Sermon
September 14, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Sermon

It is so great to be back in our sanctuary, to have the company of the choir up here in the pulpit, and to have the energy of our church school children make this place buzz and shake.  This church has a life of its own that has been thriving for two hundred and eighty seven years, and now into our hands this great heritage is placed and we are entrusted to keep it alive, make it relevant to our day, and pass it on to a future generation.

Two years ago on this Sunday we were all reeling in shock from the attacks of September 11.  Anyone who watched the memorial services this past week couldnt help but be brought back to the pain of that as the children read the names of those killed, especially when the name was of a father or a mother, accompanied by a personal statement of loss and loneliness.  

There was something very characteristic of evil in the way the terrorists inflicted death and destruction without regard for the individual people they would harm.  And there is something so very characteristic of good when, one by one, we remember the names of the dead and see their faces in the eyes of their children. 

Today I would also like to remember the names of four children who were killed by terrorists not Islamic fundamentalists who crossed oceans to fly planes into office buildings, but racists who drove down the street of their own home town and tossed 15 sticks of dynamite into a Black Baptist Church on a Sabbath Morning as the children were finishing up their Sunday School lessons and changing into their choir robes.  The city was Birmingham, Alabama and the date was 40 years ago tomorrow, September 15, 1963.

The names of the children were memorialized in lyrics written by Richard Farina for a song entitled Birmingham Sunday:

 

Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song.

I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.

On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

 

That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,

And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one.

At an old Baptist church there was no need to run.

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,

 

The clouds they were grey and the autumn winds blew,

And Denise McNair brought the number to two.

The falcon of death was a creature they knew,

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,

 

The church it was crowded, but no one could see

That Cynthia Wesley's dark number was three.

Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me.

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

 

Young Carol Robertson entered the door

And the number her killers had given was four.

She asked for a blessing but asked for no more,

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

 

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.

And people all over the earth turned around.

For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.

And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

 

The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone.

And I can't do much more than to sing you a song.

I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.

And the choirs keep singing of Freedom.

Perhaps the noise that shook the ground 40 years ago was not as loud as the echo of 9/11, but the words President Bush spoke two years ago would have rung just as true: "Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. Our country has been deeply wounded. -- the attacks have united our country, rallied a nation, and out of evil will come good."

The question of evil has been examined with some urgency since the attacks and since the President spoke those words.  On a PBS special an edition of Frontline entitled Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero one segment was devoted entirely to considering the face of evil.  It was broadcast on the first anniversary of 9/11 and shown again this past week.

One of the commentators was Margot Adler of National Public Radio.   She spoke of an interview with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation.  Putin was asked what did you think when Ronald Regean called the Soviet Union the evil empire, and Putin answered that it was a way of speaking, an exaggeration.  Then the interviewer asked, well, when George Bush talks about Osama bin Laden as evil, do you think it is also a turn of phrase.  Putin said,  No, I think that is really mild language; I have many words for them that I could not say on the air we are as dust to them.

Those were words, Adler said, that struck here deeply, and she reflected: So maybe evil is when believe in something so utterly that you lose your sense that a human being is a human being, when you feel that you can go into a building and kill 3,000 and it doesnt matter because you are so focused on what you think is perfection and good  - maybe that is a definition of evil its a kind of estrangement from your connection that these other human beings, the ones jumping out the windows to the bottom, are just like you.  And that is probably the deepest perception that religious tradition puts forward that we are all human beings together.

Another interview that was rebroadcast this past week was one with John Ritter, who died a few weeks before his 55th birthday making him the same age as the four girls killed in the Birmingham bombing.  It was from the days when the light of fame first shone brightly on him, and he was asked how he would like to be remembered.  He said that he believed in the golden thread that unites all people the golden thread that runs through him and through the interviewer and through the cameraman and through each person in the audience and then when we feel a little tug on this golden thread it reminds us of our common humanity and the greatest good of the arts is to give us that little tug - and that is how he would like to be remembered.

It is the nature of evil to deny the golden thread, to treat others as though they were dust, to be blind to the names and faces and see instead only a reflection of our own resentments, prejudices, and fears.  It is the nature of good to feel the tug on the thread, to remember the names and see the faces, to recognize both the common humanity and the noble individuality of each life, each person, whether friend or enemy.  May God deliver us from evil and bless us with good, even when the good is sometimes more difficult to carry in our hearts.