Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tunnel to Towers 2012

One of the many heroes of 9/11, Stephen Siller was a NYC firefighter. He had finished the late shift at his Brooklyn firehouse and was on his way to play golf when he heard about the WTC attack. Returning to his firehouse and finding his company already dispatched, he grabbed his gear. When stopped at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, he donned his gear and ran through the tunnel to join his colleagues, and was killed in the collapse of the South Tower.

His family honors his memory through programs for first responders, military personnel, and children who have lost one or both parents, a special interest of Steven’s whose parents died early in his life. In the annual Tunnel to Towers run, people retrace his steps and remember the sacrifice Steven and so many others made. Many firefighters and military make the journey wearing full gear, like these firefighters from Jericho, Long Island. The Lieutenant is securing the emergency locator on one of his companions.

This year, I made that journey in honor of Joseph Lovero, a fire dispatcher with the Jersey City Fire Department who was assisting the NYFD when he was fatally injured in the collapse of the north tower. I did much more walking than running, but God willing and with a little work on my part, next year I will run.

Of course it is awesome to see 30,000 runners and walkers, plus volunteers and fans. But three moments stand out for me.

Even if you're inclined to run, traffic jams make it nearly impossible to run all the way. But the most impressive traffic jams were in the tunnel. Twice I passed volunteers who were waving traffic over to the left. As people approached the "road block," you could hear a rolling wave of continuous clapping. The first was a soldier moving even slower than I was, his wheelchair trailing behind, on two artificial legs, and taking occasional helps from an oxygen tank. The second was a Marine wearing a "Semper Fi" t-shirt, running on grit and his two new legs, with extra support from a pole strapped to his prosthetic right arm. Each had also obviously suffered other injuries seen scarring from burns and head wounds. Yet they ran, one slow step at a time.

Coming out of the tunnel, the runners were greeted by a corridor of uniforms. On the left, a long row of American flags held by members of the service academies. On the right, New York City firefighters in their dress blues, each wearing a cloth banner with the picture and name of one of their fallen 9/11 colleagues. It takes a long time to run past 343 firefighters. A very long time.

Finally, it was amazing to be greeted at the finish line by friends, all the more the unexpected one. A Big Shout Out to Johnny Mott, and to the fabulous Tom Murphy.

So many people have led the way in faithfulness, to our nation, to our city, to their companions and to their neighbors. May this be a perpetual tradition.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

11 years after

On this 11th anniversary, let us remember in prayer all those who died, those who were injured, those who mourn, those who stepped forward to extend a helping hand, those who suffer 9/11-related illness. May God bring healing to all touched by these attacks, and to each of us. On this day, let us care for one another, help us take care of ourselves, and seek to live in peace. Amen.

Forget for a moment the issues with the Memorial, with the Port Authority and the Mayor and the Zadroga bill and Homeland Security. Remember the people of 9/11, the victims, the survivors, the responders.

Behind every name there is a face, and many, many stories. Here are a few. (This page will be updated throughout the day of September 11, 2012.) I invite you to consider your own remembrance at Remember Me: The Virtual Facebook September 11, 2001 Memorial.

Remembering JOSEPH LOVERO, of Jersey City, NJ. Joe was chasing firetrucks before he could add. Growing up, he lived near a fire station that became his second home. When he was old enough, Lovero took the fire test, but was ineligible because of a heart condition. Instead of fighting fires, he helped out as a volunteer and later a fire dispatcher. On Sept. 11, 2011, Lovero completed his shift as a civilian fire dispatcher in Jersey City and rushed to the World Trade Center. His family and friends are not sure why Lovero went to the scene, but say that he may have been asked to set up a communication center. “If something was going on, he would always be there to help,” said his daughter Maxine McCormack. Joe was assisting a FDNY Battalion Chief when the 2nd tower came down. They ran for cover, the Battalion Chief survived, Joe was seriously injured, and the Battalion Chief found him in the rubble when the smoke cleared and had him transported to St. Vincent's hospital where he died. [Principal source: NYTimes.]

Remembering ABRAHAM ZELMANOWITZ, blessed be his name. Abe Zelmanowitz was an Orthodox Jew who worked as a computer programmer for Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center. One of his best friends was co-worker and fellow computer programmer Ed Beyea, who was a quadriplegic. With the elevators not working after the 9/11 attack, Beyea had no way of getting out. Rather than go down the stairs and try to save himself, Zelmanowitz chose to stay with his friend, presumably comforting him until they died together in the building's collapse. Many believe they prayed together during those final moments as well; Beyea was a devout Roman Catholic.

Remembering CRAIG W. STAUB.
I met Craig through his family, who love and miss him very much, and remember his vitality, humor, and outgoing nature. On 9/11/01, Craig was looking forward to a new chapter in his life. He married Stacey in June of 2000, they had built a house in NJ, and were expecting the birth of their first child. Craig worked at KBW on the 89th floor of 2WTC, and appeared on a financial news show from his office shortly before the WTC was attacked. While his family hoped for his safe return, Craig was not able to join them for his daughter Juliette's birth on 9/22, which would have been Craig's 31st birthday. Craig, his wife Stacey, and daughter Juliette are pictured. [Principal source: personal knowledge.]

Remembering ROSA JULIA GONZALEZ. Rosa Gonzalez was a single mother, 32 years old on 9/11/01. She lived with her 12-year-old daughter Jennifer, and close to many of her seven sisters and a brother, who had moved to Jersey City from Puerto Rico. After the attack, when Rosa telephoned her sister Migdalia from the offices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 66th floor of 1 World Trade Center, these were her last words: "I love you," she said. And then: "Promise to me that you are going to take care of my daughter." Rosa died while making her way downstairs, when the north tower collapsed. She was with friends and colleagues, most of whom perished with her. [Various sources.]

Remembering NEILIE ANNE CASEY. There is no logic to any of it; that much is obvious. But the truth is that they did meet as freshmen, in logic class. That was at Holy Cross, and Michael Casey still remembers the sight of Neilie Anne Heffernan's long auburn hair. They were married on Cape Cod in 1996 "because it was meant to be," he said; their "incredible bond" only intensified when their daughter, Riley Eileen, was born nine months before 9/11. The Caseys were both runners. On Sunday, Sept. 9, they took their daughter on her first three-mile road race. On the night before the attack, the Caseys played a travel video of Bermuda, planning the trip for their fifth wedding anniversary, Sept. 21. On Sept. 11, Mr. Casey kissed his wife goodbye and watched from the bedroom window upstairs as she left their house in Wellesley, Mass., at 5:45 a.m. "I flipped the light on so she could see me, and she turned and waved back as she left." Thus this last memory before Mrs. Casey, 32, boarded Flight 11 on a business trip to California. [Principal source: NYTimes.]

Remembering GAVKHAROY KAMARDINOVA. For a variety of reasons, very little is published about some victims of these very public attacks. 26 years old, Ms. Kamardinova had only come to the U.S. the summer of 2011. A Muslim and citizen of Uzbekistan, Gavkharoy found a job working at a snack canteen run by an independent vendor and serving employees of the AON corporation high in the south tower. After she did not return home on September 11, her employer was not forthcoming about her employment or presence at work, presumably due to legal reasons related to her immigration status and their liability. Ms. Kamardinova's family journeyed to the U.S. to seek their daughter, and spoke of her youthful hope, her hard work, and her happiness to be seeking opportunity in New York City. [Principal source: personal knowledge.]

Remembering WELLES REMY CROWTHER. At 24 years old, Welles was an equities trader working on the 104th floor of the south tower. After the north tower was struck, he evacuated the building, helping others along the way. Welles was known by his family for always carrying a red bandana, and at least 12 survivors credit "the man in the red bandana" with bringing them to safety. Crowther, with a red bandana covering his mouth and nose to protect him from dust, reentered the building at least three times to rescue people. With members of the NYFD, he was re-entering the south tower when it collapsed, and his body was found 6 months later in the destroyed building’s lobby. [Various sources.]

Remembering ASIA COTTOM: Asia, 11, had just started sixth grade at a new school, eager to learn and pleased to be at the campus where her father worked. The North Michigan Park girl was selected to take a trip to California with a teacher to participate in a National Geographic Society ecology conference. The girl and teacher Sarah Clark were on American Airlines Flight 77 at the start of their four-day trip, and were killed when it crashed into the Pentagon. Some staff members said they knew her because her father works there as an aide, helping to coach basketball, patrolling the halls and serving as a book clerk. Her father is popular with students, Backus employees said, because he is patient and walks around with a big smile -- the same way his daughter was described by several people. They said Asia was a kindhearted girl who was helpful to other students who had difficulty learning and was herself persistent, continually trying until she grasped a lesson. On Wednesday, the day after the hijacking, one of her teachers, Lizzie Jones, addressed the sixth-grade language arts class. "We are missing someone today. Do you know who that is?" she asked. "Yes," some of the children said. "Asia." The students talked about how much they would miss her. [Principal source: Washington Post.]

There are many more people whose stories I'd like to share - many more still whose stories I do not know. 9/11 interrupted so many hopes, and ended the lives of so many people whose lives were full of potential, of love. Each is worthy of remembrance.

But for me, 9/11 has always been about the living. We honor and hallow the dead for the lives they lived with us. Please also remember those who survived the attacks, but have lived with suffering. Those who escaped; those who were injured; those who mourn the murder of dear ones; those who have taken their lives to escape their pain; those who deal with on-going illness and traumatic stress; those who responded to aid those in need. May God bless all who have been touched by tragedy, and blessed be the peacemakers who seek an end to violence.

God bless America; God bless the world.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Temple Talk

13th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10–11] 22–30, 41–43
Sermon preached at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church,
Jersey City, NJ, August 26, 2012.

Have you ever been to a holy place? Not necessarily the places called “holy,” but a place where you could sense the spiritual power, the uniqueness, the extra-ordinary nature of the place?

Throughout time, people have found it crucially important to know these points in the natural landscape, and later in the architected human landscape, where the powers of the universe are most powerfully present. Maybe you want to access them – maybe you want to stay away from 'em! But as people, we have wanted to understand where they are.

I don't know if this is more of a statement about God or about people, but there are places which are special, where God seems more obviously and powerfully to dwell. The book of Genesis tells how people found these places in the landscape, mountains and springs and river fords. In the journey out of slavery, the people established a moveable temple, the tent of meeting or Tabernacle.

Some places stand out for me. Niagara Falls. Forget the tourist attractions and the floodlights – the awesome power of the water proclaims the presence of something far beyond one's self. The great redwood forests of the Northwest Coast speak in a very different tone, but the very air is heavy with the rich forest smell of ferns and centuries of growth, decay, and new life. Sometimes – not always or even usually – you can sense it in our houses of worship, places hallowed by use, by generations of care to build and maintain, sanctified in prayer and praise. In some churches or places of prayer, it sinks into the woodwork like incense, or is held by the stones, and the modern visitor can inhale the faith of generations. The temple location itself is a place hallowed for generations before Solomon. Mt. Moriah / Mt. Zion was the traditional location where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where the Lord intervened to substitute a ram for the sacrifice.

Diane Kaese will tell you: “Place matters.” While God may dwell anywhere, the places where we experience that presence, that connection to the best, the holy, the source of power – well, we had best honor and care for that experience. The temple – whether in Jerusalem or on Wayne Street – is a reflection of the power and presence of God.

When you see Andy polishing the woodwork, the worship assistants “doing the dishes” washing and drying the communion vessels, when you see any one of us cleaning up, or hopefully all of us engaged over the next few years in revitalizing this building... you can take that as a sign that we are giving honor to God and the way God has claimed this place as an outpost of the heavenly kingdom. We hallow those places where we have touched the sacred.

To digress for just a moment, I'd like to take notice of Solomon, the king whose speech is in this lesson, who spearheaded the building of the Temple, who in fact, calls it “his temple.” At most, we probably remember a few highlights from his life. The son of David and Bathsheba, he became king as a boy, when his mother and the prophet Nathan won the power struggle for succession. Most likely you could name just a few things about him.

1. He was renowned for his wisdom – and people cite the story where he judges whose woman a baby belongs to.

2. He had 700 wives, 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), and a famous relationship with the queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10).

3. And finally, he built the Temple, the official dwelling place of God for the nation of Israel. We only read a bit of that story in today's lesson, but the previous three chapters detail Solomon's building projects, down to the architectural and decorative elements of the building.

But all these proved to be fleeting. Wealth and wives lasted only as long as his life, and his kingdom barely longer than that. Solomon's vaunted wisdom was unable to recognize or prevent the civil was among his sons which split the kingdom in two. The Temple itself lasted three centuries, before being stripped and torn down in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. Its destruction led to a spiritual crisis in Israel. If God dwelled in the Temple, did its destruction mean that God had abandoned them?

Stones from Jerusalem Temple's destruction, 70CE.

Rebuilding the Temple did not, and could not fully answer this concern. Nor is the question unique to ancient Israelites. Is God faithful? Are we right with God? Will God be there in our times of need?

This congregation has had a rough few... decades. When the people who founded this congregation and built this building began to abandon this city to its new immigrants, to a more persistent poverty, choosing suburban greens over their neighbors. I know there have been times when it seemed that God had abandoned this place.

We should remember, though, that in Christ we we have been given a new kind of Temple. The old Temple was a place of God's presence, yes, but it was also a place of atonement. In the Torah, the Lord established a system of animal sacrifice to wash away sins. And the Temple became a place where people got right with God, becoming again at-one.

It was quite an enterprise. At Passover alone, the Temple “processed” thousands of lambs, and was visited by tens of thousands of people. When Jesus and his disciples visited the Temple, the disciples were impressed by its grandeur, its strength, the power expressed in its huge stones.

But Jesus spoke of a different kind of temple, the temple of his body. Jesus knew a God who came to dwell in human flesh. The Apostle Paul spoke of the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Still more, he – following in Jesus’ footsteps if not his words – reimagined the assembly of believers as a body. Just like our human bodies, this social body has different parts, with different gifts and functions. Like our human bodies, our churchly body is broken, is in need of healing, and has been redeemed.

This new temple, here at St. Matthew's and throughout the world, is not a place of atonement. Jesus finished that work. We are forgiven, and God has said that we are beloved – always! In Jesus, the temple is no longer a place of atonement, but of reconciliation. Jesus, in his human body, restored people to health, forgave sins, and led people into eternal life, reconciled with God. And with one another. Jesus built a new temple, the temple we call “church,” where the body of human community is healed and redeemed, where his disciples live together in love.

Place matters. The places where God dwells become holy places. God came among us, revealed in Jesus’ human body, in the community he gathered, in the wounds inflicted upon him, and in the tomb which could not hold him.

It is a mystery that so often the building of this new temple comes precisely at the places – those points in our lives, in our bodies, and in our physical space – which are hurt, broken, and suffering. We do not seek out illness or adversity – yet these can bring forth and reveal kindnesses and strengths. A neighborhood in trouble is not a blessing – but in that neighborhood are opportunities for God’s goodness to shine through. We pray for deliverance when things afflict us, and very often we find the healing we need in the midst of the storm.

We might desire the conventional types of strength, success, and victory. But, God knows, that is not where we live all our lives, and that is not where we most need help. God’s kingdom – as Jesus knew and as Jesus lived – is built not with the biggest, strongest, most enduring stones, but with the living stones of God’s people, who are connected by something more fragile and yet stronger than mortar.

We build this new temple, and we “polish” the brass of the kingdom with forgiveness, by showing mercy, by helping one another, by living in love, sharing our bread, and seeking God's shalom – peace and wholeness.

By the grace of God, that's who we are.