The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2011
One hot 4th of July I was living in Austin, working for the first time as an ordained person, a new transitional deacon on my way to becoming a priest. I worked at a church called Good Shepherd in those days and every 4th of July it was the meeting spot where the neighborhood parade began. Just like Rob and I witnessed this past 4th of July in Pebble Creek, at that Austin parade little kids and dogs and golf carts would be festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons and crepe paper. Although in Austin there was always a lot of burnt orange mixed in with the red, white, and blue, but you could still feel the patriotism.
As the parade crowd grew, I found myself standing next to Rob’s wonderful sister Mimi, who had been and continues to be very kind to me. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but apparently I lamented to her that even after dating Rob for almost two years my left hand was oddly devoid of jewelry. Twenty days later on July 24th I had my engagement ring. Though I am confident Rob’s wheels were already turning in that direction, perhaps a little nudge from his kid sister didn’t hurt.
On occasion over the years I have been asked if I thought it was God’s will that Rob and I marry, and I’m always quick to joke, I don’t know if it was God’s will or not, but it was definitely Mimi’s.
As fall approached it was time for….wedding dress shopping. Woo hoo. Even for a 39 year old clergy person marrying for the second time, the idea of wedding dress shopping thrilled me. So on my day off one Monday, I went to a huge Bridal store in North Austin and was greeted at the door by a child size salesperson, who looked at me and said, “You’re shopping for a wedding dress”...undeterred I said, “yes!” She went on, “like for you….not your daughter”, uh, no, it’s for me. Then came the punch line: “I’m not sure we have anything for…you know….someone your age and size.” Now, completely deflated and crying, I went back to my apartment, called Rob, and told him the wedding was off. He was perplexed.
Once I told him the whole story, he assured me that I was not the world’s oldest or fattest bride, and did I want him to “pay a visit” to that store for me. I kind of wanted him to do that, but I said no, and was grateful I had a fiancé who was willing to “pay a visit” to people on my behalf. The Monday I had gone dress shopping was September 10th, 2001.
The next morning the world changed. The next morning planes and buildings were crushed and incinerated, thousands of lives destroyed, the entire world gripped in paralyzing fear, and my wedding dress woes suddenly became completely insignificant.
Like all of you who are over the age of 14 or 15 I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news of this horrible tragedy. I huddled around a television with my church co-workers for what seemed like days on end…crying…anxious…speechless. Everything had changed for our nation, if not the whole world, and so everything else seemed petty and silly. Wedding planning, or answering emails about altar flowers, or getting a flu shot or any of the daily business of living all seemed so hollow.
I remember that first Sunday after September 11th when the woman on our clergy staff who had already been scheduled to preach that day, just stood in the pulpit not using a lot of words, offering a few thoughts and a prayer, and then, with her crystal clear, angelic soprano voice, she began, without any accompaniment, to sing The King of Love My Shepherd Is. And we wept. It was the perfect thing to hear on that first Sunday.
We plodded along through that next week holding prayer services and holding hands with one another.
And on the next Sunday the rector of the parish stood in the pulpit and reminded all of us that Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that commandment had not been waived. Because of these terror attacks, we were not suddenly exempt from the high standard Jesus set for the faithful community so many centuries before. And that too was the perfect thing for us to hear on the second Sunday after the attacks.
On and on we went, like all of you, wondering, praying, hoping, crying, putting one foot in front of the other. Re-claiming our lives after a national trauma in the face of what would now be “the new normal.” We had to work and go to school and return to the routines of daily living. I eventually went to another wedding shop where a darling young man convinced me I was the prettiest bride in all the world, and I found a great dress for a whole lot less money than I was originally planning to spend.
And over the weeks that followed I had dozens of conversations with parishioners about where was God to be found in the face of such horror. In the ten years that have passed my answer about God and suffering hasn’t changed a whole lot. God is in the suffering. God meets us in the suffering and suffers with us.
And I know that’s not always a satisfying answer. If my child had died in the Pentagon that morning, if my husband had been one of those first responders in New York, if my mother had been on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, I don’t know that hearing …God is in the suffering… would have comforted me much, but then again I don’t know that anything would have comforted me. In the face of tragedy, a big national one or a small personal one, there aren’t a whole lot of words that are helpful.
Occasionally in the months and years after September 11th.
I have come across an article or a quote from various Christians who use words like “God’s will” and “God’s plan” a little too casually…a little too confidently for my understanding. I struggle with those words. I have one friend who truly believes that God arranged for her son in law’s meeting to be cancelled that morning, a meeting that would have taken place in the Twin Towers. And I share her joy that her daughter and that son in law were spared such tragedy even though I disagree with her theology. Because I have another friend whose brother was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and I’m at a loss.
I cannot say definitively how God works. That statement just might make you want your rector money back. But it would be a lie if I told you anything else. Does God spare one life as another is taken? I don’t know. I’ve never found a great answer to that question even before September 11th, or before I was ordained. In my personal life when tragedy has struck or in my professional life at the Austin Ronald McDonald House where a child died on average every 10 days, I haven’t found a place to land that doesn’t shift and fracture in the face of pain and suffering, other than believing we worship God who suffers.
We worship God who even in God’s own self was not exempt from or immune to the effects of violence, evil, and suffering. And in the face of suffering, whether it’s at the hands of terrorists, or wild fires or disease, the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans ring true, even above the noise of sadness, the noise of our outrage, the noise of our fear.
As we heard in the passage from Romans read moments ago, a portion of which we hear at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral service, Paul writes: “whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s.” And that is where I find the ground to be most stable. That is God’s will, that we claim our identity as The Lord’s….that we embrace the relationship God always invites us into, no matter what.
And having embraced that relationship, knowing that nothing will destroy that identity, nothing will destroy God’s love of us, not violence, not sorrow, not even death. We are the Lord’s own children in joy and sorrow, in life and in death, and nothing, not airplanes or fires or diseases will ever change that. Whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lords. And it is because of that hope, because of that promise…we can even in the face of sadness, or anger, even at the grave, we can make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Thanks be to God.