Palm Sunday Service of Reconciliation
What to do with our failure?
"Yesterday's Palm Sunday Service of Reconciliation revisited the place where worshipers who were denied entrance knelt to say the General Confession. Yesterday, worshipers knelt to acknowledge their failure saying the same words that were said here 50 years ago. Worshipers then received assurance of God's forgiveness, and were given comfortable words from our Lord Jesus Christ: 'Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.'"
I first want to say what an honor and privilege it is to stand in this pulpit today. I don’t say this as a formality. Rather, the opportunity to witness to the good news of Jesus here today and every day is not something I take lightly. I am truly grateful for the opportunity. Even more, what an opportunity we all have to be bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ in our daily lives.
I am also grateful for this opportunity because here I stand in one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese and even country. These walls and windows are made even more beautiful when you think about all men and women who have offered prayers to Almighty God in this space for over 160 years.
And I am grateful because here I stand before some of the most faithful men and women that I have come to know in my thirty-one years including our new friends from St. Mark’s and Brown Chapel and elsewhere. So I want to thank all of you for being here and for giving me the opportunity to stand here.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and redeemer. Amen.
A lot of you have asked where the idea for the service came from. This question could take me in a lot of directions. I could talk about how the Diocese of Alabama passed a resolution in 2008 that encourages parishes to hold such services. I could talk about how Bishop Sloan dropped a seed when I first took the job by giving me a brief history of the events in 1965. But looking back at all that has happened to this point it is clear to me that the idea came from God working through his people.
"We were called to worship by Miller Childers, St. Paul's, and Lou Willie, St. Mark's. Miller was a vestry member who opposed the vestry's stance on segregation and Lou was nine years old when he and his mother Yuvonne were denied entrance." Photo Courtesy of Justin Averette at Selma Times Journal.
God has called us all here this morning and quite a journey it has been. I don’t know what that journey looks like for you. But I hope you will tell me sometime and or at least tell someone else. No matter what path you have taken to be here this morning, we are all here to worship our Lord Jesus Christ. We are all here to worship the one who willingly died the death that belonged to us so that we might live the life that belongs to him alone. We are all here because of a hope that we have in a God who is making the world new through his Son Jesus Christ.
I’ll be honest and say that the beginning of my journey here today started with some hesitation. The first step was not an easy one. A part of this reluctance was because I was a brand new rector and didn’t want to upset that apple cart as they say. The experts say don’t do anything drastic for the first year. So, in the spirit of reconciliation I’ll just say this—please accept my apology!
Even more, a part of me wondered how digging up history that is 50 years old would help healing and reconciliation. Can’t we just go on with our lives already?! Haven’t we been slammed over the head enough by our transgressions?! But every time I hesitated, every time I tried to justify why today didn’t need to happen, God kept on telling me not to be afraid as God said to so many in scripture. God kept on reminding me—you are not defined by what you have done or left undone; you are defined by Jesus Christ—the one who has already done it all for us.
God kept on reminding me that he isn’t interested in reminding us of our transgressions—we do that enough on our own without God’s help. Instead, God wants to remind us of his love and mercy through his Son Jesus Christ because God knows that we lack confidence in is the truth that we are called beyond our sin and brokenness to a place that is complete in the good news of Christ.
We live in a world that is hungry for this good news, good news that points beyond failure. This hunger is evident in a culture that jumps at every opportunity to criticize the church when it fails. And the church has failed a lot—just pick up a history book. St. Paul’s has failed to live up to the call as Christians—as we did 50 years ago. St. Mark’s has too. Every church has. And the church will continue to fail at its mission to be the people that God is calling us to be—even 50 years from now. So what do we do with this failure to live up this billing as God’s people through Jesus Christ? We have good news to proclaim.
The good news is that the church isn’t called to be perfect; the people of God, you and I aren’t called to be perfect. Instead, we are called to be faithful to the one who is making us perfect through a love that was willing to die for us, a love that was willing to go to the cross for us, a love knows that we struggle to do the good that we want to do but fail to do.
We are called to be faithful to the one who has made a world that is perfect through his resurrection, a world that is no longer held captive by sin and death. Jesus has made this world available for all this children. This world is available when we have the grace to recognize that we cannot create this world through our own good efforts, efforts that will ultimately fail us. Like one prayer in the prayer book says, we can give thanks for our disappointments and failures because they ultimately lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God alone.
"An acolyte from St. Mark's holds the parish banner as the procession of the palms gets under way in the courtyard. "Photo Courtesy of Justin Averette at Selma Times Journal.
As God was reminding me of these gospel truths, the country was reminded once again in too many ways that we still have a long way to go in terms of race relations in our country. Even though we are 50 years removed from the successful struggle to integrate this church, we still live in a world that struggles to see beyond the color of skin. We still struggle to be a part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream where people are judged based not on the color of their skin but based on the content of their character.
But I am not here to remind you of human dreams. Instead, I stand in this pulpit today to remind you of a dream that already is a reality. I am here to remind you that God’s dream for all his children from every race and nation is available now in a life lived through his Son Jesus Christ. I am here to remind you that we have an opportunity to witness to God’s dream of reconciliation for all people, of a God who judges us not based on the content of our character—thanks be to God because we all fall short under the microscope—instead we have a God who looks at each of us, his beloved children, based on the content of Jesus’ character—the one who shows compassion and mercy and love for all people—especially the unlovable and the sinner.
"Worshipers gather in the St. Paul's courtyard to begin the Palm Sunday Service."
Photo Courtesy of Justin Averette at Selma Times Journal.
Through Christ, God is giving the church an opportunity to show the world a different way of living, a gospel way of living. This way of living doesn’t involve name calling or hyperbole. This way of living doesn’t involve shaming those who have failed. This way of living doesn't invovle minimizing our failures and transgressions. This way of living doesn’t involve proving why you are right. And this way of living certainly doesn’t involve the justification of our actions or inactions. Instead, God’s dream for his church is seen through the passion and death of Jesus Christ, a passion that is soaked in humility.
"Acolytes prepare to process into church"
Photo Courtesy of Justin Averette at Selma Times Journal.
How can we be a part of this dream? How can we start to live in this reality today? I have good news. We have already started living in God’s dream--just look around this room. We started to live in God’s reality when we knelt together before the doors of this church, Christ’s church, and acknowledged that we are all a part of the problems that plague our world.
We acknowledged again how we are a part of the problem in the Passion Narrative. One of you commented after I assigned you your part, I wanted to be a good guy! And to that I responded, “There are no good guys except Jesus!” Not even Peter, the first pope or bishop of the church, can say that he isn’t a part of the problem. Not one of us can say that our hands are clean. I can’t say—“Jack, this isn’t your problem because you weren’t born until 1984.”
Friends, God’s dream doesn’t stop with the death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t leave us to wallow in our shame or guilt. We can stop feeling ashamed because soon we will be met by the risen Lord who says to us like the stained glass window at the entrance of the church says, “Come unto me all who labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The kind of rest Jesus is talking about isn’t like a Sunday afternoon nap—which sounds really good about now.
Window in Narthex of St. Paul's
The kind of rest Jesus is talking about is the kind of rest that is found in perfect service to our Lord. The kind of rest Jesus is talking about tells us that we can stop worrying about being defined by what we do or don’t do and rejoice that we are defined by the one who makes us beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. The kind of rest that Jesus is talking about is the kind of rest that frees us from the impossible demands of this world, demands that we can never repay, but the good news is the demands have already been paid through Christ crucified.
Finding rest in God is the difference between serving others out of fear of failure or obligation versus serving others with joy in the knowledge that whatever happens—no matter how badly we screw up—we have a God who is making things right through Jesus Christ.
We have a God who is committed to working out his plan of salvation through his people, no matter how thick headed we are, and God has used a lot of thick headed people—just open the Bible, look around this room, look at me! We have a God who works through the struggle of ordinary women and men, as we saw 50 years ago, to bring about extraordinary change. This is the God that the world is hungry to know, this is the good news that the world is starving to hear.
On this Palm Sunday and through reflection on what happened 50 years ago, I hope you find room in your heart to celebrate a God who brings extraordinary change through the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, a passion that begins when Jesus kneels on the floor to wash the feet of his followers.
God give us the grace to kneel and serve the world alongside our Lord and Savior and may all the world know the healing power of your love. Amen.