+ As most of you know, we have a Wednesday night Mass here at St. Stephen’s at 6:00 pm. For most of those service, to chagrin of some—I won’t mention any names (*Thom*)—we usually commemorate a particular saint or event. Especially the saints of the Episcopal Church. Yes, there are saints in the Episcopal Church.
Well, this summer, we commemorated both people and events that were occurring 50 years ago. 1963 was a very momentous year. Many, many life-altering events happened in the 1963. In June, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, who was, of course, very much a pioneer in advocating ecumenical relationships between different Christian denominations. A few weeks ago, we commemorated the “I Have a Dream” speech, made by Martin Luther King Jr. on August 27, 1963.
This past Wednesday we commemorated an event that actually happened fifty years ago today. In 1963, September 15 was also a Sunday. On that Sunday morning, at 10:22 am, 26 Sunday School students were filing down to the basement assembly room of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to hear a sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives.” In a dressing of the same basement, four girls-- Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all aged 14 and Denise McNair, aged 11, were changing into their choir robes.
At that moment—10:22 a.m.— a box of dynamite with a time delay planted under the steps of the church, near the basement, by four Ku Klux Klan members, exploded. Twenty-two people were injured. And those four girls in the dressing room were killed when the basement wall fell on them.
Every window in the church was blown out by the blast except one—a stained glass window of Jesus welcoming the little children.
I think it also especially appropriate that yesterday we commemorated the Feast of the Holy Cross. On that day we commemorate the actual Cross on which Jesus died. As many of you know, it was three years ago yesterday that my father died, very suddenly, very expectantly. Many of you have walked with me and my mother through these three very difficult years. And I am very thankful for the support and the care during that time.
Events like these—like the events of 50 years, like the event for me three years ago— drive home for me the fact that the cross is ultimately a symbol of victory. Yes, for it to be a symbol of victory, there has to be, sadly, some sense of defeat. There has to be some sense that something was lost. And that in the face of defeat, in the face of loss, in the face of ruin, in the face even of death, a victory can still be won.
For us, as followers of Jesus, we are people of the cross. There’s no way around that fact. We are people of the Cross. We are people who were not promised sweet, burden-free lives. Nowhere in scripture, in our liturgies, in our prayer book, are we promised a life without pain, without trouble, without sorrow. Nowhere are we told we do not have to take up our crosses. But what we are promised consistently, as followers of Jesus, is ultimate victory. What we are promised again and again is that suffering and pain and death and tears will all one day end.
But life—life in Christ—will never end. And that even in the face of what seems like defeat and loss, there is ultimately victory.
For those people affected by that bombing fifty years ago this morning, there seemed no victory. Four little girls lost to hatred and fear seemed like ultimate defeat. But fifty years ago, those lives were not lost in vain. Fifty years later, we are here, remembering those girls and we can realize now that those deaths changed things. People who never really thought about what was happening in this country, in the South, starting thinking about those issues. And people started working to change things. The following July—on July 2, 1964—President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans.
For those who followed Jesus, who betrayed him and saw him killed on that cross, they no doubt saw that death has the ultimate defeat. But here we are, followers of Jesus, today, this morning, giving thanks for the life he has given to all of us on the other side of that cross.
In our Gospel reading for this morning, we find the Pharisees and the scribes thinking Jesus and his followers were foolish. Drinking and eating with sinners seemed like folly. It seemed demeaning and uncouth. But, by doing so, Jesus showed that sin was not a reason to despair, to beat ourselves up. Even what seems like defeat—a sinner lost to sin—can be a victory when sin is defeated, when wrongs are made right and relationships are restored.
Our lives as followers of Jesus are a series of losses and victories. We stumble, we fall, we get up and we go forward. That is what our Christian journey is. Our lives as Christians are filled with moments when it seems that the darkest night will never give way to the dawn.
But Jesus shows us that this dawn is the reality. That there can be no ultimate defeats in him. Not even death—probably the thing we all fear the most—not even death has ultimate victory over us. I can tell you that on this morning, when I am still feeling emotionally raw now still three years after my father’s death, this belief, this reality that Jesus promises us of an end to death, is my ultimate joy. It upholds me and keeps me going. And it should for all of us as well.
Bad things happen. Horrible, terrible things happen. But they are not defeat. They are not the end. They are not the period to the sentence of our lives.
As followers of Jesus, we are told, again and again, rejoice. Rejoice in the face of defeat. To rejoice in the face of defeat is defiant act. It is an act of rebellion against those dark forces. It is an act of rebellion against the power of failure, of loss, of pain.
So, let us do just that. Let us rejoice. Let us stand up against those moments in which we have been driven to ground and are left weak and beaten. Let us stand up from them, defiant, confident in the One we follow. Let us stand, when our legs are weak from pain and loss, when are hearts are heavy within us and our eyes are filled with tears. Let us stand up when the forces of evil and hatred and death seemed to have won out. And when we do, when we rise from those ashes, when we rise above that darkness and stand in that brilliant light, it is then—in that glorious moment—when we will truly and fully live.