A Sermon by Dr. Edwin Gray Hurley
September 15, 2013, 17th Sunday After Pentecost
Jeremiah 4:11-17, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
September 15, 1963 is, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said of December 7, 1941, and as we all remember of September 11, 2001, “A date which will live in infamy.” Today we remember its Jubilee, its 50th anniversary. On that quiet Sunday morning here in Birmingham, at precisely 10:22 a.m. the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four precious little girls whose names are forever now memorialized –
Addie Mae Collins
That same day two young black boys were also killed, riding a bicycle on the way to a newspaper delivery job. The names of
Johnny Robinson and
largely have been forgotten. Yet the slaughter of these innocent children through acts of vile hatred sent shock waves round the world that led, almost overnight, to the transformation of a vast deeply ingrained system of segregated injustice that had continued relentlessly in this nation, and especially our part of this nation, the South, and especially our own City, Birmingham, coined as “Bombingham”, and called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States of America”
Segregation was a way of life here. Just the way things were. Separate, but certainly not equal, schools, theaters, stores, hotels, water fountains, parks and swimming pools. By 1963 progressive business and civic leaders here were finally valiantly, if belatedly, trying to help Birmingham catch up with the rest of the nation. The segregationist reinforcing form of city government, spearheaded by Bull Connor had been defeated, and a new, though still contested, form of Mayor and City Council had been elected.
The previous spring, Martin Luther King, Jr. had made his Good Friday March, was arrested and thrown into the city jail, where he wrote the now renowned, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” calling for the Christian Church, especially the white ministers, to be the head lights rather than the tail lights of change. Hundreds of thousands of black and white people from across the nation had converged in Washington, D.C., as never before or since in history, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his momentous “I Have A Dream” speech. Black children in Birmingham were skipping school to march through downtown and many were thrown into jail. And, the great stereotype here was portrayed around the world- Bull Connor’s firehoses and police dogs threatening peaceful protesters. Through all this change was afoot. Then this horrendous blast.
There is something experientially and biblically significant about a 50 year anniversary. Experientially, at 100 years few if any are still left who have living memories of what happened. It is like the Civil War or World War 1 for us today. But at 50 many are still around. Many couples gloriously celebrate their 50 year wedding anniversaries.
I grew up in South Arkansas during the transformation out of segregation. I remember 50 years ago. I lived through the change there. Arkansas was like Alabama in all this. Alabama had Wallace. Arkansas had Faubus. I remember the separate side door for blacks to the balcony of the Rialto Theater on Saturday afternoons for the 25 cent matinees. I remember my father’s new printing plant, built in the early 1960’s in standard plan with 3 restrooms for the employees; men, women, colored. I remember starting first grade at all white Hugh Goodwin School and then how when I was in the 3rd grade black children began to attend with us. I remember walking home from school and passing a laundry mat which had a sign in the window, “White Only”. I naively thought that meant only white clothes allowed. Would that had been the message. I remember life in a segregated society where I was among the privileged.
Biblically there is something very significant about 50 years. The Exile of the Jews in Babylon lasted 50 years. The festival of Jubilee, set forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, describes a mandate that every 50 years property was to be returned or restored to its original owners and a Jew who had become enslaved was to be freed. The principle of Jubilee from Leviticus 25:10 is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to all the inhabitants of it.”
So today, as we lift up where we as a city and nation and faith community have come from, where we are, and where we are going, we reflect on what we have accomplished in fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream of a color-blind society where liberty and justice, equal opportunity are available to all. Where, as Dr. King dreamed, we are a land where people really are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We have come a long way. We have much for which to be thankful and much yet to strive after. Today, as people of faith, we are called to Remember
, to Repent
and to be Responsible
, rejoicing, as did the Shepherd of whom Jesus spoke, who called all to “rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6).
We are called first, to Remember
. As people of faith keeping memory alive is crucial. We must remember that we all were once, like Israel in Egypt, slaves now granted our freedom. We must remember we were once divided, separated, alienated, outsiders, who in and through Jesus Christ have been welcomed in and made one. A people who do not remember the Lord their God and all he has done for them are called, fools. “Fools say in their heart, ‘There is no God,” declares the Psalmist. An important part of our faith identity is to Remember.
Jeremiah in this sad bitter Lament declares the outcome for Israel for their faithlessness. “My people are foolish. They do not know me. They are stupid children. They have no understanding.” Once established in the Land, with houses and gardens and bounty, Israel did rely for their dependence on God, and for that they were judged. They went into exile. They suffered under foreign domination. The city was left lifeless and in ruins, not even fit for a bird to live in it.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord,
before his fierce anger. (Jeremiah 4:25)
I took a few minutes last week to go searching through our archives. I was curious what South Highland had been doing in worship that Sunday morning fifty years ago. You see incorporated in the service today some of the scriptures and hymns that were used. Lil White’s mother, Mrs. D.H. Collins, was the organist. Marj Perkins mother, Mrs. Dorothy Collins, was Director of Christian Education. Leland Keller’s brother Bert was a Candidate for Ministry, then studying at the Seminary of the Reformed Church in Montpellier, France. Margaret Archiband and Ruth Buckland from here were missionaries in Japan .
Roger Clayton, father of Rev. Susan Clayton, sang a solo that morning, from Psalm 1, “Blessed Is the Man.” Dr. Ben Rose Lacy, Jr. from a family of distinguished Southern Presbyterian Preachers was the supply minister. He preached from 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 15 on “First Of All” where Paul reminds the Corinthians the things of first importance he had received, “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day and appeared to Cephas then to the twelve”, then to a large number, over 500 and finally to Paul himself, a persecutor of the church.
On the cover of the bulletin that day was the seal of the PCUS, the Southern Presbyterian Church. A seal you can still see carved in stone over the arched doors to the left of the Chapel. A descending dove, a burning bush of God’s revelation come down from above and a lighted lamp of pious learning seeking to move upward, all set in a foundation of palm branches, and the Latin inscription below, “Lux Lucet in Tenebris.” “Light Shines in Darkness.” September 15, 1963, was a busy day filled with morning and evening worship, Sunday School and Youth Fellowship.
Meanwhile 18 blocks north and 5 blocks west 16th Street Baptist Church was celebrating Youth Sunday. Those little girls and many other children were looking forward to their leadership roles as ushers and singers in the choir. Pastor John Cross had announced that he would preach that day on “A Love that Forgives,” based on Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Little did he or anyone know just how much they would be called upon to forgive when, at 10:22, a bomb made of probably 15 sticks of dynamite, placed by members of the Ku Klux Klan went off under the side stairway next to the women’s rest room, where the 4 little girls were primping before worship.
In the confusion that followed, a seven foot hole opened the side of the brick building, shards of glass everywhere, mass hysteria as people ran for the exits, and all but four of them made it out. One symbol above all else reflected the horrible event. The large stained glass window in the eastern wall of the sanctuary, a picture of Jesus, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and knocking at a door with his right hand, as our text from Luke, seeking for some lost sheep, that window alone of most on that side of the building survived, with the lone exception of the pane of glass that was the face of Jesus. Jesus had been blown out of the church that day through a sense act of vile hatred.
I wrote John and Suzanne Benton last week and asked them if they had any memory of that morning, or whether it was announced during worship here which would have taken place at 11:00 am and again at 7:30 pm. They did not have a memory of the day and of worship here, nor have I found any who do have such a memory. But John added this poignant paragraph in his reply.
Sadly, to be very blunt, that action happened across town and while it may have been mentioned that night, I doubt that its gravity caused any change in our evening service besides perhaps a sadness that young children had been harmed. It was a different time and many of us foolishly thought we were not part of it. In those days before instant communication, I doubt it was even known at the 11:00 am service.
Today, we remember that tragic event. It did shape us. It did shape and mar this City. Glenn Taylor shared with me once how at that time he had been working for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and was out on the West Coast preparing to meet Monday morning with business leaders to seek and entice them to come to relocate in Birmingham. Glenn said they were virtually laughed out of the room. And a pattern was set in place that was slow in changing, as business would not even consider a move to Alabama. It is important to Remember
It is also important to Repent
. Racism is wrong. Racism is a sin. We all must turn from our wicked ways and go in a new direction. The Apostle Paul describes to Timothy his sense of Gratitude for what God had done in his own life.
“Even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul became a new man when God reached him through the risen Jesus. He repented of his past sin, turned around, and became the leading catalyst for spreading The Way of Jesus throughout the world.
I believe Birmingham people have repented in spades. It is slow hard work to change a human heart. It is slow hard work to change views with which we grew up, which we felt were right and fair, even God-ordained, and come to a new understanding.
Now many good people, probably all South Highlanders, had a sense of revulsion over what had happened that day at 16th Street Baptist Church. It was unbelievable to them that this could happen in their city. There was a sense that a lawless bunch downtown did this, not us. And that is true. Yet it is also true, as was expressed by Chris McNair in the movie, “Four Little Girls”, “Bull Connors could not exist or do what he did without the nod of the big boys. He was merely the face expressing the will of others. ”
In the days and years that followed 1963, South Highland, which had always been strong in undertaking foreign mission, now began to undertake more local hands-on mission. Members here began a tutoring program just up the street at Ramsey High School. Members here opened the first integrated church preschool. Members here provided and still provide food and hospitality every Sunday afternoon to mentally ill friends, and weekdays to elderly people with dementia. We have made it clear that “all are welcome in the name of Jesus Christ.” And so it continues to this day.
We are called to Remember
. We are called to Repent
. And we are called to live as Responsible Christians
. Like Jesus’ story of the shepherd, we must take the initiative in reaching out to the hurting and wounded lost sheep. This shepherd leaves those 99 sheep who are doing well and goes off in search of that lost sheep until it is found. Then in joy the shepherd throws the sheep over his shoulders and carries him home, calling for all his friends and neighbors to “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” He then puts it plainly in terms of what is required of us, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
The word “Jubilee” derives from the Hebrew yobel
, meaning “ram.” Yesterday was the highest most holy day of the Jewish people. “Yom Kippur”, the solemn day of Atonement when they ask God’s forgiveness for sins of the past year. The new open future is announced by a blast of the shofar, an instrument made from the ram’s horn.
“Jubilee also derives from the Latin iubilo
, which means “Shout for joy.” Jubilee is the time to rejoice, like the shepherd with his sheep, once lost now found. On this 50 year Jubilee in Birmingham, after a terrible tragedy, we rejoice in what God has done and is doing among us.
We have come a long way as a community and as a church from where we were 50 years ago. But we have further yet to go. The 21st century before us is filled with opportunity aplenty for re-energizing, re-engaging, resurrecting the new person we are in Christ in this complex, instantaneous, dynamic challenging time. And Birmingham and South Highland are well-poised to be at the forefront of growth and change and new life. We are committed to serving her "in the heart of the City, for the whole of the City, with the passion of Christ."
As Ambassador Andrew Young told the Birmingham Rotary Club last Wednesday, through the darkness of 50 years ago this city has been resurrected. What happened here in terms of change has gone worldwide, out of death a resurrection, changing even the racist apartheid system in South Africa. Andrew Young, Ambassador, Congressman, Mayor, Pastor who was in on the ground floor of the protests in Birmingham along with Martin Luther King said,
We did view what was happening to us through the lens of our calling as ordained ministers of the Gospel…While I mourn the death of four little girls, I see their deaths, tragic but redemptive. The Bible teaches that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Now Birmingham is not a city of fire hoses and dogs, but of peace, where people are doing good things. God has blessed and is blessing you.”
I went over to 16th Street Baptist Church last Wednesday and walked through the memorial downstairs, and then up to the sanctuary and stood before that window where Jesus is portrayed. A window now dedicated to the memory of those four little girls and two little boys. The clock in the sanctuary is still frozen at 10:22, a time never to be forgotten. But the blown out face of Jesus has been replaced. Those who thought they could blow Jesus out of his church failed. He is in his church and in his city, and the dream, still yet to be fulfilled, is much further along.
O for a world where everyone Respects each other’s ways,
Where love is lived and all is done With justice and with praise.
O for a world where goods are shared And misery relieved,
Where truth is spoken, children spared, Equality achieved.
O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace,
Where time and tears will be no more,
And all but love will cease.
is pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church
and a member of the Beeson Divinity School Advisory Board.