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Sermon for June 21, 2015

Passages
As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!” ~ Mark 4:35-42
It is not a proud moment for the disciples. Mediterranean males in Jesus’ day are not supposed to show such open fear. Their panic reveals a serious loss of honor. Yet here they are, trembling with terror. Some translations of this passage, like the NRSV, say that at the end of this event the disciples are filled with awe. But that’s not quite what’s happening. The disciples are not inspired. They are frightened. The Greek indicates something closer to the New Living Translation. The disciples are absolutely terrified -- scared out of their wits. It’s not the fierce storm that scares them. It’s not the high waves. It’s not that the boat is about to capsize. Jesus challenges their faith. He confronts them with their lack of trust. That’s what scares them.

Let’s try to imagine the first audience who read Mark’s story. The Roman Empire had just tamped down a Jewish revolt. Rebels fled to Jerusalem to gain support. Rome cut off all avenues of escape, and slow starvation beleaguered those who were trapped in the city. Eventually, no one could resist the military might of Rome. The Roman army seized Jerusalem, burned the Jewish Temple to the ground, and looted it – the Jewish Temple that was supposed to exist eternally, just like heaven and earth. Soldiers plundered the city, killed the rebels, and crushed the rebellion. All of Israel was impacted profoundly. Rome pursued a scorched earth policy in order to teach the Jewish rebels a lesson. They spared those who offered full collaboration – mostly the Jewish aristocracy. The poor, as usual, suffered greatly, left defenseless before the wrath of Roman counter-insurgency. Peasants who were unable to flee where slaughtered or enslaved. Mark writes from this perspective – from the vantage point of the poor people of Galilee. To those who are deprived and suffering, Mark tells about a man of God named Jesus who equally disdains the Jewish aristocracy and the Roman occupation. Jesus comes to sow the seeds of a radical new order, pressed into the weary soil of the world. And he calls it Good News.

Now back to the wind and waves. Back to the absolute terror of the disciples. In the stories and myths of the time, the seas were seen as obstacles. Bodies of water were ruled by chaotic demons and destructive cosmic forces. The wind and waves are symbolic of the opposition and violence that threatens to drown Mark’s peasant community. And, here is an important part of the story. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake into Gentile territory. Jews and Gentiles don’t mix. Most Jews thought that associating with Gentiles violated the law and made them unclean. So, that evening on the lake is meant to be a journey – a passage from segregation to integration. Any evil that wants to keep segregation in place, any chaotic tempest that interrupts the journey to equality, is silenced by Jesus, who says, “Silence! Be Still!” The winds of opposition are calmed. And the disciples are terrified.

You see where I’m going with this? Some hurricanes are howling around us. Yet again we are confronted with systems of injustice and oppression that protect the power and wealth of a select few by subjugating entire groups of people. We are caught, tossed about in our own waves, wondering what we are going to do. How long are we going to watch what’s going on around us, trembling in fear, before we understand that the One we claim to follow, Jesus the Christ, has come to lead us from fear and oppression to a new shore? When will we be part of his Good News?

Some people are calling the events in Charleston Couth Carolina a tragedy. In my mind, this was no tragedy. I have to agree with John Stewart who opened his Daily Show by saying, if you call what happened in Charleston a tragedy, you’ve completely missing the point. “Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals. And the white guy is the one who feels his country’s being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves.”

Did you see that the shooter’s racist manifesto was found online yesterday? The slaughter of nine African-American people in an historic African-American Church is not about gun ownership. And it’s not a war on Christians. Ascribing the shooting to mental illness is a smokescreen. This was a terrorist hate crime.

Most of us white folk will watch the news and read our Facebook feeds, weeping and wringing our hands, believing that there is nothing for us to do, nothing for us to say, nothing that can make a difference. We righteous progressives have all kinds of excuses for our silence: We don’t know what to say, we are afraid to say the wrong thing, we are overwhelmed by it or we just don’t understand. But truthfully, in a day or two, just as we did after Baltimore, and Ferguson, and Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, and Travon Martin, most of us will move on to the next news cycle and the next drama in our lives and this will be just another one of those experiences that we file away as an annoyance. White folk can do that. We can move on to the next thing because this stuff does not happen to us as much. We do not face this kind of terror. We are not at risk for being assassinated because of our race. We can move on to the next news cycle while our brothers and sisters of color must sit back and watch us our denial and silence.

I think many white people choose not to face racism because we are afraid.  The great African-American preacher Otis Moss once preached a sermon called “Going from Grace to Dignity.” He said, “As long as we were struggling in the cotton fields of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi with our cotton sacks across our shoulders and to our sides, picking cotton and having our fingers burning from stinging cotton worms that would hide under the cotton leaves; as long as we were barefoot, actually and symbolically, laughing when we were tickled … America was satisfied … But one day America saw us marching to the voting booth, sitting down at lunch counters, and all of America became afraid.”

Here’s what I want to know. Why is it that some people are trying so hard to make excuses for this Charleston killer? Was he just misguided and disturbed? Maybe. But what he did was an act of hatred. Hatred is a learned state of being. So is cowardice. So is ambivalence.

When white people say NOTHING about the abhorrent violence that occurs repeatedly in the Black community, when we don’t even acknowledge what happened, it leaves our African-American friends and family and co-workers in wonderment and sadness. No posts. No in-person conversation. No water cooler comments. That’s not okay. It’s okay to empathize. It’s okay to question. It’s okay to disagree. It’s NOT okay to act like nothing is happening.

I’m probably offending someone right now, so let me just direct this at myself for a moment. I’m really asking myself what I have done to change the culture that allows for events like Charleston to happen. What have I done to change an oppressive, scorched-earth status quo? What have I done to resist that self-centered, fear-motivated demand to protect my place in society by ignoring systemic conditions that privilege white over black, brown and a whole horde of other differences? What have I done to plant some of those seeds of justice and peace that Jesus came to press into the weary soil of the world? What am I doing to be part of his Good News?

I am going to do my part. I am going to take responsibility for getting white folk in our congregation and our community to have sacred conversations on race. I am going to create space in my ministry to keep talking about oppression, systemic racism, white privilege and white supremacy. I am going to demand of us white folk that we start taking responsibility for our own understanding of the history that brought us to this place. I’m going to stop asking my Black friends how we are going to fix this, and I’m going to start doing more reading and research and listening to those who are being the change we need to see. I am going to try to create a safe place for us to seek solutions to the oppressive systems and terrorizing conditions in which black and brown people live and are oppressed every day.

I ask you to join me. I ask you to be brave enough to not just move on when the news cycle shifts. I ask you to keep engaging when the conversation gets hard. I ask you not to change the subject when fear, denial and self-preservation try to scare us into inaction. 

Here is where I want to start. Wednesday night June 24, at 8 PM, I will be down by our Black Lives Matter Banner on Colesville Road. I’ll be there to talk, and sing, and pray outside, in public, in honor of those who were targeted and killed at their church Bible Study at mother Emmanuel: Cynthia Hurd, a 54-year-old branch manager for the Charleston County Library System; Susie Jackson, and 87-year-old longtime church member; Ethel Lance, a 70-year-old woman who worked at Emanuel AME Church for 30 years; Rev. DePayne Middleton, a 49-year-old doctor and admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University; 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who earned her business administration degree from Allen University; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., a 74-year-old retired pastor; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, a 45-year-old track coach at Goose Creek High School; 59 year-old church member Myra Thompson; and The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, age 41, state senator and Senior Pastor of Emanuel AME Church.

I think we need to let the community know that we will not be afraid. I think we need to re-affirm that Black Lives Matter, and that we, at Christ Congregational Church, worship a God who stands on the side of those who are marginalized and oppressed. In the words of AME Minster Jennifer Bailey, our God is not docile. Our God is big enough to hold our anger, frustration and questions. Our God understands that narratives of reconciliation and peace are not what my community needs right now. What we need is truth-telling and accountability. We need those in positions of power to acknowledge that this was not simply a "single incident," but the latest in a 400-year history of violence against Black people in the United States. We need religious and community leaders to step up and speak out against acts of racial violence in their congregations. Please let me know if you can join me.

Sources:
Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Rolling in Sackcloth and Ashes: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-bailey/rolling-in-sackcloth-and-ashes_b_7614210.html
I’m Done Praying. I’m Just Done… White People. http://sanctuaryucc.org/im-done-praying-im-just-done-white-people/

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