Put God first in our lives

The following is a homily originally given by Deacon Paul Kurmay of St. Mark Parish in Stratford on the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 11-12, 2021

Just about anyone over the age of 30 remembers where they were and what they were doing when terrorists struck the twin towers on September 11, 2001, which we now refer to simply and solemnly as 9/11. I had just left church after Mass and arrived at my court only to see my staff glued to a little TV. At 8:26 AM the first plane crashed into the north tower. We all thought it was a terrible accident but 15 minutes later when the second plane struck, we knew that it was a suicide attack. Who can ever forget the nightmare played and re-played a hundred times on every TV channel? Those horrible images are forever engraved in our memories. By 10:30, nearly 3000 men, women and children—from 90 different countries—perished, all slaughtered by 19 Islamic terrorists. This wasn’t an attack just on America. It was an attack on the entire free world. It was an attack on every single religion, including Islam itself. It represented the temporary triumph of evil over good. As President Franklin Roosevelt said of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was a day that shall forever live in infamy. And so it does.

Twenty years later, America relives that horrible day with solemn prayer services and a host of various civic events. With the tolling of a bell, we mourn the loss of every single victim. Families shed a tear for those lost, and we all pray to God that such a thing never happens again.

The dying didn’t end on 9/11. In a way, it just began. Since then more New Yorkers have lost their lives to illnesses caused by the cloud of pollutants hanging over the City than all those lost in the carnage itself. Who can ever forget the scene of 4 firefighters carrying the lifeless body of their chaplain, Father Michel Judge, over a mountain of smoldering debris? He had courageously rushed into the inferno, blessing firefighters and hearing their last confessions. Three hundred and forty-three firefighters sacrificed their lives that day, and Fr. Judge made sure all of them made it safely home to heaven. They were all martyrs.

What have we done since then to avoid its recurrence? We invaded Afghanistan and drove out the Taliban, only to see them march triumphantly into Kabul 20 years later. We killed Osama bin Laden, only to have others take his place. We replaced the twin towers with a 1776 foot tall Freedom Tower, as a symbol of America’s enduring power and strength. But what did we do for the scarred soul of America? Did we realize the depth of its wounds or ask God to give it new life? I’m afraid not.

I remember when the churches were full for the next several weeks—until they weren’t, when America returned to business as usual. Church attendance plummeted while secularism and atheism soared. Most professed a loose belief in God, but acted as if He didn’t exist at all. However, a faithful remnant remained. We are part of that remnant. America seems to have placed all of its hope in our military and security forces, while losing confidence in every other institutional structure, including religion itself. Belief in the Golden Rule has often yielded to selfish cynicism, name calling and egotistical individualism on a massive scale. We no longer have debates. We have shouting matches. It’s not always the best idea which prevails, but the loudest voice. We no longer welcome and support immigrants. We often denigrate and demonize them. In a word, we have failed to humble ourselves before God. We no longer see ourselves as brothers and sisters of the same Father, but as strangers and aliens looking out for ourselves first. And yet, we expect God to protect us from all harm. The prophets of old warned Israel of the very same folly over and over again and we all know that Israel paid a dear price for its abandonment of God.

But all is not lost. It is not too late to turn back to Him. He has never abandoned us or our Nation. Some wonder where He was on 9/11.  He was in the offices and stairwells of each tower. He was in the seats of each plane. He was in the hearts of the first responders who sacrificed their lives for so many others. He was with each and every victim that day, offering comfort and consolation to them and their families. He was where He always is: with His people, suffering with them and offering them hope.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus told us that whoever wishes to save his life by relying upon the forces of the world will lose it, but whoever offers his and her life to God and the Gospel will save it. He gives us a clear choice: serve either the world or the Gospel. He gives the same choice to every nation on earth, including our own.

There are signs that we may be doing just that. Since 2009, 9/11 isn’t just a commemoration of that horrible day; it has become a nationwide day of service. Americans from every corner of life, from every town and village, city and borough, are doing something to serve those in need. Millions of volunteers are feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, serving the poor and attempting to live the Golden Rule in very pragmatic and concrete ways. Without doubt, God is blessing those efforts and will continue to do so.

Only one thing remains to be done: for every single American to put God first in their lives, in whatever religion they honor Him. If we do, God will most certainly protect our Nation and prosper it in every way. That was the history of Israel and that will become ours as well. The choice is ours. America will only become great again, not by military might or political bravado, but by putting God first in our lives and giving Him the honor that He deserves.