Sept. 15, 2019
+ As most of you know, we have a Wednesday night Mass here at St. Stephen’s at 6:00 pm. For most of those Masses, we usually commemorate a particular saint, or some Christian personage or event.
We especially commemorate saints of the Episcopal Church. (Yes, there are saints in the Episcopal Church.)
One of those of events we sometimes commemorate is a particular year.
And this morning, we are going to go back to one of those momentous years. We are going back 56 years. We are going to back to 1963.
1963 was a very momentous year. Many, many life-altering events happened in the 1963.
In June of that year, there was the death of Pope John XXIII, who was, of course, very much a pioneer in advocating ecumenical relationships between different Christian denominations.
On August 27, 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
And today was also a very important day in 1963. 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 nine years ago yesterday that my father died, very suddenly, very expectantly. Many of you have walked with me through these nine very difficult years. And I am very thankful for the support and the care during that time.
Events like these—like the events of 56 years, like the event for me nine 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 ace of failure, 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 a 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. One day, even the Cross will be defeated.
But life—life in our God of life and love—will never end. And that even in the face of what seems like defeat and loss, there really is ultimately victory. For those people affected by that bombing fifty-six years ago this morning, there seemed no victory.
Four little girls lost to hatred and fear seemed like ultimate defeat. But fifty-six years later, we can say that those lives were not lost in vain. Yes, fifty-six years later, we are still dealing with the KKK again, we are still dealing with white supremacists and Nazis and fascists, but we are also 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 as 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 failure 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; this is what is real. 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 nine years after my father’s death, this belief, this reality that Jesus promises us of an end to death (which my father believed), 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. Yes, there are the KKK and white supremacists and Nazis and hate-mongers marching proudly lately in a way they haven’t in a long time. But this is not defeat. This is not the end. This is not the period to the sentence of our lives.
As students of history, we know how their stories will end. We know that the KKK and Nazis and fascists and hate-mongers are on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of God.
As followers of Jesus, we are told, again and again, rejoice. Rejoice in the face of failure and defeat.
To rejoice in the face of defeat is a defiant act. It is an act of rebellion against those dark forces. It is an act of rebellion against white supremacists and Nazis and fascists and hate-mongers. 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 our hearts are heavy within us, when we are bleeding in pain 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.