Scripture: I John 2:1-11
Given on 11/06/2016 at FPC-Anniston, AL
There are moments in the history of our world that caused all people to stop and take a reckoning of where we as a people have arrived and to where we believe ourselves to be going. When we all took a collective pause to watch the first footage beamed in from somewhere other than the earth and marveled as we watched Neil Armstrong take “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” At that moment we knew that a new age was dawning and the wanderlust of our species would drive us to increasingly further reaches of the galaxy. So it was that in 2013 the Voyager I, a satellite containing art, music, photographs, and greetings in 55 languages left our solar system with the potential to take a theoretically endless trip around the galaxy. Greater still were the videos of the Berlin Wall, an edifice that had stood since the end of World War II, proclaiming a divided country and divided world, falling to the ground. Celebratory Germans stood atop the wall as a new dawn of unification of a nation and a the globe began to engulf all the people of Germany and by extension all those in the Western World who could not take our collective eyes off the moment, nor shake the feeling that a new dawn of hope and cooperation was happening to the world. Other images of course portended other moments, those moments when we held, and maybe continue to hold our collective breaths. A mushroom cloud signifying the end of a conflict and yet the dawning of a new age of violence and lethality of the weapons of war. Of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square and the single person standing in front of the whole of the Chinese Army, displaying the deep inner strength and resolve that comes with simply being a human who has reached his breaking point. There are those moments in the history of the world in which we mark where we were when we either looked into the brilliant light of humankind’s potential for goodness and achievement or the darkness that lurks in the heart of men. Perhaps there are none as stark, as difficult, as symbolically powerful as the image of Jesus, his face neatly, almost perfectly, blown out of the stained glass of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
On September 15, 1963, in the midst of the white-hot era of the struggle for civil rights and racial equality that framed much of the history of our country in the 1950s and 60s, a group of Klansmen placed 15 sticks of dynamite under the front stoop of the 16th Street Baptist Church with a timer attached to make sure that it did as much damage as it possibly could. Set to go off at 10:25, an anonymous man called into the church at 10:22 where a 14 year-old girl named Carolyn Maull, the secretary of the Sunday Schools, answered the phone to hear only the words, “3 minutes” and then the click of the receiver ending the call. When the violent explosion ripped through the building, many were injured, but the only martyrs from that day would be 4 young African American girls. Three 14 year olds and one 11 year old. Their bodies so destroyed that they had to be identified by their clothes and jewelry. The front facade of the church was destroyed and the survivors had to pick through the rubble for hours after the explosion while at least one of the perpetrators stood alone and watched the horror that he had wrought. The mayor of Birmingham decried the attack and sent police in the quell the unrest. Governor Wallace called up the Alabama National Guard to spread through the city to tamp down any potential rioting, and President Johnson sent in the FBI to investigate the bombing. And the people mourned. The funerals were held a week later in a sister church. Dr. King presided over their internments. And a nation waited with bated breath to see what was going to happen next. And the face of Jesus was perfectly blown out of the window at the 16th Street Baptist Church, never to be seen again.
It was an era in our country to which none of us would wish return. A time in which the greatest sins of the nation continued to cycle on themselves until we sat on the precipice of coming apart at the seams and descending into a chaotic nightmare of violence begetting violence begetting violence. And perhaps it was the images of those four little girls being laid to rest that caused the nation to step back from the brink of implosion. Just as the image of Emmet Till caused the country to first pay attention to the struggle for equality many years prior. Perhaps it is these images to which we return in our minds that over and over again call forth those moments in which two roads diverge into a yellow wood and we chose to take the one less traveled by and that truly has made all the difference. It was less than a year after that congress passed and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended, legislatively, at least, racial discrimination and we were able to pause in the inexorable march towards greater justice and feel like we, as a people, had reached a higher plateau from which to move forward. We would never go back to that time again. Or so we thought.
Earlier this week, the news was filled with images of a similar moment in our history. A predominantly African American church, in a predominantly African American town in Mississippi torched in an act that was believed to be a way of intimidating the congregation there in order to keep them from voting. Politics aside, this moment in our history should be seared into the minds and spirits of each person in the country. An act so troubling, so senseless, so regressive that it harkens back to times in the 1960s in which it was believed that churches were appropriate targets for people’s anger and rage. A time when the value of some lives were thought so lacking that it didn’t matter if folks lived or died. As a pastor who has spent many an evening working in my office well into the dimmest hours of the night, the fact that the action took place in the cloak of darkness provides little solace. But more than all that, the burning of a place of worship, the worship of God, the God whose word says that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, cuts to the core of who it is that we claim to be. We have entered a time in our nation’s history in which the blatant racism of some is on full display for the world to see. A time in which the views of members of that same Klan that blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church, of Aryan superiority groups, of white nationalists is held and discussed alongside the perspectives of other groups in our nation. So it is that what has followed is an ever increasing brashness, ever increasing comfort by those who hate other people to speak their minds and act out in ways that seem to come from another time and place in the history of our nation and if we, who are the followers of Jesus, remain silent in this moment, then it will be assumed that our silence implies consent. It must be stated overtly that there is no place in our world for such actions to take place.
The scripture for this morning comes from the first Epistle of John, taken from the same Johannine tradition that would form the Gospel of John some years later. In it, the author places the demands of love and hate in the starkest of terms to one another. Beyond that, right knowledge and right behavior are seen as corresponding with one another. One cannot claim that they have knowledge of God if they are not then propelled by that knowledge to follow the commandments of God. Becoming increasingly pointed in his language, John suggests that all those who claim to love God but hate their brothers and their sisters are liars and the truth is not found within them. They are blinded by their hate of others and they can never possibly see the movement of the spirit throughout creation. Those who love stand in the light and those who hate are trapped in the darkness and there can little room for any in between.
We often think of the love of God as being this wholly other reality and as members of the Reformed Tradition, we rightfully acknowledge that we, as sinners before God can never fully live into that love. We will always fall some measure short of that love. We will forever seek to better embody that love but will be endlessly trying to overcome our fallenness in the light of God. We can never be perfect in our love as God is perfect in Divine love. And yet. And yet, we are called to always strive to be better tomorrow than we were today. We are called to always struggle against the darkness until all of God’s children stand bathed in the light. We are called to always, always, always, trace the moral arc of the universe as it bends towards justice and then we are called to follow that arc wherever it goes and so it is that the arc of justice brings us to this place today. Brings us to this table today.
A table where we boldly proclaim the very truth that Paul came to know in his letter to the Romans, the very truth that nothing can separate any of us from the love of God as we have experienced it in Jesus the Christ. A proclamation that goes out to all people with ears to hear and eyes to see, a proclamation that goes out to all persons saying, all those who hunger, come. All those who thirst, come. All those who need to feel loved and valued, who need to feel a shared experience with other and with God, come. All those who need this meal to continue on in your faith, come. Because here at this table there is always a place for you. Here at this table we can really begin to see the magic that can happen when we decide to drop the blinders that we forever put over our eyes that blind us to the presence of the Spirit in all people, in all places. The magic that can happen when we authentically experience each person as our brother or our sister. It’s magical and mighty and beautiful and enlivening. It is holy and it is good. But it’s also a challenge. A challenge to wake up from the dream world in which we too often find ourselves and awaken to the deep and abiding love that we are called to share with each other. And when the blinders are cast off, when we are able to move and breathe with the Holy Spirit, when we are able to see each one as a brother and sister regardless of the barriers that society and culture too often place in between us, then we know that we are truly the children of God. Loved from before the foundation of the world was laid down. Loved more than we can ever believe, but loved in a way that sends us back out into the world where we are called to reach out into the darkness and drag folks into the light. We are called to cast our vision across the expanse of the world and see brothers and sisters in Aleppo, Syria and Greenville, Mississippi and ever street corner in every town. We are called to be conduits for God’s love and God’s light.
Sisters and brothers, we gather around this table today and we boldly and radically proclaim that no one is ever turned away from experiencing the love of God, the compassion of community, and food for the hungry. But it cannot remain at this table. Just as the disciples could not remain in the upper room with Jesus, or locked away for fear of the Romans, or even just in Jerusalem, but rather were flung far and wide in a net of compassion, as fishers of God’s children, to reach out and call all of God’s children back home. This table that we come to, to be fed, to be nourished, to touch the face of God and taste and see that God is good, must always lead back out these doors and into the world. It’s simply too powerful a moment to not leave this place ready and able to change the world. And never has God needed the church to be the church for a world in pain. Never have we been more called to tear down the edifices of the old order that separate us from one another. Never has our courage been more demanded of us. Never. We are, as we have always been blessed to be a blessing to each other and to the world. Thanks be to God and Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s people. Alleluia, Amen.