Planning for Worship on September 11

by Mark Mummert

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, Christians in the United States will undoubtedly come to the Sunday assembly aware of the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, when terroristic violence and hatred led to catastrophic death and loss in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. There has been much in print and in online discussions among pastors, musicians, and other worship planners on how to best observe this occasion. See, for instance, these:

It has also not escaped the notice of many that the Revised Common Lectionary for the day assigns three readings and a psalm focused on the themes of reconciliation, compassion, judgment, and forgiveness:

  • Genesis 50:15-21 Joseph reconciles with his brothers
  • Romans 14: 1-12 When brothers and sisters judge each other
  • Matthew 18:21-35 A parable of forgiveness

. . . and we respond to the first reading by singing of God’s compassion and mercy in Psalm 103:8-13.

For musicians planning appropriate music for September 11, these readings and psalm provide many invitations to deep consideration and thought. How does the gospel reading’s teaching regarding forgiveness in the Christian community extend beyond the community of the church? What shall we do with Paul’s urging that we not make ourselves judge over others? How does the compassion and mercy that God extends to us also inform the way we forgive one another? How do we help each other see that, guided by the reading from Genesis, confession and forgiveness are not the exclusive occupation of Christians?

Because of the intersections of the themes of God’s forgiveness and the anniversary of 9/11, some congregations and worshiping assemblies will plan worship to be an extended confession, or even a time of healing and forgiveness offered also to the terrorists from that catastrophic day. Some worship will be planned largely as a lament, or even a requiem for those who have died, mourning both the deaths on 9/11 and the ensuing deaths that have come about from the protracted war(s) since 9/11. Some musicians are planning to perform works composed in honor of the day, expressing the diverse postures of lament, confession, forgiving love, and remembrance.

Care must be exercised that the Christian assembly on this day not be marked by excessive nationalism. All of the counsels we have regarding worship on national holidays bear repetition here. The allegiance of the Christian assembly is to the triune God and not to a particular country or race. And certainly, any excessive trumphantalism or claims of victory, on the part of the United States or Christians, over the enemy should be silenced. Further, when proclaiming the forgiving love of God, we do well to encourage all to also forgive one another, but then not stand too proudly as if to say, “look how well I forgave those who sinned against me, us, our country, or our global community.” On the matter of forgiveness on this day, we should plan worship that is intentionally broad and deep, and not get narrowly focused on the sins only of others. Rather, Christian identity calls us to reflect honestly on all sin, and especially our own. Consider this counsel from John Chrysostom, preacher of the fourth century

The evil of remembering past offenses is twofold: it is inexcusable before God, and it serves to recall past sins already forgiven and places them against us. Nothing whatsoever does God so hate, and turn away from, as cherishing remembrance of past offenses and fostering our anger against another. If we must remember offenses, let us remember only our own. If we remember our own sins, we shall never store up the sins of others. I shall make bold to say that this sin is more grievous than any other sin. Let us be zealous in nothing so much as in keeping ourselves free from anger and from not seeking to be reconciled with those who are opposed to us. Neither is this my word only, but the word of that God who shall come to judge us. (John Chrysostom, in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, IV, 289.)

All of this implies these practical suggestions:

1) do not abandon the lectionary on this day but rejoice in the opportunity to proclaim God’s forgiving love, especially in the face of the anniversary of 9/11;

2) sing some hymns and other choral music that brings to expression lament and confession, but also the promise of forgiveness, both as extended to us by God and also from one human to another, or one community to another. The section of hymns on the topic “lament” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship may be a good place to start, as will be the hymns and other music recommended for the Sunday in lectionary helps such as Sunday and Seasons or Indexes to Evangelical Lutheran Worship;

3) avoid excessive mourning or focus on our communal ability to forgive; do not be haughty or boastful, and do not imagine that the Christian assembly is a national assembly; it is not the recommendation of this blog to do a full-scale requiem as worship on this day;

4) take advantage of this opportunity to sing and make music that looks forward to reconciliation among all the peoples and religions of the earth, that promotes interfaith dialogue, and encourages love and respect;

5) encourage those who compose the intercessions on this day to be particularly sensitive to all of these matters and craft careful prayers of appropriate lament, confession, and pardon. Especially on this day, encourage intercessors to pray and not preach.

do not neglect music that expresses joy or gladness on this day; Sunday is always a celebration of resurrection, and the proclamation of Christ’s saving action for us and the world is able to hold all of the lamentable catastrophes we endure.

Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for the day? Post your comment!

Posted on Aug 29, 2011 2:29:18 PM
Filed Under: Planning,

Mark Mummert

Written by Mark Mummert

Mark Mummert is Director of Worship at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas. He was Seminary Musician at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia from 1990 through 2008 and is a composer of Holy Communion Setting One in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. He served as editor of Psalm Settings for the Church Year (Augsburg Fortress, 2008) and Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days (Augsburg Fortress, 2010).