Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:1-5)
What makes ground holy? Sometimes God just says it straight out, like God did with Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Some places just have a sacred “feel” to them, “thin places,” they’re called…places where the other-worldly breaks in unbidden, places, I’ve heard, like Sedona, Arizona.
Then there are places that become holy because of what happens on them… like a small patch of land in Manhattan.
Chances are if you’re 15 or 16 or older, you remember exactly where you were when you learned about the planes flying into the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. A brand new pastor, on the job only 3 months, I was at MUST Ministries that morning. I’m not sure why, but they asked me to pray when we learned the news. I remember nothing about that prayer…except how inadequate it must have sounded. How do you pray for a situation you cannot comprehend?
Have you watched or read any of the 9/11 tributes the past couple of weeks? I don’t know how it is for you, but it’s still hard for me to see those images, to remember the feeling of absolute vulnerability and helplessness. In fact, when Allen asked if I’d be addressing 9/11 in today’s sermon, I told him “no,” that we’d be attending the Interfaith 9/11 Remembrance service at Mt. Zion tonight; no need to do it here in worship this morning. I guess that was my way of trying to avoid the still-painful parts of 9/11.
But when I began seeing all the tributes, the remembrances, I knew it would be important for us to talk about 9/11, not only in the interfaith service this evening, but here in our own community this morning. Whether we like it or not, 9/11 has become a vital part of who we are. 9/11 is part of our DNA now, it has shaped who we’ve become. It continues to shape how we live our lives, including our faith lives.
So, where does one begin remembering 9/11 on this tenth anniversary? Taking a cue from the season of creation, I’d invite us to consider 9/11 from the perspective of the land. While the land at the Pentagon and the scarred earth in Pennsylvania are key parts of the 9/11 experience, I want to focus on the land in Manhattan.
By the best estimates, the collapse of the Twin Towers registered 2.4 on the Richter scale. Yes. The earth quaked. It shook. It opened up to receive twisted metal and broken bodies. In a flash, a piece of earth that had sustained life became a mass grave. Dust, dust, and more dust rained down—perhaps God cried with dust that day, dry tears, a drought of grief. Days, the dust lasted. Weeks. Months. Dump trucks hauled away debris, load by load—bits of dirt, brick, and flesh mingled together. Traumatized workers picked through the debris, bit by bit, looking for signs, any signs of victims. Do you remember the feelings of utter helplessness?
One day, finally, the last dump truck exited “Ground Zero,” the last pile of debris was sorted. One day, finally, a decision about what to do with the piece of land on which the towers had stood had to be made. Another building? A tribute to those lost? Nothing at all?
What has emerged at Ground Zero is a little of all three. One World Trade Center is a new structure being built just adjacent to where the original towers stood. When it is completed in 2014, it will stand 400 feet taller than the tallest of the towers. There also is a tribute to the victims and survivors of 9/11. I recall there being lots of debate about the best memorial to be built. The design that won is basically two square holes surrounded by newly planted trees. Over the sides of the holes pours a continuous flow of water…finally, the tears; finally, the hope for all those new tree-lives; finally, life is emerging from death.
The most interesting thing about this memorial is the fact that it is a tribute and it preserves the emptiness parts of us always will feel when we think of 9/11. The death of so many people….that emptiness cannot be filled. But in our mourning, through our tears, the hope of new life emerges. Ground Zero has become holy ground.
It is important today to remember the lives lost on 9/11, to hug our family members a little more closely…but just as important is to ask how we might transform this traumatic experience into something positive. What have we learned from 9/11? What new hopes have emerged from the dust of the Twin Towers?
Allen and I just returned from San Francisco. Great place! So great, nearly half the world, it seemed, spent Labor Day weekend there. Man, at the people! Everywhere we went—people, people, people. Tourists.
One of the places we visited was Muir Woods. Established in 1908, Muir Woods is a wonder of a national park, rife with life—tall redwoods, beautiful creeks and hills, even a very large slug. Muir Woods is a beautiful place. Every so often, there were signs posted, asking for quiet on the trails, like the sign marking the entrance to the Cathedral Grove: “Walk quietly…listen to the heartbeat of the earth.” Nobody did. Everybody talked…which would have been all right if I could have eavesdropped. I’m sure there were many sermon-worthy comments being made there beneath the redwood canopy last Saturday. Unfortunately, people were speaking many different languages. The visitors that day were from all over the world.
Finally, we made our noisy, multi-lingual way into the Cathedral Grove–A place well-named. On a historical plaque in the grove, I learned that “in 1945, delegates from all over the world met in San Francisco to establish the United Nations. On May 19, they travelled to Muir Woods to honor the memory of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose death one month earlier had thrown the world into mourning.
“President Roosevelt believed in the value of national parks as sources of inspiration and human renewal. He also believed that good forestry practices and sustainable development of natural resources were keystones to lasting peace around the world. (Later, while standing in the same place, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, said: “Persons who love nature find a common basis for understanding people of other countries, since the love of nature is universal among [people] of all nations.”)
“Organizers of the (United Nations planning) event (in 1945) hoped the profound beauty and serenity of Muir Woods would inspire the delegates to pursue the president’s program for world peace as they met to establish the United Nations.” Isn’t that something? Finding the inspiration for world peace—not in a sterile conference room in a grand hotel, but in a forest, standing—together–on fertile ground?
It wasn’t until the flight home that I realized that the dream of the creators of the UN had been realized…because peering over my shoulder at the description of that 1945 meeting were people from Japan, Germany, Russia, China, France, Australia…Dag Hammarskjold was right—there in Muir Woods, people from all over the world literally came together over their love of the land.
I realized, belatedly, (ironically, while flying through the air) that in Muir Woods I had been standing on holy ground. The best proof of that fact? Among the tourists reading over my shoulder were people from Germany and Japan, our bitter enemies in World War II. On the ground in the heart of the forest, we were enemies no more. Just imagine who might no longer be our enemies 55 years from now?
So, what have Ground Zero and the ground in Muir Woods to do with each other? If FDR, Dag Hammarskjold, and all those tourists last weekend are to be believed, everything.
So many 9/11 remembrances—especially those coming from religious folk—seem to be focused on forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong. Forgiveness is an important part of the 9/11 experience. If you’ve ever forgiven anyone, you know how liberating the experience can be. Before extending forgiveness to an offender, it’s like you can’t get on with your life. It’s like all you want to do is to get even, to harm the offender. In the end, though, you realize that the greatest harm being done is to your own soul and well-being. Forgiveness frees us to move on with our lives. So, in relation to 9/11, forgiveness is important. Letting go of resentment, anger, hatred is important. Moving beyond all the pain and trauma—when we’re ready to do so—is important.
But then what? What lies beyond forgiveness? What lies beyond the trauma, the grief, the mourning? That’s where the ground comes in.
The only way—the only way—to find our way beyond the earth-shattering bombs and terror-caused graves, is to seek out and nurture connection with each other. Land, ground is a good means of making that connection. Land is something all people on the planet have in common. As inhabitants of planet Earth, we all depend upon the earth for sustenance. If, as FDR believed, good forestry practices and sustainable development of natural resources are keystones to lasting peace around the world, perhaps we can contribute to the kind of world peace that precludes terroristic acts by caring for the earth. Perhaps we can love our neighbors, in part, by loving the land. Perhaps world peace will happen on the day that we all, every inhabitant of planet earth, learns that all ground is holy ground. Or better yet, perhaps we can make all ground holy by the way we love our neighbors.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (C) 2011