With 9/11 anniversary on a Sunday, pastors prepare their sermons
Clergy will be taking the pulipt looking to give answers to hard questions on the ten year anniversary of 9/11.
September 8th, 2011
12:42 PM ET

With 9/11 anniversary on a Sunday, pastors prepare their sermons

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - The details of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the plane crash in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, will be remembered at length this week.  What, when, how and who will dominate the headlines.   As people across the country head to churches, temples and mosques this weekend, they will once again wonder why. They will look to the pulpit and listen for an answer.

This week, clergy of all faiths are preparing answers as their congregants ask why 9/11 happened, how it should be remembered and what their response should be as they go out from their sacred space and back into the secular.

For some, there will be calls to patriotism among the prayers.  Others will shy away from country.

The remembrances cover a wide variety.  Some churches will bring care packages to first responders, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles will be packed for a prayer service Saturday, and there will be hundreds of churches simulcasting services featuring megachurch pastor Rick Warren or other famed clergy.

We spoke with clergy of many different faiths, in many different parts of the country, and asked how they were preparing and what they would tell the faithful as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 falls on a Sunday.

The Rev. Rich Smith had just arrived as the pastor of a church in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., in 2001.  His first Sunday was September 9, 2001.  On the morning of the 11th, they were planning for the next service.  "A lot of that had to go out the window," he said.

He was fortunate, he said, because no one from the church died in the attack.  A family joined later and the husband, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was at the Pentagon when the plane struck on 9/11.  "He described running as the floor was collapsing behind him," Smith said.

Smith said that 9/11 "affected the whole nine years I was there."

Today, Smith pastors the First Congregational Church in Reno, Nevada, part of the United Church of Christ.

"Even though Reno wasn't attacked, I think people feel like we as a nation were attacked. Even when you're out in the hinterlands like we are, you still feel like you're part of something bigger."

For their 9/11 services, thousands of Catholic and Protestant churches that follow the lectionary, a standardized collection of scripture readings, will be reading from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus teaches his disciples how to forgive.

Smith's church will do the same.  He said there's some providence to the timing of the passage.

As he preaches about forgiveness, he will remind his congregants of a quote from Nelson Mandela.  South Africa, he said, was a, "marvelous example of how you handle something when you feel like you've been so wronged."

"I love the phrase Mandela used, 'No future without forgiveness.' "

In New Orleans, Catholics sitting in the well-worn pews of St. Louis Cathedral  in the French Quarter will hear the same passage from Matthew and a similar theme from the Rev. Msgr. Crosby W. Kern when he steps up to the pulpit.

"Forgiveness is probably God’s plan.  We don’t forget.  We don’t let our guard down.  We as a people should be defensive to protect ourselves.  But have we got that same sense of mercy and forgiveness we see in God the Father?  Whatever our attitude is to our enemies, it’s a good time for us to reflect one that," Kern said.

He will preach to a group of congregants who faced different struggles in the past decade.  The statue of Jesus in the back of the church is still missing fingers, a scar from Hurricane Katrina; one that Kern hopes to restore this year.

"We don't forget.  We learn.  But part of the American psyche is, we are big enough to forgive.  We are big enough to try and get over the scars and the wounds that we've suffered throughout our history.  It might take a long time, but we can't give up," he said.

In the passage in Matthew, Jesus tells Peter he should forgive the person who has wronged him seven times seventy.  "In scripture for us, that's eternal.  That's the perfect number, without end.  So I'm going to take off on the forgiveness part," explained Father Adam Lee Ortega y Ortiz, Pastor of Santa Maria de la Paz Catholic Church in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

"I know people are meditating on the evil of the attack and the anger it brought about," he said.  "When we can quench the anger in our own hearts first, we can do a lot better in the world."

Chaplain Capt. Mijikai Mason, a Southern Baptist minister, will be preaching Sunday to a group of high school students at a military academy outside Columbia, South Carolina.  As a member of the Army, he has lived the response to 9/11 and the wars that followed. His audience this Sunday were toddlers at the time of the attack.

He will preach on theme of remembrance.  "Now we’re in more of a healing phase.  Now it’s more how will we remember and celebrating the lives that were lost,” he said.

Maj. Tommie Pickens, one of Mason's fellow chaplains, is being flown to Chicago to deliver the message Sunday at Addison Community Church on the west side. Pickens said the church is patriotic and loves the U.S. and its military.

He will be preaching from 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people which I call by name, humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and heal their land."

The verse refers specifically to ancient Israelites but has been interpreted throughout the ages to apply to any country at any time and is very popular with American evangelicals.

Pickens will preach about the first responders, the troops and the spirit of unity that swept the country after the attack, "and lifted the simple prayer, 'God bless America.' "

"We need to remember the cost of the human lives," he said. As congregants go out after the service, he wants them to remember to "be proud of our great nation.  Be proud we live in the land of the free because of the brave. Our nation has always exemplified resolve."

"We can stand tall even at the end of a horrible day," he will emphasize.

Days after the attacks, the Rev Billy Graham stood and delivered a sermon to the nation at Washington National Cathedral.  Ten years later, Graham is 93 and does not have the stamina to participate in any services, said his daughter Anne Graham Lotz.

His health is failing, and his daughter will be taking the pulpit this year.

Her message will focus on Isaiah Chapter 6, which pertains to when Israel was in crisis and how the prophet's life was shaken.

"When his life was shaken, he didn't say, 'why me?' and allow his life to be filled with self-pity.  He looked up," she said.

"I'm going to take that and flesh it out," Graham said.  "I think it's very appropriate that in times like this, we look up and ask God to give us a fresh glimpse of himself and a revelation of truth."  Her sermon will be in Raleigh, North Carolina, and simulcast around the world on radio and TV.

Tony Campolo will be guest pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Campolo is a professor of sociology at Eastern University, a Baptist school not far from Philadelphia.  For years, he has been a popular speaker and author, and he relishes his role as the guy who comes in to speak and gets to leave at the end of the service.  It frees him to speak what he feels God is calling him to say.

"If I anger people, I'm gone.  It's easier for me to sound the prophetic voice than someone who is there all the time," he said.

Campolo will also be preaching on Isaiah Chapter 6 but will take a different approach than Graham.

"The focus of the passage is that there is a sense that in a national crisis, each of us is called upon to stand up and be instruments of God for making things right in the world," he said.

He will also warn congregants against the radical elements in their own midst, not just in other faiths. "All religions have the tendency to create extremism, and in the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, 'Men never do evil with more enthusiasm, than when they do it in the name of God.' And we must recognize that the evil we see in the extremists in the Muslim community that brought about 9/11, is the extremism that we can find in the Jewish community and in the Christian community."

"Revenge is not the way of God's people," he will say, knowing that the memory of 9/11 can stir up old emotions and broad hatred that he says is "unbefitting of religious people."

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said that though terrorists misused the name of God to commit their atrocities, in many ways, 9/11 brought Jews and Muslims closer.

He will use his time in the pulpit to warn against cynicism the attacks may have allowed to creep in. "Al Qaeda punctured our belief in ourselves, and we need to remember to ignore them. Al Qaeda’s greatest threat is not the physical, but the attack on our belief in our own destiny; they have spread disbelief and cynicism throughout our land," he plans to say.

"This 9/11, let us remember the dead. But let us also remember the great things we have accomplished in our history and promise ourselves that despite the evil intentions of al Qaeda, we will continue to soar for greatness."

Charles Park is pastor of the nondenominational River Church in Manhattan.  They are partnering for a joint service with the Lower Manhattan Church, which was founded after the attacks by Rick Warren's Saddleback Church as a way to minister to the community nearest to ground zero.

Both churches meet blocks from ground zero, and on Sunday, Park will speak to congregants who watched what happened 10 years ago in person; congregants who brushed the toxic dust of falling buildings off their jackets and had to move on with their daily lives.

"I will be focusing on 'how to move forward from 9/11' because as one wise person said, 'Every pain that is not transformed is transmitted,'" Park said in an e-mail.

He will lean heavily on the prayer of St. Francis, "to remind the people of faith the calling from God to be a 'blessing to all peoples on Earth.' "

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 9/11 • Belief • Church

soundoff (287 Responses)
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    October 14, 2011 at 3:18 am |
  3. Muneef

    A Bedouin was asked,"How do you know your Lord?"

    The Bedouin could only reply with (The Example of) that which was before him, so he said, " Droppings tell of a Camel, Foot-Prints tell of a Traveler. The Sky, The Earth with Mountain Passes, Seas with Waves- Do they not tell of the All-Hearer, The All Seer?".

    September 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  4. TG

    The religious leaders of Christendom cannot discern why 9/11 occurred. Jesus used a Greek word, sy·ni´e·mi , concerning the "mysteries of the kingdom."(Matt 13:11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 23, 51) This Greek word literally means "to mentally put the pieces together."

    The churches and their religious leaders cannot grasp or "put the pieces together" regarding why all the wicked conditions around the world, including the one on 9/11, 2001, happened. Jesus said that only his genuine disciples would be "granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted."(Matt 13:11)

    It goes beyond the diverse differences between Muslim and the United States. Most of those attending the churches have not been taught that Satan is the ruler of the "world".(John 14:30) The apostle John wrote that "the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one."(1 John 5:19)

    Furthermore, Satan was thrown out of heaven when Jesus was installed as king in 1914, down to the earth.(Rev 12:9) As a result, he is now causing great "woes" on the earth, fomenting wars and hate, dividing "households", pitting one against the other, with nationalism on the rise.(Rev 12:12)

    Even religious leaders put their nation above other nations, meddling in the political arena, rather than following Jesus example of being "no part of the world" and it's nationalistic interests.(John 15:19) Many of the religious leaders adhere to some political agenda, voicing that their particular nation is blessed by God.

    The account at Luke 4 shows otherwise, whereby Jesus is confronted by Satan. Satan shows Jesus "all the kingdoms of the earth in an instant of time", asking Jesus to do one act of worship for control of these kingdoms, and Satan readily admitting: "I will give you all of this authority and the glory of them, because it has been delivered to me, and to whomever I wish I give it."(Luke 4:5, 6)

    Hence, the 9/11 tragedy was as a result of Satan's rulership over the earth and of which Jesus was well aware.(John 14:30)

    September 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  5. Disgusted

    Our preacher elected to deliver a sermon on the evils of abortion. I was so stunned that he would take a day of national mourning and turn it into a bully pulpit for his moral crusade I didn't even think to walk out until he was done. I had my children with me – yes, he delivered a sermon on abortion at the family service so thanks for that, that's a conversation I didn't plan to have with my young children for several years – so it would have been awkward to walk out anyway, I guess. As I sat there with my jaw open, I remembered that this kind of intolerance is exactly why I opted out of organized religion twenty years ago. Foolishly, I thought that I should probably opt back in for my children's sake but today ensured that I, and my family, will be devout non-churchgoers. I have raised two beautiful, kind, compassionate children without the church's help and, if this is the kind of help they plan to offer me, I will continue to do without them.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • glyder

      but is that preacher correct in what he said.

      September 12, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • o.k.

      Reality–glyder asks a good question. Another question is–why did you go to church yesterday? Was it simply to give you peace of mind or reassurance, or was it to glorify God. If the former, I say that that is one but many functions of a sermon and church generally, but it is not the overriding purpose, which brings me to the later motive. If you were there to glorify God, and you don't feel that you were able to do that, is your response to write Him off altogether? Perhaps you may want to find a church that helps you meet your obligation to worship Him (which, by the fact you went to His house, you were prepared to do–or so I assume). If you answer is that you don't need formal religion (i.e. a church to do this), I would recommend you consider Hebrews 10:25 before closing that door. Peace.

      September 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • o.k.

      D'oh–meant to address this to Disgusted–not Realty–my bad.

      September 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • I wonder


      Good decision.

      Ordinarily, I recommend a letter or some such when boycotting, so that the target knows why 'business' has dropped off; but in this case I am torn as to whether just letting this jerky preacher remain clueless would be the better tack to take.

      September 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Karen H

      So....you hear one sermon in one church, and you decide to drop all of organized religion as a result? If you see a person of color commit a crime, are you going to assume that all people of color are criminals? Both conclusions have the same reasoning behind it. You experience one bad apple, and assume that they're all that way. That is neither logical or just.

      Obviously, that church and that pastor is not for you or your family. Perhaps you might try five or six of them, and go for three Sundays each to see if they truly serve your and your family's needs. That was how I found a church that truly served our spiritual needs. If you just give up at one or two, well, no wonder it doesn't work for you.

      September 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  6. dilberth

    I think the least that we can do in order to comfort those that lost a loved one on that perilous day, is to ask Congress that an appropriations bill be authorized to send each each survivor of that infamous attack, a king-size box of Kleenex tissues.

    September 11, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  7. Chetan Acharya

    Its a horrible thing that still people are massacred, killed for unwanted beliefs. May tolerance, wisdom, compassion and peace dwell within us, the human race.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  8. John


    September 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
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      September 16, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  9. Reality

    Only for new members of this blog:

    What the last sermon ever given should say:

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today
    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • glyder

      most of us have enough common sense to not believe whats in a newspaper.and you?

      September 12, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  10. PK

    The angst of some of these comments against Christianity are truly troubling. Remember...it wasn't Christians that flew into the World Trade buildings. It was Muslim zealots.

    Remember a young man who worked for Oracle? He was on United Airlines flight 93. His name was Tod Beamer. Tod & a few other men on that flight, realizing that the flight was being highjacked, decided that even if they were not successful, they HAD to do something. Tod was a Christian. Active in his church. He & his wife even taught Sunday school for 6 years together. Beamer recited The Lord's Prayer with Jefferson (a GTE supervisor), after he tried to get through to his wife via the seat phone on the plane. According to Jefferson, Beamer's last audible words were "Are you guys ready? Let's roll."

    Here is the essence of Christianity...Philippians 4:8
    Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. This doesn't sound to me like anything (some of) you have accused us of.

    I think it is amazing that the people who scream that Christians need to be more tolerant towards other people are the very ones that are MORE intolerant of Christians.

    No matter WHAT you think of me or my comment, just know that I know thousands of Christians that would gladly give their life...for YOU to have the freedom of speech! God Bless the 9/11 victims & their families...God Bless America!

    ...now let's talk about the article!

    September 11, 2011 at 2:44 am |
    • Peace2All


      Hey -PK...

      " Here is the essence of Christianity...Philippians 4:8
      Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. "

      I think that is sound advise regardless of one's religious or non-religious affiliation. That is a good quote. Good suggestions for one to place their thoughts, emotions, and intentions.



      September 11, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • J.W

      I can agree with that peace. Another good bible verse that would apply to 9/11 is i think Romans 12:21, "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Instead of letting this evil act make us angry, we should try to promote peace.

      September 11, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • Chuck L

      You appear to assume that all atheists tend to act a certain way. That would be incorrect.
      When I correct you, I am trying to save you from making more mistakes. I can shape this attempt in many ways. I can be rude or polite, dystopian or utopian, mild or strong, or however I feel like shoving it at you, the fact remains that my motives are to correct what I see as grave error on your part.
      If you think this is "angst" then you would be incorrect. I feel angst from time to time, but not all the time.
      Does anyone who sees angst in every opposing post really sound like someone who knows what they are talking about?
      No. Not to me.

      September 11, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • Peace2All


      Yes... that 'is' another good one. Thank you.



      September 11, 2011 at 3:06 am |



    September 10, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.