A meditation on Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28 and Luke 15: 1 – 10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop September 16, 2018 Grace Presbyterian Church
Over 45 bombs in Birmingham alone.
“My people are foolish. They don’t even know me! They are thoughtless children
without understanding; they are skilled at doing wrong, inept at doing right.
over 45 bombs in Birmingham alone –
skilled at doing wrong –
4 young women – We can’t really call them children – Carole Denise McNair was 11, but Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were 14 years old – that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood – when they were killed in a church on a Sunday morning. 4 dead. 22 wounded.
Skilled at doing wrong –
Christ’s face completely blown out of a stained glass window.
They are skilled in doing wrong, inept at doing right.”
How God must have grieved that day. How God must continue to grieve over the violent ways whites degrade, abuse, and murder African American brothers and sisters, who simply want to live with the rights and freedoms promised to them by our country. How God must grieve over humanity’s determination to be skilled at doing evil.
I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills [of Birmingham] were rocking back and forth.
The homes of Dynamite Hill rocked by explosions.
All the hills of Bombingham rocked back and forth…
Jeremiah spoke long ago. But like the tone from the hand bell that hangs in the air after it is rung, so the truth of Jeremiah’s words linger in our collective conscience. The prophet spoke long ago of the people Israel, God’s community. The prophet spoke of God’s shame. God’s disappointment. God’s heartbreak. For here was a people who had walked with God, who had known and trusted God. These once faithful people were not simply negligent of doing good, they had become skilled at doing evil.
How many times will we as a people bring God to this same place? We walk with God, we come to know God… we turn from God. We are not simply negligent, but skilled at violence and discrimination. Our land is riddled with distrust and suspicion. We don’t have to look back at our country’s history to see our abuse of Native peoples, immigrants, those of other faiths, other cultures, other lifestyles, colors other than white; we only have to look at today’s headlines. We cage children. We shoot unarmed black men. We even shoot a 26 year old, sitting in his own apartment. God hangs their head in shame, in grief, in anger, in confusion.
In Jeremiah’s day it had gotten so bad that God called God’s own people “fools.” God is the parent who has run out of patience. “How foolish (stupid??) can you be?” I know those words came out of my mouth on more than one occasion when one or another of our teenage sons did something that was so, well…stupid! I guess I don’t have to feel quite so guilty about it since God did it, too! But this? This isn’t about being an adolescent…this is the foolishness of adults who should know better. Jeremiah’s sobering words are a wakeup call: God is wondering about returning to the beginning. God is pondering reversing creation.
Emptiness. Waste and Void. This is the language of Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” God is considering returning to the formlessness. No light. No people. No creatures. Before the beginning began. Instead of the litany of the goodness of the days of creation, we hear a litany of desolation.
“I looked…and the mountains were quaking.
I looked and there was no one at all.
I looked, and the fertile land was a desert.”
As with the story of Noah and the flood, God once again considers renewing the earth. Washing things clean. Beginning again. That is the depth of God’s sorrow.
Frank Yamada, Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, says it this way, “God’s judgment makes us aware of the fact that human sinfulness is not simply about individual morality. Obedience to God’s covenant is intimately connected to our relationship with others and to the created order.
When things are not right among humans, the whole earth groans. We are answerable not just to ourselves as individuals, but we are accountable to all our fellow human beings and to the earth from which we came. When we inflict violence on each other, we hurt the earth. When we abuse God’s good creation” (and humans are that ultimate act of God’s good creation), “we damage ourselves. Knowing God, by the prophetic definition, means that we act justly with each other and live responsibly in relationship to all of God’s creation.”[i]
But unlike human parents, who do lose their patience, who do blow it and say things they regret, God never loses patience. “I will not destroy it completely,” are the words of hope in verse 27. A reprieve once more. Even in the midst of frustration, God will not make a “full end.” In the midst of the desolation, there is opportunity to turn back, to relearn, to practice again how to do justice and embrace kindness and walk humbly with God.
And so we come to our Gospel passage about lost things being found, and maybe, just maybe we would like to turn the table on God and call God foolish! After all, who worries about one little coin? Who can take the risk of leaving 99 sheep unguarded to look for one lost sheep? Who does this? And as if the diligent searching were not enough, who would throw a party? The cost of the party would far outweigh the value of one little sheep. It would take the other nine coins to pay for the party for the one found coin! Who does this? An extravagant God, who seeks for a coin that has no voice and cannot call out, “I am lost!” A relentless God, who knows that a stranded sheep may very well lie down in silence rather than announce her location to hungry wolves. God knows our need before we do. God seeks us out to bring us home, and throws a celebration even though we feel so very unworthy.
In the words of Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, “Both parables conclude with heaven’s celebration when one fool…discovers God’s merciful solidarity [and]
“consequently, solidarity transforms self-interest and self-indulgence;
justice and restoration transform exploitation and destruction.” [ii]
Do the self-interested, the self-indulgent want to be transformed? Jesus said to his critics, to the Pharisees and Scribes who “grumbled” about the people with whom he chose to eat, “you can choose to be part of God’s celebration, but God’s celebration is open to all. This is not an invitation only, black tie affair.” But in the back of our minds, we ask, “Do we get to save seats at our tables? Because I don’t want to sit by____________?” Fill in the blank.
I don’t want God to seek out and invite people who intentionally bomb churches. I don’t want God to invite people who think it is okay to cage children. Can I serve a God who could forgive that much? As complicated as that is, I hope I can…because I am just as much in need of that forgiveness…
I’ve never placed sticks of dynamite in the walls of a church, but I am a product of a culture that allowed that to happen. Most of our sins aren’t on display for everyone to see. For everyone to name and judge. That may make it more difficult for us to see ourselves as that coin, that sheep. But perhaps we are the very ones who do not know to cry out, “I am lost!” I’ve never touched a stick of dynamite, but I have known hatred…I have never worn a white sheet over my head, but I have had to face my own biases. Throwing stones is easy work – especially when the target is as enormous as someone who murders a child on a Sunday morning in a church.
Fifty-five years have passed since that tragic day at 16th Street Baptist Church. It is fifty –five miles from our church’s door to theirs. Discrimination and intolerance still thrive. God still grieves – over both our negligence of doing good, and our skill at doing evil. Survivors of that bombing still carry physical and emotional scars. Little lives stolen away. Only God will be able to heal the depths of those wounds. But we can seek ways to be a healing balm in a world filled with dynamite.
Mr. Rogers’ advice in times of tragedy was this: look for the helpers. In the midst of tragic events, there are always helpers. Look to them.
Have you seen the photos of the church building after the bombing? The stained glass window of Jesus intact – except for his face. As if God could not bear to look down upon the tragedy. As if once more, God was brought to despair. As if Jesus had stepped down from that window, and died once more alongside those four young women. “Whatever you do to the least of these.”
The helpers emerged. Of course, many of them were the congregants themselves, as well as people from around Birmingham, and across the nation. Thousands gathered to pay respect to the stolen lives. A little further away, across the ocean, the people of Wales, a people unknown to the congregation of 16th Street, stepped up to help, too. They knew they could not restore the dead, they could not take away the grief, much less repair a nation determined to tear itself apart over the color of someone’s skin. But they could do something small – they could restore the face of Christ.
They got to work raising money, and someone had the brilliant idea that no one should contribute more than a half crown – about 30 pennies. This way the window would be from all the people of Wales, not just the wealthy ones. The artist, John Petts, offered them a new image of Jesus: a black Jesus with arms outstretched, poised “beneath a rainbow of racial unity; his right arm pushing away hatred and injustice, the left offering forgiveness.”[iii] On either side of him, the words “you do it to me.”
The people of Wales sought in some small way to restore the face of Christ for these grieving people. They wanted to attest to the fact that God was with them at 10:22 on September 15, 1963, that God suffered and grieved with them in the aftermath, and that God would continue – always – to be alive and at work in their midst. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name…”
The people of Wales set an example for us. They heard a story and they made a choice. A choice that only cost them 30 insignificant pennies each. Imagine 30 pennies in your hand. If God never gives up on this world, why should we? If God believes the lost can be found, how dare we challenge that thought? Imagine these pennies – Think of them as the small acts of kindness, the small acts of mercy you have the choice to do each day. Think of each penny as an acknowledgement of your own secret biases, unnamed prejudices. What will you do with your 30 pennies? Can you imagine – do we ever dare to imagine – that in God’s hands, your 30 pennies, combined with yours and yours and yours – 30 tarnished, unwanted pennies – have the potential to restore the face of Christ to a weary world?
Oh, Lord, may it be so! Amen.
[i] Yamada, Frank M., workingpreacher.org. Preach This Week.
[ii] Cardoza-Orlandi, Carlos. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Westminster John Knox Press. P 387.
[iii] Prior, Neil. Alabama church bombing victims honoured by Welsh window, BBC News. 3-10-11.