Exodus 32:7-14            Psalm  51                   I Timothy 1:12-17                  Luke 15 :  1-10

We’ve relived some atrocities and commemorated the dead this week.  Many of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the Twin Towers fell.  It was a  watershed moment for our country; angry, fearful men murdered almost 3000 innocent people who had nothing to do with their grievance.  From now on though, time for us is divided into Before 9/11, when you could cheerfully board a plane with your shoes on your feet and a Slurpee in your hand, versus After 9/11, since the Department of Homeland Security was instituted and TSA started searching passengers, and we have to take off our shoes and belts and refrain from smart-aleck jokes to avoid getting kicked off the flight.  It made us different.   I’m not complaining – I want to survive all my flights too – but air travel, and immigration, and relationships with the Middle East, and a lot of other things changed for us that day.

It happens sometimes.  Something huge, whether wonderful or terrible, comes along and life is forever divided into Before And After the event.   It can be a public event that changes the world, or a private event that just changes your family into Before and After.  

If you’re lucky, the event is a blessing.  A wedding, the birth of a baby, a clean bill of health after a major illness like cancer.  If you’re not so lucky it leaves permanent scars.   There’s the you Before, and the you After.  The two may be nothing alike.

56 years ago today, a different Before and After took place.  Four little girls died.   That would have been a tragedy even if it was an accident, but this was no accident.   Addie May Collins,  Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were African American children that attended the 16th Street Baptist Church.  The first three girls were 14 years old, but Carol McNair was just 11.  They were all changing into choir robes to sing for a church service with the theme ‘The Love That Forgives’ when a bomb planted by four white men exploded, killing them and injuring others.  Angry, fearful men murdered innocent kids that had nothing at all to do with their grievance.  In the years between 1949 and 1965 during civil rights unrest, so many bombs were planted that the city of Birmingham, Alabama acquired the nickname ‘Bombingham’.  All the attacks were terrible – but this one was so evil that even the most determined racists were horrified. Blowing up a church building with little kids inside. 

Their families and friends have permanent scars.  So does the church.   So does the town, and I suppose I do too, growing up with that story.  The murder of children finally shamed Congress into approving the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the consolation prize, I suppose, for all the blood that had been shed, especially the blood of four little girls in church.  There’s still work to be done to combat racism but Alabama has come a long way.

Two different atrocities, 38 years apart.  They left a lot of people struggling with Before and After. 

I found myself thinking a lot about the theme of that sermon this week – The Love that Forgives.  How ironic that the intended service, on a day of assassination, should have such a title. The sermon that was prepared is long gone, and as far as I know no one ever heard it; the bomb exploded between Sunday School and church service. 

 But in my imagination, that sermon might have sounded something like this:

“Jesus had listened to all that moaning and complaining from the supposed good people, the do-right folks He should have been able to count on to hold things steady.  Of course, He didn’t come here merely to keep things steady.  He came to start a revolution, in our society and our towns and especially in our hearts.  So He told a story to both the scribes and the sinners.  A story about a Shepherd who had 100 fat woolly sheep that He loved and tended until one day, one little sheep got lost.  Maybe she wandered away, or maybe she got mad and left, or maybe she just got distracted and was left behind before she realized it.  But she was lost and gone for whatever reason, so the Shepherd left the 99 to take care of each other and went out searching for the straggler.   And how the angels danced in heaven when that one lost little forlorn sheep got found!  The Shepherd got her home safe. 

And Jesus, Jesus told that story to make the point that everybody needs to come home safe. Even if it’s hard for the shepherd, or involves some risk for the rest of the flock.   You may have wandered away, but God’s love is bigger than your sin.   God’s love is a love that forgives, a love that always seeks the lost, a love that heals old wounds and blesses both the righteous and unrighteous with all the goodness of the earth. 

Notice what I said there.  The righteous AND the unrighteous.

 See, God isn’t like us – or maybe it would be better to say that we’re not enough like God.  We learned right from wrong when Adam and Eve shared that forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, didn’t we?  We know the difference in justice and injustice, righteousness and sin.  We know, AND we know that sinners ought to get what’s coming to them, especially if we’re the victims.  God should take sides and see to it that the evil men do gets paid in full. But you see, Jesus told that story to make it plain that, by His grace, evil does not get paid in full.  Instead, evil was repaid by the Cross.  God loves enough to forgive, and forgive completely.   He does not desire the torment of souls in Hell, but the company of souls in Heaven. 

I remind you of that, because this preference for mercy is totally unsatisfying to those of us who like to keep score.  We want bad people to get their just desserts except when WE are the bad people.  When I’m the sinner, grace seems like a much finer idea.  That won’t do, however – the Lord’s prayer specifically says ‘forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us.’  We don’t get to withhold forgiveness from others then claim it for ourselves.

Oh, did you think YOU were the lost sheep?

Well, you just might be, at that.   But it’s also possible that you might be one of the 99 sassy sheep in the flock, just hanging around watching the action.   Waiting for Jesus to redeem a lost soul, and keeping close to the brothers and sisters while you pray up the stray.  No shame in that; it’s good work if you can get it.  Circle up and keep the weaker ones in the center where it’s safer.  Tending to the other sheep might be your job right now.

Or maybe you aren’t a sheep at all.  Maybe you are a shepherd.  Yes, I know in the parable we’re supposed to see Jesus as our Shepherd, and that He is.  But we’re also supposed to be doing our best to imitate Jesus and be His hands and feet on earth.  Maybe it’s time to go looking for that lost sheep yourself, to see if you can’t bring him or her into the fold. 

Everybody needs to come home safe.  And our job is to keep the flock safe, and stay close to Jesus and not get lost, and to go looking for those sheep that DID get lost whenever we can.  Just like Jesus said in the story.”

Maybe it would have sounded something like that.

Because the love that forgives?  It’s not just for you, to cover your sins and wickedness.  It’s also for the people who hijack planes and fly them into skyscrapers.  It’s for KKK members who blow up churches full of children.  It’s for people who take guns into Walmart to shoot shoppers, or accelerate their car into a crowd to run over people, or take a sword to the bus stop where kids are gathered for a ride to school.  It’s for the meth addict and the homeless guy down at the camp and every single soul in the Elko County jail.  It’s for the despairing who are thinking of killing themselves and the angry who want to kill somebody else.  

And it’s for all the people yelling and screaming and blaming each other, who can’t stand the meanness of the world as it is, and can’t see that their anger and bitterness are just making it worse…. or that forgiveness just might make some of it better.

Until Jesus comes again, there will always be Before and After in life.  Joys or trials, events that make you stronger or break you with sorrow.  These tend to be the turning points where a sheep can get lost.  The church is here to celebrate the good but also to hold people together during the bad.  It’s no accident that there were 99 sheep left to take care of each other.

God’s love is a love that forgives.   Us disciples of Jesus are called to share that love with ALL the sheep, good or bad.  

No matter what came Before or what comes After.

AMEN.

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