I have been praying and thinking a lot this week about the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon – especially given the fact that the anniversary falls on a Sunday. The challenge for us as disciples of Jesus Christ is to figure out how we approach a day like today not just as citizens of a particular nation, but as members of Christ’s body. And so we come together as the Church on September 11th asking God to help us reflect on all that has happened over the last ten years in ways that bring him glory and reflect his love.
I have been drawn again and again this week to many of the words found in the Torah. In particular the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps more than any other biblical book, is filled with divine commands to remember and not to forget. If most Old Testament scholars are correct, then Deuteronomy and the other books of the Pentateuch came together in their final form after the Babylonian exile as the people of Israel pondered what had gone right and wrong in their historical journey with God. For those who put together the ancient pieces that formed what we now know as the book of Deuteronomy, the basic sin of Israel that had caused them to go from exile in Egypt to the power of Solomon, back exile again was this: they failed to remember.
Today, on this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon the word that will resonate through the media and through every community gathering is the word remember. And rightly so: because if Deuteronomy is correct, one important way a nation declines is when they fail to remember.
Although there are many aspects to remembering, there are four from Deuteronomy that I would like to highlight.
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut. 9:27).
We are called to remember those who came before us who carried the promise faithfully. In other words, we are to remember our heroes. Deuteronomy 9 is actually part of a prayer urging God to remember the heroes of our faith so that he might bless us with favor due to their noble lives. And so on this tenth anniversary it is critical and right for us to remember the 2,977 people who were unnecessarily and tragically killed on an otherwise normal, beautiful, September morning.
Ten years later we are still haunted by the images of destruction from that morning.
It still causes us pain to imagine the terror that must have gripped those passengers who died onboard those high-jacked planes.
We are still deeply unsettled by the images and stories of victims working in the twin towers who lived just long enough to experience the fear of certain demise.
We will forever be in awe of those whose sense of duty to others runs so deep within their spirit that they sprinted headlong into the devastation and gave up their lives trying to save neighbors and strangers alike.
And we are still proud of those who immediately headed to Ground Zero to endure the unimaginable in the hopes of rescuing some and giving dignity to the dead.
And we are still proud of those who without knowing the full extent of the violence that had been unleashed on the world that Tuesday morning, signed up and placed themselves on the front lines of terror for the sake of their nation and their neighbor.
And so as we pray as to the Lord today, we will ask him to remember those lost through victimization and through valor, and we ask him to remember the families who loved them and lost them. And we will ask him to help us as a nation to not forget them today.
But remembering heroes is only part of the act of remembering. Deuteronomy also calls us to remember God’s work of redemption.
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 5:15).
I remember in the days immediately following 9/11, no one was sure if life would ever be normal again. For several days it felt like time was frozen and we weren’t sure how and if we could move forward.
Ten years later, life has returned, for the most part, to normal. We have many reasons to give God thanks. We are thankful that over the last ten years, there has not been another significant act of destruction within our nation’s borders. And we are thankful for those who vigilantly keep watch in order to – as best they can – keep another singular act of massive violence from happening again.
A people who remember are a people who give thanks. But when God’s people remember, they also remember to confess.
Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness (Deut 9:7).
One of the ways God worked in us after the attacks of 9/11 was the way he helped us to bond together as a people. There was a unity of purpose and vision that was significant and powerful. Ten years later we confess that we have returned to being deeply divided.
In the days after 9/11 there was an incredible spirit of help and service. We confess that ten years later in a time of economic fear our spirit of help and assistance has largely waned.
In particular today we confess ten years later our inability to find creative ways to make peace with our enemies in the ways that Jesus and the Apostle Paul instructed us. We remember today not just those that died in the attacks ten years ago. We also remember that in the wars started since 9/11 just over 6,000 US soldiers and approximately 137,000 civilians in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have also died. Most sources conservatively estimate the number of war dead, in uniform and out, to be 225,000. The number of displaced war refugees today stands at 7.8 million. We try and remember all of them today as well.
Ten years later we remember that $3.2 trillion dollars has been spent as part of the efforts of war with no real hope of long-lasting peace at the end. One wonders what potential long-terms possibilities for peace could have been accomplished if half of that amount had been spent in projects of construction rather than destruction.
In Genesis chapter 4 Lamech (the seventh generation after Adam) sings a song of retribution to his wives. He proclaims that if Cain is avenged seven-fold, then Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven-fold. Ten years after 9/11 we have enacted just over a seventy-five-fold vengeance. We haven’t quite met Lamech’s standards. But as Christ’s disciples we certainly have not met his requirements of a seventy-seven-fold forgiveness.
There have been moments over these last ten years when images and stories of our own cruelty to our enemies has been revealed. These are moments we would just as soon forget, but God’s confessing people have to remember these moments of our own ugliness as well.
I will admit how fearful I am to even speak these things today, because confession is hard. But as God’s people, we must confess our sins today because confession is a critical part of remembering. A people who cannot confess their sins cannot receive God’s grace. And a people who cannot confess are doomed to ultimate destruction because their inability to be honest about their inability to be what God has called us to be dooms us to the exile and destruction that comes at the end of our sin.
Finally, in Deuteronomy we are called to remember for the sake of our children.
Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God… It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness (Deut. 11:2, 5).
Ten years ago on September 12th I attended a prayer service at the church we were serving in Oklahoma. The pastor invited people to come to the altar to pray. First he invited people to come and represent the families of those who had lost loved ones in the attacks. Many people came forward. He invited people to come and pray for our national and civic leaders who were in the midst of making critical decisions. Again many people came forward. He invited people to come and pray for God’s protection on the nation and for his help in keeping people safe. Again many people came forward. But then he asked if there might be a few who we be bold enough to come and pray for our enemies and to pray for their redemption and for reconciliation to take place. At that point the largest number of people (including my wife and two oldest sons) got up and came forward to pray.
I remember thinking at that moment how thankful I was to be part of the Body of Christ and how grateful I was that my children were being shaped by such a profoundly grace-filled body of believers.
Jonah was too young to remember and Sophie was not yet alive. But my hope is today that as we remember. We will remember in ways that will shape them to be the body of Christ. We urge God to help us remember those who have fallen. We remember that God has been at work and stop to give him thanks today. But we also ask him to help us remember our sins so that we can remember today in ways that give him glory.
And so I’m going to ask us to pray today…