Stories of Life and Death for Sept. 11

Here’s what I said on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which fell on a Sunday that year:

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 11, 2011

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)

For many of us, those words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans bring to mind the opening sentences of the burial liturgy. Perhaps you’ve been to a funeral in this church and heard them spoken by a priest as one of the saints who has died is accompanied on the last part of a pilgrimage — a lifelong journey toward God. Those words remind us that we are the Lord’s possession no matter what happens to us in life or in death. It seems appropriate, therefore, to contemplate that reality on this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed us as Americans.

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago? People stopped the ordinary activities of daily life to watch the news reports about those awful events. We watched them over and over again. Throughout the country, others were doing the same thing, experiencing the same emotions, and fearing for the safety of family and friends. For weeks churches overflowed with those who needed community and who had promised themselves that the most important things — their loved ones, their neighborhoods, and the grace that binds us together — would thereafter be the main focus of their attention.

As this solemn anniversary drew near, more than a few of us shared a very different kind of experience with friends and strangers. This one was a wonderful, almost magical event. It caught me off guard the way that grace-filled moments often do.

Mark Moller and Julia Gutz Moller are members of St. Stephen’s and have been waiting to adopt a child. Quite suddenly, that moment arrived and necessitated a road trip to Montana. Through the power of social media, a lot of us were able to follow this adventure online via Facebook as Mark posted status updates along the way. More and more people started making comments and offering prayers and describing their own tears of joy as all of this was actually happening. Several of the hotel’s staff members even remained in the lobby after the end of their shift on Friday night to witness these new parents welcome a tiny baby and name her Anna.

Both of these stories, one about death and the other about life, have a kind of power to concentrate the mind and cause most of us, as we think about our loved ones and about the dignity of every human being, to move in the direction of love. Both of them tell us that life is a precious gift that’s fragile. They make us want to focus on the most important things.

And yet the will to do so isn’t as strong as we often imagine it to be. Over time that resolve gradually fades away. Forgetfulness seems to be built into our DNA. So we need reminders of God’s grace in our day to day experiences.

That’s why baby Anna’s trip home to Minnesota won’t be her most important journey this year. She’ll soon undertake another one that begins at the baptismal font — the same font that confronted you as you entered the front doors of the church. That stone font hasn’t been used for years and years. Now it’s been moved to the center of things, where it belongs, and we’re going to use that font for the purpose for which it was created.

There baby Anna will be bathed in the waters of grace and marked as Christ’s own forever. There her parents and the rest of us will promise to remind her of the fact that she belongs to God and that the Holy Spirit is present in every act of love and every step of her pilgrimage home to God.

This is a photograph of Anna’s baptism on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2011. 

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes this relationship with Christ that we have together as a community of the baptized:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.[1]

As you leave today, take a closer look at the outer rim of our “new” old font.  There are eight sides.  It’s octagonal.  That’s not a randomly chosen style.  The symbolism of that shape  goes back to early Christianity and hearkens back to the beginning, to Genesis.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The creation story then unfolds in the narrative over a period of six days.  On the seventh day, God rested.  On the eighth day, which is how early Christians described the resurrection of Jesus, God re-created the world. And it is through the waters of baptism that we enter into that new creation.

So, each time that you walk past that stone font, remember that you belong to God, too, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life and in our life together.

During my first summer at St. Stephen’s, my father-in-law and I attended, as we do most years, the Washington Island Forum in Wisconsin. The speaker was Tom Long, a seminary professor from Emory University. He reminded us that every Christian can share memories of God’s presence and that congregations need to hear these stories and celebrate them.

He told us about a young woman whose heartfelt words exemplified this. She was more graceful as a professional dancer than as a public speaker. But she shared one of these memories with a group from her church — her family in Christ:

She reminded [them] that she was raised in that particular church. She described the sanctuary, including the baptismal font, and she said that she was baptized as an infant right in that very font. She did not remember this, of course, but she told [them] that her father was very proud of that moment and that when she was a little girl, he would often tell her of the Sunday that she was baptized. He would describe the baptismal dress that she wore, he would remember what hymns were sung and what the minister had said in the sermon, and he always ended the story by clapping his hands together and exclaiming, “Oh, sweetheart, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!”[2]

Her father would tell her that story over and over again. Yet something puzzled her about it. She wondered where the Holy Spirit really was in the church. Where could she find it? As a child, she thought it might be hiding in the building’s nooks and crannies. This is how Tom Long remembers the rest of her testimony of faith:

[S]he paused for a moment, and everybody in the room leaned forward to hear what she would say next. “As many of you know,” she continued, “I lost both of my parents to cancer in the same week, a terrible week, last winter. During that awful week, on a dark Wednesday afternoon, I was driving home from visiting my parents in the hospital, and I was passing by the church. I felt an intense need to pray, and so I came into the church and sat in one of the back pews and began to pray. The church was dark, and in the shadows, I prayed and poured out my grief to God, and cried from the bottom of my heart. A member of the church . . . was in the kitchen preparing a meal for a church meeting, and she saw me praying and knew what was happening in my life. She took off her apron, came and sat beside me in the pew, held my hand, and prayed with me. “It was then,” the young woman said, “that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in this church.”[3]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 6:3-5

BACK TO POST Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004) 127. This is the written version of the same story that he shared at the 2007 Washington Island Forum.

BACK TO POST Long 127-128.

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