In 1961, Joe Ellwanger was a young pastor in his first call, not far from where he grew up. While he was familiar with the area, he was less familiar with the territory, as a white man serving an African-American congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. One day, he received an invitation from the intern pastor at a white congregation in Tuscaloosa, 60 miles away. The invitation was directed to the youth of his congregation, and asked them to come to Tuscaloosa for a Sunday evening of fellowship, worship, and refreshments. It sounded like the kind of Sunday evening you might find in churches all around the country, even today. However, in Alabama in 1961, it was far from ordinary to bring black and white youth together for much of anything. As you likely already know, they did not go to school together, hang out together, play sports together, or go to church together, even if they were of the same denomination, as these students were.
However, Pastor Ellwanger shared the invitation with his youth, and there were two young ladies who responded. Pastor drove, and they spent an evening in the company of people very different from themselves, swapping stories and learning about life on the other side of the deep racial divide that ordered their lives. Driving back, it was clear that these young women had been energized and moved by their experience, and that they were hopeful for more such events. However, when Pastor Joe picked up the next edition of the Birmingham paper, the excitement of that evening quickly faded. There on the front page in great detail was the story of what had happened since. The KKK had kidnapped the host pastor at that congregation in Tuscaloosa, driven him out of Tuscaloosa and beat him, and left him to walk back to town in the wee hours of the morning. A cross had been burned on the lawn of the church, and a warning sent that there would be worse consequences than these if there were ever another mixed-race youth gathering.
Even as Pastor Ellwanger was still reading the article, his phone rang, and a rough voice on the other end threatened him, “You and the two girls are next.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you,” says Jesus. Do you suppose the intern pastor felt blessed in that moment? Do you suppose Pastor Ellwanger did? Or the two girls, Carolyn and Betty? 15 years old and already far more aware than most of us sitting here of their oppression and the hatred they faced, simply because they were born in their skin. This was no idle threat for them. They had probably seen or at least heard of lynchings in their area. They probably knew more than one person who had been harassed, possibly beaten, maybe even killed. After all, this was only 6 years after 14-year old Emmett Till had been brutally murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Do you suppose Carolyn and Betty felt blessed by the hatred? By being excluded? By being reviled and defamed? Would you?
And yet, when he went to talk to the girls and their parents, to let them know about this threat, when he asked Carolyn if she was afraid, Pastor Ellwanger was floored by her response. “No. I am not so much afraid as ashamed. I’m ashamed that others have suffered so much for the freedom of our people, and all people, and I have suffered so little.”
This young woman understood the beatitudes in a deep and profound way. Where some would have been angry or afraid, this young woman felt blessed. Blessed by the people who have worked for her equality. Blessed to have her eyes open to the truth of racism in our country. Blessed to have had an evening that gave her the opportunity to see a glimpse of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, and blessed to see how far we are from it.
In this famous passage from Luke, this passage that we know so well we almost glaze over and tune out when we hear it, Jesus is actually laying out the most profound and important statement of what it means to be a Christian. What it means to live as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, in a world where there continues to be poverty, hatred, hunger, and sorrow. This is not a list of haves and have-nots. It is not an accounting of who is in and who is out. It is not winners and losers. Not in the way that we usually divide people out.
Instead, it is about what it means to have caught a glimpse of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. What it means to have no hope except the hope that God is at work, that God is working justice in this world in spite of all appearances.
This country is in the middle of another time of upheaval, very similar to the 1960s. Hatred and exclusion are the dominant rhetoric. Fear is palpable on every side of the political spectrum. I have talked with therapists who report an increase in patient anxiety. I have heard from pastors who have heard the same. Individuals in our communities are worried about their safety, about their ability to stay long-term in this country that they call home.
If you doubt whether the rhetoric is really affecting people here in our neighborhood, let me assure you that it is. The hate mongers are bolder today than they were a year ago, and they are getting more bold every day. A friend of mine, a professor at East Central, recently received proof in a form similar to what Pastor Ellwanger received 55 years ago. One morning a few months ago, she opened her mail to find a letter from the KKK. It was addressed directly to her, at her home address, and it had no stamp. Inside was a picture of a Klansman with his white hood, pointing out of the picture at her,Uncle Sam style, with the words “Watch Your Step!” written across the top. This happened less than ten miles from here. When she shared it with me, I was shaken. And resolved. This is not okay. This is not Christian. This is not American. This is not human.
Tuesday is election day, and I imagine that most if not all of you will be going to the polls to cast a ballot for the person that you feel will lead this country in the right direction for the next four years. And I, like you, have opinions about who that is. But the most I am going to say about that is this: I encourage you to vote, not from fear, but from love, from hope. Because regardless of who wins on Tuesday, our hope is not in any politician or any political party. Our hope is in the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. The God who has blessed those who are poor and hungry and grieving with a vision, with the hope of a future in which they will inherit the kingdom of God, in which they will be filled, in which they will laugh again. The God who has heard the cries of the hated and the excluded and reviled and defamed, and given them hope of being included and loved and welcomed. The God who has already welcomed everyone into God’s family through the waters of baptism, who died on a cross and overcame death and the grave, for all of creation, and who is preparing a place at the table for each and every person – whether they are rich or poor. Whether they are hungry or full. This promise if for everyone.
The story of Pastor Ellwanger and Carolyn is as relevant today as it was 55 years ago. As relevant in Washington, MO, as in Birmingham, AL. To live in this world is to face fear and hatred. Poverty and hunger continue to be very real in this world. Grief is a part of every life. But Jesus tells us in this sermon that God has a different vision for the future. That God is not satisfied with the status quo. And Jesus tells us in his very life, death, and resurrection, that not only is God not satisfied with the status quo, but that God is going to move us toward justice, toward reconciliation, toward a new life, a life in which fear is not our only option, in which a grace is our founding principle.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, there will still be work to do. And whatever happens on Tuesday, God will still be doing God’s work. This is what you have been named and claimed for. This is what you are baptized into. To be God’s people, to be the gathering of the saints; saints who will live now as if this promise were true, saints who will step out together in bold proclamation of justice, of love, of grace, of hope. Saints who stand in solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated, the excluded, the reviled, the defamed.
This is the hope of the Christian. To believe, not only in a God who cares, but to have faith and hope in the God we meet in Jesus Christ – the God of all Creation, the God of all peoples, the God who so loves this world, and so wants to bring this world into God’s Kingdom. The God who comes to us here, in this assembly, in this water, in this bread and wine, and makes us to be saints, fully saints, even as we are still broken, still hurting, still sinning, Our God calls, gathers, and sends the saints – the Pastor Ellwangers and the Carolyns and each and every one of us gathered here, to live into the hope of a different future, a future shaped by God’s unparalleled, unfailing, undying grace.