Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this commemoration. This is my second year, and it is truly an honor.
I want to begin by reading Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
It’s a Psalm of comfort, a Psalm that reminds us we may well have to go through hard times, through the very valley of the shadow of death, but also that God is with us always, all the days of our lives. That’s a helpful reminder these days.
Today marks the twentieth year since the terrorist attacks on our nation, the twentieth year since 9/11 became a day we associate with the valley of the shadow of death.
I have been reflecting on the evolution of my feelings about this day.
Like most Americans, I was shocked by the attacks twenty years ago.
Over the next days and weeks, my shock gradually gave way to grief for those who suffered, and to anger at those who caused the suffering.
I don’t suppose any of those feelings will ever go away entirely. Certainly they won’t go away for the many people who lost loved ones that day.
But in the twenty years since the attacks, this day has come to mean something else to me. It is no longer really about grief, though I continue to grieve. It’s no longer about anger.
For me, I think for many of us, September 11 became a day for gratitude.
I am grateful for the first responders, the people who rushed into danger rather than away from it, the people who willingly put their lives on the line to help their fellow citizens regardless of race or religion or gender or politics or anything else that might divide us.
I am grateful for the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in service to others that day and on the days that followed. I am grateful for all those who reminded us what it means to be an American.
The occasion that brings us together this morning was a tragedy.
But that tragedy has been given meaning by the courage and heroism of the first responders who did what needed to be done, no matter the risks. Thanks to them, 9/11 became a day to celebrate courage and self-sacrifice.
But this year, 9/11 feels different again. As Chief Sirois reminded me when he invited me to be part of this event, this is the first 9/11 commemoration in which we do not have troops in Afghanistan.
In the fall of 2001, when the Taliban refused to extradite Osama bin Laden or shut down terrorist bases in their country, we invaded. In two months, our troops drove the Taliban from power.
Unfortunately, the Taliban never really went away, so our troops, supported by troops from other nations, fought to protect a fragile new government. That fight lasted twenty years.
Last month, we pulled out. It should have been a happy day. It wasn’t.
It was shocking to read about the Taliban storming back, taking control of most of the country in just a few days, imperiling many people who assumed they had ample time to leave the country.
Over the last few weeks, my initial shock at the return of the Taliban has turned to grief and anger at all the sacrifices so many made for a free Afghanistan, sacrifices that might seem to have been made in vain.
Given those sacrifices, 9/11, which had come to be a day to celebrate first responders, has again become a day to grieve.
But I try to look ahead. I don’t know what will happen in Afghanistan. But I know how my experience of 9/11 changed over the last decades, as it went from shock at the terrorist attacks, to grief and anger over our losses, to gratitude for the heroism of the first responders.
I suspect something similar will happen as we continue to commemorate this day, now not just for the first responders but also for our troops.
We will continue to grieve our losses in Afghanistan and at home. We may continue to be angry.
But I suspect we will also come more and more to be grateful for the sacrifices and the heroism of our troops, who held together a bitterly divided country of 40 million people for twenty years. That is an astonishing accomplishment.
I am still stuck in grief and anger.
But I am also grateful for the sacrifices of our troops, and that gratitude is only going to grow.
And so, as we continue to commemorate this day, in all its sadness, I now include our military along with our first responders as the heroes who give meaning to this day.
I am grateful for all both groups have done and continue to do for our nation.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all those who encounter danger as they work to keep us safe, both at home and abroad.
Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; care for them when they struggle; and grant them always a sense of your abiding presence.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan