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Can I get an amen?

What to preach about 9/11 this year

Some Christian pastors have emailed me that they are worried about what to preach this year on the Sunday that follows 9/11. One pastor wrote me that "people in the pews" are "really emotional right now" and that touching on the subject of 9/11, to say nothing of the controversy about the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, he thought, is just "too hot to handle" from the pulpit. Others have expressed doubt they can do much to help bridge these emerging divides.

This is bad ministry. If the people in the pews are torn up emotionally about an issue, isn't that exactly the issue the preacher needs to address? It is pastorally irresponsible to take the attitude, "Well, we really don't want to get into that, do we?" Bridging emotional divides is difficult, but that is no excuse not to try.

Some pastors, as well as rabbis and imams, are not ducking these controversial issues this weekend and are taking different approaches. A popular theme, and one that I have taken for a 9/11 preaching theme, is why Christians should not let fear dominate their lives. There is plenty of fear to go around, of course. In the face of fear mongering about Islam as a "terrorist religion," a threatened Quran burning by the "Dove World Outreach Center" with their right wing pastor who calls Islam a "religion of the devil," and demonstrations at the prospective Islamic Center site, there's plenty of fear and anger.

Fear isn't faithful

My sermon, "Perfect Love Casts out Fear," (at left) is based on the letter of First John, chapter 4, verse 18. "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." In this sermon I say, "The Christian message about 9/11 is clear. We can't let fear take over our lives. It's not faithful."

Being afraid all the time is about punishment, not love. The King James Version makes it even clearer, "Fear has torment." Wow. Torment comes from really painful punishment. When you are afraid you are in torment, you're in pain, you're suffering--you have trouble trusting others, and finally that fear can grow so big it can push you away from trusting God. The good news in the Bible is that there is a way out. It is not the way of fear, and hate and violence; it is the way of love.

Not being afraid, but having the courage to love is a frequent biblical theme. Alice Hunt, my successor as President of Chicago Theological Seminary, is preaching Second Timothy, chapter 1, verse 7 at our opening chapel service - the Wednesday before 9/11. "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."

Jewish leaders preach peace and pray with their feet

A group of Jewish educators have put together preaching resources for September 11 this year and they are encouraging their fellow Jews "to use this season of turning to reflect on our own fears and prejudices, on ways we might educate ourselves about Islam, and the role we might play in helping to create a more inclusive and just society." These Jewish educators recommend starting with the website of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement with its growing number of resources.

Preaching and teaching should be related to action, or, as the great Jewish peace activist and educator, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as they were marching side-by-side in Selma, Alabama, "When I march in Selma, my feet are praying." Hebrew Union Seminarians have already rallied on August 31 in support of religious freedom and pluralism and walked with great ceremony to Park 51(proposed Islamic Center site in lower Manhattan). On Sunday, September 12, an interfaith group is holding "The Liberty Walk: Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom" march, starting at St. Peter's Church in Manhattan and ending at Park 51.

Interfaith Christian preaching

A woman pastor from Virginia is emphasizing the interfaith work. She suggests preaching in Christian churches on 9/12 could be helpfully done by using the biblical text where Jesus debates with a Gentile woman from Syrophoenicia, that is, a non-Jew and a person of a different race, about who can receive God's blessing. (Mark 7:24-30). This woman, of a different race and a different religion, wants Jesus to heal her little daughter. At first, Jesus refuses, emphasizing his mission to the Jews. But the woman debates with Jesus, arguing that at least she could have the "crumbs" that fall from the table. When she makes this point, Jesus relents and heals her daughter.

Many scholars of religion interpret this text as reflecting the debate between the churches that were Jewish in origin, and those that were Gentile. Clearly, the author of Mark is interested in showing that God's love and care is universal, not confined to one race or religion.

The Quran is "ever preserved with God"

What should Muslims do when Christians threaten to burn copies of their holy text? I thought I would include a link and a short summary of a Muslim sermon delivered at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Dr. Maher Hathout preached about the proposed National Burn the Quran Day, and he asked the important philosophical question, "Can They Burn the Quran?" Dr. Hathout uses texts from the Quran to remind his congregation that the physical document of paper and ink is not vulnerable because the Quran "is ever preserved with God." There will always be people with "hate-filled" agendas, he preaches, but this should not distract sincere believers from the good work they should do on this earth. This is a sermon of sanity, courage and deep spiritual insight.

Can I get an amen?

This year, some may use the 9/11 anniversary as an occasion to promote fear and hate. But they will not have the last word. Christians, Muslims and Jews are coming together, and working with their own faith communities to stand against fear and hate, and stand for the universal religious value of love of God and neighbor. Is there any better way to honor the victims of the attacks of 9/11 and comfort and support their families? Can I get an amen?

This article was originally posted on The Washington Post On Faith Blog on September 5, 2010. The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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