Sinking: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33; and Charlottesville

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, August 13, 2017

As the children leave, I ask of you a moment of personal privilege. As Head of Staff, Cynthia Jarvis could have insisted on preaching today, even though I was on the schedule. She could have, and she probably wanted to, because any preacher worth her salt wants to be in the pulpit today speaking love in the face of hate. Instead, she has chosen, however reluctantly or unwisely, to trust me with a word that must be spoken. I am grateful for that trust, and for your trust, and for the gospel which has been entrusted to all of us as people of faith. I also share with you that this week Cindy cleaned out her closet, so if it’s any consolation to anyone, I am literally wearing Cindy’s shoes. In light of this fact, I take the liberty to remind you of something Cindy has said in the past—that a pastor’s role in preaching, like the shepherd’s staff, is twofold. Sometimes sermons draw you near and bring comfort. Sometimes they prod and agitate. This sermon falls in the latter category. It is intentionally provocative. It may make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m not flippant about that; all I ask is that you hear me out, and I promise to afford you the same courtesy should you want to remain in conversation. I believe our relationship as a family of faith can hold that tension. 

Keep your eyes open and pray with me: Lord, may your light shine. Lord, may your steadfast love endure forever. Lord, may justice flow down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

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The snout of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is just a few hundred yards away from Icefields Parkway, a stunning, scenic route between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the province of Alberta. When our family stopped to see the glacier just a few weeks ago, I underestimated the reflection of the sun off the ice and sustained a wicked sunburn. So I brought back from Canada souvenir tan lines which prove my lack of good judgment. But what has stuck with me even more than the sunburn is the memory of small historical markers along the walking trail leading to the glacier’s edge. I might have missed the first one on the far side of the parking lot just off the highway, except that my four-year-old was climbing on it. No more than 2 feet high, and definitely off the beaten path, the stone marker blended into the background. It simply said, “The glacier was here in 1843.” As we hiked toward the glacier’s edge on a trail of rock and rubble left behind by the glacier itself as it has receded, I noticed more of these markers—off to the side, unobtrusive, and yet still quietly telling the sad truth that the glacier is receding at an alarming and accelerating rate.

“The glacier was here in 1908” read the marker at the foot of the path. A ways later, “The glacier was here in 1925.” Then “The glacier was here in 1935.” We walked on, sometimes slipping and stumbling on the rocks left in the glacier’s wake. “The glacier was here in 1942.” We helped the children on the steepest parts of the climb. “The glacier was here in 1982.” By the time we reached the marker showing where the glacier was in 1992, the message these markers conveyed was growing painfully clear. At the 1992 marker, we were only about halfway from the parking lot to the glacier’s current position. You’re probably already doing the math. In the last 25 years, the glacier has moved roughly the same distance it had moved in the previous 149 years.

I could go on about shrinking glaciers and the truth they tell us about the damage we are doing to the environment God has entrusted to our care, but that is a sermon for another day. Because what I must name today is the myth my privilege once allowed me to believe. There was a time not so long ago when I could believe that racism in this country was something like that glacier. Sure, it still existed in the distance. I could easily see and even trip over the rough terrain, the scars it had left behind, but it was receding, or so I thought. There was a time when I could sit in the comfort of an American history class, watching black-and-white reel to reel films of the Ku Klux Klan. I could see blurry footage of men on horseback, clad in bed-sheet hoods and carrying torches as they terrorized communities, burning crosses on lawns and lynching Black lives—and I could regard those films as shameful, horrific scenes, relics from a backward and terrifying time in this country’s past. Though I’ve known for some time now that racism is alive and well and thriving, I confess with sorrow that I did not realize soon enough that the vitriol of those earlier days has never disappeared, nor has it retreated. I am not naive enough to be surprised by the events of yesterday and Friday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, but I am horrified anew as I am unmistakably reminded once more that the marker for racism in 2017 is in the exact same spot as it was in the 1950s and 60s. I do not mean to minimize the torture of those who endured the rage of white supremacists then, but I think it may yet be possible that history will show that things are actually getting worse. Klan members now feel free to carry torches in broad daylight and see no need for fashioning bed sheets into hoods to mask their identities. Indeed, they can openly carry weapons and act as a de facto security force for so-called “protesters” who are, if we are being as honest as we should be, hate-filled domestic terrorists. I hope in light of yesterday’s events that we have all considered how different would be the fate of black or brown men (non-law enforcement) openly carrying weapons under similar circumstances.

I don’t have to tell you that a storm is raging. You can pick that up from whatever news outlet you favor. I am no journalist. As a pastor, I am not called to give you a rundown of the news. My call is to preach the truth and the hope of gospel as it speaks into the events of our lives.

The truth is, we are sinking.

Yesterday a colleague of mine who responded to the clergy call in Charlottesville was harassed by white supremacists as she walked to her car after everyone was asked to disperse. She wrote to a group of our colleagues, “It became apparent very quickly that I was not safe. I encountered a large, very loud, all male group of white supremacists who were looking for a confrontation. The police officer and legal observers watching were not a deterrent…again, in broad daylight, in a bustling city full of police officers and legal observers and volunteers…I encountered armed white supremacists.”[1] My colleague is thankfully safe in her home, preaching this morning to her congregation, but she is lucky. One young person[2] who was there to speak love into the face of hate was killed when a car drove into a crowd of people who had been peaceably protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. At least 19 people were injured by that car, and the number of people who are reported to have been injured in Charlottesville continues to rise.

We are sinking. We are in a pit, well on our way to being enslaved by the powers of this world. Like Joseph we have brought it on ourselves to be sure; those of us in positions of privilege have been wearing that privilege like a robe with long sleeves. Like Joseph we are responsible, but neither are we entirely to blame. That robe was handed to us not because we deserved it, but because our lives were seen as more valuable than other lives. We are culpable and simultaneously ensnared in a system in which hatred of those who differ from us, who are not as privileged as we are, is as old as time.

We are sinking. The boat we thought was sturdy is being tossed around like it’s made of popsicle sticks. We are being shown just how frail, how thin the veneer between us and the storm waged by hate really is. Not only are we inside the storm; the storm has made its way inside us.

We are sinking. White supremacists spout Nazi slogans like “Blood and soil,” yet our president—who is characteristically unapologetic about offending people—goes out of his way not to offend white supremacists or to implicate their actions as evil. With the same lips that threaten nuclear war as if it’s a game of chicken, the leader of our nation generically condemns “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,”[3] (emphasis mine) instead of specifically condemning the actions of domestic terrorists. Never before have I so deeply questioned what year this is. Never before have I been so confused about who we are. Never before have I so fervently prayed for the soul of our country.

I am well aware that I have just agitated approximately half of you. I pause here to clarify that if you think this sermon is about politics, you are mistaken. Our political stances and the deep divisions they cause are symptoms of an underlying illness. They both reflect and impact the way we treat other people—the way we other people. This sermon is not about politics. This sermon is about whether we today have more or less capacity than our predecessors to look into the face of our neighbors and see in them the beloved image of God.

We are sinking. And this sermon asks what we will do in the midst of the storm. Will we have the courage to say of nuclear war, as former counselor of the State Department and long-time professor at the Institute for Advanced Study George Kennan did in a 1980 speech, “For the love of God, for the love of your children and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness. You are mortal men. You are capable of error. You have no right to hold in your hands—there is no one wise enough and strong enough to hold in his hand—destructive power sufficient to put an end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet”[4]?

We are sinking. As the storm rages about us, will we be able, with integrity, to recite and to live the words of the Belhar Confession (written in Afrikaans in 1982 and recently adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA)), which says in part, “We reject any doctrine which…sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ”[5]?

We are sinking. Will we have the faith of the Reverend Traci Blackmon, a black woman who preached a sermon yesterday in Charlottesville inside a church that was surrounded by white supremacists—surrounded to the extent that law enforcement deemed it unsafe for the worshippers inside to exit the building?

We are sinking. Will we have the sheer guts of the students who stood peaceably protesting hate even as they were encircled by torch-carrying, weapon-toting white supremacists?

We are sinking, and this is not our only storm. Some of you have lost loved ones this week and in weeks past. Some of you mourn the loss of loved ones long ago. Some of you are exhausted from seeking employment, others are scarred by estrangement from family or friends. For others, your health or the health of those you love is in the midst of the storm. Whatever your storm, and however inconvenient more wind and waves might seem, this storm in which we all find ourselves today, day one after Charlottesville, demands our immediate attention and our immediate action.

I began this sermon by telling you about the markers at Athabasca Glacier, the small, easily overlooked monuments to the glacier’s receding movement. What I have not told you is that there are also large signs at Athabasca. Warning signs that cannot be missed. Signs that come more frequently as one nears the glacier’s edge. They say things like: “Hold fast to your children,” “Many have died here,” “Do not cross the barriers,” “There are no rescue missions when children fall into crevasses, only recoveries,” and “Hypothermia will kill small children who fall into the ice before our expert recovery teams can reach them.”

Even closer to the snout of the glacier are memorials for those who have slipped into the crevasses—several toddlers and small children, a nine-year-old boy whose story I remember because he died the very day Mark and I were married. The memorials include even a handful of older children and adults who fell into impossible to see cracks in the ice and froze to death despite the warnings.

The journey ahead of us—ahead of Charlottesville—is treacherous, the crevasses hidden, the consequences deadly. More deadly, in fact, for our brothers, sisters, and siblings who are targeted by hate groups than for most of us in this room. Watch your step. Hold fast to the children. Many have died here. The edge of the glacier is right here, just where it’s always been. And it’s not moving, at least not anytime soon. If we are going to put distance between the ugly disease of racism in this country and us, we are going to have to stand at its edge, stare it down, and forbid it to come any closer or to claim the lives of any more children.

The storm is as strong as ever. We are sinking. But the hope of the gospel is this: if we are willing, the one who walks on the waves—the one who is unmoved by the storm—will command us to do the impossible—to get out of the boat we’ve been clinging to—to abandon the vessel, the privilege we thought would protect us—and to trust him instead. If we are willing to get our feet wet doing the work of justice; if we are willing to struggle toward Jesus knowing we don’t have what it takes to reach him; if we are willing to call upon the only one who can save us when we falter, I believe we will find ourselves firmly within his grasp. In the meanwhile, may we have the good sense to pray as Peter did, this day and every day, “Lord, save us.” Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/allison.unroe August 12, 2017

[2] The name of the victim of the car attack was later revealed as Heather D. Heyer, age 32. For more information, see https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/heather-heyer-charlottesville-victim.html?referer=https://www.google.com/

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/12/politics/trump-statement-alt-right-protests/index.html

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1981/05/24/george-kennans-30-year-nightmare-of-our-final-folly/1c90c056-73c9-4804-9b52-f9e07ad33512/?utm_term=.4dca94f656a9

[5] (10.6) https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/the_belhar_confession-rogers.pdf

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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.