The Gospel According to Springsteen

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Today is a day to remember.  It seems hardly possible that 21 years ago on a beautiful morning in early fall that such tragedy unfolded across our nation.  Those of us who are old enough will count this memory among the few of which we recall where we were when we heard this awful news.  On that morning in 2001, 2,976 people from 93 nations lost their lives in New York, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93. And in the days that followed, many across our nation were glued to their tvs waiting and watching, deeply unsure if more attacks would come, not sure how many had lost their lives.  Our hearts grieved for the families who knew their loved ones had surely died and our hearts ached for those who waited, hoping against hope that maybe their husband or wife, partner or child, brother or sister, would be among the few lucky ones who had survived and just had been unable to reach them in the chaos that followed that day.  I know several people who lost someone that morning, one on the plane from Boston and two who worked in the World Trade Center.  Their families went every day to check the wall of pictures to look for any hopeful news: they donated blood and they baked cookies for the first responders and they wept. 

Many young parents began to absorb the fact that they would be parenting alone into the future.  How would they speak of this unspeakable evil to their children?  It’s been twenty-years and a great deal has happened since that time, but it is important to remember, to grieve and to pray for the many families who lost precious friends and loved ones that day.  O God of comfort and mercy, we stand here this day as people of faith, remembering the senseless losses of that day, grateful for all who worked heroically to search for the few who survived and the many whose remains were never found, and we pray that hatred and fear will not have the last word on this planet or in our lives. Amen.

          I have spoken more than once about my love for the music of Bruce Springsteen.  His music has surely been the soundtrack of my life, dating back to the early days when I was in high school and he was beginning to make a name for himself.  He often wrote about working- class folks struggling for meaning in their daily lives and despite the fact that I was raised in a fairly middle-class neighborhood, his music spoke to me and to many of my friends at that time.  Is it fun?  Yes, is it inspiring, yes?  Great lyrics and vocals, absolutely! But more than anything, what has appealed to me over these past 4 plus decades is his effort to capture through music and lyrics the stories of regular hard working folks in our country and their hopes, their dreams, their struggles, and yes their deep and abiding faith.  Many of his songs are explicitly religious; he himself was raised as a Catholic in a tight knit Italian neighborhood in New Jersey.  His father struggled terribly with depression and his mother worked full time to support the family. He was surrounded by loving extended family and went to church each week.  All of this has greatly influenced his own spiritual journey and his music, his art.

          In 2001 and in the early days following the attacks, Bruce Springsteen would read the many obituaries which took up pages in the New York Times.  Again and again, he would read of the lives of these often young professionals who died out of time as many of the families referenced spoke about their love for the music of Springsteen in the Obits.  He began to call some of these families and to talk with them, to express his sympathy, to listen to their pain.  It touched him deeply. 

          One day, he was out walking on the boardwalk in Asbury Park near his home and someone called out to him, yelling, “Hey, Bruce, we need you now more than ever” and in that he heard an invitation.  Like many artists, poets, and musicians, Springsteen takes seriously his craft and the need to communicate something personal and important through his music to respond to the events of his time. And so, he went home and began to write.  Within months, he had written an album that would attempt to communicate the sorrow, emptiness, fear and hope of the aftermath of 9/11 and that album would be titled, The Rising. 

          I won’t take you through each of the songs, but I’d like to speak about the title track, The Rising.  It is a tribute to all of the firefighters and other first responders who lost their lives that day.  The title evokes both their rising as they made their way up the stairways trying to rescue as many people as they could from the upper stories of the World Trade Centers and it also is about their beautiful spirits rising to heaven to go home to God.  When the song has been played at concerts, everyone stands up to show respect for all who died that day. 

          In the song, we hear these lyrics, ‘wearing the cross of their calling” as Springsteen refers to the firefighters who wear the insignia of the maltese cross on their uniforms, including  a dearly loved Franciscan priest who served along with them.  Rev.  Mychal Judge served as a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department and he was among the first to lose his life that day. As  writer Anne Gardner described him in her article, he was “Impish and gregarious, he left few immune to his magnetic charism. With quintessential Irish swagger, his mere presence filled every room he entered. He was the very definition of larger than life.  That morning, as word spread of the explosions, he rushed to the scene, eager to support his NYFD congregation. After learning people were trapped in the wreckage, Mychal made a beeline for the north tower. Mychal was killed during the collapse of the south tower and subsequently classified as “Victim 0001,” a fateful first in a day mired in tragedy.  One of the powerful photos of that day appeared in the New York Times which captured the retrieval of Mychal’s body from the building. Carried out by the very men he served, this image is akin to a modern-day Pietà. A corpse cradled tenderly in the arms of those who loved him.”

We know that in the years that have followed many who worked on the pile at the World Trade Center have died of cancers that were likely caused by the toxins in the air from the collapse of the buildings.  So as the years have gone by, more families have carried the grief of this day.  As Gardner said, “Even broken hearts keep beating.

So, let us mourn the dead. Let us grieve our loss. But let us also remember, on that same day, heroes were born. Ordinary men and women, just like those who frantically rushed into the towers to try and save Mychal, emerged as shining examples of bravery and grace. They put themselves at risk for one reason and one reason only — someone else. A blessing never to be forgotten.  For Fr. Judge, his sacrifice was rooted in his Christian vocation. Fr. Michyal Judge remains a beacon for all, not only for his heroism, not only for his instinctual response, but for the faith that inspired him. He was a priest until the very end.”

(NCR, Anne Gardner, Sept 8, 2021)

“It’s been 20 years since the towers fell. Twenty years since the walls of the Pentagon shook. Twenty years since a handful of courageous souls wrestled an airplane to the ground in the fields of Pennsylvania.”

          Springsteen has spoken over the years about the ways in which his own spiritual journey, his Catholic upbringing, has impacted his life as well as his music.  He often uses biblical language and other explicitly spiritual imagery in his music, and to attend one of his concerts is to feel like you are at an old fashioned church revival.  His music attempts to communicate the stories of regular folks, men and women, struggling with the daily grind as well as the big questions in life.  And, fairly often, he uses the kind of language that we hear on the album The Rising.  He sings, “Rise up, Come on Rise up”… and in My City of Ruins, which Michelle sang today, we hear “With these hands, I pray for the strength Lord, with these hands, I pray for the faith Lord,

          When I saw his show on Broadway three summers ago, he told the story of his life through his music and by narrating some of  the important moments he has lived through, the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows.  At the end of the performance, he spoke about always finding his way back home, finding his way back to the things that have sustained him and guided him, and then he invited the audience to join him in praying The Lord’s Prayer. 

          Like many artists, Bruce Springsteen cares deeply about the world and has sought to communicate through his music a message of hope and of love, a message of healing and peace, inspired by his own faith journey and his values.  His words from the Rising have echoed over these past 21 years to us this morning in a time that has also had its own share of grief and suffering.  With Bruce, we may sing together,

With these hands, I pray Lord  I pray for the strength, Lord

With these hands I pray for your love, Lord

With these hands, I pray for the lost Lord, I pray for the faith, Lord

With these hands I pray for your love, Lord, Come On Rise Up

Amen.