Leading With Joy

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, September 11, 2005 – 

I open with this poem, Variation on a Theme by Rilke, by Denise Levertov:

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic – or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

As we gather together, here, on September 11th, 2005, the fourth anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001; as we gather here, a slim two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the gulf states, these words speak so clearly to me – A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light: a being. It leaned over and struck my shoulder … granting me honor and a task. The day’s blow rang out, metallic – or it was I, a bell awakened.

Today we mark four years since the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the attacks on the Pentagon and a crash of a hijacked plane in a farm field in Pennsylvania. I, as I imagine you, have vivid memories of that day. Where I was, what I was doing, the hours that seemed to move in both surreal slowness and hyperspeed as one moment appeared even more horrific than the next. On September 11th, 2001, I was just starting my third day of my ministerial internship, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington – 35 miles from downtown New York City. That morning I was at my new job – the vase of flowers to welcome me still fresh on the desk.

In those first hours, as the events unfolded in front of millions of us, I experienced so many different feelings – huge sadness, helplessness, confusion, fear, even anger – and shock. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, I started making rounds in the building – to the yoga class in the fellowship hall – the crew folding and addressing the newsletter in the Board room – the preschoolers playing on the playground. Everyone was having such an ordinary day, a glorious September morning. But soon members of the congregation began appearing at the door – not wanting to be alone – looking for someone to talk to. I shared tears and prayers with people who I did not yet know. Calls came in and went out, assuring the whereabouts and safety

of friends and family. We started holding services. The first one was at noon. The next, at 7:00 pm. And another the next night. And again on Friday. And then Sunday. And in between services there were phone calls and meetings and tears and rage – and more fear.

That fateful day, Unitarian Universalists joined people of so many different faiths in turning first to congregations, to our religious homes, to be together. To be sure, strangers found their way through our doors as well, especially for services. But the stream of people who wanted to not be alone – to be with people who they cared about, and who cared about them – that was my experience of the first hours.

People were drawn to religious community where, as we read together earlier, religion has the “power of the loyalties which it engenders.”

In the first hours of a disaster, it is not easy to ask big religious questions, never mind probe for answers. But it is in the first hours and days of such an event that we understand – viscerally – that we are all connected – to the 86th floor, to the fireman trudging up into the burning building, to the kindergarten children led by the hand away from their school. This oneness – this moment that grants us the capacity for such generosity and selflessness and compassion – this oneness that is so hard to hold on to, this moment, too is religious – “religion, unifying us with all that is admirable in human beings everywhere.”

September 11th looms large in our recent collective history for so many reasons. The enormous loss of life. The destruction of a corner of New York City. Blindsided by the perpetrators. And those stories continue to unfold – the ongoing grief of family and friends, the proposals for rebuilding lower Manhattan, the military operations in Afghanistan are all chapters in the September 11th aftermath, and there are lots of places to read all about that. But just as our congregations were a particular and important locus for people of faith while events were still happening, I believe our religious communities are places to ask religious questions about September 11th – and its aftermath. What are the religious questions that belong to such an event?

At first, September 11th seemed to be as much about religion as anything else. There was the immediate question of Islam – was this jihad? Are we at holy war? Within hours there were reports of attacks on men and women who “looked” like they might be Muslims. Turban-wearing Sikhs were particularly at risk. There was the long period of funerals and memorial services – civic events in their visibility, but religious rituals of grief, sorrow and loss. And then there were those extraordinary moments when people of great differences stood together, in compassion and empathy – let religion be “hearts that rejoice in deeds of kindness and courage.” That, indeed, is true religion. This all took place in the first unfolding moments and weeks as the drama unfolded in front of us all.

Yet a year after the events of September 11th, 2001, the PBS program Frontline aired a special production, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,”

an in-depth look at the religious questions raised by the attacks on the WTC, what the producers called “spiritual aftershocks.” These were not the questions that began and ended with Islamic Fundamentalism, or the kindness of strangers, but a much broader range of inquiry, starting with the age-old and BIG questions – “why me? why her? why this?” And the problem of evil – what is it? And the necessary question, what is the potential for violence within religion?

These are some of the most common religious questions that can be asked – yet the most difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Indeed, one rabbi commented, “it’s not for me to answer these questions, it’s to help others live with the unanswered questions.” Even so, the questions are not unfamiliar. And they are universal – every religion has wrestled with them. What was different, in retrospect, about September 11th, is that because we all saw the same events unfold before us, millions of people encountered these questions

simultaneously. In a short period of time, we were all faced with these yawning truths: we are far more vulnerable than we thought we were; we are mortal; and the slimmest of circumstances separate those who live from those who die.

The vivid images from the media mirrored our own vulnerability and mortality back to us. And, we witnessed suffering. Massive suffering.

For days the posters and photographs all over New York City begged for information about missing people. For months following the fateful day the New York Times ran heartbreaking obituaries. It was impossible not to ask “why him? why her?” And if our president is going to invoke the word “evil,” we sure owe it to ourselves to have a serious discussion about what is meant by that word – is it something that comes from deprivation? Is a force unto itself?

So many pundits and politicians proclaimed that the world was changed forever on September 11th. It’s a complex claim. I tend to think not that the world changed, but that some illusions of how we thought we understood the world to be were destroyed. That is the “day’s blow” to me. We are never as invulnerable as we make ourselves out to be. We never can know, for sure, what’s coming. There are people in the world who believe that cruelty and violence is an acceptable way of life, and if we are to be a global village – ever more accessible to one another and the products of a technological age – then there will be more opportunities to wreak havoc and harm. That calls for more examination of what it means to be interconnected.

Do events like September 11th weaken or strengthen our faith? In the Frontline documentary, there were different responses. For some, faith was made weaker, as anguished families felt let down by a loving God. For others, whose lives were spared, priorities shifted. Kindness took on new meaning. People worked to repair relationships. Life’s preciousness broke in to speak louder than the mundane and routine.

Now, four years later, we face another “certain day become a presence,” this, the result of hurricane Katrina. Once again, I hear so many voices inside my head – helplessness, anger, sorrow, confusion – and aching sadness. Once again, the media has brought images that won’t let me go – and that we are all sharing, simultaneously. We are all witnesses to the devastation and the suffering. Once again, we are faced with questions of just how vulnerable we are. Here on Long Island it is not difficult to envision ourselves in the same situation as so many coastal communities along the gulf. Again, we are reminded of our mortality, and the slimmest of circumstances that separate those who survive from those who are lost. And again, so many of the initial impulses have been religious – “let religion be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, understanding, and service to suffering humanity.” There has been far more help offered from ordinary citizens than can actually be used at this moment for the still-unfolding events.

For all the similarities, there are also great differences, for though the tragedy of the hurricane itself is horrific, the aftermath has been possibly even worse. As humans, we are able, at some level, to accept destruction wrought by nature, though at some point we must examine what effect our environmental policies have on a so-called “natural” disaster. But in the wake of the hurricane, we have encountered an entirely human-made disaster of nearly equal proportions.

It should not take a full year to reveal the religious questions this time. Even the commentators and columnists who usually stick with economics and logistics and politics have wandered our way. As people of faith, we can at least frame the questions. And these questions, I believe, need not go unanswered, for they are not grand questions of mystery and evil. They are most straightforward. They have to do with the abandonment of the elderly, the infirm and the very young to certain hardship, if not death. And how does that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person? They have to do with race and class and ethnicity, and who gets the basic necessities of life, and in what order. Just how does that promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations? These questions touch so much unspoken in this country, about the most vulnerable, the economically marginal, the invisible. And these are religious questions, for let “religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are, which bid us serve more eagerly the true and right.”

Perhaps right about now you are saying, “hmm, I thought this sermon was about joy – in fact, leading with joy. I don’t get it – this doesn’t sound like joy to me.” And I would have to say to you, right you are … at least, not joy in the sense of giddy happiness, a carefree spirit that sings “don’t worry, be happy” in the shower. So, what is joy? I return again to our congregational reading about religion, and its opening line – “Let religion be to us life and joy.” What I mean by joy is exactly that – religion as joy, these religious impulses so evident even in the face of these enormous tragedies. You see, this is what I call joy – the gathered religious community to which we come to be together with our feelings of shock and grief and helplessness.

Joy is working side-by-side with people doing all possible to be of help, to alleviate the suffering of others, putting aside superficial differences for a greater good. There is joy in facing the big questions of our existence with others, as together we search for truth and beauty that is there, somewhere. I myself cannot face the steady stream of the news of our world without the prospect of a congregation to be with, without prayers of both lament and gratitude, without hope carried with such tenacity and love by those who care. Joy leads me … because religion leads me into life.

The times we live in, they are not easy times, if there ever has been such a thing. But they are our times to do with what we might. I return to Denise Levertov’s words:

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic – or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

“Let [religion] be to us hope and purpose … a discovering of opportunities to expose our best through daily tasks … holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind … which each may help to make actual.” And may these days, with all their tragedy, awaken in each of us the joyful song and task called – we can.

(Quotations from “Religion,” by Vincent B. Silleman, reading #466 in “Singing the Living Tradition”)

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.