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Waters of Babylon
By the Waters of Babylon

"By the waters of Babylon," wrote the Psalmist, "by the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept."

Those words, first spoken more than three thousand years ago, when an ancient nation was rent by unspeakable horrors of war and vast loss of life, ring true again this week. Again this week, humanity finds itself weeping by the waters of sorrow as an atrocity of unimaginable scope has cast our nation, and the whole world, into a stunned state of grief.

No one in the world, it seems, is left unaffected by the events of this week. Like all of you, I’m sure, I have tried very hard to monitor my own confused and very mixed feelings as this week has unfolded, and like many of you I have been caught up in the endless media reports and the parade of commentators analyzing every rumor and piece of news. It has been, and it will continue to be, an emotional trial for us all. Our nation may well end up in the midst of worldwide military action before long, and the very atmosphere of our free nation’s way of life may well be altered forever. It is certain that we will continue to be touched and scarred by additional grief and loss.

I have been extremely grateful to be part of a Unitarian Universalist community this week. Fern and I were at our regional UU ministers chapter meeting in Lancaster on Tuesday morning when we got the news, and being with all those ministers at that hour was truly a blessing and a strengthening for us.

And it was a tremendous help for me to be with many of our congregation at our hastily organized vigil service on Wednesday night, and Jude and I joined the teen group on their advisors for a conversation after the vigil service. Thursday night I stopped by choir practice, and we had an impromptu few minutes together in Brunner Chapel at Scott’s suggestion. And we had a quiet meditation period at noon on Friday here, with forty or fifty people stopping by, to be together, to light a candle or offer a prayer.

On Thursday I called the Islamic Center of Delaware to express my personal care and concern for the pressures that community must be feeling, especially for their children, and I want you to know I said the Unitarian community of Delaware offered its help in any way that might prove supportive in the days ahead. The Director of the Center called me back the next day to say that such expressions from churches and pastors have been dearly appreciated by the Islamic community, and he offered the reciprocal support for our congregations if ever we needed it.

On Wednesday I got a call from my sister that our first cousin Michael, who worked in the Trade Center tower, was missing and presumed lost. And then on Thursday night I’m happy to tell you we got a call from Michael’s wife that Michael in fact was at a meeting in the building next door to the Center that morning, and thank goodness, he is a survivor. I am one of many thousands who have been whipped through the full cycle of grief this week.

No one who has a single nerve ending or heartbeat can fail to be horrified by what has happened. No civilized person can fail to be immensely saddened at the notion that human beings seem more capable than ever of blowing up the world, and moving us all closer to the possibilities of world conflict yet again.

We all seek for ways to understand what has happened here and what to make of it. We search for similes and metaphors, for precedents in history to measure against, to look for a proper response, individually and collectively. And of course, what makes this so hard to deal with is the reality that nothing quite like this—nothing quite on this scale or this magnitude or quite the same has ever happened to us in our country. Oh, the quick comparisons to Pearl Harbor and Oklahoma City come to mind, but only in some ways are those terrible memories applicable.

The instinctive reactions to a trauma of huge scope are similar. We are stunned first, and then as the reality hits home, we instinctively reach out protectively to our children, our families and friends, our community. We are overcome with loss and sadness for the fate of the victims and their families, even as we are grateful to have been spared, to have our loved ones safe. We are frightened at the unknown dangers. And then we are angry and bitter, and we search for ways to defend ourselves and strike back in vengeance and just and appropriate punishment for those responsible for this atrocity. And eventually, we seek to learn what could have been done to prevent this, and what we can change in order to prevent anything like it in the future.

And in all of these reactions and responses, we come smack up against the reality of our limits, as people and as a society. The limits of what we can endure, the limits of what we can cope with, the limits of what we can do about it and not do about it, the limits of our values and our beliefs and our social compact as a people.

We’ve witnessed this week how a tragedy can invoke some of the best in human nature. The heroism and altruism and bravery of rescue workers, police and fire fighters, willing to give their lives in the effort to save others. We’ve seen the outpouring of generosity and support from the nation, the thousands of volunteers, the millions in donations, the closing of ranks in the government on every level. We’ve seen the power of faith communities, each responding in their own ways, to support people through a hard time.

But we’ve seen other instincts, less noble and less humane, also begin to appear in the atmosphere of anger and bitterness that are a residual of trauma and attack. We’ve seen hatred and misdirected bigotry shown to Islamic houses of worship and the Arab-American population here and there. We’ve heard Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson explain that all this is the vengeance of God being visited upon us for our condoning of abortion and Gay rights. We’re seeing some frightening calls for vengeance and unbridled military retaliation that could have catastrophic consequence for the whole world unless it is appropriately restrained.

I think one of the most invidious effects of such a trauma as this attack is the assault on our values that we all immediately feel. We try to live decently and honorably, most of us, most of the time. We try to live and let live, organize our lives around core values of faith and hope and love, try to teach our children respect for life, a sense of fairness, and toleration of differences in other people. And then, suddenly, an assault of outrageous proportions, involving the death of thousands, is committed against one’s nation, committed against innocent civilians, men and women and children indiscriminately, whoever happened to be in those planes and in those buildings. And it is an assault on everything we value.

I don’t know if there is even a word for such a thing—except evil —I call it an "Anti-Value." In the pain and anger and fear that rise up in us, suddenly all that which we normally hold sacred and holy, is seemingly disjointed and displaced. That is what brought people instinctively to church this week, that is why we pulled our children closer to us, because in such a time of assault we need to hold even tighter to those higher values that define us as human beings and that define our culture as civilized.

I’ve thought so hard about what I might possibly have to say to you this morning, this congregation of worldly-wise, educated, highly principled people. When I was a theological student at the University of Chicago, I once heard an old rabbi define preaching this way: he said that the task of preaching is to touch people where they hurt, to give the hurt a name, and to point the way toward healing.

It’s a great definition, but what an awesome challenge I have always found it to be. He did not tell us what I would later come to discover on my own as a pastor: that every preacher begins by touching his or her own hurt, giving it a name, and groping for a direction of healing.

If our hearts hurt this week, if we find ourselves weeping for our children, for the children of all the places of pain in the world—for the children of Afghanistan, the children of the Middle East, for children everywhere—we weep because it comes home to us that we have not learned after all these centuries, we have not learned yet how to live without killing, without hatred, without cruelty. We weep because on this tiny planet, we all live by the waters of Babylon.

Renew our covenant, dear friends, to be a church of strong values in the days ahead. We will have occasion to disagree in our politics, as in our theology. We will be tempted to cynicism, and our reserves of hope and faith will at times run low as more grief and anguish are visited on our people. We must commit to being a church for these times. We must minister to each other even as we may disagree on the right pathways to a peaceful world.

As we bring with us to this place of worship our heartfelt concerns and passions, we must recommit to listening to one another here in a way that the world does not always encourage. We must never fear to touch each other where we hurt; to give our hurt a name, and walk together, lean on each other, guide each other in the directions of healing. We must teach each other in these times, and learn from each other, how the great puzzle of world peace can be re-assembled.

I am grateful beyond words this week that I have this religious community to ground me in such times. It is precisely in your varied faces that I find again for myself the sources of faith and hope and love in a weary world. Fern and I will be here if anyone wants to drop by church for a visit or feels a need to talk anytime. And my number’s in the book anytime, as well. May peace be with us all again soon.


Sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church Wilmington, DE, on September 16, 2001.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Patrick O'Neill is minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, New York.

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