Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Why Are You Afraid?" A sermon on Mark 4:35-41, preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Sunday after the massacre of 9 people at prayer at Emanuel AME Church.

         “Why are you afraid?   Have you still no faith?”

            During the dark days of World War II, the World Council of Churches adopted a symbol which had been important to the early church during times of danger, hardship, and persecution:  the church universal is depicted as a storm-tossed boat, with a cross for a mast.
            Over the centuries, the ship has been a prominent symbol for the church in Christian art and architecture.  In fact, the area of the church or cathedral where the congregation gathers is called the "nave,"  which is the Latin word for "ship."  When the early Christians tried to describe what it was like to be a Christian and to be a member of the church, they sometimes compared it to being on a ship with Christ and trying to cope with the wind and waves that buffet them so often.               
            In today’s Gospel lesson, we find the disciples on a journey.  The journey is not one of their own choosing, but one they've been commanded to take.  
            It must have been a long day.  Jesus had been teaching beside the sea.  There had been a huge crowd gathered on the shore, while he sat in the boat and spoke in parables about the Reign of God.
            When evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, "Let us go across to the other side of the sea."  So, leaving the crowd behind, they set off across the sea. 
            Now, Peter and the other fishermen among Jesus' inner circle of disciples knew from experience the danger of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee.  Throughout the Bible,  the sea is a metaphor for the place where chaos and the demonic reside.   Moses leads the people from bondage to liberation through a sea.   In some of the psalms, the sea threatens those who would follow God.[1]    In the Psalms and in the book of Revelations, God's power to calm the sea is affirmed.[2]   As Gary Charles writes:  “For Mark the sea is a metaphor for the demonic and apocalyptic chaos that confronts Jesus, terrorizes his disciples and threatens the future of the gospel."[3]
            A lot of us are trying to live by faith in the midst of a life that can get chaotic and precarious.   Things happen that are beyond our control.  Cancer cells grow in our bodies.   Addictions resurface in the lives of loved ones. People in power abuse it and create destruction for those in their power."[4] 
            This week, what happened in Charleston, South Carolina really tossed a lot of our boats.  For a lot of people, it’s felt pretty stormy.   So it’s ironic that the middle name of the alleged killer is “Storm.”  But I don’t want to say much about him right now.  Whenever terror strikes like this, we pay attention to the shooter, as we try to figure out how this could happen—how this young man who looks like a kid could do what he did.
            For now I want to focus on people who gathered on Wednesday evening for their regular Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.  The Rev. Clemente Pinckney, age 41, was a state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel.  He was married and the father of two children.  He had a graduate degree and was a graduate of the Lutheran Seminary of the South. 
            Cynthia Hurd, age 54, had dedicated her lift to serving and improving the lives of others as a librarian and library manager.  The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45, was a pastor at Emanuel, and was also a speech therapist and high school girls track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.  She was the mother of Chris Singleton, a college student whom some of us saw talking about love and forgiveness on TV, and two younger children.
            Tywanza Sanders was 26, with a business administration degree—known as a “quiet, well-known student who was committed to his education.”
            Ethel Lance, who was 70, had attended Emanuel most of her life and had worked as a custodian.  She is remembered as “funny and a pleasure to be around…a wonderful mother and grandmother.”
            Susie Jackson, 87, was a longtime church member.  Depayne Middleton Doctor was 49.  The mother of four sang in Emanuel’s choir, and previously directed a community development program in Charleston County.  In December, she started a new job as admissions coordinator at her alma mater, Southern Wesleyan University.  She is remembered as “a warm and enthusiastic leader.”
            The Rev. Daniel Simmons, age 74,  had previously pastored another church in the Charleston area.  He attended the Bible study every Wednesday night. 
            Myra Thompson, age 59, was the wife of the Rev. Anthony Thompson, the vicar of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston.
            Felicia Sanders, a 57-year-old grandmother and mother of Ty Sanders, survived by playing dead among the bodies and saved her granddaughter by making her play dead.  She saw her son try to talk the shooter out of shooting them…and then saw him killed.
            As Otis Moss III describes what happened,  members of Emanuel gathered Wednesday evening with their pastor in what should have been a safe place, armed with nothing but their Bibles.[5]  Seated in their midst was a young white man who was a stranger,  yet welcomed as a friend. As Rev. Moss says, “The black church embraces all. We accord a certain degree of respect and special recognition to those who do not look like us.”  The young man was seated next to the pastor, “where he returned the church's hospitality with unimaginable inhumanity.”
            Rev. Moss describes Emanuel AME Church as “a national treasure.”  Yolanda Pierce, professor of African American religion and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, reminds us that "the AME denomination was founded as a protest against racism" and "the black church was birthed as a sanctuary from white violence."  This is true of Emanuel AME, affectionately known as "Mother" Emanuel.  Its storied history dates back almost 200 years. Mother Emanuel endured despite being burned down, outlawed and destroyed by an earthquake.[6]
            Emanuel AME has been the target of racist attacks, legal harassment and arson.  Each time, Emanuel Church has responded with love rooted in justice, by teaching literacy, producing leaders, protesting unequal treatment, fighting for economic parity and demanding the confederate flag be replaced by a symbol for all South Carolinians. Mother Emanuel embodies liberation, love and reconciliation.[7]

            This particular storm will pass.  But for now, for some of us, the storm feels overwhelming.  For now, it’s time to grieve the loss of precious lives.  Lives that matter to their families and friends and their community.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose lives need to matter to us.   As the apostle Paul writes in First Corinthians 12,  “when one member of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers as well.”
            I imagine our African-American brothers and sisters around the country may be feeling uneasy as they gather for worship today and in the weeks to come.  I imagine if I were African-American and were attending an African-American church, I might be feeling uneasy if I  saw an unfamiliar white face, someone who nods but doesn’t seem to warm up to the people around him.   Could he be a Charleston copy-cat?  Could he be a white supremacist?  I wonder how safe I’d feel.
            There have been at least six shooting incidents at houses of worship in our nation in the past seven years,[8]  along with all the shootings at schools and elsewhere.  It seems like a storm of violence and hatred has permeated our society. 

            Meanwhile, back in the boat.  The disciples must have been exhausted after the day's activities.  They may have had some qualms about crossing to the other side of the sea, which was gentile territory.  As Jews of that time, it would have been a new idea to them that God's salvation included non-Jews, people who were “other.” 
            The winds were battering against the boat.  It was filling with water. The disciples had plenty of reason to be terrified.
            In the midst of all of this, where is God?  "Don't you care that we are perishing?"
            Jesus had been sleeping through the storm, which was a sign that he trusted in God to keep them all safe.
            Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace!  Be still!"          
            And the wind ceased--  and there was calm.

            Then Jesus said to them, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"
            When we follow Jesus, when we obey the command to cross over to “the other side,” to be with others who are different from us… when terror strikes, the storm can feel overwhelming.      
            Jesus rebukes the storm:  “Peace! Be still!”   But the peace of Christ is never passive.  It’s never just an absence of conflict or trouble.  We are called to “pursue peace with everyone.”[9]
            My friend and Lutheran colleague Colleen Niemann forwarded  a response to the massacre in Charleston from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Bishop Eaton writes, “It has been a long season of disquiet in our country.  From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence.  But this ... the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism….”

            Do you not care that we are perishing?  Do you not care that church folk, at prayer, are massacred?  Do you not care that men and women are imprisoned at rates never seen before?  Do you not care that young people are dying?  Do you not care about the disparity in educational opportunities?  The list could go on.   Do you not care?
            What keeps us from having the difficult but necessary conversations about race and privilege that can lead to the healing of the sickness in our society?
            Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?

            I’ve been heartsick over what happened this week in Charleston.  I’m heartsick that people keep dying.  Yet I have to admit that I’ve felt afraid to speak too prophetically about this.  I like to be liked and appreciated.  I don’t like it when people are upset over a sermon.   
            But Jesus calls us to set out in the boat.  We’re called to pursue peace.  We are entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation.  We are called to love all the people God loves. 
            If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to follow him into the storm.  If we want to stand with Jesus, we need to stand with those who have been weathering the storm for a long time, because that’s where Jesus is.  It can be scary.
            But I’m hopeful.  I really want to be hopeful.  I’m hopeful that now is the time.  That now is the time when we say “enough.”  Now is the time for us to stop being afraid of the hard conversations about race and privilege and gun violence.  Now is the time for us to commit ourselves  to living into the Beloved Community, which is just another way of talking about the Kingdom of God.  Now is the time to find ways to work together with our neighbor congregations, to find energy and encouragement from one another—because we’re all in the boat together. 
            Jesus never promised us that we could stay safely on the shore, where things are familiar and comfortable.  But he does promise to be with us always. 
            We can trust in God’s promises,  that God will be with us always.  That’s what “Emmanuel” means.  God with us!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 21, 2015          


[1] Ps. 69:1, 14-15.
[2] Ps. 46:1-3; 89:8-9; 93:3-4; Rev. 21:1.
[3] Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 60.
[4] I am grateful to Alyce MacKenzie, in “Choppy Seas, Calm Spirits,” posted at Edgy Exegesis at Patheos Progressive portal.
[5] Otis Moss III, “The Doors of the Church are Open, at Huffington Post.
[6] Moss.
[7] Moss.
[9] Hebrews 12:14

No comments:

Post a Comment