Sermon on the Ten Year Anniversary of September 11th


A Meditation on Romans 14: 1-12 by Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo

Sunday September 11, 2011 (Ten Year Anniversary of September 11th)

Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church

ImageLet us pray: Your presence like treasure hidden in a field.  Your Glory like gold buried on the pathway of every moment.  Your Wisdom like the finest oil waiting to be pressed from the human heart from every nation from every people from every child.  Your Wisdom, O God, to show us the way.[i]

I began thinking about this anniversary months ago.  It hit me that the 10th anniversary of September 11th was going to fall on a Sunday, meaning that this milestone of the first decade would be on the day when you and I gather together as a community of faith.  It seems appropriate to me that we would be here, that we would be in this place as we think and reflect on that day.

For me personally, I have been a mix of emotions this whole week as we have approached today.  As you know, I was just two months into my first call in ministry when the attacks of September 11th happened.   I remember that I was full of the excitement of just starting ministry, and I was also nervous, still trying to get my bearings.  Like everyone, that day is etched into my memory forever.  One of the things that I find myself reflecting on is that the tragedy that was September 11th happened right as I started ministry—and that the day and what has happened afterwards is now a constant part of my ministry. I knew hardly anything of ordained ministry before that day, and will never know ordained ministry without that day.   It’s something I think about a lot.

Of course, the day happened.  There are so many details to that day, I can still remember exactly everything that we did and went through.   Most of all I remember the stress, the worry, and how rapidly the day went.   I remember the sky turning a strange burnt orange color as the smoke made its way to us from the city.   I remember a hastily called meeting of the local clergy group, about 15 of us crammed into the study at the Red Bank Presbyterian Church.  Cell phones going off and the church secretary at that congregation running in and out of the room as each of us received news and updates about members of our congregations.  I remember participating in a worship service that evening, people streaming into the church and sitting in the pews covered in ash and soot.  And I remember being called into our local hospital ER the next day to help the staff chaplain there deal with the droves of people admitting themselves into our local hospital for emergency psychological care, who were having nervous breakdowns after everything they had seen and experienced in New York City.  And I remember the funerals and the aftermath for so many months after.

Just last Sunday I was with Sofia in Summit at this new place in town she loves, a frozen yogurt shop.  I was sitting with her, eating yogurt, my chair facing the storefront window, and I glanced up at the sky outside.  Flying unnaturally low was a huge plane and it was wobbling wing tip to wing tip—flying in a strange way.  The sky was hazy, and the plane was going in the direction of New York City.  I panicked, and ran outside to look at the plane, and in that moment realized that there were other people in the same panicked state as I was in standing on the street with me staring at the sky.   It was a huge plane, it was the size of one of those C-17 military cargo jets.   I had never seen one of those in the skies above Summit.   Later in the day I realized what I probably saw was part of the President’s security detail, he had been in Paterson viewing flood damage from last week, and his security detail tends to fly decoy planes.  But, as I stood on the sidewalk in Summit last Sunday with other people, I stopped to look around me, and saw looks of fear and panic on their faces.  I realize in moments like these just how affected we all are in our own ways—how much fear still lives inside of us ready to jump up and be at the forefront of our emotions in a second.   The trauma we all know as we live near New York City from that ten years ago is very deep.

I have told the story before, that prior to September 11th I was registered to attend a clergy conference up at the Stony Point Center in the first week of October of 2001.   It was to be led by the renowned Catholic priest, John Dear—who has dedicated his entire life to the practice and teaching of nonviolence.  I remember that weekend away helping begin the process of healing my hurt soul from the ministry I had been engaged in for the few weeks before.   John spoke eloquently about the need for peace and nonviolence in a time of fear.  He spoke out just three weeks after September 11th against the use of military force as a way of responding to what had happened, and he connected the dots for me theologically between what I had experienced so early in my ministry and what sort of lived out response as a person of faith that I might choose to take.   I remain so grateful for that weekend to this day because John reconnected me to what had been taught and modeled my whole life growing up in church.  He pulled me out of the pit of anger and the pit of wanting a vengeful and reactionary response to what had happened.   He pointed me in a direction—to a path that I continue to try to walk to this day, a path of peacemaking in ministry and in life—as way of attempting to faithfully respond to the violence and trauma that I was pulled into so early in my ministry.

I believe this really is the question for us today, ten years later.  What choices are we going to make?  How are we going to live?  And, what are we going to do with the lives that in love and grace were given to us by the living God in Jesus Christ?

We have to live with not just September 11th, but with all of our lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly.   The answers for each of us to these questions are going to be different.   Even without the event that was September 11th in our lives individually and collectively, we would have to answer these questions—these are the questions God asks of each of us.  What are we going to do with our lives?  What is authentic for you, what is authentic for me, in how we choose to order our lives as a response to the gift of love and grace that we have in Jesus Christ?   How can we live with deep intention and with careful thought about what is and is not appropriate as people who call ourselves by the name “Christian”?  It is a journey, and the only choice for each of us is whether or not we are going to take the journey seriously or not.

Now let me just say—we are not expected to be perfect!  Just look at the reading for today from Romans if you want to be reminded of this!  Paul is writing to the Roman Church—he is suggesting that they live in a non-judgmental way, he is suggesting they practice forgiveness, but in this very same passage Paul himself cannot do it!   Out of one side of his mouth Paul is saying to forgive and out of the other side of his mouth he is saying that the people who he disagrees with are weak in their faith.

We are like that—confused and multifaceted.  And when we are under threat—we are even more confused—even less able to make sense of our lives and the direction God wants for us.

One of the commentators on this passage in Romans writes this:  “Our strength comes not from our traditions or our church membership.  Strength is not defined by how much Bible we know, or even how much we contribute financially to the congregation.  Our strength lies in understanding that the integrity with which we live our lives is tied directly to how our beliefs guide our actions…there are many who self-identify as ‘strong Christians’, when the truth of the matter is that their judgmental spirit renders them weak in the eyes of God and the community.”[ii]

There are lots of stories that you and I know of these last ten years.  The stories that lift me up the most and remind me of my calling are the stories of hope and determination—while at the same time acknowledging the wounds and scars.   We are not perfect and yet we live.

PBS showed a documentary[iii] this week that followed some of the wives of the firefighters who died in the Towers.

One woman and her husband had two autistic sons that needed round-the-clock supervision and care before September 11th.  When her husband died, it was all left to her.  The reality of her life after September 11th was so painful, but she found the strength to build a Foundation which to this date has built two new group homes for autistic young men in memory of her husband and the love he had for their two boys.

Another woman founded what has grown to this day to be a huge marathon called “Tunnels to the Towers” to commemorate the firefighters who drove through the tunnels to the Twin Towers and to their deaths—all in the name of service and choosing to stand in those terrible moments on the side of life rather than death.   That woman said these words, “Before September 11th I never would have done something like this: led something.  My husband did things like this, and I stood on the sidelines and cheered.  But I realized after he died I had to pick myself up, and become something more that who I had been before.”

These women are not perfect.  They still get together for support, to cry with each other, to let their children play with each other.   They are wounded, scared, and broken—but they are also moving forward with grace—and each day thinking carefully about the question: What are you going to do with your life—how will you live as an expression of your faith, what will you do?

There are always September 11ths.   We feel this once deeply and acutely because we lived through it.  But there are other tragedies in life that cripple, maim, and change us.  It is nearly impossible to go through this life and not escape without a scar or two.   God is present in it all.  God is asking us the question—what are you going to do with your life, how are you going to choose to live?  What intention as a person who follows God in Jesus Christ will you have?

Two chapters before this one we heard today in Roman’s Paul writes these words:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)[iv]

 How will you live? 

How will we live? 

What will we make of the next ten years of our lives, and of the life of this

world that God in Jesus Christ with great and unimaginable love has given

for us to tend and care for? 

What will we do? 

What will we do?  Amen.


[i] John Phillip Newell.  Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Corporation, 2011.  pg. 47.

[ii] Gilberto Collazo in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.  Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011. pg. 64 (in the Pastoral Perspective of the Romans 14: 1-2 Commentary)

[iv] This quote from Romans was used by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in their Statement in Response to the Death of Osama bin Laden:


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