Oct/Nov 2002 Salon

What Does it Mean?

by Stanley Jenkins

Sermon on the first anniversary of 9/11
First Presbyterian Church of Newtown

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29: 1,4-7

May the words of my mouth And the meditations of all of our hearts Be acceptable in thine sight O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.


One year later. There are no more clouds of dust to flee. The sky is no longer weeping. One year later. The rubble and rubbish, the spears of tower shards--the ripped remains of heroes and citizens--they do not clot the corridors. They do not block the boulevards. They are gone. One year later. They are gone.

But we are still here.

One year later. Terror no longer stalks my city squares like a devouring beast--instead it has taken refuge in the nightmares of children and widows. One year later. The blade of sorrow has become a little more dull and hacks away mostly in silence and secret. Wounds of flesh are scarring over. Wounds of flesh are bound up and healing. But the soul still bleeds. The spirit still weeps. One year later.

It's true, the immediacy, the initial shock--the gasping of breath and punch-drunk realization that that which cannot have happened has happened--the first shock of those first impossible days. It is all gone. One year later. It is all gone.

But we are still here.

People of Newtown, my brothers and sisters, my friends: What does it mean?

In the year since 9/11 I have had a chance to travel a little around this stunned country we all love and call home. First into the plains and prairies of the midwest. Onto the shores of the Great Lakes--the sandy shores of Michigan, Erie, Superior. And then later to the land across the Rockies in the Great West, where the wheat grows golden on lunar landscape hills and the sky has always been empty, where there has never been a gaping hole where the towers once were. And what I can tell you--what I can bring back for you from my travels--is the news--that is not really news to us who live and breathe in the midst of it all--that the nation wants answers. The nation wants answers and it wants someone to blame and it wants to turn back the clock to a time when it didn't have to feel this way.

Every small town has a monument to the fire-fighters and policemen of New York City. Every A&W Root Beer stand has a bulletin board of patriotic editorials from local papers and pictures of the towers and ribbons that say "We will never forget." And there is fear and there is determination and there is a great need for closure, for decisive victory--signs and shows of strength.

What does it mean? How can this have happened in our America? What does it mean to live without security? What does it mean to get on a plane these days?

And people of Newtown, my brothers and sisters, my friends: In my travels I wanted to tell my countrymen, my people in diners, my cowboys and farmers and county clerks, something that we already know here in New York City--those of us who are here--the ones, you and me--who live in the phantom shadow of the towers that are forever no longer there.

What does it mean? It means that life goes on. It means that the sun rises and sometimes in the summer its real humid. It means that children continue to have birthdays and old people have wedding anniversaries. It means that school starts and that people's cars need new alternators. It means that life goes on.

There is a spiritual dimension to human beings. And I believe that there is a spiritual dimension to nations, as well--that a nation has a soul. And I believe that suffering need not be merely the end of meaning and beginning of chaos but can become the very foundation upon which life takes its stand--the very foundation upon which it continues--the very foundation upon which we get up and stand up and keep living and moving.

Our nation is suffering. The soul of our nation is suffering. What we New Yorkers who embrace our spiritual dimension--what we know and need to tell the rest of the country--what we must witness to as those who embrace their spiritual nature in New York City--is the spiritual truth that meaning is not answers--it is the means by which we endure.

Meaning is not answers--it is the firm foundation which stops our forever fall.

Meaning is not answers--it is strength to live without answers.

What does it mean? Life goes on. Life goes on. Life goes on. And it is good. And God is our license to not be ashamed to be alive.

People of Newtown, my brothers and sisters, my friends: Hear the Good News: We have a choice. We who are still here. Will we live or will we give in to the forces of death? As God put it to the children in exile: Will you multiply or decrease? People of Newtown, let us choose life. And across this great nation--may our brothers and sisters choose life. May the leaders of our nation choose life. May the widows and orphans choose life. And may each one of us become like a bell that the world might know--and may each one of us let freedom ring that the world might know. The freedom to live. The freedom to affirm life. The freedom to stand up and say--I am still here. Because it is indeed good. It is good to be alive. And because we do not rightly pay our respects to the dead by neglecting life. Amen.


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