This was difficult to write. I had mixed feelings about preaching it. But I could not remain silent. What follows is my sermon from this morning. –PP
June 21, 2015
Racism. That is the word that is on everybody’s mind. There is no point in dancing around it. The massacre in Charleston has left the entire country reeling. Nine people dead. Brutally murdered in a house of worship. The perpetrator has admitted he sat among the victims, accepted their hospitality, almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him. But it had to be done, he said. Some insist he was mad. Others maintain he was driven, not by madness—but by his intense hatred of black people. Most of us are left questioning where Jesus was on that dark night in Charleston. Did he not care that nine among the faithful were about to perish? Could Jesus not have shook off sleep long enough to quiet the storms of madness and hate and rescue nine of his own?
At least those are the questions we feel we are left with. Had I sat down to prepare this sermon prior to Wednesday night, I would have probably written about Jesus being in the boat with his disciples—asleep, but very much present. I inevitably would have gone on to mention how the “nave”—this area in our churches where the congregation sits—is derived from the same word as “navy”—and actually means “boat.” I might have expanded upon Jesus’ call to his disciples and to us to cross over to the other side—to bring the good news of God’s kingdom to foreign shores and among strangers who are nothing like us but whom Jesus loves nonetheless. And I certainly would have assured us all that we, like the disciples in Mark’s story, need not be afraid. Jesus is right here with us—in the boat. But none of that felt true to the whole of God’s story as it has been unfolding across this country in recent days.
It occurred to me, more than a few of Jesus’ disciples were experienced fishermen, so being out on the sea—even in a storm—should not have necessarily caused undue panic among them. No, there had to be something about the wind and sea that night that scared the begeebees out of them; a foreboding that so frightened them, they desperately shook Jesus awake. “Do you not care?” they shout over roar of wind and waves. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” I’ve never been quite sure whether the disciples were expecting a miracle or just wanted Jesus to lend a hand bailing the water out of the boat. But one thing’s for sure, what happened next caught them by surprise. Jesus rebukes the wind, calms the sea, then turns to his stunned disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?” “Have you still no faith?” Ouch. Hey, wait a minute. What just happened? Who IS this guy?
Throughout the whole of Mark’s gospel, the disciples wrestle with that question. Indeed, who is Jesus? Who is this one that even the wind and sea obey? When they finally reach the other side of the sea, Jesus and the disciples are greeted by a demon-possessed man called Legion—because he is many. Anyway, Legion has no questions; the demons know precisely who Jesus is. No sooner have the disciples pulled their boat up on the shore, that this crazed man throws himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus responds by calling the unclean spirit out of the man with the same authority as his voice had when he calmed the tumultuous sea You and I, we who know the rest of the story, we want, at every juncture, to step into Mark’s narrative and encourage the disciples to pay attention and listen up, to learn their lessons well. If they think they were afraid in the boat, things are only going to get worse. The day will come when Jesus will die, when they will really feel abandoned.
That’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? Storms rage in Ferguson. In Baltimore. Now in Charleston. We are left feeling frightened and helpless. Where is Jesus? Does he not see that people are perishing? Ah, if God were to raise up a prophet among us to answer our questions and assure us we have not been forgotten. Yet, even despite the storms that rage, we still gather, still cling to our Lord’s promise that he is indeed present: In the bread. The wine. In the community of the baptized. So, why then are we still so afraid? Is our faith somehow lacking? Have we lost sight of hope? So many questions. Do I believe Jesus was present in that Bible study? Yes. I am as sure of that as I am of anything. Jesus was with those men and women just as he has been present with every man and woman who has died in the faith, beginning with the first Christian martyrs down through the ages, and yes, in Charleston as well as our own communities.
There is a demon raging on our shores. In our cities and towns. Even in our churches. Its name is Legion, for he is many: racism, hatred, greed, privilege, indifference. Demons that can be and are exorcised little by little and every time a member of the Christ’s Body speaks with the power of his or her baptism. No. Your uncle may not tell his racist jokes in your home. No. The disparity of resources provided to our urban and suburban schools is not acceptable. No. Under no circumstances can discrimination be justified. Black lives matter. Every life matters. We are all in this together. Certainly no one can hope to eradicate racism on his or her own. But, I believe one person can make a difference, that those differences can add up. A friend of mine recently bought one of those dew rag bandana things. It was red, white and blue, and seemed, to him, a fun accessory for the upcoming Fourth of July festivities. As news of the Charleston tragedy spread, he called me, horrified—certainly by the murders, but there was something else: that dew rag of his? Dear God—it could be construed as representing the bold stripes of a Confederate flag…
You and I, all of us, are members together of the Body of Christ. Our Lord dwells in us and with us. Ours are the only hands and feet he has on this earth. Ours are the only voices he can raise to cast out the demons of racism and indifference. Jesus once walked among us. He taught his disciples and us everything we need to know about love and mercy and justice. He has not left us orphaned. The Spirit leads and inspires us; still raises up prophets among us to call us back to Jesus’ truth. This past Wednesday, nine of God’s prophets died in Charleston. Nine brothers and sisters numbered among the Body of Christ: Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, DePayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra. In their dying, they have, I pray, at last shaken us from our slumber; their memory pleads with us to listen up, to take notice of the evil around us, to pay attention to the Spirit’s leading and not stay silent. I don’t have any answers, and I have absolutely no idea what a world devoid of racism might like. But I know it begins with me. It begins with you. One dew rag. One person. One voice at a time.