Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 2011
St. Paul's, Portland, Maine; St. Luke's, Amherst, New Hampshire

 

Let us pray: Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

The Revelation to St. John the Divine is full of apocalyptic imagery, symbols of the last days. It is embraced by those who pray for the "rapture," it is read diligently by those who study disasters and by those who perhaps seek to cause them. It is misread by many people. Because it is not about the terrible events that we must endure, but about the wonder that will greet us at the end of every difficult passage. It is sometimes hard for us to focus on this, particularly when we remember very difficult moments. But it is true. God knows this. So should we.

 

It is hard to believe it was ten years ago. Three and a half thousand days have passed. And many of us remember that unusual and terrible day as if, well, as if it were yesterday. It is still so very close to us. "It is hard to believe, isn't it?" How many times have we heard those words spoken? That day is vivid in our memories, fixed in our hearts and minds as certainly as any other day we have known in our lives.

 

"Where were you when the planes hit the towers?" This is another question we hear. Because that day has also changed us. There is a before and an after, a pivotal moment in our lives and in the life of our country. And our world. "Where was I?" we ask ourselves. And we may see ourselves as we were then; younger, doing something that was very important – or not. On our way to school. Sitting at a desk. Working at a job. Driving a car. Something almost too normal for the terrible events of that one particular day. I asked a friend of mine where she was when she learned the news. She was driving her car, she said, and she saw a sign. It was a very inconsequential sign, a normal sign, a simple and forgettable sign, an exit sign off the Massachusetts Turnpike. Something she saw every day. But this particular sign is now transformed; it is now fixed in her memory in a different way, as if it were a sign of vast importance. Days like 9/11 do that to us; they change how we see things. Even the simplest of images have somehow branded themselves onto our very beings.

 

There are many images that we remember of that day. Smoke plumes rising up to heaven. A second plane traveling very fast and finally crashing into a tower of glass and steel. Dust covered firemen and policemen. Towers leaning. Towers collapsing in on themselves. Smoke and dust. So much smoke and dust. And the pictures of trapped people.

 

There are many images; images that we all know because we have seen them so often. Pictures that we will all carry with us forever. But there is one that I remember more clearly than all the others. It is not an visual image, really, not a picture, though it paints a picture more vivid than any that were shown to me on that particular day. It is a short sentence. It was spoken by a young child.

 

Her school was close to what has come to be called "Ground Zero." Because of the extreme danger to the school children, her school was evacuated. The children all held hands as they walked slowly to safety, away from that place of great danger. This little girl looked up at the buildings that gave off all the smoke. She watched it closely for a few moments. Then she understood. "Look, teacher," she said, "the birds are on fire." "Look, teacher, the birds are on fire."

 

That simple phrase has remain in my memory; immovable. It will remain with me as long as I live. The birds are on fire. It is a symbol of the apocalypse. It could have been taken directly from The Revelation of St. John the Divine. We might easily read this: "And it came to pass, that on a bright day in a glass-walled city, the birds fell from the sky on wings of fire." A powerful description of the day we refer to as "9/11." But, of course, that sentence does not appear in The Revelation of St. John the Divine. It does not appear anywhere in the Bible. It was spoken in the voice of a tiny child as she tried to make sense of what she saw. How could she know that the birds who fell were people from the towers; people who knew that they were about to die, who leaped into the void to escape the flames? How could she know?

 

Perhaps, like that little girl, we wish to make sense of what happened on that day. We want to do something, create something that will last forever. We will build monuments to the memory of the lost, so that we may remember. It is why we commemorate that day in this particular ceremony. We do remember. We want to remember; we want to give meaning to something that we do not fully understand. We want to keep those who were lost in our memories. As if forgetting will somehow bring dishonor to those who died. All of these things are very human reactions to what has happened.

 

But we do forget. There is a generation growing up now that has little comprehension of what that day has meant to many of us. But we, too, forget. And one of the things we have forgotten in all this activity, all this creation of monuments and waterfalls; all this rebuilding and emphasis on "we will never forget" is that it is God's world. And God will have the final say.

 

"How could it happen?" we ask. And we know the answer. There is evil in the world. It is a fallen place in which we live, imperfect in so many ways. But the curious thing this is: God loves this world, just as He loves us. He will do all He can to heal it, to make it whole. Just as He wishes all of that for us. God's grace is boundless. God's grace will be given freely. And all that is evil or imperfect will simply fall away. It will not last. Because it is not of God.

 

Yes, even the wonderful memorials and towers that are being created in New York and elsewhere will someday disappear. All will be forgotten.

 

But God will remember. And God will create out of the tragedy of that day now so vivid in our minds a new beginning. God will create something entirely new. What will that image be? It may well be an image of birds flying up on the wings of the Holy Spirit; wings of fire that will carry a message of God to us; a message that says that, despite all that you have seen and heard on that day, the message is not complete. It is not complete unless you know of the great love of God, who will care for all of those who were lost.

 

The passage from Revelation may well have been spoken directly to them: "Never again shall you feel hunger or thirst; never again shall the sun beat on you or any scorching heat, because the Lamb who is at the centre of the throne will be your shepherd and will guide you to the springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from your eyes."

 

 

Amen