajectory. Maybe the most sensible thing that we can do, now that this event. This tragic, traumatic event is so embedded in our psyche. Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Someone asked him, “What do you do when you have to discuss traumatic events with children that they’ve witnessed?” One of the things he said is something that his mother always said to him. Is he tells them to look for the helpers. Look at all the people who are coming forward to help.
Where is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to say? What ways can you get out of your own way so that you might be transformed, and be an agent of transformation. All of our readings for today speak about giving our whole self to God. All of our readings in one way or another speak about the ways in which we have been created by God for this giving of oneself. Our reading from exodus has this moment in which the people of Israel have gone and worshiped the golden calf. God is engaging in this banter with Moses. God turns to Moses and says, “Look out, I’ve had it with these people.” There’s going to be a big noise. Moses says, “Think of your reputation.” Says, “No, God you have sworn by yourself to be the God of these people even though they have engaged in idolatry.”
Now this passage causes conniptions for people who don’t like to think that God changes God’s mind. I think what’s going on here is there’s an elaborate education process in which God is putting God’s own words into Moses’ mouth. So that he would remember that God had sworn to be with the people of God, forever. God had given himself, and their life had to be one of giving themselves. Adulterers and followers and believers. In our reading from 1st Timothy you have this incredible moment in which Paul speaks of being a person of violence. A blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. He had learned not that he was totally changed. That the power of Jesus and his love was infinite enough to accept Paul as his believer so that he might be transformed. Jesus has given himself to Paul so that Paul could give himself to Jesus.
Finally, in our reading from the gospel of Luke you have this incredible moment in which Jesus is having table fellowship with sinners. The scribes and Pharisees are saying to Jesus or to themselves, that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus chooses to be with them and he tells them the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd who leaves 99 to go for one. That again is a moment of self-giving. The shepherd gives himself to one sheep so that the whole flock would be together. There’s no mystery in the fact that the earliest Christians had as their first image of Jesus a shepherd with a sheep on his shoulders. Because that welcome, that gift of God’s self. That reclamation, that is what it meant to believe in the God incarnate Jesus Christ. Where is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to say? What about you needs to get out of the way? What do you need to remember today? Amen.
[End of Recording]