Re-membering 911

Today we mark the 15th anniversary of the day four airplanes were hijacked and three used as weapons against buildings which represent the economic, military, and political power structures of our country. This day in 2001 is a difficult one to forget. The effects were devastating, and the ripples of fear they engendered continue to flow outward in ever-widening circles. It has profoundly affected how we travel by air, federal law, local law enforcement, attitudes in this country, as well as who we regard as “heroes” and “villains.” The challenge is found in how we choose to remember these events.

The word, remember, is an interesting one. In English, it is composed of two parts: re + member, literally ‘again + be mindful of.’ The act of remembering contains some sense of reliving an experience. It can take a whiff of an aroma, a glimpse of something familiar, a sound, a taste, or a touch to unlock a memory. And we are in another place and time. The fragrance of roasting corn brings me to my great uncle’s home, certain musical pieces trigger my own muscle memory of playing them, the sound of rushing water takes me to pleasant childhood picnics at Niagara Falls. There are unpleasant memories, too. Of hearing tires screech and a neck that is in pain, of seeing various news photos depict violence and a heart that breaks. Remembering sustains both joy and sorrow.

Remembering is also an important theological word. The Hebrew word,???, when it is used to describe an activity of God’s also contains the sense that God will act. Thus, after Noah has been shut up in the ark for a year, scripture tells us that “God remembered Noah…” God hasn’t forgotten Noah – God’s “remembering” is integral to the flood waters subsiding.

Jeremiah spent much of his 40 years as a prophet trying to get the people of Israel return to the Mosaic Covenant – the ways of living faithfully that are given in the first five books of the bible. These are heavily focused on land – the Promised Land, ritual – described in the book of Leviticus, and the laws – especially as described in Deuteronomy. Jeremiah’s sense was that by having the nation follow these principles, they would “remember” God and God would “remember” them and act against their enemies.

But when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians Jeremiah found himself rethinking the situation. He came to understand there was a new covenant to create with God. Jeremiah’s words describing this are among my favorites from scripture: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, … for they shall all know me…”

One of the reasons I love this understanding is that with this covenant – which is a formalized relationship – we will all know and remember God just as God will know and remember us. This mutual remembering will be life-giving.

In the fifteen years since 9/11 there has been very little that is life-giving which has come from the event, or our reaction to the event. (Here I am distinguishing a reaction which comes from the gut, and a response which comes from deep contemplative wholeness). The war dead are still mounting, as are the civilian deaths in “far away countries.” Despite spending trillions of dollars, I, personally do not feel any safer.

Today’s Gospel reading offers us the familiar parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It is a classic Jesus-story because it invites us, in the end, to see differently. As usual, the context is critical. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling” about Jesus’ eating with those folk. At that time the status of whom one ate with mattered a lot. A person in “right relationship with God” just didn’t eat with tax collectors & sinners. The story Jesus tells provides an answer to the murmurings of the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious elite.

These stories are usually presented as allegories – the shepherd and woman represent God, the lost sheep and coin is a sinner, and God drops everything to find the sinner. There is, however, another way to think about these stories, one that is, in my mind, far more thought-provoking, and far more pointed for the Religious elites. Let’s say the woman represents every woman. The coins are likely part of her headdress, which is part of her dowry. These coins cannot be taken from her as payment for a debt – they are just as much a part of her as are her hands. Using US Constitutional language, these coins are “inalienable.”

She has worn these coins for many years, and then, one day, she loses one. I don’t think she noticed it was gone the moment it broke away from her headdress because she does a thorough search of her space, lighting a lamp and sweeping the entire house. Likewise, there is one sheep which has slipped away. If you were watching, you’d have noticed. But the sheep is gone, and it’s necessary to trek into the wilderness to find it. Yet, upon finding these items, the people rejoice and invite others to rejoice.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that there is something worth finding, something that, when found, causes great rejoicing. Something that Jesus likely experiences when he eats with tax collectors and sinners that the religious elites miss. This “something” is, I believe, a relationship with God, which for Jesus is worth leaving everything else behind and concentrating on as a single-minded search. Those who have lost God – the sinners – are finding God in the person of Jesus. And, I suspect, Jesus is pointing out to the religious elites that they themselves aren’t aware that they, too, have lost something that has been prepared for them at their birth. They have forgotten what joy it is to be in relationship with God. They have forgotten to invite others to search, and they don’t know how to rejoice when someone else has found God. Forgetting is, in this context, not good.

I have come to understand certain kinds of remembering as sacred acts, because to forget them is to pave the way for evil to reenter one’s world. We don’t, for instance, want to forget 9/11 and the various threads that were woven into this event, and the threads that came from this event, lest we repeat them unawares.

It is how one remembers that is critical. We can remember “bad” events with great resentment, always stirring up our negative emotions and weighing ourselves down with these memories. This is a type of bondage – we figuratively tie ourselves to an awful memory.

Shaping how we remember, by laying aside the resentment for instance, can provide us with a freedom that is worth celebrating, much like the woman who has found her coin.

The task is to let go of the effects of an event, re-membering (again being mindful of) this event differently, perhaps with understanding that comes from looking through another’s eyes. Other words for this are repent and forgiveness. We do experience freedom when we turn towards God, seeking to see through God’s eyes, which means that we are also turning away from an evil. This enables us to move beyond the effects of the evil on our lives, or the lives of others, in order to choosing blessing and life. Repentance is not solely about sorrow, it is turning towards God.

Ideally forgiveness accompanies the action of repentance. Forgiveness is a spiritual discipline – it is about breaking chains that bind our souls. Forgiveness is NOT an absolution of someone else’s actions.

I was recently asked if I had forgiven Osama bin Laden, an interesting question, one that I hadn’t ever really thought about. I realized that there were ways in which I hadn’t: I resent greatly the morass of fear that shapes the Homeland Security Agency, but I have become a bit more understanding when asked to remove my shoes for an airline flight – the workers are acting from their training.

We as individuals and as a society need to forgive. Not for the perpetrator’s sake, but so that we may build on a foundation of the positive rather than on the rubble of resentment. It is helpful to add that Jesus demanded forgiveness, but not reconciliation.

We all have an invitation to journey in faith – to seek and find, to turn towards God, to choose how we will remember, to rejoice, to celebrate – and to share our stories. One day we will be asked about the events of 9/11 by those who were not yet born. What freedom it will be to be able to remember without resentment.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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