Preaching on a day that has a strong personal meaning can be a challenge. But the tools of faith help us to “get out of ourselves” to God’s message.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” ~ Luke 15:4
About a month ago, my pastor reminded me that I had not one but two preaching Sundays coming up. One I knew about, the other was not on my calendar – September 11th. I made a note of it immediately, and realized that it would be the first time that I would be preaching on this widely remembered day. I have a sermon ready for it, but it didn’t turn out to be the sort of sermon that I thought that it would be. At all. I probably could not count the number of sermons that I have written in my head about that day fifteen years ago, and this one will not be any of those sermons.
You see, I was to have been on the 106th floor of One World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. A strange twist of fate changed that just a few days after I had made plans to be there with a good friend. My friends and colleagues were there, and they are gone, now. That is the very short version of the story, to be sure. But today, it is enough. If there is anything that I have learned in the fifteen years since that day, it is that things that affect us personally on a very deep level tend to draw us to God’s plans for the answers. And those plans, even when I don’t like them, are always enough.
What I could have been preaching about 9/11
I could have been preaching about my experiences fifteen years ago, and not just about that day. I was crossing Liberty Street on February 26th, 1993. approaching 2 World Trade Center, when a car bomb exploded two hundred feet away in the garage directly under me. The echoes of the explosion made it sound like the offices at World Financial Center had been bombed. I went racing to 1 WTC to get to World Fi to help people I knew there, only to find its lobby filled with choking smoke.
I prayed often near this site for many years, waiting with millions of others for the memorial site to open. The National September 11th Memorial honors the fallen of both days. It is a place of remembrance, healing, and an invitation to new beginnings. I also got a deeper faith life – and became a member of a Christian community. The unfathomable impact of these events brought me to a God who is unfathomable in mercy, love, grace, and peace, and the people who could help me to grow in that grace. Eventually they led me to where I am today, preparing for ordained ministries.
What others are preaching about 9/11
Fifteen years later, it seems that people are using this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to put them into a more honest and encompassing perspective. One such person spoke at Yale Divnity School‘s chapel service this morning, which featured a beautiful and somber performance by a choir from Cambridge University. Professor Janet Ruffing‘s sermon focused on how the United States woke up on 9/11 to a suffering world that had been largely ignored and exploited by America’s dominant power and wealth. Our sense of losing our safety that day as a nation was paralleled by a world awaiting us to become more aware of how much safety and comfort they were lacking.
I agree with much of the essence of Professor Ruffing’s message, and I am very thankful for it. However, I must also acknowledge that the sword of condemnation can cut both ways. My experiences since 9/11 have drawn me very close to many people who are suffering around the world and in the United States. Unquestionably there is a lack of peace and justice in the world, and the church must play an important role in drawing people towards seeing the whole world as “our neighbors.” But I am also very aware that condemning any group or individual as the source of evil risks putting the church into the condemnation business, rather than the redemption business.
What I was led to preach about 9/11
You see, I believe strongly that it’s much more important to be righteous than right. My strong personality makes that hard for me to do at times, but God helps me to move in that direction, a day at a time. I could be completely right about something, even right about 9/11 – but my “rightness” will not draw people closer to God in Christ. This is why I try to preach from the scriptures assigned to a given day in our church’s lectionary calendar. If I have a strong idea about what I want to say to a congregation in a sermon, perhaps my idea is more about my own thoughts than God’s thoughts.
There were two passages from this week’s lectionary that seemed to go together – Luke’s story about the shepherd rescuing the lost sheep, and 1 Timothy 1:12-17. To be honest, 1 Timothy isn’t one of my favorite epistles – and the Lost Sheep parable seemed to be pretty obvious. I studied these passages, and prayed over them. Finally, as you’ll discover in my sermon this Sunday, God made it very clear to me how these passages were related. My first concern is for my congregation, and for their growth in spirit and in strength. I realized that they needed a message for their own sake, not one that I wanted to say for my sake.
What we all need to remember about 9/11
9/11 has affected millions of people around the world – billions, really. The message and the importance of that day should not be forgotten. Yet we have been given many messages throughout history that were meant to teach us things through faith. In my generation, we had the Vietnam War teaching us lessons. In my parents’ generation, World War II taught the world many lessons. In my grandparents’ generation, World War I taught the world many lessons. And so on. As much as America may lapse sometimes into a sense of uniqueness in assessing our place in history, in truth the whole world does. We can all lose track of who we are in the world, and for the world, so easily, as we go about our lives.
This is why a vibrant faith is so important. It can be hard for us to understand the depth of the wounds that we carry, and our ability to heal takes time, patience, and a lot of loving support. God provides this in abundance for those who are ready to receive it – and even for those who may not be ready at all. As we go through our lectionary reading cycle, year after year, we are not the same people who heard a passage the last time that we read it or heard a sermon about it. The world changes, we change – but the gospel of redemption and discipleship is always ready for us. We need to listen to smart, loving, challenging voices, to be sure. But the smartest, the most loving, the most challenging voice belongs to God. May your memories be blessed this Sunday.