As we come to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 I share the homily I preached on the 15th anniversary, which fell on a Sunday. -Fr Lou
From 1993 until 2004, my youngest brother, Henry, lived in New York City. And not just anywhere in New York. Midtown Manhattan. 34th between 9th and 10th. When you walked out of his building you knew where you were, because to the right was the Empire State. So the Hudson was to the left. Henry moved to New York to work in theater. And soon met an actress named Betsy, who would fairly soon become my sister-in-law. Coming from a family where my mom raised us on Broadway show tunes from the womb, it was a gift from God. I visited. A lot.
Fifteen years ago, in mid-August of 2001, my mom and I went to visit because it was the Summer of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. To this day it holds the record for the most Tony awards ever. (Take that Hamilton.) I remember before we left watching the actor Edward Norton complaining on Letterman about how he couldn’t get tickets. He’d just directed Anne Bancroft in his first film. She was married to Mel Brooks, who WROTE The Producers. And he STILL couldn’t get tickets. But my brother Henry was friends with one of the producers of The Producers. We sat front row center, mezzanine. It may be good to be the King, but it’s better to be a producer.
Of course we had an amazing time, and at the end we flew home out of Newark airport. I always liked to get seats on the left side of the plane on the way home. You got to watch the skyline go by as the plane took off. All the way to those twin towers at the tip of Manhattan …
And three weeks later the world changed.
The next time I was in New York was May of 2002. For years many of my days in New York would start with a trip down to World Trade. Everybody knows about the half-price ticket booth in Times Square that opens at 1 pm, where you line up for hours and it takes most of the day. But not so many people knew about the branch in the lobby of World Trade that opened at 10 in the morning, and rarely had much of a line. But this trip I didn’t go down. I didn’t want to look at what was left.
And then one day, my sister-in-law Betsy and I went downtown to check out something for a little independent film they were working on with some friends. And we came up out of the subway. And I did a very New York thing without even thinking. I glanced up the street both directions to get my bearings. To figure out which way was uptown and which way was downtown. But I couldn’t tell. Because what I looked for without thinking wasn’t there anymore.
And Betsy saw the tears in my eyes. And she said – Yeah. For some reason, that’s when it gets me the most too.
Somehow, after 15 years, it feels like I’m still there. Like we’re still there. Looking for which way is which. For where to go. Something about ourselves, something from the past that would tell us our direction, it isn’t there anymore. We wander, it seems. Lost.
Because we did something very, very, very human after we were attacked. We took the pain and the anger. And mostly we took the fear. And we turned it into violence. Righteous violence against those who used their hatred to turn airplanes full of humans into weapons. But something else, too.
Because there was so much fear, we turned it into violence against others we were afraid of. We turned it into war. And thousands upon thousands died and are dying still in those wars: American, Australian, Canadian, British, Afghan, and most of all, Iraqi.
Wars shape the world we wander in today. A decade and a half of wars. For this year’s high school freshmen, the horror of September 11th is history. They were all born after it happened. But war, war has shaped all of their life.
And even though we are coming to a time when we can admit publicly to ourselves that our war against Iraq was wrong (in fact that may be the ONLY thing that the Democratic and Republican candidates for president agree on), the fear remains. And grows. A poll released Friday showed that Americans are even MORE angry, MORE afraid about the September 11th attacks than they were five years ago. But then we have allowed fear of all kinds of people to become a permanent part of our national conversation.
Osama bin Laden may lie at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. But he is still shaping our world. Because we allowed his hatred to shape our fear.
I wish I had an answer to where we find ourselves on this anniversary. To the world that has made us, and the world that we have made. But the only answer that comes to mind is one from fifteen years ago. From my homily that first Sunday after.
Where was God, I heard so many people ask. Students at UofL, people in my parish, people on tv and in the paper. Where was God when terrorists flew the planes into buildings? When the towers fell? And I gave the answer that I still believe to the depths of my bones: God was running up stairs and running up stairs and running up stairs in the towers. God was grabbing picks and shovels from construction sites all over Manhattan and running downtown because the subways were shut down. God was in line for hours to give blood. God had his arms around wives and husbands and sons and daughters. God was weeping.
And now? Now when fear is so easy? When we wander without direction in what the world has become. Where is God on this anniversary Sunday?
Aaahhhh … the Church in her infinite wisdom, we used to say in seminary … the Church in her infinite wisdom gives us the scriptures for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, on this day that this year is the 15th anniversary of the horror of September 11th.
And in her infinite, accidental wisdom it is a story:
Of God, who searches endlessly across the hillsides to find a lost sheep.
Of God, who is sweeping every corner of the house for a lost coin.
Of God, who is waiting, watching, longing. For his lost child.
For us. For us.
And maybe that is enough, in the end. Enough to begin to get our bearings. To begin to see which way is which way. To see God, who is not so far away after all, standing with arms open wide. Maybe the truth of that first September 11th, and the truth of this one is enough. The truth that was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever:
That God is here.
And God is here.
And God is love.
And God is here.