A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 11, 2011.
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114
I have forgotten far more than I remember about the events of my 59-year long life. But a few moments are indelibly stamped in my mind. These unforgettable moments include:
1) My baptism at age seven;
2) The assassination of President John F. Kennedy when I was eleven. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news;
3) My wedding when I was twenty-two;
4) The births of my three children;
5) My first Sunday as pastor of this church when I was thirty-eight.
6) The day my mother died, July 11, 2001, a few days after I turned forty-nine.
7) The day America was attacked on September 11, 2001.
Today, we commemorate the tenth anniversary of what’s commonly known in our country as “9/11.” I’m guessing that for every American fifteen or more years old, 9/11/01 is unforgettable.
You may remember September 11th, 2001 was a Tuesday, a bright and sunny day up and down the east coast of the United States. I first learned that something was awry when a former staff member of our church told me he had heard a report on the radio that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I pictured a small plane crashing into office windows of this massive sky scraper, hopefully with no casualties, and thought little more about it.
Until I heard that a second plane—a commercial jet liner like the first plane—had flown into the second Twin Tower. And soon thereafter a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. And after that, a plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania before it had a chance to plow into the White House or other government buildings in our nation’s capital.
I remember the rest of that unforgettable day was pandemonium. By 10:30 that morning the unthinkable had happened—both Twin Towers, seemingly invincible symbols of American commerce, were nothing more than smoldering heaps of rubble in the streets of New York, trapping thousands of victimsunder tons of concrete and steel. In Washington members of Congress were evacuated and government buildings closed. Every civilian plane flying over American soil was grounded. Government buildings closed, and so did businesses. Schools locked down, and so for that matter did our entire country.
Who can forget how surreal it felt to see the replays of planes exploding into the sides of buildings? Or images of policemen and firemen racing up the steps of the Twin Towers as everyone else rushed away? Or the billowing clouds of smoke that cascaded through the streets of Manhattan? Or family members wandering about in a daze looking for lost loved ones? Or the fear we all felt that day because our famously powerful United States no longer seemed so strong.
When the smoke eventually cleared, we learned that almost 3000 people perished that day, more than died at Pearl Harbor. We learned that 19 “Jihadists”, or radicalized Muslims under the direction of one Osama Bin Laden, were responsible for the attacks.
During the National Day of Prayer that followed on September 14th, Billy Graham spoke prophetically in Washington’s National Cathedral when he said Americans “have a choice:…to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a nation; or …choose to become stronger through all the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation…(of) trust in God.”
At first, it seemed as though we chose to become stronger and more unified through the struggle. Our politicians linked arms on the steps of the Capital Building and sang in unison, “God Bless America.” Then they banded together to pass a succession of recovery bills in breathtaking fashion, even though both Democrats and Republicans had to compromise along the way. Americans of all stripes and persuasions banded together to donate thousands of gallons of blood and millions of dollars for the cause. We promised one another we would never forget the suffering that bound us together.
And then we promptly forgot.
In March of 2002, Psychology Today published the results of a survey conducted seven weeks after September 11. Almost seven hundred people participated in the survey that showed that in a surprisingly short period of time people’s memories became fuzzy about the timing and sequence of the events of that fateful day. These results affirmed that most of us have what psychologists call “flashbulb memories,” or memories that degrade over a short period of time.
It’s not just the details, of course, that we’ve forgotten. It’s the spirit of dramatic heroism and remarkable unity that has faded into thin air.
Few Americans would contend that our last decade has been our finest. Over the last ten years we became engaged in not one but two unfunded wars that continue to this day, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. We’ve compromised our own principles of conduct in dealing with prisoners of war, and fanned the flames of hatred against the religion of Islam, forgetting that many Muslims have been casualties of terrorism.
We’ve almost bankrupted our American economy, and trust in our government has never been lower because partisan gridlock has never been higher. Our education system struggles to keep up with those of other countries that consistently outscore us, and millions of Americans are unemployed. Maybe most important, the sunny optimism that always seemed to carry our country is in desperately short supply.
On September 11, 2011 we seem to have far more questions than answers about our country. Because we have forgotten what should have been unforgettable.
Perhaps we could learn something from another nation that had an unforgettable day in its history many centuries ago.
Few nations can match the drama of ancient Israel when it comes to the day of their founding. For hundreds of years the Israelites had suffered under the heavy yoke of Egyptian slavery. They were a desperate people without a leader, or land, or most importantly hope.
But God had his eye on these people. God approached an 80-year-old shepherd named Moses and called him to lead his people out Egypt. Moses balked at first, and insisted God had the wrong man. But God would not take no for an answer, and Moses reluctantly agreed to confront the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt, considered a god in his own right.
Not surprisingly, Pharaoh didn’t readily yield to Moses’ demands to free God’s people. So God moved the process along by inflicting the Egyptian people with ten devastating plagues. The plagues were so brutal that Pharaoh reversed course and begged the Israelites to leave his country.
So it looked like smooth sailing for the roughly two million Israelites as they began to evacuate Egypt and head to God’s Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey.” But then Pharaoh exhibited his own case of “flashbulb memory,” apparently forgetting the ravages of the recent plagues as he ordered his army, complete with elite soldiers and the latest military hardware, to forcibly return the unarmed, Israelites to their slave masters.
Then, it was Israel’s turn to look like amnesiacs. When they got wind that Egyptian troops were pursuing them, they promptly reacted with fear rather than faith, apparently forgetting the lengths to which God had already gone to extract them from Egypt. When the Israelites said they’d rather return to Egypt than perish in the wilderness, Moses responded, “Do not be afraid, stand firm…The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).
What happened next, of course, was unthinkable, much less unforgettable. Moses stretched his hand over the Red Sea, and God whipped up a fierce wind that parted the sea, swept back the waters and piled them up like walls on either side. Then the Israelites paraded across a dry sea bed to the opposite shore.
The pursuing Egyptians came after them into the sea, but God threw them into a panic. Their chariots became immobilized and the Egyptians tried to retreat but to no avail. God abruptly caused the sea to return to its normal state, and the watery walls came crashing down, engulfing the Egyptians and drowning the entire army. Then, the waves cast up the corpses on to the shore for all to see.
Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses (Exodus 14:31).
Of course, this was not the end of the story. The Israelites would have other flashbulb memory moments when they would forget the previous provision and protection of God and act out of raw fear. In fact, their memories were so wispy and their actions so faithless that they wasted a few decades of their own—four to be exact—spinning their wheels in the wilderness before finally crossing still another body of water (when God parted the River Jordan just as he had the Red Sea) to enter the Promised Land.
Nevertheless, the memory of that unforgettable day at the Red Sea continued to fuel the nation of Israel for centuries, and does so to this day. Soon after their miraculous victory over the Egyptians, Moses and the Israelites composed a song of celebration, recorded in Exodus 15 that echoed for centuries throughout temples and synagogues. The Psalmist did the same, reminding the Israelites through their hymns how God literally ushered them through the parted waters of the Red Sea and the River Jordan:
The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
The hills like lambs….
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord (Psalm 114:3-4, 7).
With songs and festivals and monuments the Israelites worked hard to not forget what never should be forgotten. Because they realized long before modern psychology our tendency to forget.
And because they understood that to remember the past in a meaningful way can powerfully impact our present. Indeed, our memory relived can transform the present by giving God the time and space to renew us and remind us of his presence in our lives.
For better or for worse, 9/11 shaped our national psyche in some indelible ways. We’ve been sorely tempted to live out of our fear rather than our faith. Have we forgotten that we should never have defeated the superior British army over two centuries ago to win our independence? Personally, I don’t subscribe to the theory that we are God’s chosen nation, but I do believe that God’s provision and protection made the United States a reality. Do we really believe God has so abandoned us that we can only prevail with military shock and awe and enhanced interrogation techniques?
This tenth anniversary of an unforgettable day gives us an opportunity to do something very valuable—take a deep breath and pause to remember who we are and whose we are. We are the United States of America, a people who have historically stood for liberty and justice for all. We have fallen far short of our principles, sometimes shamefully so. But at our best no nation has done more for the welfare of more people here and around the globe.
Now is a time to remember that while military action will sadly always need to be an option, there is a limit to what chariots and spears can do. So many forces are mightier than the sword—including treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve. Call me naïve, but I believe it will ultimately be our trust in God, and not a trident missile that will save us.
Despite our religious roots, we are a nation filled with people of faith and no faith. And religious liberty demands we protect the rights of all. But without apology I say that whether we know it or not, admit it or not, our nation still belongs to God. And we need to act accordingly—in our politics and economics, in all the ways we live with one another.
If we do, we can succeed in this 245-year-old experiment of freedom called America. If we do, we can keep hope alive.
And we can be sure God will not forget us.