Sermon preached on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 (11 September 2016) by the Reverend Philippa Turner, Chaplain at Ground Zero, New York City 2001-2002

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7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
3:15pm Last entry for sightseeing
7:00pm Breast Cancer Care Carol Concert

Sermon preached on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 (11 September 2016) by the Reverend Philippa Turner, Chaplain at Ground Zero, New York City 2001-2002

As part of the 'Out of the Ashes' Sermon Series, the Revd Philippa Turner considers 9/11 and it's aftermath, and the breadth of God’s love and mercy – in seeking us until we are found.

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I suspect that most of us here today, certainly the adults among us, can vividly recall where we were fifteen years ago to this day. Perhaps to the minute – 8.46 am Eastern Standard Time – when the first plane was crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center.

I have a sense, from conversations over the years, that no matter where one was, the memory elicits emotions and stories.

It was one of those defining days. In Manhattan we woke up to the most glorious morning. And then, as tragedy hit and black smoke poured up into the deep blue sky, what was to become “Ground Zero” was plunged into darkness – an eerie and terrifying world of dust and debris covering lower Manhattan; jagged towers of steel rising seven stories where the Twin Towers had stood.

Looking at the powerful white crosses above your heads in the N. Transept - by artist Gerry Judah- : a memorial to all who died in the First World War but also to the cost of war and destruction of cities since, I can’t help but see in them the brokenness of the towers, jutting out at all angles.

As the landscapes of NYC, Wash DC and Shankesville, PA were disfigured and marred; so, steadily, reverberations were felt farther afield as the political terrain shifted, affecting the lives of communities and nations far away, still felt to this day.

And so today we remember:  those who lost their lives, those whose lives were changed forever: and those who have since died from 9-11 related illnesses or far away in distant lands, ultimately caught up in the repercussions of that terrible day.

In New York City at 8.46 am this morning a Bell of Hope, given to the city by the Lord Mayor of London, will be rung in the churchyard of St. Paul’s chapel on the edge of the World Trade Center site.

That same churchyard which was utterly covered in dust and ashes, paper and debris, when we first went to the site three days after the attacks, taking supplies to the First Responders who had been working around the clock, hoping against hope to find people alive.

The chapel, aptly named “the little chapel that stood”, was remarkably undamaged: not a window blown out – and the steeple stood tall, whilst behind the churchyard were the charred ruins of Towers Four and Six, and a pile of rubble that had been Tower Seven. And farther beyond, the devastating landscape of the pile of Towers One and Two.

And so this historic chapel became a place of haven during the nine months of recovery, open 24-7 to responders in need of rest, a prayer, silence, the Bread of Life, a delicious meal, a massage, heartfelt music, a listening ear.

As they entered and sat on the worn out pews, beacons of hope greeted them in the forms of cards and drawings by children from across the country and beyond, bringing solace and strength.

In today’s Gospel, we heard Parables of the Lost Sheep and Coin, perhaps so familiar that we miss how radical it may have been to imagine God as a shepherd leaving behind ninety-nine sheep to seek the one, but even more, to imagine, God as a woman, turning her house upside down until she finds her precious coin.

That is the breadth of God’s love and mercy – in seeking us until we are found.

With whom do you resonate in the story?

We may not like to think of ourselves as sheep (and I understand from the veterinary students that they are indeed rather stupid…) just as we may not wish to imagine ourselves as sinners.

It may be more tempting to sit in the shoes of the religious leaders who grumble at the “unsavoury” company Jesus keeps. That is exactly why the Parable is for me:

I am indeed in need of direction, of being sought out and found - and brought home.

I imagine this text had particular meaning for the Recovery workers whose sacred mission became to bring the lost home. When hope of finding anyone alive was gone, the mission became to seek and bring home the lost, painstakingly going through the dangerous rubble of jagged metal and crushed buildings – machine and man working in graceful collaboration, so that loved ones would have someone to bury.

For many no remains were recovered. Like the ash covering the churchyard, they too had disappeared in the fire, still smouldering in December, even after the great pile had become a deep pit.

Prayers were made over every human remain recovered. It was indeed a profound privilege.

And Christ was in that dark place with us, seeking the lost.

Remarkably a giant steel cross emerged out of the dust on the pile and became a symbol of hope for many, as well as a reminder of both the broken and risen body of Christ in that place.

Of course, those who died came from many faiths, as did the chaplains. A Muslim colleague told how it took some time for the workers to feel comfortable with him until one day he blessed a body who had been found, judging by his pose, a Muslim man, in the midst of his prayers.

On another occasion a Cantor arrived as a body was brought in, with a Star of David necklace around his neck. All stood silent as he recited The Mourner's Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

In those long hard days, the support of strangers from near and far buoyed up the Responders, and a resilience was born which gradually spread; and people were slowly renewed and restored by the love and care of others.

Then, as now, with increasing terrorism and the rise of the Far Right, it is vital that we honour the memory of those who died by responding to the prophetic call of Isaiah to support those in need and bring justice into our actions; to be a piece of that puzzle that strengthens the communities in which we live. The prophetic call to rebuild happens both with bricks and mortar (or marble and water as in the WTC memorial), as well as with our hearts.

The lieutenant in charge of the WTC site and who has since founded an organization, HEART 9-11 to support communities devastated by disaster, reflects now, 15 years on as he recalls those first weeks when, caught up in the “crucible of horror”, they lost their moral compass: their magnetic north of life had been injured by the evil and suffering they saw. Yet slowly, through outpourings of love from around the world, he recalls God being found, or perhaps finding Him, in the lives of those around him – in hands extended to help heal broken hearts. And their moral compass’ magnetic north was restored.

God lovingly seeks us all.
The Good Shepherd calls us by name.
May we hearken to his voice and respond to his call in love and in service to one another. 
Amen.