by the Rev. Barbara Mraz, September 19, 2021
On a gorgeous fall morning twenty years ago on September 11, I was at The Blake School in my classroom with red and pink geraniums blooming on the windowsills, sitting with sixteen seniors in a circle, calmly discussing a speech we had just watched: President Ronald’s Reagan’s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts including the first woman in space — Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher. The speech concludes with part of a poem: “And so they burst the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At that moment, we were called downstairs to the auditorium where the whole school watched as a plane hit the second tower.
Later I learned that a former Blake student was killed in that explosion, Gordy Aamoth, at work there in a financial office. His last name begins with two A’s, so it is always the first when the names of the fallen are read.
Tragedy brings people to church with their grief and their questions. I have never seen St. John’s so packed as the following Sunday.
Tragedy can also reveal love in its rawest, purest, most intense form. Following a tragic loss, love is often enshrined in memory. Scholarships are established, buildings built, gifts given, and at Blake, Gordy Aamoth’s family gave the school a whole new sports stadium in his memory. At the entrance is his smiling senior picture and a piece of one of the fallen towers.
A poem by Lynn Ungar: Falling
“The only thing I really know about death
Is that it happens and not because we are ready…
But really we just wanted to hold on
to what we knew, to what we cherished
to what we thought was ours to keep.
Who could remember it was just a loan
subject to being repossessed?
Maybe we even said it
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
But when the ashes fell like snow
from an orange sky, you lose the trick
….when the towers are tumbling
or the plane is going down,
there is just one prayer
each person utters into cell phones
or the rush of air, the last words
we need to say:
I love you.
I just needed to be sure you knew.”
It is usually only at funerals or in obituaries that we pay attention to the totality of a life. But in the classic World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan,” a young soldier — James Ryan — (played by Matt Damon) is trapped in enemy territory in France and a team of five soldiers are sent to rescue him because a high-ranking general in Washington cannot stand to write a letter to a mother in Indiana, telling her that her fourth and only surviving son has also been killed in battle. “So we are going to find Pvt. Ryan,” he says, “and get him the hell outa there.”
Three soldiers lose their lives attempting to save Pvt. Ryan. As the rescue is imminent, the leader of the effort, Sgt. Joe Miller (Tom Hanks) is fatally wounded. Before he dies, he whispers, “James, earn this. Earn it.”
At the end of the movie, James Ryan, much older now, goes to the vast cemetery at Normandy with his family. He searches out the grave of Sgt. Miller, salutes, and breaks down in tears. Turning to his wife beside him he asks, “Am I living a good life? Have I been a good man?’
“Yes, James,” she says, “you have.”
It’s not something we often think about: earning something we take for granted. I used to flinch at my father’s insistence I remember how lucky I was to have a roof over my head and food on the table. (Well, duh, I thought….Why wouldn’t I?) Is there something that was done for you or given you that you feel compelled to earn or pay back? A thought for this week….
Among other things, two of today’s lessons address the topic of “the good life” and both appear against the backdrop of Peace Sunday As we are terrorized daily by multiple sources, peace is a daunting topic.
The Epistle from James talks about managing cravings and the importance of submission and resistance, while the Gospel gives us a take on competition.
James talks about “the cravings that are at war within us.” When I googled “cravings,” the first thing that came up was food. Then there was a list of what Americans crave (and Europeans don’t): Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, suing people, driving large cars and pickup trucks, hearty breakfasts, ice in drinks, and guns.
James says that our cravings produce conflict and disputes among us: “You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” This could be right out of the headlines as people do murder for designer tennis shoes. Innocent people do get shot because of road rage and our own cravings for recognition, for affirmation, for a desired lifestyle can tear us apart.
Besides managing cravings, James’ plan for the Good Life includes submission and resistance.
Today “submission” can mean giving up, something you only do if you have to. Yet I am always moved when I see the Muslim posture for prayer and submission with the forehead touching the ground. What must it feel like to do that five times a day? How would that change you?
Submission is not an action that comes easily. What about the Ten Commandments– and the one about observing a sabbath (which doesn’t have to be a Sunday)? It’s so easy to let all of our days morph together without distinction….Work, drive kids, cook, tv, repeat.
Yet “remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy” even proceeds the injunctions against murder and adultery in the Ten Commandments. This Biblical imperative is also bolstered by modern psychology — regular periods of rest are prescribed for all sorts of ailments. Is this kind of submission possible for you? What parts of your life could be rearranged to submit to this imperative? How might that change you?
Secondly, James tells us to resist evil –which sounds kind of stiff and old-fashioned! I guess try to “resist evil” by not going to establishments whose values I detest – like Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby.
In what forms does evil appear today? One way might be the easily-accessible pornography that pervades the internet. Pornography is addictive, which in the long run rewires the brain, and can lead to abusive relationships. I think that this pornography is not as much shocking as it is sad.
In the Gospel, Jesus is trying get through to his disciples that betrayal and death await him in Jerusalem. One person argues, “They were arguing about who was the greatest because they could not stand what Jesus said about being killed. They did not understand and they were afraid to ask so they got as far away from it as they could by playing status games instead. Who is first, who is best, who is greatest. You know what that’s like. When you are scared of something, don’t ask. Act like there is nothing wrong. Change the subject and talk about something else instead, something that makes you feel big and strong. That is what the disciples were doing which was why Jesus had to sit them down and give them a leadership seminar then and there. He took a little child in his arms. They wanted to know who was the greatest so he showed them: twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, God’s agent. The last, the least of all.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All”).
The oft-quoted Frederick Buehener says that “peace is the presence of love.” If each being in the world felt loved and cherished at their core, peace would be less elusive. But it doesn’t appear by wishing for it.. WE are the agents, we are the ones who meet the divine in each act of giving and receiving. Maybe it’s our privilege to ‘”reteach a thing its loveliness,” a phrase that I love. And as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “”If you want to enter the kingdom here’s a way: Go find a nobody and put your arms around them and say hello to God.”
Fine. But what about the pain that won’t go away, the sorrow that won’t leave, the borderline depression and anxiety that is an epidemic in this pandemic, the sense of inadequacy that persists?
From a poem by Jan Richardson:
When long sorrow,
When the endless
bearing of grief,
has been waking
for what seems like
and going to bed with you
for what approximates
When your heart
an ancient timepiece,
its beat measuring ages
ticking the turning
and the stars
have nothing on you
for long enduring.
May there come
May there come
between the beats
of your heart
when you know
May there come
a gap between
your painful breaths
when you sense
your own self
unalone in your
no longer solitary—
as if you could
ever have been
for one moment
abandoned to this weight,
unencompassed by the love
more ancient still
than the sorrow
When the pandemic abates, when the political bickering lessens, when nations stop killing each other, when our own private griefs diminish, this will still be the foundation of the Good Life – from each other, and from God:
“I love you. I just wanted to be sure you knew.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All,” in Bread of Angels.
Frederick Buechener, “Peace,” in Beyond Words
Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings in Times of Grief.
Lynn Ungar, “Falling,” internet source.