A sermon delivered by, Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on September 11, 2011.
Where were you when you heard the news of the Attack on America? I was away from Atlanta preaching a revival and had gone for a morning walk under a cloudless sky. When I returned to my friend’s house, I turned the television on and saw both of the Twin Towers in flames, as well as the Pentagon. At first, I thought I was watching a clip from an upcoming movie, but it did not take long to realize this was not make-believe. Like all of you and our entire country, I was in shock.
Ten years have now passed since that fateful day. There has been no shortage of books and articles written about one of the few events in US history big enough to claim its date, 9/11, as its name. This has certainly been the case in the days building up to the tenth anniversary of this memorable day.
We can see clearer now that the dust has settled. While there are some things we don’t know and never will, we understand more than we did when the debris was still smoldering and we were reeling in disbelief. Let me share some of those things I wrote last week as I reflected upon the day our world was turned upside down.
I know God shed a lot of tears that day. “One day, God will wipe away all tears from their eyes,” John wrote in Revelation 7:17 and 21:4. “Until that day, God cries with us,” someone has written in response. I agree.
I am confident God cried on 9/11 when He saw the towers go down in New York, United Airlines Flight 93 crash in a field on the edge of Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon take a direct hit. God’s heart broke as almost 3,000 died that day because violence was again chosen to deal with conflict.
I believe God cries every day, though, because we live in a violent world. Anytime blood is shed and lives are cut short, God grieves like the loving and responsible parent Isaiah depicts in our text.
I know lives were changed forever. Actually, all of us who lived through that day were changed. Some, however, were changed more dramatically than others: those who lost their lives and their relatives, those who survived the attack and first-responders. Life, as they knew it, was abruptly and radically altered.
I know 9/11 revealed the best and the worst about mankind. We saw the worst as nineteen terrorists hijacked and crashed four passenger jets, “tearing a hole in our history,” writes Bruce Kluger. This was not, however, all we saw that day. Random acts of heroism were not scarce.
All of us were inspired by the passengers aboard United Flight 93 when they thwarted the terrorists’ plans to crash into the White House or the Capitol. They sacrificed their own lives to save others and to this day we remember their acts of bravery and grace. If this plane had been in the air for two more seconds, it would have crashed into a school, killing hundreds of children and adults.
Welles Crowther, a 24 year-old equities trader who worked on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center, was known as the man with the red bandanna. He began carrying a bandanna at the age of 16, when he became a volunteer fire fighter.
A New York Times article revealed that a mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief, to help rescue several women from a dark, smoky stairway. One lady, Ling Young, said she was steered toward safety by a man with a red bandanna who called to others, “This way to the stairs!” She saw him carry a woman down the stairs until they reached clean air, then head back up to get more people. Reflecting upon this Good Samaritan, Young said, “Although he saved others, he didn’t save himself.” Sounds biblical, doesn’t it?
Many heroes were born that day, some less notable than others, but not less important. I’m not surprised. As one columnist wrote, “There is a deep well of courage in the American spirit.”
I know we don’t have to live in a world where hatred, violence and bloodshed are commonplace. This is not what God intended when the world was created. It still isn’t.
I looked back at the sermon I preached soon after 9/11 titled, “Praying for America.” “I am praying,” I wrote, “that I will not adopt a terrorist mentality. I know how easy it is to become bitter and seek revenge. That’s the world’s way of handling pain. That’s also the worst way because it makes a bad situation worse. God help me not to go there.”
We do have choices in how we live our lives, arrange our values, use our influence, treat our neighbors and respond to evil. As my friend, Tom Ehrich writes, “The kindness we show or don’t show, the mercy we give or don’t give, the food we share or hoard, the enemy we forgive or slaughter—these are in our control.” There are decisions each of us can make every day which will make the world a better place for everyone.
Usman Farman, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim of Pakistani descent worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center. His office was a stone’s throw from the Twin Towers. After the second plane hit, Farman made his way down twenty-seven flights of stairs to the street. He had walked two or three blocks when the first tower collapsed.
“The next thing I remember,” he said, “was a dark cloud of debris about fifty stories high came tumbling toward us. I ran as fast as possible, but fell down trying to get away. I was on my back, facing this massive cloud that must have been 600 feet away. Everything was already dark and people were running by me. Then, help came from the most unexpected place.”
Farman said he always wore a pendant around his neck inscribed with an Arabic prayer for safety. He said a Hasidic Jew came up to him and held the pendant in his hand. He read the Arabic aloud and with a deep Brooklyn accent said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand and let’s get out of here.” Together, arm in arm, this Muslim and Jew made their way to safety.
This is the kind of world I want to live in and want to help build. I believe you do, too. We experienced it in this country for about three days after 9/11. America unlocked its gates and became the caring community all of us needed.
Strangers hugged, families took in stranded passengers when airports shut down, neighbors checked on each other and churches filled with worshipers seeking solace and courage. What keeps us from living this way all the time? Perhaps Isaiah asked this of his contentious generation.
“Come let us reason together,” Isaiah wrote to his people living in fractured communities, the result of selfishness, hypocrisy, deceit, fear and war. It was as if he said with a broken heart, “there is a better way and with God’s help, we can achieve it.” I believe we can, too.
By God’s grace, we can build bridges of goodwill and understanding to others rather than walls of suspicion and hate.
We can expose and denounce religious extremism in any form, Muslim, Christian or Jew.
We can listen to people’s stories with open minds, tender hearts and a tongue which knows when to speak or remain silent.
We can join hands with all who are willing to address and tackle the problems we hear about when we listen to one another.
We can make sure everyone has a seat at the table of decision-making, especially the disenfranchised.
We can speak truth to power, demanding honesty, goodness and mercy.
We can have civil discourse in spite of our differences.
We can hold evil people accountable and bring them to justice without becoming like them.
We can end the vicious cycle of violence by refusing to retaliate.
We can be proud of our American heritage without being arrogant.
We can be repentant of our shortcomings while still being patriots.
We can live by the Golden Rule and be Good Samaritans.
We can worship with clean hands and pure hearts.
We can, as Isaiah encouraged his people, cease from doing evil and learn to do well.
We can pursue justice and peace with the same dedication and zeal of Isaiah, and when we do, I am convinced we’ll turn tears of sorrow into seeds of hope.
As I mentioned earlier, I took a walk on the morning of 9/11 and was unaware of what happened until I returned to Al and Lisa’s house and turned on television. Just before entering the house, I looked up and saw a rainbow shining through a fountain in the middle of a lake. It was a powerful symbol of grace and hope, the very thing I would need in the hours and days to come.
I believe God is eager to provide grace and hope to everyone who partners with Him to make the world better. Will you become one of those partners?