On the 10th anniversary of September 11 Sunday morning, some 120 million Americans will be sitting in church pews.
Waiting nearby in half a million pulpits will be much of the nation's clergy, sermons in hand.
The question is, What will they preach?
This Sunday's sermon has been a hot topic for pastors across the country for months. Barbara Brown Taylor, a critically-acclaimed Episcopal preacher and Islam professor at Piedmont College, has become a go-to for sermon counsel. "I would focus on wisdom gained. I would try to think about what we have learned over these 10 years," she says of the anniversary Sunday. "What we have learned about our religious neighbors, what we have learned about ourselves, and what does our tradition teach us about how to go forward?"
This week's lectionary lineup offers powerful passages for reflection along these lines. Biblical texts for scheduled for this Sunday include Moses leading the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, Joseph forgiving his brothers who sold him to slavery, and Jesus requiring forgiveness seventy times seven times, a Biblical metaphor for continual grace. Some of the most famous words in the Psalms are also on tap: "The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" (Psalm 103). While not all Christian traditions follow the lectionary guide, many mainline Protestant churches will worship united around passages that have provided hope since they were penned several thousand years ago.
Denominational leaders are also reaching out to their pastors to help guide their words. As a guiding principle for Sunday, Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, asks pastors to consider, "Have we become more effective reconcilers as a result? Are we more committed to peace-making?" Rev. James H. Cooper at Trinity Wall Street Church in Lower Manhattan challenges that the day should be about preaching forgiveness instead of solely remembering pain. "The horrific nature of the attacks had their counterpart that day in the messages that were spoken person to person, prayed, and heard by God," he advised on the church's website. Groups like Textweek and Congregational Resource Guide have provided online resources like prayer and hymn suggestions, including "O God, Our Hearts Were Shattered," an interfaith hymn written for the anniversary Sunday.
In the back of many preachers' minds lingers the painful reality that a tiny minority of Christians proclaimed not reconciliation but planned Quran burnings and mosque relocation wars. "There are many things a preacher could do wrong this Sunday," cautions Taylor. "I would speak from and to the congregation in front of me." She suggests pastors specifically consider, questions such as, How was this congregation, this city, this town was affected by 9/11? How did the church respond at the time? What initiatives have they undertaken since? How can my message serve this community's story?
St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City is doing just that by asking people to submit their own 9/11 remembrances online. These can then be used to provide specific pastoral care and to strengthen the church's community. In the Cathedral's attic, a tangible reminder of the day still stands untouched: four firefighters who died on 9/11 had signed their names into its walls and windows.
On the whole, this decade has brought Christian efforts to better understand other religions, especially Islam. Even seemingly small phrases matter. Ten years ago, many preachers referred foremost to the 'Judeo-Christian' tradition. Today many pastors, like Taylor, use the term 'Abrahamic' traditions to include Muslim brothers and sisters, who also descend from Judaism's and Christianity's Father Abraham.
How sermons go this Sunday may shed light on how far churches have come. "Churches were spilling over on the weekend after 9/11. Preachers looked out on congregations larger than they had been in a decade, or multiple decades," Taylor notes. "The 10-year anniversary is a chance to look again and to reflect on whether the church has been able to give people any practical help on living in a changed global reality."