Preaching the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I’ll be preaching this September 11th, the tenth anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Washington DC. I have been involved in the recovery work from those attacks since that date, working as a chaplain in the World Trade Center recovery, and more recently guiding tours of the World Trade Center site for the Tribute Center.

This means that I know a lot about those events. They have been part of my life. They deeply affected me and many people I know. It also means I feel the need to do some extra work to think this one through, to put my feelings and experience in service of proclaiming good news.

Beginning that work, there are a couple of thoughts that may be helpful to other preachers and speakers who will grapple with what to say.

Unique Memories

One of the features of 9/11 for the preacher is that most of your audience will know what you are talking about. As one of the signature moments in cultural history, people remember where they were when they heard the news. Certain images replay in people’s heads. Many people have their own 9/11 story.

September 11, 2001 is also closely linked to other events and themes: war in Afghanistan and Iraq, fear of others (especially Muslims), the desire for security, sacrifice, retribution and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. People remember 9/11 each time they take their shoes off in an airport or see an old movie with the World Trade Center towers in the background.

Many of these experiences have strong emotions attached to them: grief, helplessness, anger, desire for vengeance, fear, courage, pride, hope, love...

Whether it directly becomes part of the sermon, it will be good to listen for some of those stories and feelings in the preaching process, including your own. Where were you on September 11th? How did it affect you? What did you feel? What did you do in response?

Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings
by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the
World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001.

Developing a Shared Memory

Virtually no one under the age of about 14 will remember the events of September 11, 2001. Most will have heard something about it, but few will have covered it in school. Like every other cultural reference (to movies released 20 years ago, to current pop culture, to Bible stories), the preacher will need to assess how much the listeners recognize and understand the referent. You’ll need to make some decisions about how and how much to describe the events, in order to support proclamation of the gospel.

This is also true even of those of listeners who remember 9/11. Those who remember 9/11 have a variety of experiences, feelings, and opinions about it. As with any big story, we will each know only fragments. One of the functions of preaching is to “gather up the broken pieces,” to contribute to a shared view of reality. In choosing what to remember, what to emphasize, what to omit, the preacher has an influential voice in shaping community memory.

1. What is the heart of the gospel? Where do you hear the good news of deliverance, of hope, of life beyond destruction?

2. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) are necessary to proclaim the gospel?

3. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) hinder the hearing of the gospel? How does God speak and act in the presence of stumbling blocks?

Brief additional thoughts

9/11 was not the first nor the last occasion of terror and the murder of innocents. America took note of this one, not only because of its magnitude, and spectacular, cinematic, media-saturated quality, but because it happened here, to us. It is important to appropriately remember this particular event, and also the 9/11s which happen daily throughout the world. The cross of Jesus Christ illumines persecution, torture, and murder everywhere.

As we see the face of Jesus, we see a human face. Since Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial, remembrances of the world's killing fields have highlighted the individual lives which make up the macro-events of history. You cannot go wrong by looking at the faces of those involved in 9/11 - the victims, the survivors, the responders, and even the perpetrators - with the light of Christ. (See the NY Time Portraits of Grief, or CNN list of 9/11 victims.)

The Appointed Texts

The texts for the day offer a lot to address this anniversary. Some brief thoughts on some of the lectionary texts for Sunday, 9/11/11.

Genesis 50:15-21 - Joseph forgives his brothers

1. “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good...” I get very uncomfortable with the notion that God somehow supports or enables evil, knowing that good will eventually be the outcome. “It's all part of God's plan” can be a facile excuse for wrongdoing and tends to diminish the experience of those wronged. I love this story – but I favor a careful telling where God’s “left hand” is patiently at work behind the scenes, continually finding ways to bring about good no matter how diligently people seek other ends. I recall how destruction is easy. 19 people and a few boxcutters brought down 4 planes and those tall towers. But millions stepped up in response. It may be occasion to point to signs of healing. And yet, there will be a tension not found in Joseph's story - he, after all, survived the ill done to him, and prospered. Those who were murdered on 9/11 are still mourned, and not all who were hurt have found the good that God intends... Come, Lord Jesus, come.

2. Joseph never uses the word “forgive.” Does he forgive his brothers? What does forgiveness look like in the real world?

Matthew 18:21-35 - How often should I forgive?

1. Forgiveness may be a matter of grace - but it usually takes work. On a good day, we might forgive once. Seven times seems very hard. Seventy-seven? Just about impossible. While this is a continuation of the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation in the preceding verses, this reading ends with a disturbing image of God as torturer. Anybody really listening will hear that, too. (Does God in the text live up to God’s own forgiveness standard?) Preaching might focus on the hell that unforgiving people make for themselves and others. By contrast, living examples of forgiveness might be lifted up, showing the burdens that are lifted when God’s generous mercy finds a home in our lives.

Some of the best resources for presenting and interpreting the stories of 9/11/01.

• St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the only church building on the WTC site, destroyed 9/11/01
• Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001
• Artist's rendition of Reflecting Absence, part of the under-construction National September 11 Memorial & Museum, image by Squared Design Lab


Anonymous said…
This was very helpful to me as I prepare to preach on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Thanks for taking the time to post these words of grace.

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