Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B] - June 21, 2015 (Mark 4:35-41)

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know about you, but I feel as if that’s the cry of a lot of people around us lately. It comes from the lips of those who feel things are out of control, those who are weary of the suffering and the whirling, swirling unknown, and those who sense the reality of death is beating down on them. It is often, for example, the question that Stephen Ministers are trained to hear in the words of their care-receivers, people who long to be assured of God’s guidance, and we celebrate their service this morning.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It’s been the cry, I would imagine, of those who are weathering the storm of a cancer diagnosis, and our congregation’s prayer list happens to be full of them at the moment. We are no doubt amazed and inspired by their faith and confidence in the face of it all, but as some point they must feel the pressure of the disease’s whirlwind. The carousel of doctor appointments, the rounds of chemo and radiation, the infernal waiting for the next scan’s results: it can all start to feel like waves that are beating into the boat. Patients and the ones who pray for them cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are persishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

My God, it must have been the cry of those in the Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, on Sunday night. Like they had done so many times before, they had simply gotten in a boat to cross the calm sea of Galilee in that church basement with the hopes of learning a little more from their Teacher. They welcomed in a stranger, a guest, into their boat—a young man who, unbeknownst to them, was carrying a gun. The participants in the Bible study warmly made room for him, just as Christ would have asked them to—just as we, in fact, often welcome newcomers into our Bible studies and Sunday School classes and worship services. They had no doubt opened their hearts, shared their faith, their hopes with him but then the guest, whose middle name of all things happens to be Storm, unleashed his anger and bullets.

"Mother" Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
As it turns out, he had not come to study or share.  He had come to kill with waves of violence and racism and hatred that could not be contained. In their boat. As the attack concluded and the ambulances arrived, surely the question on the lips of the survivors was similar to the one that has been uttered by so many of us as we learn about it:“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In many ways, that could be the cry of our whole nation right now, if we’re listening close enough. It’s not just in the anguished cries of this most recent incident where we hear it. It echoes in the violence of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the church in south Richmond that has had to employ an off-duty officer every Sunday since 2006 for fear of a racially-motivated attack. It is evident in every tension created by the prejudice and privilege that still stain our country and from which I benefit.

Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said it very well this week in her letter about to the recent events, “[The Charleston shooting] is not an isolated event. Even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly.”

Yes, they are deadly waves that might just spill over and sink our boat, or at the very least slow it down permanently. Racism is just like waves on a storm-tossed sea. It doesn't just affect people of certain skin color or background. In the end, everyone gets wet. In the end, it diminishes all of us, and everyone is in danger of being thrown overboard by the unrest and injustice it creates. As the heated debates begin to rage about how we can solve problems like this either with more gun control or less gun control, by bringing down the Confederate flag or keeping it up, some of us are just left bailing water and wondering, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In the ancient worldview that the disciples and the first followers of Christ would have lived with, the sea was a symbol for chaos and danger. Although it provided them food and some form of transportation, the ocean was ultimately something that could never really be explained, and certainly never, ever controlled. The only hope one had in dealing with the ocean (and total chaos) was a higher power. God alone had established command over the waters at creation to bring about order and beauty. God alone had saved the Israelites by subduing the waters of the Red Sea. God alone had navigated Jonah through the waters to the place he needed to go.

The Sea of Galilee, where Jesus begins his ministry, is but a small drop of water compared with the vast ocean, but it was still subject to the same unpredictability and peril.

Storms could blow up without warning, and if they did, there were no lifejackets or emergency flares. You went under and didn’t come back up.

And, so, when the disciples find themselves at the mercy of a sudden storm, they begin to panic. They turn to their Teacher only to find him sleeping. I could be wrong here, but I don’t think they turn to him with the hopes he can do something about it. As a mere human, he would be susceptible to the same dangers that they are. They turn to him because they’re stupefied: how in the world can someone remain that non-anxious as the situation is going down the tubes?

It is natural to wonder where God is when things are going down the tubes…to wonder if God is listening, is God is paying attention to the fact that our boat is sinking, that the bullets are flying. One of my seminary professors liked to use an acronym to help us think things through—this was a professor, coincidentally that Pastor Joseph also had, as did Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church who died this week in Charleston, since we all went to seminary around the same time. The acronym was WIGIAT, and it stood for “Where is God in all this?” We were encouraged to ask it in any situation, especially ones that distressed us and those we were serving.

I’ll be honest: I not sure I ever really got the hang of it. Nevertheless, I found WIGIAT—“Where is God in all this?”—to, at the very least, slow down my rush to worry or panic. Thankfully, I have found that some of you are incredibly gifted at asking this question and finding the answer amidst the storms of your lives. But WIGIAT or not, panic and fear still overwhelm us from time to time. And it’s typically even more counterproductive when people tell me I shouldn’t give in to the fright, that it only makes things worse, that it reveals my doubt and weakness. Panic doesn’t help us hear God’s voice, but sometimes there’s just nothing we can do about that.

Another thing we know doesn’t help when we’re wondering about God’s presence in difficult times is the offering of pat answers. Could you imagine how unhelpful it would have been if the disciples, scared to death of what was happening, helpless against the waves that battered their boat, had awakened the sleeping Jesus and he stood up and said, “Friends. Calm down. Everything happens for a reason.”

Or, better yet, if they had nudged Jesus to get off his cushion and he had stood up and said, “Boys, easy now. God never gives anyone more than they can handle”?

Panic, pat answers…they come so easily to feeble people like us, especially when the waves start to rise. Despite our better efforts, our response is often fear and empty words that do nothing but make the boat rock more. Perhaps the one thing, then, that we can take from this story…from the events in Charleston…from the events of our lives when we start to wonder where God is and whether God hears us…is that when Jesus first wakes up, he doesn’t bother speaking to the disciples.

Jesus speaks to the storm.

His first words are not for us, but for danger that threatens us. He begins by confronting the evil before he talks to us because that is what Jesus came to do. He came primarily to silence the evil.

"Christ on the cross" (Albrecht Duerer)
The one in the boat with us, as it turns out, happens to be the one who had navigated Jonah, the one who saved the Israelites, the one who tamed the primordial chaos. And he is the one who, on the cross, will throw himself into it all—the chaos, the evil, our panic, our doubt—in order to demonstrate his ultimate power over it. As we fret and worry only about us, Jesus is stilling the forces of destruction in ways we do not immediately perceive. Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus conquers evil with a humble method we are often too blinded by fear to see.

One thing that is coming to light about the events this week in Charleston is just how connected we all are in this boat of life, how one action of evil or grace can so profoundly reveal our commonalities. We know now that the shooter and his family were members of a Lutheran church in Columbia and at one point had even attended confirmation camp with his youth group. We also know that Clementa Pinckney was a graduate of the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina. What I’ve also learned is that Pastor Pinckney, while on duty as a state legislator in Columbia this past February, attended Ash Wednesday worship at the shooter’s congregation. The pastor of that congregation—that same pastor currently tending to Dylann’s family—shared on Facebook last night—that he remembers placing the ashen cross on Pinckney’s forehead that day.

The human experience, with all its frailness and fear, with its cancer and calamities, its ash and blood, is too much to bear at times, but we have a God who connects us all through the cross. We worship a Father who has given his own Son to suffer with us. And have a Teacher who is apparently already assisting his victims, amidst their pain to forgive and be reconciled. There's that power really defeats evil.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

When all is said and done, let us discover that his cross has been traced upon us, too, and that even the wind and sea, the hatred and the violence, the chaos of death and yes, the life—the blessed, blessed life—obey him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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