Good morning, everyone. My thanks to Jim Johnson for that kind introduction, and for his friendship and support over the years. Jim and I were in college and law school together, and we were young prosecutors together, albeit in different offices, so I know that his commitment to public service and to this city runs deep. I also want to thank Pastor Adriene Thorne for her kind invitation to me and my team as well as her gracious hospitality throughout the planning for this visit. Thank you also for your outstanding stewardship of this storied church and your tremendous leadership of this inspiring community of faith.
Let me also acknowledge and thank the members of the New York Police and Fire Departments who are with us here today. We are grateful for all that you do each and every day to keep us safe, and we pray for the members of your community who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty on September 11th. And for you and your colleagues who continue in their path of service. And finally, let me thank all of you for welcoming me to First Presbyterian on this beautiful morning. What a pleasure and a blessing it is to be back in First Church. Being here on this special day – special for so many reasons – makes it even more significant to me. When I was considering how to commemorate this solemn anniversary, which fell on a Sunday, I knew I wanted to be in church, with a community of faith. I knew I wanted to be here. I began attending First Church shortly after 9/11. I certainly knew of First Church prior to that. I worked with Reverend Paul [Smith] on a committee. My friends Jim Johnson and Tanya Hill both attended and spoke highly of the warmth to be found here. I began attending after 9/11 because I was looking for the comfort and support of a community of faith.
Where were you on 9/11? That has become the question of our generation – much as our parents asked, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” On that fateful day, time stood still as we watched the tragedy unfold, as if it were frozen. But time never really does stand still. In fact, the events of 9/11, the meaning of 9/11, is best characterized by the actions we took. We need look no further than the actions of our first responders – our police department and our fire department – to see the essence of service, bravery and sacrifice. We saw ranks of brave police officers and firefighters run towards burning buildings – living examples of Scripture’s teaching that “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I am so grateful that the commemorations of this weekend and of today give me the opportunity to say what has been in my heart every day since 9/11, as a New Yorker, as an American, as the Attorney General of the United States: Thank you.
9/11 spurred other actions as well. We saw sympathy and support flow to the United States from around the country and around the world – in food drives, at blood banks, in caravans of volunteers coming from all over to lend their hearts and hands to a broken city. And we saw this church open its doors to the crowds streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge, giving them a place to mourn, to pray, to weep, and to rest. In these and in so many other ways, we were reminded that while “weeping may endure for a night” – and we had so many dark and painful nights – “joy cometh in the morning.” Even in the midst of sorrow, there is hope.
And so it is today. This morning, we gather to remember and to reflect. We call to mind all those who were taken from us on 9/11. We mourn their loss, and we pray for their redemption. But at the same time, we must also look forward – in hope and in joy – to the legacy of those we lost. Yesterday I was privileged to attend the memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the firefighters lost on 9/11 and to illness thereafter. As you would imagine, it was a tremendously moving service, especially when the family members of the fallen spoke. One of the clergy recounted a particularly moving story, however, about a young firefighter who had written a will, never expecting it would be read so soon. His possessions were few, and so he wrote, “To my family and friends, all I ask is that you use my years.” What a bequest. What a gift. What a legacy. And when we look around we see how we have indeed used a portion of his years. We have rebuilt Ground Zero and this city. We have used this tragedy to strengthen ourselves, both our defenses and our resolve. And we have committed ourselves to hold fast to the ideals that define us – ideals of justice and equality, of compassion and love. There is of course more to do to create the beloved community that was envisioned by Dr. King, and that would truly honor our fallen heroes. And even though that community may seem far away at times, it is being created. It is being created when we gather for days of service. It is being created when we act to protect the weak from the strong. And it is being created when we reach out to the vulnerable, the lost and the disillusioned.
But if you need proof of the brighter future that is coming into view, then look no further than this sacred space. Look at the students we bless today, who approach that future with excitement and imagination. Look at their teachers, whom we also bless, and who will inspire our children to make contributions that we can only dream of. And look at the newest member of this vibrant community, baby Rowan, whose instinctive joy and unconditional love remind us that life is always being created anew.
My friends, these children inspire us with hope. But more importantly, they call us to action, reminding us of our responsibility to leave them a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just than the one we inherited. “…all I ask is that you use my years.” So as we honor our loss let us also look forward – and use the years bequeathed to us by our fallen heroes and gifted to us by a loving God to continue to create the better world our children deserve. Let us leave them the example not only of our words, but of our deeds – not just of our faith, but of our works. And let us urge them to seek truth, to love justice, and to work for peace.
Where were you on 9/11? Our hearts will always answer that question. So let me pose another – where are you today? How have you used your years?
First Church, thank you for your time today as well as for opening your arms to me and so many others 15 years ago. And thank you not just for sheltering us all during the nights of our weeping but also for standing with us in the morning of our joy.
May God bless those we lost on September 11, 2001. May He give us the strength and wisdom to use their years to continue their legacy of love and sacrifice. And may He continue to bless the United States of America.