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What Do We Need To Dust Off?

Sermon preached by the rev. Daniel Paul Matthews, D.D., rector of the parish of Trinity Church, Wall Street.

Dust. Dust. Everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, dust, dust. Everything covered in dust. Unbelievable. We couldn't imagine how the whole of south Manhattan Island could become covered in dust.

It wasn't long before we began saying, what should we dust off first? What should be the priority in getting rid of some of the dust? And we decided the first thing was the pews. So people could come in and sit down and rest and pray and reflect and receive some counseling.

What next?

Well, what about the prayer books? People need to pick up the prayer books and look at them and find the prayer that speaks to them at this moment. Dust! Dust the prayer books.

What next?

The votive candles. Of course. There will be people coming in who will want to light a candle for someone who has died or someone who is missing. Dust, dust the votive candles.

And we're still dusting.

But the dust did not just fall in the southern tip of Manhattan. The dust fell all over the whole world on September the 11th. Not one inch of this earth is without dust. Little villages all over the world, people, religious groups, faiths of all traditions, nations -- everybody is covered with the dust of the World Trade Center. None is without dust.

Of course, they're saying the same thing we said: What do we dust off first? What do we need right now? What's most important to us? What do we need to use immediately?

And what's secondary. And what's not very important?

Not only are we saying that in this city, it is being said around the world. Because the world has changed. Values are beginning to be different. People are saying what do we need to dust off and what do we need to keep? You and I are saying the same thing. What about your life? What about my life? What about our lives? What is important to dust off, right now, to preserve and keep and use? And what seems superficial and empty?

Oh yes. We're all asking these questions.

Have you ever been in an antique store? They're fun places to visit. You walk in and see all this stuff from bygone times, things that are old fashioned. And then maybe if you're interested enough, the owner says, “If you'd really like to see a lot of things, out in the back is a big barn, would you like to go in?” And you say, “Sure, I'd like to see your barn of antiques.”

So he wanders out behind the shop, unlocks the big padlock, and opens the doors. He begins turning on all the lights and the place is full of things from bygone eras, all covered with dust.

You say to yourself, “I wonder if anybody's been in here in years? Look at everything, so covered in dust that you can hardly tell what it is.” You can't tell one thing from another. You begin to wander through and try to discern what you are seeing.

You come across a table that has something on it and you say, “That looks like what my grandfather used to use. I haven’t seen one since he died.” You pick it up, reach in your pocket, pull out your handkerchief and you begin to dust it off. As you dust, you realize that it is exactly what your grandfather had in his house. “You smile and say, “No matter what it costs, I'm going to buy it, because it reminds me of him, and bespeaks my traditions and who I really am and who my grandfather was.” As you leave the barn, you look around and say, “Such a treasure among so much junk.”

That's what some of us feel like, isn't it? What are our treasures? What are those things that really matter? Some of them are covered with dust and we’re trying to dust and polish them because they are valuable treasures. These treasures are not things, some of them are people, some of them are ideas, and some of them are beliefs.

We are a people eager to find out what matters and what doesn't. What's true and what's false? The value systems we hold are being adjusted.

In the midst of this crisis, the President called for prayers and ringing of bells at noon on Friday, September 14. I got hold of Jim Doran and Mike Borrero, the two engineers who maintain Trinity and St. Paul’s, and asked if they could ring the bells. Mike said, "Dr. Matthews, I'm sorry, we can't possibly do that. You can't imagine what it's like down here.”

About an hour later, Mike was on the phone and said, "Guess what? We got in the church, I crawled up the bell tower, I picked up an iron bar and beat the hell out of the bell. And when I got back down, they told me that all the police officers, the firemen and the volunteers heard that bell, took their hats off in silence, and stood, as if to say, "The Lord God reigns even in this hell."

The Lord God does reign. God willing, we'll ring the bell at St. Paul’s at 12 o'clock every day as long as we exist, remembering to announce that to the world.

At times like this, a bell becomes more than just a bell; it becomes a sacrament. In a moment we'll have bread and a little wine. Simple. It's not just bread and wine, it's a sacrament saying God loves me and God loves you, and God gave Himself to you and to me.

We'll never forget the voice of the man speaking to his wife from that doomed plane over Pennsylvania, words that you and I need to dust off and say more often: I love you, I love you, I love you. We know that nothing's more profound for that widow, and nothing is more profound for you and me, than to know that God loves us, and that we love each other.

I have my own symbol, my sacrament.

When that smoke was so thick and we thought we were going to die -- we all admit it now -- someone handed me a mask. I can't tell you what a treasure it was. I've worn it every day when I've been near Ground Zero. I'm going to save it because it means life to me. A little, inexpensive mask. Lots of simple things are meaning a lot more to you and to me than they ever have before. Maybe someday my grandchild will find it and say, “My grandfather wore this and it saved his life, back in 2001.”

Providence has a way with us at a time like this. I want to read the Collect for today. It's such a powerful Collect for this particular moment. I hope you’ll make a copy of it and put it on your refrigerator and say it every time you grab that refrigerator door. Listen to how profoundly prophetic and appropriate these words are for you and for me.

Grant us lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to that which shall endure; through Jesus Christ Our Lord, let us say together: Amen.

This sermon was delivered during a Parish Eucharist held in the Trinity congregation’s temporary place of worship at the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Seton, State Street, Manhattan, September 23, 2001. Trinity’s church building was inaccessible, in the “red zone” controlled by emergency management authorities. The text has been slightly amended for print publication purposes.

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