Until We Wake Up: A Sermon on Charleston, Racism, and Faithfulness

**Originally preached for 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 21, 2015.

Prayer for Illumination:

God of mercy and of grief,

This day we lift up to you Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson. For these your beloved children, O God, we pray that your peace—stolen from them in life—might embrace them in death. And for us, O God, we pray for deep, unavoidable discomfort, trembling courage, and a little holy rage. In the face of their unearned eternal slumber, God, we pray that you would wake us up to your truth. Calling upon your Holy Spirit to fill us and transform us, we pray. Amen.

 

Jesus Stills a Storm (Mark 4:35-41)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

————–

About 5 years ago, I was on a boat trip with my parents near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We were exploring a coastal river when, seemingly out of nowhere, a storm rolled in. The water got choppy, rain pummeled down, and thunder crashed overhead. We couldn’t get back home without crossing back through dangerous open water and there was nowhere nearby to dock. Calmly, my parents lowered the plastic rain shields and prepared to ride the storm out. I tried to play it cool, but actually, I was terrified. Before long, I was crawling into the storage space in the hull of the boat, and hunkering down with Lillie Grace, our yellow lab, who’d crawled in sometime before. I felt foolish, but I couldn’t help it. I was afraid.

As a young child, I could not have been more fearless about water. I couldn’t get enough of it. I especially loved the thrill of it: tubing at high speed behind a motorboat, racing friends on jet-skis. At age 3, I was already brazenly jumping off the high dive. I didn’t have the slightest inkling that water could be unsafe. But somewhere along the way, that changed. I had a couple of scary moments where I felt like I might drown. Friends got hurt pulling the kind of water stunts I loved. I got older and learned just how much there was to be afraid of.

When I first started working on this sermon a little over a week ago, this story from my own life was supposed to illustrate the value of childlike faith and trust. It was meant to suggest that trusting in God’s faithfulness looked something like my unmitigated childhood love for water. I looked at Jesus sleeping in the boat, and I wrote this line, “Jesus’ certainty in God’s faithfulness turns a scary, tossing storm into a rocking cradle that lulls him to sleep.”

But four days ago, a 21-year-old white man showed up for bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and then opened fire on people while they prayed. 9 of them are dead. He was quoted as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Of the few that lived through this heinous act of anti-black violence, one was a 5-year-old girl who survived the massacre by lying among the bodies of those she loved and playing dead. Just like her grandmother had taught her.

The image of this little girl has remained caught in my throat and heart. How different our stories are. At age 5, I felt certain that not a thing in this world could hurt me. But only a child that knows otherwise could think to play dead in a moment of chaos and panic. What reality, I wondered, could compel a 5-year-old child to know such dangers? The answer, painfully clear, is the reality of being black in America in 2015.

I hope that tonight someone will cradle that little girl from Charleston in their arms and rock her to sleep. But I suspect that no one will ever again convince her that there is nothing that can hurt her—nothing to be afraid of. She knows better.

In the days since Dylann Roof murdered 9 people from the church that welcomed him, it’s become clear to me that true faithfulness—ours to God and God’s to us—absolutely must look different than the uninformed trust and entitled fearlessness that I once knew when I was young. What I’ve idealized from my childhood, what I’ve called innocence, was actually ignorance granted by privilege. I didn’t know about the dangers of the world because I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to because I was wealthy and white.

The truth is that there is much to fear in this world. And those of us that manage to live without fully knowing this—whether as children or adults—are surely doing so at the cost of others’ safety and freedom.

So the events of this week challenge us to look at this story again. Through eyes blurred with tears from this latest crime in a truly endless list from our nation’s violent and racist history. We look to see what truth this piece of Gospel might speak into our very broken world today. And there are so many questions.

For one thing, what is our storm?

At first, the answer seemed obvious to me. People are dying. Black people are dying. Black people are being brutalized by the very agents sworn to protect them and killed by young white men they welcome into their communities. And even while it is happening, white people are taking up news space by claiming to be black. Others are attempting to explain away the racial elements of crimes like the Charleston massacre by blaming mental illness or suggesting that it is solely a matter of gun control. And underlying all of this violence and these equivocations is deep-seated racism. Surely, it would seem, that racism is the storm raging around us and threatening to overwhelm us.

If so, then we white Christians must re-center ourselves in this story. We’ve been taught to assume that we’re the main characters. The protagonists. If not heroes, then at least beloved fools. But if the storm is indeed racism, then the truth is that we’re not the ones in the boat. We’re a part of the storm. Even unintentionally, our enculturation and privilege make us complicit in such systemic injustice. That we rarely notice is proof of just how insidious it is.

On the other hand, a wise friend challenged my initial assumption that the storm is racism. Racism and white supremacy, he pointed out, have been around as long as we’ve been a country and before. For many of us who are white, we forget about racism until moments of particularly explosive violence draw it to our attention once again. But people of color who confront realities of race and racism in this country every day know better. That 5-year-old girl from Emanuel Church knows better. The sins of racism and white supremacy aren’t some sudden storm threatening to topple us. They’re the water we swim in.

My friend had a point. Perhaps the storm isn’t the evils of racism and violence at all, but the protest and unrest and holy righteous anger that is rising up against the tide and saying “Enough. Enough. Enough. Black lives matter.” Perhaps the storm isn’t something we need God to protect us from. Perhaps the storm is a great and mighty wind of God’s justice.

Traditionally, scholars point to Jesus’ calming of the storm at the end of this passage as the key component. They claim that his demonstrated dominion over the elements in this moment establish him as the son of God. But I think what happens before that is essential to consider. The storm rages around the boat, and Jesus has no interest in calming it. When he awakes to find the disciples petrified, he’s surprised by their reaction.

Maybe we’re not meant to jump too quickly to calm. After all, Jesus doesn’t. I have spent a lot of this week reading and listening to and learning from black friends and colleagues about how I might, as a white person, process and respond to the Charleston shooting. And one thing that has been pointed out several times is how quickly we as Christians (especially white Christians) jump straight from horrific tragedy to talk of healing, peace, and reconciliation. Certainly these are the things we hope for in Christ, but we’re not there yet. The lament and anger deserve to be heard and held.

The disciples are quick to cry out for calm and protection from the storm, but if the storm is one of holy unrest and justice, then we must endure and engage it. We must allow ourselves to be moved by it, perhaps even swamped by it. Calling too quickly for calm and peace means silencing the roars we’re meant to hear so that we can focus again on the voices and narratives that we find more comfortable.

Jesus is surprised by the disciples’ reaction to the storm. “Why are you afraid?” He asks them. “Have you no faith?”

In his commentary about this text, Presbyterian pastor Michael Lindvall draws a semantic distinction between the phrase “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and the Bible’s oft-repeated line, “Do not be afraid, God is with you.” The first, Lindvall points out, is what parents say to calm a frightened child. But it’s not entirely true because, of course, there are things to be afraid of. The second, so central to our faith story, doesn’t suggest that there is nothing worthy of fear. It simply suggests that God is faithful to us even in the face of fearful things and that that faithfulness should transform our fear into something else.

Jesus’ challenge to his followers suggests not so much that fear is unwarranted, but that they are called to courage in the face of that fear.

So are we. There is plenty to fear in our world today when it comes to racism and hatred and violence. Until we can acknowledge the full scope of that frightening reality, we will be powerless against it. But we cannot be paralyzed by our fear either.

In his eulogy for the victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, Martin Luther King Jr. offers a challenge.  Speaking of the victims’ he says, “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

The relevance of these words today reveals how much work remains. We must join in dismantling the toxic status quo upon which we float. We cannot hunker down in the boat and pray for the storm to pass. God isn’t just with us in the calm. God is in the whirlwind too.

I have to admit something to you. Even after all of this re-examining of this text, there is one question that still really troubles me. It has since the first time I ever read this story. Why is Jesus asleep?

Whether the storm is racist violence or holy protest, it seems like the one thing Jesus should not be is asleep. He should be awake engaging the storm or inspiring the disciples. Why is he asleep? I think it’s a fair question.

But if we read this text from Mark and are angry about Jesus’ seemingly disengaged slumber, we must look at the lives of these 9 lost in Charleston. At the lives lost not just in the past year when acts of racist violence have finally come to the attention of white America but over the whole troubled history of our country. We must think of a 5-year-old girl playing dead on the floor of her church. And we must ask: who is the body of Christ in this world today? And who has fallen asleep in the boat?

It is us. And we must awaken. Not to paralyzing fear or panic. Not to unearned, dangerous calm. But to the storm. And the way that it moves us.

We may feel overwhelmed, but there are things we can and should do.

We who are white can teach our children to see what we have not. We cannot protect their innocence at the expense of black lives. They will only learn that some lives are expendable. We can listen to the testimony of our black friends and siblings in Christ. We can trust their experience and resist the urge to explain or justify. We can educate ourselves and take action. And we can admit to ourselves that this whole conversation makes us uncomfortable and defensive. Then relinquish our defensiveness and lean into our discomfort. We must let go of the boat for a moment, and embrace the storm.

We will try and we will fail. And we must try again. We must summon within ourselves a knowing trust (not an ignorant trust) that the world hinges not on our faithfulness to God, but on God’s faithfulness to us. Our attempts to root our sense of rightness in our own flawed faithfulness to God or whatever gods we create—will always pit us against the storm and one another. They will always make us seek out comfort and calm – even when it means silencing the righteous outrage of those who suffer.

God knows this about us. God knows how very broken we are. And the hope for us this day and every day is that God loves us still. Loves our siblings of color who suffer and die at the hands of our racist world. And loves those of us who are buoyed along by the broken status quo. We can’t begin to imagine that sort of love. But it is that utterly incredible love that transforms the world. It destroys brokenness and makes all things new.

God’s faithfulness both endures and rejects our demand for comfort. God’s love doesn’t quell our fears but asks us why we cower in fear when there is work to be done. In unswerving, steadfast, indomitable love for us, God lets the holy storm of protest and justice rage on. Until we wake up. Until we wake up. That is faithfulness. Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Until We Wake Up: A Sermon on Charleston, Racism, and Faithfulness

  1. Insightful, through provoking, unique and well written Layton. My instincts tell me even in the face of America’s ongoing racism that great progress has been made, especially with younger generations. In spite of our progress, ugly racism, hate and bias about other cultures, religions and gender difference run rampant within America. There are those who hate, those who tolerate, and those who embrace our human differences, no matter how it presents itself. How do we as Christians seize the moment to galvanize the powerful love and spirit of the “embracers” so that we might truly change the conversation, to change the behavior to elevate Americas culture?

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