To Still a Storm: Mark 4:35-41 and the Charleston Shootings

June 21, 2015
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

Until this past Wednesday evening, I had the privilege of referring to Charleston, South Carolina, as the charming city in which I met my husband, the enchanting city in which shrimp ‘n’ grits and sweet tea grace most restaurant menus, the delightful city in which my sister grows summer squash. If you were planning a trip to Charleston, I would urge you to snag a spot on a wooden swing at Waterfront Park and stay put until the sun sets and the stars glisten over the water. I would instruct you as to where you might find cast iron gates older than your great-grandmother, and I’d insist on your eating buttered biscuits the size of cantaloupes. I would encourage you to take a walk beside the harbor along a row of Victorian houses, to reach up and feel the Spanish moss that hangs like Dali’s surrealist clocks from the boughs of thick, gnarled trees, and to take in an outdoor concert in the town square.

But this past Wednesday evening, everything changed. Charleston caught the attention of the national news media and added its name to a growing list of locations: Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newtown, Staten Island, Columbine, Midtown Manhattan, Oklahoma City, and too many more–all plagued by incomprehensible hatred and violence. Around nine o’clock on Wednesday evening, everything changed. Because nothing really changes at all.

As you know by now, nine people were killed in Charleston on Wednesday night. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, The Rev. Daniel Simmons, The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson were shot by a stranger whom they first welcomed into their prayer meeting and Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We know now that the gunman sat with the people who would later become his victims, in what should have been a safe place, a sanctuary, for an hour before opening fire. Nine irreplaceable people are dead. Nine individuals’ families are in deep mourning but are somehow, God bless them, still speaking forgiveness. Charleston now has its own hashtag. And it has nothing to do with the shrimp ‘n’ grits. Everything changed. Because nothing really changes at all.

Half a world away, and just a matter of hours after the attack on Emanuel AME in Charleston, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes in northern Israel was attacked by arsonists. Attacks like these in Israel are referred to as “price-tag” attacks in the ongoing hate crimes which take place between Israelis and Palestinians. The Church of the Multiplication, as you might have guessed, is so named because it is said to have been built on the spot on which Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for five thousand men plus women and children who had gathered to hear him speak. As such, the church houses 5th-century Byzantine mosaics picturing fish and baskets of bread. It is a wildly popular tourist and pilgrimage destination. But there are no tours today, and none tomorrow. Although no one was killed in the attack on the Church of the Multiplication, much of the building was heavily damaged. Everything changed. Because nothing really changes at all.

Interestingly enough, the Church of the Multiplication is set in Tabgha along the Sea of Galilee. It’s likely the site (or at least very, very close to the site) from which Jesus and the disciples would have launched their boat in today’s gospel lesson. I’ve never been to the Holy Land. I’ve never seen the Sea of Galilee in person. Some of you have (Please take me with you next time!), and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I hear the Sea of Galilee is the kind of beautiful that can make your thoughts give way to nothing more than a sudden awareness of your own breathing. And I imagine it was beautiful that evening as the sun set and stars appeared, and Jesus was tired. And night was falling. I imagine the scene was something like looking out over Charleston Harbor from a wooden swing. If there had been any sign of a storm on the horizon, it’s unlikely that Jesus and the boys would have set sail. Sure, fishing typically happened overnight, but close to the shore, not out in the deep. Night is not the time for crossing the sea, definitely not for crossing into unfamiliar territory. But it must have been calm and beautiful, because as worn out as Jesus was from the heat and the parables and the crowds by the seashore all day, he said, “Let us go across to the other side.” Maybe Jesus had a sudden boost of energy, a second wind after a long, hard day, the kind that might make you decide to go to an 8 pm Wednesday night Bible study rather than curling up on the sofa.

Maybe there was a sparkle in Jesus’ eye as he looked out over the water, a quickening in his step as he motioned to the disciples that they weren’t done for the day after all. They were off on a new adventure with new folks who weren’t the hometown crowd. Whatever it was that kept them from protesting the overnight trip, the disciples “took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

The people of Emanuel AME, in the name of Jesus, welcomed a stranger. Just as he was. They said, “Let us go across to the other side,” and they shared God’s word with someone who wasn’t the hometown crowd. And the stranger journeyed with them a ways, and “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

And today, we, like the disciples, rush to wake Jesus who’s asleep on the cushion. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Don’t you care that children are gunned down in first grade classrooms? Don’t you care that unarmed black men and women and (dare I say it) teenage girls at a pool party are wrestled to the ground, choked to death, or shot while holding their hands in the air? Don’t you care that decent people–ministers, librarians, teachers, guidance counselors, police officers, social workers–just doing their jobs or running errands or attending Bible study are shot at point blank range with illegal weapons? Don’t you care that we spend more on prisons than we do on education? Don’t you care that a five year old girl in Emanuel AME church knew enough about racism to play dead so that she might survive the attack? Don’t you care that as retribution for a differing political stance, arsonists burn churches built on the land on which you walked and taught? Don’t you care that a certain church I refuse to name is planning to picket the funerals of the people who died in the Charleston shootings? Don’t you care that in your name, they’re carrying signs that say “God sent the shooter?” Lord, help us! Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?

Before Jesus can even rub the sleep from his eyes, he says, “Peace, be still.” At least, that’s what the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible tells us. But I didn’t sit through five semesters of Biblical Greek to allow you keep believing that’s what Jesus said. When Jesus calmed the storm, he said something more akin to “SHUT UP! STOP IT!” than “Peace, be still.” The gospel writer tells us that Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves, but I wonder: was Jesus speaking only to the turbulent, deathly sea? Or was Jesus speaking to a fear that is much more deadly? Is it possible that Jesus was hoping his words would be overheard by the storms raging within the hearts of his disciples? Is it possible that Jesus is speaking to the storms in us?

The wind and the waves are no match for Jesus, but the fear brewing in the human heart is not so easily silenced.

Unlike parallel versions of this story in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, here in the gospel of Mark, the disciples’ fear never disappears. It merely changes from a fear of the elements to a fear surrounding Jesus’ power over the elements. It’s one thing to be paralyzed by the sight of the biggest waves you’ve ever seen, but another to be paralyzed by astonished fear of the one who controls the waves.

I think it’s time to name what we’re afraid of. Are we afraid that we won’t stop racism? We won’t. Are we afraid that we’ll have to admit our own complicity in the systems that keep racism alive? We will. But today, even if never before, we are going to need to hear Jesus sending us out into the world to STOP IT. To stop looking at the waves and to start remembering who’s in our boat.

You know what your own storms are. Life was as beautiful as stars on the ocean until everything changed. Your relationship dissolved. You were diagnosed. Your dream didn’t come to fruition. Things didn’t go well at work. Or at home. The unexpected bills arrived in the mail. Addiction or depression or anger or grief snatched someone away from you, or maybe you were the one who was snatched away. These storms are real. They are fear-inducing, and they are heartbreaking. I wrote an entire sermon on these fears on Tuesday, but Wednesday brought a new wave none of us was expecting. I think we have to decide, if not last Wednesday, then today, that this overwhelming storm is our storm, too. It isn’t just Charleston’s storm, or Israel’s storm or the storm of one historically oppressed people or another. It isn’t just Emanuel AME’s storm or the Church of the Multiplication’s storm. It’s our storm, too, and when we stand in fear at the height of waves and deafening thunder, Jesus says, STOP IT.

Everything changed. But nothing will change at all if we don’t respond to the command of the one who calms the waves. The time to act is now. It will not do to shake our heads or worse, to lock our church doors–or the doors of our hearts–in fear.

Usually at this point in a sermon, I use broad brush strokes. I invite you to “do justice” or “love your neighbor” or “be an ally” or “welcome the stranger.” But this morning, those calls to action seem too nebulous. Several of you have asked what you can do in light of racial injustice or gun violence. Here’s an actual list.

1) Donate to Mother Emanuel AME Hope Fund to help defray the costs of trauma counseling and expanded operating budgets in the days ahead. Send your donations c/o the City of Charleston, PO Box 304, Charleston, SC 29402.

2) Add your name to one of the many petitions to remove the Confederate Flag, a symbol of hate and white supremacy groups, from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. You can find these petitions by googling “petition removal of confederate flag,” or if you’re more of a pen and paper type person, send a letter to SC Governor Nikki Haley.

3) Don’t make or tolerate racial jokes. Speak up. Don’t be afraid to cite your faith as a reason you try to honor all people and see them as the images of God that they are.

4) Check yourself and be honest. Are you more afraid of or uncomfortable around a certain race of people? Commit to teaching our children a different way.

5) Volunteer to tutor or to read in an elementary school. The prison system makes its calculations for the future based on the number of behavioral issues in the 3rd grade. Go change a third grader’s life and prove the prisons wrong.

I have more. And I’m happy to share them with you. While I am listening very attentively to people of color who are teaching me how best to be an ally, I will be paralyzed by fear no longer. I cannot keep quiet. And neither can you.

Jesus is in our boat. Let’s go across to the other side. Everything will change. Thanks be to God.

3 thoughts on “To Still a Storm: Mark 4:35-41 and the Charleston Shootings

  1. Beautifully thought through and shared! Thank you Austin. I miss your presence in Chapin, but appreciate staying in touch. Life certainly has storms, but thankfully Jesus is in the boat!


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