All Saints’, Rehoboth Beach
Proper 19, Year C, September 15, 2013
Here are today's readings.
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
Fifty years ago, more than a thousand students aged 6 and up marched peacefully to Birmingham City Hall to urge the mayor to end segregation. Many were arrested and put in jail, but others came back to protest again the next day. This time they were greeted by policemen who attacked them with batons, hoses, and dogs. The pictures from the Birmingham Children’s Crusade shook the world and motivated people in the country to action.
Four months later, fifty years ago today, in the same city, folks were making their way to church, just like we did today. They chatted with their friends, they prayed, and the children headed down to Sunday School. The lesson that day was “The Love that Forgives.” But they never got to hear it. While the secretary of the class was taking attendance, a bomb exploded, injuring 22 people and killing four girls ages 11 and 14. The 16th St. Baptist Church was the largest African-American church in Birmingham, AL, and because they had the space, many civil rights meetings were being conducted there. Four members of the local KKK decided to take matters into their own hands and planted a time-delayed bomb in the early hours of the morning. In the midst of the rubble one stained glass window remained: an image of Jesus leading children.
I spent the first 12 years of my life in Birmingham. By then the city had changed in many ways; in my neighborhood black and white children were not only neighbors but we ran around and rode our bikes together without a second thought. When I was in the third or fourth grade my class took a field trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I don’t remember much about it, except for one thing. Near the end of the museum they have an exhibit of a bus. The bus was mangled and had huge chunks missing from where it had been bombed while people were inside. I sat down on the floor and stared at the bus, tears streaming down my face as my 8 or 9 year old sheltered self imagined and tried to process the evil that caused such a thing to happen.
The scriptures for today speak of evil, sin, and times of darkness as well. Jeremiah recounts a vision of destruction. God is upset with the Israelites for turning away from God and worshiping other gods. After all that God has done to save the Israelites from the land of Egypt and bring them to the promised land, they repay God with unfaithfulness. God has put up with their infidelity long enough. The Babylonians are on their way, and God will not stop them. Likewise, in the psalm, the people are all sinners: “every one has proved faithless” (Psalm 14:3). The people have lost sight of morals, and are on the path to self-destruction. In 1 Timothy, the author speaks in the voice of Paul, recounting his violent past, calling himself the “foremost” of all sinners (1 Tim 1:15). And finally, in the reading from Luke, Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees because he hangs out with the wrong crowd: “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1).
If you’re like me, it may have been difficult this beautiful morning to say, “Thanks be to God” after the readings. Like me, you may be a bit overwhelmed by all this focus on sin and evil and destruction. Society is already fixated on all that is wrong with the world; we can’t listen to the news anymore without coming away feeling disheartened. We need some Good News. Where is the hope in today’s message? Well, I’m glad that you asked.
While every passage today speaks of sin and evil, every passage also contains glimmers of hope and Good News. While the Babylonian army fast approaches the people of Israel, bringing with them yet another period of trial and oppression, Jeremiah foresees that God “will not make a full end” of them (Jer 4:27). They will go through difficult times, but God will not let them be utterly destroyed. In Psalm 14, although the people have turned away from God, “the Lord will be their refuge” (Psalm 14:6). The Psalm promises that the people will rejoice “when the LORD restores the fortunes of his people” (vs. 7). Not if but “when” (ibid.). They will not be left alone despite their propensity for sin and corruption. God will turn things around. The author of 1 Timothy reminds us that formerly, Paul has been an enemy of Christ and a persecutor of Christians. But then he experiences the grace and love of Christ, and comes away transformed. If God can show mercy to this man who worked so tirelessly to destroy Christianity, then no one is beyond God’s reach. As the author says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). We see proof of this in the Gospel reading for today. Jesus not only speaks with, he dines with--participates in something as intimate as sharing a meal with--tax collectors and sinners. He illustrates his mission of redemption with some beautiful images, first of a shepherd and his lost sheep, and then of a widow and her lost coin. These images describe a God who loves us so much that God will drop everything else to find us when we get lost. Jesus proclaims that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Don’t you get it? he is telling the Pharisees. My mission is to restore the relationship between God and God’s people. You see these people as nothing more than the sins they have committed. But I tell you that no one, not even these people whom you deem unworthy--not even you in your self-importance--no one is beyond the reach of God’s saving embrace. Now that is Good News.
Evil is still very much present today. Poverty, famine, war, and preventable diseases are found in many parts of the earth. We do not have to look far to find it: even in our own beautiful beach community the residents of West Rehoboth live in inadequate housing and others have no homes at all. We are called to go out and take a stand against the evil in this world. We head out into the world equipped with the knowledge of God’s love and mercy. We head out into the world fueled by Communion--Jesus’ body and blood, shed for us all. And we head out into the world strengthened by worshiping in the company of this amazing community. The world is broken, as are we all, but we know that evil does not have the last word. God has overcome it, God is overcoming it, and God will continue to overcome it until the kingdom has been fully realized and the last vestiges of evil are but a distant memory.
And so we head out into the world, praying for the Lord’s guidance. In the words of today’s collect, we ask God to “mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
May 2, 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade
September 15, 1963: 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
Information on events Birmingham: