Never Forget

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Palm Sunday
April 10, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : The memory that binds a community together is not necessarily a photographic representation of the past. Remembering often means reliving the ways in which a community came together to support each other to create a new way forward.

A theology professor was on the highway adjacent to the Pentagon, driving in to teach his class on September 11, 2001, when he watched a low flying plane explode into the side of the building. Later that week, the dean of his school would be asked to serve the spiritual needs of those traumatized that same day by the events at the White House, where staffers were spared certain death because of a group of heroic Americans on the plane who challenged their hijackers, crash-landing in a Pennsylvania field instead of Pennsylvania Avenue.

A retired woman, drinking her coffee on her balcony that deceptively beautiful fall morning of September 11, heard the engines of the plane as though they were landing on the roof of her Alexandria, Virginia, condo building. She knew something was wrong when she saw the black smoke.

Meanwhile, a man on the 94th floor of the South Tower frantically descended 16 flights of stairs to get the express elevator to the ground floor to evacuate the building before it was destroyed. Many of his colleagues were not so lucky.

Memory and imagination

Each of us knows where we were that Tuesday morning in 2001 -- or at least we think we do. After all, some events are just unforgettable. Some days mark themselves indelibly in our minds. We all have memories that evoke joy, such as wedding anniversaries or the birth of a child. Other memories bring up intense pain. They remind us that we are mortal and that the world is sometimes a violent, traumatizing place. These are difficult memories but deserve some acknowledgement. Hidden pain tends to fester and boil until it is unbearable.

When we allow the gentle breeze of community to meet our memories, the memories have an opportunity to surface softly, in a supportive environment.

In the book The Midnight Library the author Matt Haig engages in an interesting thought experiment about all the directions our lives could have taken if we made different choices. In it, the main character has an opportunity to examine her regrets and sample how her life would have been different if she had made different choices. At one point, she questions her memory of her deepest disappointments -- were things really as she remembered them? She recalls that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had regarded memory and imagination as fairly equivalent. Had her brain filled in forgotten gaps with imagined details? The accuracy of her regrets as actual disappointments robbing her of present happiness seemed to hinge on the answer to this.

Only a few months ago, we marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks when the hashtag #neverforget abounded. Except for those not yet born or too young to recall, we all have memories from that day. We all remember where we were when we heard. We remember the smells and sounds. We remember the TV coverage. We remember so much.

What does it mean to not forget?

The details become a bit hazy after 20 years. In a special episode of "The Daily" from The New York Times , author Dan Barry interviewed a man who expressed profound survivor's guilt, saying he should have been at the World Trade Center that day -- only for others to tell him he actually was there that day.1 He had helped those who were hurt or lost. His memory of those hours is much different from the memories of those who saw him in action that day. Those hours were so tragic and traumatizing that he doesn't remember anything.

Barry reports that in a study of more than 3,000 people, normal autobiographical memories were distinguished from memories of September 11th by the extreme confidence people had in their memories -- even when the memories they had differed from reality. Our brains have a way of shielding us from intense pain and trauma. Maybe having slightly altered memories of reality helps us cope with the grief and loss of that day, even 20 years later.

A woman who was in college at the time alternately remembers that she was having breakfast with her father when she heard the news, or maybe she was in class when the chair of the department burst in to tell the class.

A man who 10 years ago talked about how he huddled around the television in his office when he first learned what had happened now remembers that he was in the subway when he found out.


William Hirst, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, hypothesizes that changes in memory are somehow linked to a sense of identity and understanding of self in community with others.2 If you simply forgot where you were that day or what had happened, if you just lost those hours and that day in your memory, it would be detrimental to your sense of identity as an American, he suggests. Our brains fill in gaps to protect us, but also to keep us whole, so that we can continue to be part of the community that in many ways we need for our survival.

The memory of the Last Supper is something like this. We remember this act with the sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular basis. If you really think about what it means, the memory of this meal is pretty macabre. It's a dark tale of the last meal a man of middle age will share with his closest friends and companions. It is the story of the final hours before the execution of a visionary prophet, the Son of God. The account of the institution of Lord's Supper is part of our scripture reading for today.


Still, we do not simply remember this moment; we participate in it over and over again. It becomes part of our identity as a Christian people. Our participation in the memory pulls us into a community of saints past and present. We are aware that we are more than just individuals, but members of a broader community where we are needed. We each have gifts and graces that make our community a bright and thriving place. As humans, we come alive in community.

These are sacred, holy memories and moments. They aren't always the happiest moments. They don't always contain joy. Their memory doesn't always bring smiles or warmth. Sacred moments aren't always about happiness. A sacred moment is a breach in time and space. It is holy because we get through by reaching outside ourselves to form bonds of community that transcended all space, time and belief.

The hashtag #neverforget is not about recording exact memories of the sights and sounds of 9/11. Those are some tragic and traumatic memories and remembering can really hurt. When we tell each other to never forget, it means that we remain open to the sacredness of those moments when the whole world changed and we only had each other to get through it.

Many things changed after 9/11. Our lives were altered in uneven ways. Not everyone experienced the same kind of change. Islamophobia entered our vocabulary in new ways. Muslims feared becoming the targets of violence. We now have airport and building security procedures that are simply a way of life. Families, coworkers and friends had to forge ahead without loved ones. America went to war. Members of our military have still other memories that they can never forget, and some families won't have opportunities to make new memories with their fallen loved ones.

Through it all, we have arrived 20 years later, still marking the day with memorials, songs and photos. May we never forget that we still have each other to help us through.

In the coming days, we will again remember the final days of Jesus' life. We will sing. We will pray. We may have visual representations of the stations of the cross. Some may watch movie renditions of Jesus' last days. For a whole week we will remember with our hearts and our actions. In many ways we will relieve those final days, taking on the perspectives of Jesus, his disciples and even the God who weeps for his only Son.

None of us will do it alone. We mark these moments as a community, making time and space to recognize that the tragic, traumatizing moments of Jesus' final days are best faced together -- with each other and with our Lord. These moments, where time and space take on new meanings, are sacred moments. Together, we will make space for the sacred bond of community and recognize that aside from God himself, we are all we have. Us, all of us, together.


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