Monday, September 16, 2013

When Horrors Come Home

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 15th, 2013.  You can listen to the podcast to get the aural experience.

The Opening Words for the service were taken  an article in The Atlantic written by Andrew Cohen It is titled, “TheSpeech That Shocked Birmingham The Day AfterThe Bombings.”  We read the second paragraph of Cohen's introduction and then read nearly all of Charles Morgan, Jr.'s speech.  It is worth it to read the article in it's entirety -- Cohen does a masterful job of weaving Morgan's speech with his own contextualizing commentary.  A very powerful piece.

* * * * *

This isn’t going to be a particularly cheery sermon this morning.  I want to warn you in advance.  Not a lot of laugh lines in it; I know it’ll make some of us squirm.  It did me as I researched and wrote it.  Cried some, too.  Might still.  I just want you to be prepared.
Let’s say that it’s 9:00 in the morning.   People of all ages are coming in the Edgewood Lane door, but it’s largely families with kids.  And let’s say that it’s the morning of a youth-led service, so the energy is particularly high.  Parents are feeling proud; kids are excited.  It is, in short, a pretty ordinary morning.
And then an explosion rocks the building.  It’s like an earthquake, but bigger and louder.  The hall and the sanctuary almost immediately fill with smoke and dust.  All of the windows shatter.  That wall, right over there, collapses, and we can see that the Edgewood Lane door is gone.  So is part of the parlor.  And the steps outside.
We quickly learn that four of our children were killed in the blast.  Another lost one of her eyes.  Another twenty were injured.  In time we learn that one person – and as many as four people -- had planted up to fifteen sticks of dynamite in the bushes by those stairs.  They’d known that families used that entrance.  They’d wanted to kill our kids.
What would you do?  If that happened here, what would you do?  Where would you go?  Who would you be looking for in that chaos?  What would you be feeling?  What would you do?  What would you want to do in response?
Fifty years ago today that scene played out almost exactly at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was 10:22 in the morning.  It was a youth Sunday, and the children were coming up from their Sunday School classes preparing to lead the adult congregation in an exploration of the theme, “The Love That Forgives.”  Not all of the windows shattered – a stained glass window showing Jesus leading a group of children survived.  But it was damaged.  Jesus’ face had been blown out.
And four little girls lay dead.  This morning, in churches and other places of meeting all over this country their names are being read aloud:  Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14).  (Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah, was the child who lost one of her eyes.)
This was not the first act of violence in Birmingham.  The city had earned for itself the nickname “Bombingham,” because of the number of times African American institutions had been bombed since World War I, and one neighborhood in particular --  made up almost exclusively of upper-middle class, African American homes -- had been dubbed, “Dynamite Hill.” 
Nor was this the first church to be bombed in Birmingham.  On Christmas in 1956, dynamite was placed where the Bethel Baptist Church and its parsonage connected.  The minister, the Rev. Frederick Lee Shuttlesworth, had his bed in that corner of his bedroom, and although the blast destroyed much of his home, he emerged unscathed.   When told by a policeman who’d responded to the scene, and who was also himself a Klansman, that he, Shuttelesworth, should leave town, the Reverend replied that he hadn’t been saved so that he could run.
A year latter, Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby attempted to integrate the previously all-white public school system by enrolling their own children.  A mob of Klansmen attacked them.  The police never responded.   One of the men who attacked the Shuttlesworths was Bobby Frank Cherry, who six years later would place the dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The mob beat Shuttlesworth with chains and brass knuckles in the street, and somebody stabbed his wife . Shuttlesworth drove himself and Ruby to the hospital where he told his kids to always forgive.
The theme, 50 years ago today:  “The Love That Forgives.” 
The 16th Street Baptist Church was the headquarters, if you will, of what came to be called the Birmingham Campaign, that spring and summer in 1963.  It was conveniently located across the street from Kelly Ingram Park, and made for an easy walk to downtown for nonviolent action.  Kelly Ingram Park, some will remember, is where Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor issued his infamous order to turn fire hoses on protestors – protestors who included young, elementary-aged children, and fire hoses that were set on a pressure that could strip bark from a tree and pull bricks out of their mortar.  The thousands of young people who participated in the so-called Children’s Crusade met up at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
It was the Rev. Jim Bevel, who at the time was the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who had had the brainstorm to actively involve young people in the campaign.  After the bombing at the church, and the deaths of Collins, McNair, Robertson, and Wesley, Bevel said that he thought the intent of the bombing was to say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If you’re going to use your kids against us, we’ll use your kids against you.”  He’s gone on record as saying that he gave serious consideration to leaving the movement after the bombing – not because he’d been frightened off, or had become demoralized, but because he’d wanted to hunt down the people who were responsible and kill them himself.
If that happened here, what would you do?  What would you be feeling?  What would you want to do in response?
This week also saw the anniversary of another heinous terrorist attack – the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Nearly three thousand people died when madmen turned planes into bombs, bombs packed with human shrapnel.  And on Wednesday, those names were read.  Over the years I’ve read them myself from pulpits I’ve served – carefully recalling the name of each and every one.  It takes hours.
And one of the things that made those attacks so horrible was that they came quite literally out of the blue.  No one expected such a thing to happen, and that morning had been so beautiful.  I looked it up yesterday and it seems that it was lovely here that day; I know that it was one of those days that you could hardly help feeling good on where I was that morning in Maine; and my friends in New York have all said the same.  We were all feeling so good . . . until we weren’t.
And that’s I’m sure how the folks at the TennesseeValley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee were feeling on July 27, 2008, as they watched 25 of their kids performing the musical Annie, Jr.   That is, until a man who declared that he wanted to kill “liberals and Democrats” pulled a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire, killing two -- Greg McKendry and  Linda Kraeger – and wounding seven others.
And that’s how people’d been feeling a year earlier prior to the rampage in which a gunman killed 33 on the campus of Virginia Tech, and how it was in that movie theater in Aurora, Colorado just before 12 were killed and 70 injured. 
And less than six months later it was just an ordinary day-like-any-other day until 20 children, six teachers, and a gunman’s mother were killed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
What would you do if that happened here?  What would you want to do in response?
I told you I wasn’t going to be my usual ebullient self in this sermon.  How can I be?  History is littered with the rubble of far too many example of places that should have been safe havens being turned into slaughterhouses.  “If this could happen in a church,” they said in ’63, or a college campus, or a movie theater, or an elementary school for God’s sake, or in a street in the heart of New York City under a sky that was heartbreakingly blue . . .  If this could happen there . . .
What can any of us do?
Believe it or not, I have an answer.  I’m still Methodist and Presbyterian enough to think I know a few things, but don’t worry – I’m Unitarian Universalist enough to be clear that you don’t have to agree with me.  But here’s what I know.
We’ve also recently seen another anniversary.  September 5th was the 5,774th anniversary of the first Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and yesterday was the 5,774th anniversary of the first Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Every year over those millennia these High Holy Days have reminded the Jewish people that none of us lives a blameless life, that all of us are at least in some ways culpable for the sins of our own lives and those of the wider world around us.  And these Days of Awe, year after year, century after century, reinforce the idea that the only way to make a real difference in the way things are is to make a real difference in the way we are.

That’s what Charles Morgan, Jr. did with his speech on September 16th, 1963, right?  That speech was an act of atonement.  That’s what, I think, our own Rev. Roy Jones was trying to do through his act of draping this church in black crepe in mourning fifty years ago.  That’s what I hope we’re ever learning better how to do in our Jefferson Legacies initiative as we strive to find ways to atone for the “sins of our fathers.”  That’s what I think each of us, and all of us, are called on to do . . . again and again and again . . . each time we are shown that the world has not yet become the Beloved Community we dream about.

The Russian writer and activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his book The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Fifty years ago today four little girls were murdered by hatred and fear.  And each and every year, each and every day, each and every moment we have the opportunity to search our own lives, to acknowledge the ways in which we contribute to their continued ascendency in our world, and then to make the conscious choice to act, to act for love.
May it be so.
Pax tecum,
Rev Wik

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