Text: Jeremiah 18:1-10 (at the potter’s house)
For the past 15 years, the date September 11 has held significance for many of us. Fifteen years ago today, 19 hijackers killed more than 3,000 people in the United States and caused a massive amount of economic, psychic, and cultural damage.
For me that fateful day has extra significance since it was a Sunday service five days after 9/11 that brought me back to the church following 25 years of absence.
As a teenager, I had drifted away from church. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was a minister in the United Church of Canada. But like a lot of my friends, I decided that church was not for me. When I left home for university in Toronto, I gave up the habit.
After that, I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto. And September 16, 2001 happened to be one of those times.
Usually when my parents visited Toronto, we went downtown to Bloor Street United. We liked the music and the liberal theology there. But in September 2001, my ex-wife and I had just moved into a house in the east end of Toronto that was steps away from Kingston Road United Church. This was the church where my younger brother, his wife and my two young nephews worshipped. So on September 16, 2001 with my parents staying with us, we decided to walk the half block to Kingston Road instead of going downtown.
While I enjoyed attending church with my parents, I was dreading it that day. My anti-religious antennae were on high alert because it was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Luckily, the service touched me. The sanctuary was packed. The atmosphere was tense. And the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.
The minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland, did not use her sermon to bash Islam or cheerlead the military response being planned by the United States. Instead, she used it to call for openness in the midst of mourning, hope in the midst of fear, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.
The United Church had struggled with big shifts in our culture during the years when I didn’t attend. Because of this, it now seemed to me more open to the stark messages of Jesus as the Christ. It felt like a place where people were honestly trying to be salt, light and yeast in a suffering world; where they were trying to stand up against the powers that be; and where they sometimes woke up to the pain and glory of the human condition.
On that Sunday on September 16, 2001, I liked the message and I liked the community. I felt a space opening in my heart into which flooded grief and hope. So I joined that church and its choir, and laid myself open week after week to the gracious effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which slowly helped to transform me. To use a metaphor from today’s Bible reading, I found myself as a pot on God’s wheel; and I believe that I have been in a continuous process of remolding ever since.
It might seem ironic that I returned to church 15 years ago. “9/11” and the endless litany of wars and attacks that have followed it have taken a toll on the church in Canada and other rich countries.
Kingston Road United Church was not the only one packed on September 16, 2001. All around the world, people flocked to places of worship that week. They were hoping to make sense of senseless violence, seeking reassurance in the face of inexpressible fears, and looking for answers in a world that sometimes provides precious few.
But many who returned to church on the Sunday after 9/11 did not stay for long. The anti-Islamic fears and prejudices that were amplified by the attacks and the wars that followed also fed a general trend towards secularism in the world’s richer countries.
The religious motivations of terrorists like those who perpetrated 9/11 – as bogus as their claims are – have accelerated a distaste for all religions.
On the other hand, one shouldn’t underestimate the resilience of the church. In the 1500s when the Protestant Reformation highlighted the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, you would think the latter’s days would be numbered. But the Catholic Church carried out a Counter-Reformation and today it remains the largest religious body in the world.
In the 1600s when devastating wars between Catholics and Protestants killed up to one third of the people in Germany, you would think that disgust with both sides would keep people away from church. But a truce in 1648 allowed both sides to re-establish stability and sustainability.
In the 1700s with the rise of science and the creation of the world’s first secular states in the United States and France, you would think that religious teaching might die out. But churches continued to find a place.
In the 1800s when the horrors of church-supported slavery were laid bare by prohibitionists first in the British Empire and then by the Civil War in the United States, you would think that fair-minded people might abandon church, but many people did not.
One hundred years ago when the unprecedented slaughter of the First World War was so slavishly supported by churches on all sides, you would think that Christianity could not survive, and yet somehow it did.
Nevertheless, all of these developments have had a slow, corrosive effect on religious observance in the world’s richer countries; and the so-called War on Terror that preceded and followed 9/11 continues this trend.
So it turns out that I attached my heart to church at one of its crisis points. Happily, crisis brings opportunity as well danger. The decline and marginalization of church have humbled it in a way that seems to have moved us closer to the ethos of Jesus and his friends in the First Century. Those of us who continue to find community and meaning in church may be a fewer than when I was a child. But to me, we seem more diverse, beautiful, and wonder-filled every year.
Those of us here can imagine ourselves as clay pots on God’s wheel. I don’t mean this in a literal sense. For me, God isn’t a controlling Being who molds us in the way that a human potter molds clumps of clay into chalices like the ones on the bench at the front of the sanctuary.
For me, God refers to the Spirit of Love that we trust animates our hearts and the entire cosmos. It refers to higher powers that point us toward that which is sacred. Church, by reminding us of our dependence on a higher power, helps us to stay open to realities more powerful and wild than our individual plans or desires.
I am so glad that the “potting wheel” of Kingston Road United Church was there 15 years ago to welcome me back. I am glad to have served Knox United Church in Didsbury seven years ago as a student as well as the three churches of Borderlands Pastoral Charge in southern Saskatchewan where I was settled five years ago. I am especially grateful that Mill Woods United Church was here to offer me my first call as a minister three years ago this week; that you welcomed me when I arrived in 2014; and that you continue to offer a warm and inclusive welcome to those who walk through our doors in this, the most diverse neighbourhood in Alberta.
We may not have answers as to why terror and war continue to dominate the headlines 100 years after World War One or 15 years after 9/11. We may not have the ability to make children and youth appear on Sunday mornings in the same numbers as 50 years ago. We may not always have the wisdom to conduct life in the church with the kind of love and respect we seek.
But we have each other in all our pain and joy. We have a passion for outreach, for justice, for worship, beauty and truth, and for the God who is Love. We have companions on the journey. And we have the gracious turning of God’s wheel that continues to remold this broken world and us.
As so with great confidence, I pray that on any Sunday we may feel an opening in our hearts and say to one another, “Welcome Back!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.