Finding Innocence — September 11, 2016

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter ThompsonPeter
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2016

Exodus 32:7-14Psalm 51:1-101 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

I was eleven years old, and it was my second week of sixth grade. As most everyone surely knows by now, it was a beautiful, clear morning, as normal as any morning could ever be. I got up groggily, rushed with my mom to school, laughed with my friends, and settled in for a day of learning. There was nothing unusual about anything at all. It began to go wrong in Spanish class. Before class even ended, my homeroom teacher entered the classroom and whispered in my Spanish teacher’s ear something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Soon we were all shuttled to a hastily planned all-school assembly, where we were told of other plane crashes, suspicious activity in a growing number of places, and horrific confusion. Unsure of what to do with us, our teachers took us to the school chapel to sing hymns, and for the only time ever, before or since, we were sent home from school before noon.

I’d like to say that I knew then that everything was different, but I didn’t really. As usual, it seemed like the adults around me were obsessing about obscure and esoteric problems. I had once been to the top of the World Trade Center myself, and the Pentagon was ten miles from my house, but these planes might as well have crashed in India or Singapore for all I knew. To me, the World Trade Center was a tourist attraction and the Pentagon was a scenic backdrop. I remember walked with a friend around a leafy neighborhood in Washington on September 12, stunned at how silent everything was without a multitude of planes buzzing overhead. I asked my fellow eleven-year old what the big deal about this terrorist attack was. Accidents happened, I told him, people die every day. What made all of this so special? None of this really seemed to have anything to do with me.

One evening seven and a half years later, during my freshman year of college, I found myself wandering around Lower Manhattan. It was only then, I think, as I stared at the vast and gaping hole at the center of so much activity and industry, a disaster scene still empty and walled off from the rest of the city, that I began to understand what any of this was all about. In Washington, 9/11 had enormous political resonance, but the actual event had seemed, at least to a child, to be a small distraction in the timeline of the city’s history. The death toll in the Washington area was in the low three figures, the Pentagon had been all fixed in a matter of mere months, and political Washington had moved on to important things like Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, a few blocks from Wall Street, the reality of the tragedy that had occurred could not be papered over and denied. For the first time, I think, I grappled with just how much had been lost and could not be recovered: tall, imposing, seemingly invincible buildings, the sense of security on well-traveled city streets that so many took for granted, and so, so many human lives. As busy crowds maneuvered around me, 9/11 suddenly became immediate and real. I thought to myself: I could have been in that plane; I could have been in that tower; my best friend could have been just arriving for her internship; my mother could have been meeting an important client over breakfast; my teacher or a relative might have been flying to California in the sky. 9/11 was no longer an abstract idea I watched happen on a television screen from far away; it was a deeply serious tragedy in which real things, and real lives, were lost.

Eventually, as I continued to live in Manhattan and walked by Ground Zero more and more, I realized that it was not just others who had lost something on that day; it was me who had lost something as well. Like my parents and my grandparents before me, my childhood trust in the safety and security of the world around me had been shattered by a major national event. No longer was violence a foreign, distant phenomenon, a minor, forgotten footnote on the evening news. Now violence could happen to me and those whom I loved at any time—right on my doorstep; now violence was something my friends could be shipped off to do in far away lands. I hadn’t noticed this transformation within me at first, convinced as I was that this tragedy didn’t really matter, that 9/11 was about other people somewhere else. But, as I grew up over the years, I came to understand the conclusion that something had happened on that day, perhaps without me even noticing: I had lost my innocence.

Surely among the many significant casualties that day, innocence was one of them—mine and yours and the whole country’s, perhaps even the world’s. Yes, we had experienced terrorist attacks before, loss of life, and conflict between peoples of different nationalities, religious beliefs and ethnicities. As enlightened modern Americans, our faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity was far from intact, but we had, I think, retained a certain belief in some things being safe, superior, and sacrosanct. America was the leader of the free world, the product of the long and torturous evolution of human history, a society naturally destined to remain forever prosperous and undisturbed. That America could be attacked—so surprisingly, so ruthlessly, so devastatingly, on it own soil—was unfathomable. Until it happened.

We don’t usually think of losses like these as recoverable. When the dead die, as far as we’re concerned, they’re gone, with only the faint hint of resurrection still around to ameliorate our pain. The loss of innocence sounds as if it would be an even more final transition, for who has ever heard of anyone miraculously reversing the steps of maturation, forgetting all they have learned and magically becoming more ignorant than they were before? Yet the Christian faith, which we gather this morning to celebrate and proclaim, suggests that nothing is lost forever. Jesus tells stories in which a persistent God ensures that not even one sheep out of a hundred ever gets forgotten and in which a determined God sweeps the floor so carefully that every lost coin will be accounted for and claimed. It seems, then, that innocence—when it is lost—can be found. But the question is: how?

Our readings this morning are full of dramatic reversals: a vengeful God who changes his mind and relents from the disaster he had planned; a blasphemer and persecutor who becomes a godly example; sinners who turn away from their wrong-doing and serve as the cause for much rejoicing. In all of these instances, Biblical characters take stock of themselves, come to realize the errors in their ways and make a decision to move in a different direction. They find themselves by choosing another path.

On September 11, 2001, we lost our innocence. We suffered damage; we watched people die; we became afraid. It was not our fault. But what happened that day set off a chain of events that led some of us to behave in ways we may now regret. We became violent and aggressive, attacking people with flimsy justification or no cause at all. We shunned people because of how they looked or prayed or talked, seeing in them potential threats that just weren’t there. We let panic affect our decision-making, choosing paths that were defensive rather than aspirational. I know the United States of America and the world were not perfect places before 9/11, but 9/11 definitely changed us, and, in some ways, not for the better.

I wonder if what we need now, 15 years later, is to find our innocence again. I wonder if what we need now is to remind ourselves not only of what we lost but also of who we are and who we want to be. I wonder if what we need now is to align our actions with the vision we have for ourselves. I wonder if what we need now is to change our minds and choose another path.

But, you say, staying strong and resolute is the only valid way for us to respond to such an immense tragedy with political implications; to do anything otherwise would be foolish, dangerous and disrespectful. To that, I respond: no more foolish or disrespectful or dangerous than Jesus’ decision to eat with tax collectors and sinners or the efforts of the shepherd in Jesus’ parable to chase after one final lost sheep. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners even though he knew they were disliked by others and were the source of real problems for society. For Jesus, including and valuing them was more important than judging the correctness of their actions or preserving his own reputation. Meanwhile, the shepherd in Jesus’ parable put the other ninety nine sheep at risk when he abandoned them to find the very last one. He didn’t believe the other sheep were dispensable or unimportant; he simply acted with a preference for the one sheep that was still at-large. For the shepherd, taking some risk with all that he already had was worth it—because he cared so much about bringing back what he lost.

What if the lost mattered to us just as much? What if we focused just as much on bringing the lost back? What if we decided to disregard social convention in order to sit and eat with tax collectors and sinners? What if we laid aside our normal concerns to pay special attention to the forgotten, hundredth sheep wandering off in the distance? What if we put everything we had into bringing people together and making the world a more united and integrated place? I suspect that we too would come to the conclusion that taking risks with what we do have is worth it—worth the peace and the justice, the diversity and inclusion, the joy and ultimately the love that could result from our efforts. And, cliché as it may sound, it really all comes down to love at the end of the day, doesn’t it? Love—that strong and elusive and mystical thing, more valuable than fear or violence, more virtuous than pride or victory or revenge. Love, I think, is essential—the only thing we need to move past the tragedy even all these years later and finally find our innocence again.

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