As we’ve been hearing all week, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I’m sure many of us remember that day vividly, perhaps more vividly than we’d like. I can see where I was when I got the news, who I was with. Ann and I were in seminary, and the whole seminary community was gathered in the auditorium that morning for the beginning of the fall term. Someone in the back of the room got a phone call with the news that the towers had been hit, and she cried out to stop the presentation and turn on the TVs. We all sat there, watching for hours, until we went to the chapel to pray the ancient words of the Supplication from the prayer book – “From our enemies defend us, O Christ” (BCP 154).
I imagine many of us have a story about how daily life simply stopped on 9/11 as we watched and prayed. We were afraid. Intellectually, we all knew that we live in a dangerous world, susceptible to evil acts. But it’s different to watch it on TV as terror happens.
Later, the story of the day’s terror would come to be filtered through stories of the day’s heroism. When we remembered, what came to mind were firefighters, EMTs, and police running into buildings others were fleeing. What came to mind were 40 people on a plane over Pennsylvania who got phone calls about the attacks in New York and Washington, and realized they were the fourth missile, and chose to die saving lives instead.
Terrorism and heroism stood side by side on 9/11. As we know, heroes don’t always make it. Terror and chaos can seem to carry the day. Even 20 years later, watching the chaos at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan – with hearts aching, infuriated for those left behind at the end of a war intended to plant hope in place of terror – even 20 years later, we fear chaos might triumph after all.
With images from 20 years ago and images from just weeks ago fresh in our hearts and minds, we might well ask: Where’s God in all this?
Today’s Gospel reading opens the door to an answer. As always, the disciples aren’t all that different from you and me, despite thousands of miles and thousands of years of distance. Peter gets it, at least intellectually, that Jesus is God’s anointed king, the Messiah … whatever that meant. It probably meant something to Peter – maybe that Jesus would defeat the Romans and rule in power and glory. Whatever Peter had in mind, it clearly wasn’t what Jesus had in mind. For the first time, he tells his friends what’s coming – that “the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the [authorities] …, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
Many of us have heard this reading before. As it is when we watch video of the planes hitting the towers, we know where this anguishing story is going. But Peter doesn’t know the story; he tries to make it stop, tries to get Jesus to change the narrative. Instead, Jesus looks terror in the eye and confronts it with love that won’t back down. In fact, it’s the love that grows and flows from him to us. He looks at his baffled friends and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Now, the disciples and the crowd are thinking, “Wait, what? What’s this about taking up a cross?” They knew what crosses were for; they saw the Romans crucifying revolutionaries all the time. But they hadn’t put that together with Jesus’ story. This is the first time in Mark’s gospel that the word “cross” appears. For Jesus’ followers, stuff just got real.
So, where’s God when stuff gets real? Where was God on 9/11? Where’s God in COVID, or in a Haitian earthquake, or in a devastating hurricane, or in more than 200 shootings in Chicago last weekend? Where’s God in the suffering we each know, the hardships that make us say, “Really, Lord? This is what a life of blessing looks like?”Well, here’s where I think God is. God’s in the Cross at Ground Zero. When the towers fell, structures and lives disintegrating in an instant, amidst the rubble and ash and twisted steel of World Trade Center 6 stood this cross. It was found two days after the collapse by a construction worker, a man named Frank Silecchia. He and his team were working in the pit of Ground Zero looking for survivors. And they were beyond discouraged because they’d only found three bodies and no survivors in those two days. Instead, what Frank Silecchia found was this cross. The workers preserved it, and it stood at Ground Zero for about 5 years. From there, it was taken to a nearby church and eventually, in 2011, moved to become part of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.1
To me, this cross speaks volumes about God and human suffering, the theology of the cross. Here’s what I mean. Jesus faced the evil of the Roman Empire, a system that oppressed people, taxing them beyond their means and abusing them if they resisted – and he chose to walk into conflict with Rome. Jesus faced the evil of religious leaders who put their own power and prestige ahead of the well-being of their people – and he chose to walk into conflict with those authorities. Jesus wasn’t looking to die. He was looking to stand for and stand with people who needed the power of God’s love to overcome the powers that beat them down. He was looking to show the depth and breadth and height of that love, love so powerful that battling evil and death only made it stronger. God didn’t send in the heavenly armies to vanquish Rome or unseat the religious authorities. Could have – but didn’t. Instead, God walked into the suffering as one of us, experiencing every loss and sustaining every blow to show that death is not the end.
And 2,000 years later, God was there in the pit of Ground Zero. God showed up to comfort us when we were broken, to embrace us with the healing peace that surpasses understanding, and to empower us so that we might stand against evil – both the evil that surrounds us and the evil that stews in our hearts.
And in that power, God sends us out from the cross, too, because the cross is not the end of the story. The cross is the arrow that points us to the empty tomb, to the love that defeats the power of sin and death and makes the whole creation new. That’s a cosmic truth we’ll know in all its fullness later, when Christ restores the unity between heaven and earth that God intended in the beginning – and I can’t wait for it. But for now, we experience this truth of love defeating sin and death when we follow the cross to the empty tomb ourselves, in our own lives, in this slice of eternity God’s sharing with us now.
What does that look like, to live in resurrection? St. Francis named it centuries ago. When we’re tempted to hate, love instead. When we’re tempted to seek vengeance, pardon instead. When we’re tempted to divide, unify instead. When we’re tempted to doubt, trust instead. When we’re tempted to despair, hope instead.2 Taking up our cross and following Jesus means following him into the places others run from. It means putting ourselves out there to love when love seems senseless. It means showing up as God’s presence for others, pointing them toward love, too.
OK. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that two steel beams were standing like this in the midst of the devastation. But construction worker Frank Silecchia didn’t think so. In fact, showing a deep understanding of the power of the cross to point to new life, Frank Silecchia spray-painted arrows on the debris at Ground Zero directing the responders there to find this cross, calling its location in the wreckage “Gods House” (sic).1 And because I have no better words than his, I will leave you with Frank Silecchia’s description of his experience finding the Ground Zero Cross and the meaning he takes from it.
[That cross] brought such overwhelming feelings to me that it dropped me to my knees in tears. … The cross means, to me, healing, comfort – something to look toward … to comfort your sorrow, to help revitalize you. You’ve got to remember – on that day, our faith was crushed. And that cross, it helps rebuild our faith. Terrorism took down the towers, but faith rebuilds our hearts.3
1. Hampson, Rick. “Ground Zero cross a powerful symbol for 9/11 museum.” USA Today, May 13, 2014. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/13/911-ground-zero-museum-cross-world-trade-center/8907003/. Accessed Sept. 10, 2021.
2. Book of Common Prayer, 833.
3. “Remembering 9/11: The Ground Zero Cross.” From Remembering 9/11. History.com. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/remembering-911-the-ground-zero-cross-video. Accessed Sept. 10, 2021.