Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost June 21, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I got another request for a sermon topic last week, about why terrible things happen, and where God is in them, and at the time I thought, how am I ever going to work that into a sermon. But of course I needn’t have worried. Evil made a dramatic appearance in Charleston, South Carolina. The attack on a bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was many things. Racism. Terrorism. Hate. Mass murder. The more details emerge, the more twisted the shooter appears, and the more sick I feel to my stomach, and the more I am convinced that this was as pure an act of evil as any I have ever heard of. The shooter was unambiguously motivated by racism, but apparently he was not part of any hate group. At this point he did not seem to have succumbed to a charismatic leader, or peer pressure, or the ideology of any movement, but actively and specifically chose his path. It’s not like he was raised to be a white supremacist; he was a quiet suburban kid brought up in the Lutheran church, and not a conservative Lutheran church, but the very same ELCA with which The Episcopal Church is in full communion. He didn’t so much come from “out there” as much as he came from among us, and he chose a group of upstanding Christians, faithful women and men, including revered secular and religious leaders, and he chose to murder them in their church as white supremacists have attacked black churches many times before in order to show that nowhere is safe, let alone sacred. Nobody pushed him to do what he did, and he even remarked that he almost didn’t go through with his plan because everyone at the bible study group, his soon-to-be victims, were so kind to him. It’s true that for all the progress we have made, America is still a deeply, pathologically racist country, but that does not diminish the responsibility of this or any attacker; nothing does.
We can lull ourselves into thinking and feeling that this or any terrible news is quite apart from us; even those of us who don’t live on the island part of Cape Ann can fall into that mentality of apartness. But just as there is only one physical universe, there is only one moral universe, and like boats on a lake any one disturbance rocks us all. This is a big one and it may feel like our security has been violated, like we are being tossed about in a storm, and we may wonder whether Jesus is with us, or whether he is asleep, but for black Americans, the sense of security wasn’t so strong in the first place. Even though evil of the magnitude of the shooting in Charleston is rare, black Americans live under a burden of oppression that white Americans rarely understand, let alone feel, a sickening blend of persistent individual, corporate, and societal discrimination punctuated with unpredictable violent attacks, often perpetrated by agents of the state. White Americans may feel like the disciples in the boat, but black Americans are the ones who have the right to say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
The story of Jesus calming a storm may not seem like it has much to contribute to a discussion of human sin, but remember that in the minds of the people who first told and heard this story, natural disasters were manifestations of evil, of the supernatural chaos that seeks to undo the will of God and destroy the order God created. The ancient mind was awed by the power of God to bring order to the universe as the reading from Job so beautifully describes. “Who shut in the sea with doors and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”
We are right to cry out to God when evil breaks down the world, but what about when God answers? When God finally speaks to Job, it is not to give a polite apology or soothing comfort, but a fearsome confrontation: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” When Jesus wakes up, he rebukes the storm, and then immediately rebukes the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Even though the disciples bore no responsibility for the storm, they were in it just the same. When Jesus rebuked the storm, it fell to a dead calm, not good sailing weather. If that boat was going to go anywhere, it was time for the disciples to pick up their oars and row.
Despite the rebuke, Jesus will give us courage and direction, but God gave us hearts and minds and bodies and wills in order that we might use them to work together with Christ, as Saint Paul wrote, summoning us to open wide our hearts. In Charleston, right now, at Emanuel AME Church, Sunday worship is commencing, and you can bet there will be a crowd inside and out. In every age the Church has thrived under persecution and drifted in times of comfort. But in a sense the church is one big boat and everyone has something to offer. Confronted with an evil on the scale of racism, everyone has an opportunity to do something.
I have stood steadfastly against racism… when it was convenient to do so, when I had nothing to lose, when doing so wouldn’t rock the boat. Other times I have fallen short of the image of God and through inaction become complicit in the hideous prejudice of people I thought I couldn’t afford to alienate. Though I am glad I have never seen or heard of any episodes of racism in this congregation, each of us could and should do more to fight the racist cancer that seems to be growing all over our society.
That sounds like a tall order, but it’s not as if it’s people of color who are responsible for racism, and it’s not as if the intentional aggressors of racism are going to be any help. It falls to reasonable, conscientious white people to step up, to open wide our hearts: to let no incident of racial prejudice or aggression, great or small, go unchallenged; to be intentional in cultivating real friendships with people of color and listening openly to thinkers, leaders, and creators who come from different racial backgrounds; to capitalize on opportunities in expanding access to positions of power, responsibility, prestige, and trust to people of color; to consider the implications for justice in every choice we make.
That sounds like a big job, and it is, but Jesus will be there with us, every step, or stroke, of the way. Jesus himself was a member of a persecuted minority group; he knew what it was to rely on faith, to cry out to a God who did not seem to be doing much to relieve the suffering. But he did what God called him to do, and we who follow him strive to imitate his example of faithfulness, and together we see that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And so in the hope of justice, which is the hope of Christ, we live, and move, and have our being, trusting the far greater power of Christ’s love and forgiveness to place bars and doors on our sin and fear and every form of evil. Jesus’s words are sure, his power absolute, his is the boat, the journey, the peace, and the victory.