Peace in the Storm (Sermon by Pastor Fred Kinsey)
How long does it take for a seed to grow? How long must we wait for our faith to germinate and come to fruition?
Today Jesus and the disciples cross the tempestuous Sea of Galilee in the same boat that Jesus just preached from; the same boat he stood in to teach the crowds of followers on the shoreline two parables about seeds – seeds that are like the kingdom, or realm of God. In one, a Sower waits patiently – sleeping and rising, night and day, as they grow miraculously, of their own accord. And, the realm of God is also like the mustard seed, that grows from the smallest of all seeds, into the biggest of shrubs, and it is amazing, awesome, and unsurpassable!
It was on the same day as Jesus preached, when evening had come, that he hailed his disciples to go across to the other side, across the deep and wide lake with him, in that very same boat. Four of the twelve were experienced fishers. And, as they set out, Jesus prepares to rest in the back, on a cushion in the stern, falling soundly asleep. All is calm; all is dark and still. Like the seed planted in the earth, and the Sower who sleeps, awaiting the growth of what has been planted, the Word of God which had been scattered and was taking root, mysteriously and miraculously germinating just under the surface, then protruding through the soil, as Jesus describes: first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head – like that – all is quiet and calm, on the lake. Until! Until, that signature storm blows up out of nowhere, a nor-easter, across the length of the harp-shaped Sea of Galilee, and the waves become so violent, they begin to slosh over inside, and the Disciples feel the panic of being swamped. And the adrenaline of fear that overtakes them, moves them to go and shake Jesus awake!
The boat – or Nave, as we call our sanctuaries – of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC was suddenly turned into a very, un-safe place this week. A stranger arrived during mid-week prayer hour, not to seek its sanctuary – where he was welcomed – but to bring a “storm” of violent retribution. This, Dylann Storm, a young white man, brought deep-seated devastation, threatening to swamp and sink their historic, predominantly black, church-boat.
Indeed, according to friends, he intended to start a so called, “race war,” by his murderous actions. And although grief and senseless violence were perpetrated within its Nave, and such hatred fills us still with shocking and unbearable sorrow, even us, who are removed by so many miles, and so many state-lines away, and in some cases by race, yet and still, this heinous crime did not, and because of its parishioners, will not, produce violence in return by those who were victimized. In fact, at Mr. Roof’s hearing in court, the surviving family members – allowed to speak to their grief – were so articulate amidst their shock and tears, describing exactly what he had done to them and how they felt, concluded the exact opposite of his riotous intent. They forgave, 21 year old Dylann Storm Roof. The daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the women killed, put it this way: “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you and I forgive you.” The storm, was met with a fierce and well-formed faith by this congregant, a reflection of the Teacher in the boat, they know so well, at Emanuel AME Church.
The disciples in the boat with Jesus were not so well prepared. Despite their training as fishers, despite answering the call to follow Jesus into the realm and kingdom of God, the Disciples’ faith had barely germinated, and was yet to form the full grain in the head of the wheat stalk. They could not ride out the storm, and rushed to wake up their Teacher, the One who had meant to give the boat and its navigation, over to them! Why are you afraid, asks Jesus? Have you still no faith?
The Gospel question lingers in the air, is meant for us now, the followers of Jesus, all these centuries later, to fully digest. The question Jesus asks, begs for an answer, from every seeker. And not just a verbal, creedal, answer. This is not about denying the reality of fear, and replacing it with the proper Catechetical formula or scriptural passage! Who of us is not afraid of a storm at sea, and of so many even smaller things in our lives? Fear is a natural reaction when our lives, or our homes, or our families, or our communities, are threatened. This is about being formed in the faith, being committed, and trusting the One who calms the storms, becoming a healer, believing in a love that is stronger than hate, and can conquer death! These are the things we can learn, and we can internalize and make our own, here, as a part of this community of faith. Here in a sanctuary that is a safe boat, a place where we can close our eyes and know that God is present, know that anger and violence in the world and in our lives, does not, and will not, have the last word.
And so, in this Nave, we can close our eyes together trustfully in prayer and praise, but we cannot close our eyes to the realities of evil that threaten us in the world. We, have the time and distance to process this story of the storm, and the question Jesus asks about faith. We are able to sleep on it and rise to a new day, confident that the earth produces of itself, produces the grains of wheat, like faith, in us. But only if we plant ourselves in the fields of the miraculously growing stalks, and develop deep roots. Even in the midst of the breaking news, the stories of the horrific shooting in Charleston, and news about the kind of white supremacist groups alive and well and recruiting young people online today, a member of my own family said, I’m not sure we need to hear that much detail!
But eyes cannot be closed to waters raging all around us. Just as the seas were the place of the sea monster in ancient times, a belief that chaos and evil lived in the depths of the unexplored waters – so we know that the root cause of this shooting is from a long history of racism deeply embedded in our subconscious and our country’s institutions, alive and well, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes intertwined with us like weeds seeded amongst the wheat, but bobbing its head up in more visible ways, here and there, if we care to notice.
And in the past 12 months or so, we have noticed. The Black Lives Matter movement has taken a more visible role, and the media has not altogether buried the story, as in the past. “We as a people have got to change,” President Obama said yesterday. “That’s how we honor the slain in Charleston, and in Newtown,” he said, and in Ferguson, NY, Baltimore, Chicago, LA, and every other community and city across the country.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in her Pastoral Letter this week put it this way: “We might say that this was an isolated act by a deeply disturbed man. But we know that is not the whole truth. It is not an isolated event. And 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.”
St Paul in our 2nd Reading speaks of the ship wreaks and many other obstacles he had to endure, the fear he had to overcome in order to continue on in his faith: the beatings, imprisonments, riots, …hunger, [and his] …treat[ment] as an impostor. Without deep roots of faith, he couldn’t have continued on. Paul recounted how he transformed from, Christ persecutor, to powerful preacher and believer after his encounter with the risen Lord, and also, for him, after 3 years of Confirmation training and Bible Study, so to speak!
Paul knew the power of forgiveness, and, enduring persecution and imprisonment, freely gave forgiveness, even in the face of death. In the boat with Jesus, the disciples didn’t need more faith after Jesus calmed the storm. They needed it in the midst of the storm, when their lives were on the line, when the Sea Monster was after them!
The most chilling thing to me about Dylann Storm Roof was his statement that, he thought twice about what he was about to do in that SC sanctuary, because the people whom he was taught to hate – those dozen or so people he sat in Bible Study with – were so, nice to him! They treated him as a person, as an equal in the eyes of God, not returning the hate and racial slurs.
And that makes the faith of their family members who survived, and the solidarity of the whole Mother Emanuel AME assembly, all the more strong in their witness to all of us, all the more tested and mature. They answer Jesus’ question about faith with a well-formed confidence, that despite this horrific tragedy, the evil and hatred of racism cannot, and will not win, but that forgiveness is stronger, and will prevail – because the spirit of Christ Jesus is alive in them.
Let our church-boat, here at Unity, be as strong. And let our faith be as patient, as we sleep and rise, night and day, awaiting the miracle of God’s harvest to grow in our lives and make us into the disciples Jesus prays for, followers who ourselves can call on, and produce Peace in our communities, our congregation, and country.