September 11 was our Water Communion, our Ingathering Sunday, as it was for many Unitarian Universalist congregations: a joyous occasion. It was also, of course, a day of mourning and remembrance. Below is my homily that morning, along with the readings that preceded it. The Water Communion and its attendant readings and blessings followed.

The quote on the order of service, from John F. Kennedy, was also the text of an anthem sung by the choir, music by Mark Carlson

If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic, common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.

Centering words, from Saadi, 13th century Persian poet

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.
All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member, the others cannot stay at rest.

Reading                        Peter Ferrara, published on September 25, 2001

You probably missed it in the rush of news [right after September 11], but there was actually a report that someone in Pakistan had published in a newspaper there an offer of a reward to anyone who killed an American, any American.

So I just thought I would write to let them know what an American is, so they would know when they found one.

An American is English…or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. An American may also be African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Iranian, Asian, or Arab, or Pakistani, or Afghan.

An American is Christian, or he could be Jewish, or Buddhist, or Muslim. In fact, there are more Muslims in America than in Afghanistan. The only difference is that in America they are free to worship as each of them choose.

An American is also free to believe in no religion. For that he will answer only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.

. . . . Americans welcome the best, but they also welcome the least. The national symbol of America welcomes your tired and your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores, the homeless, tempest tossed.

So you can try to kill an American if you must . . . . But in doing so you would just be killing yourself. Because Americans are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, is an American.[i]

Reflection                                                                    Amy Zucker Morgenstern

It was a day of fire and dust. Airplanes turning into missiles. Towers of glass and concrete burning. Blazes erupting in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington. And when the first tower collapsed from the heat, a cloud of unimaginable power, so large it was visible from space, rolled across Manhattan like a thunderstorm front.

How do we respond to a grief that still burns and chokes, ten years later? How do we memorialize such a loss?

My mother sent me a video of what the planned memorial looked like, and I cried and cried, both from sorrow remembered and re-awakened, and from a sense of peace and healing. The memorial was dedicated this morning. In the precise footprints of the twin towers, we have set waterfalls, endlessly pouring. Around the edge of each are engraved all of the names, all of the stories of love and loss, and within: a fountain, cool water ever flowing.

In those first days we spoke all our grief and hope. One ideal was given voice by Professor Peter Ferrara in the reading [our Worship Associate] shared. A belief, a hope maybe, that America would always embody freedom and openness.

That ideal was under fire then, as it always is: from without, and, even more dangerously, from within. Even as Ferrara wrote, the freedom of religion he hailed was hard to come by for American Muslims. In another paragraph we didn’t hear this morning, he praised Americans for not being people who would be fooled into killing innocents. But that ideal was hard to achieve. Two weeks later, we were dropping fire upon Afghanistan, the sufferers mostly civilians, as the sufferers of modern war mostly are. Sixteen months after that, we were invading another country that had no part in the attack upon us. Our grief was made a cry for war, answering fire with fire.

The hymn we sang, “By the Waters of Babylon,” is a song of grief, of exile. The people of Jerusalem, exiled by the Babylonians, sing how “we sat down and wept” for the peaceful and beautiful homeland lost, Zion, Jerusalem. And who are we in that song? Are we Jerusalem, the place of hope and promise, the symbol of all that is good, or are we Babylon, the land of violence?

It depends on us. One can turn into the other in a single moment. The words of that hymn are the first lines of Psalm 137. The psalm begins in sorrow and grief; it ends in a call for revenge and one of the most chilling expressions of rage in all of the Bible, a longing to turn one’s grief and anger not just against the enemy, the rulers of Babylon, but against other innocent people. When we are hurt, it makes us angry, and when we are angry, we burn with a fire that, if we are not careful, hurts the innocent.

It is so easy to start off as Jerusalem and end up as Babylon . . . This is true of America; it is true of humanity. It is the struggle within each of us, especially when we are in pain and confusion. It is easy in such moments to turn even love into a source of division. The love of our country, the love of our families, that has such power to unite us with everyone who has ever loved their country and their family, can be corrupted by fear.

But as we will sing in our other hymn today, if we will it and make it happen, “a bright new day [will dawn] when love will not divide.”

Each year when we gather here, we bring each other water: the gift of ourselves, the gifts of beauty and hope, healing, life.

What a beautiful, lasting gift the creators of the national 9/11 memorial have made to us. They have poured cool waters upon our burning sorrow. When we visit Ground Zero in reality or in our minds, when we go to that place of fire and dust, of rending and loss, of shock and fear, we will sit by the soothing waters and hear their peaceful music. We will weep, and we will know healing and hope.


[i] “What Is An American?,” The National Review, accessed September 6, 2011, http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-ferrara092501.shtml.

Advertisements