Into the Heart of the Storm

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?’  (Mark 4:35-31)

A storm was brewing on the waters of the sea. The disciples could see the clouds gathering. The thunder and the lightning. The wind picks up. The waves grow stronger and stronger. Soon the little boat is being tossed around. They panic. They don’t know what to do. So they look to Jesus to see what they should do. But Jesus was asleep on the stern.

The disciples are drenched and wet. The water is piling over the side of the deck. Finally, one of them, shakes Jesus awake and in a desperate voice asks him: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

Don’t you care teacher?

There was a photo in last week’s news reports from Charleston, where nine people were massacred in their church. People standing around crying, a palmetto tree in the background, a woman holds a sign up: Why? it reads.  

It echoes what many of us have been thinking. Why? Don’t you care Jesus? Don’t you care that we’re dying? Why?

  • Depayne Middleton Doctor, an admissions director at Southern Wesleyan University. 
  • Daniel Simmons, a retired pastor who attended those studies weekly. 
  • Susie Jackson, an 84 year old grandmother and longtime member of the church, lived through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • Ethel Lee Lance, another grandmother and sexton of the church. 
  • Myra Thompson, wife of a pastor at a nearby church. She came from a family of 11 children. 
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26 year old, his Facebook page reads “Your Dreams are Calling You.”  Initial reports indicate he died while protecting other members of his family. 
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, another pastor, mother of three and a high school track coach. 
  • Cynthia Hurd, a librarian for 31 years. All public libraries in Charleston were closed on Thursday in mourning her loss. 
  • And finally, Clementa Pickney. Pastor, State Senator. He leaves behind a wife and children. He was known as the conscience of the state legislature, a tireless activist for justice and peace.

And then we have the shooter: Dylann Roof, 21 years old. He sat in that church for an hour before doing what he did. And he almost didn’t go through with his “mission” because they were so welcoming, so nice.

It will be tempting in the coming weeks and months to pick apart this incident, to pull out the lurid details of his personal life, to try to make him an anomaly. This is an isolated incident, we may say. He was a crazy person, acting on his own, he is not like us at all. And perhaps that will make some of us feel better.

But that’s not true. By his own admission, his motive was racism, white supremacy, pure unadulterated hate. This is not some squall that popped up out of the blue. This isn’t like one of those afternoon summer storms. The events of last week were just droplets of rain in a much, much bigger storm. 

Attacks on black churches and the people in them are not a new thing. Some of you may remember the rash of church burnings in the 1990s. Hundreds of bombings of churches and homes through the 1950 and 60s. Thousands of lynchings throughout the South–even here in Gaston County. And 12.5 million kidnapped from their homes in Africa, packed onto ships, transported across the Atlantic and sold on auction blocks in cities like Charleston.

And in the midst of this long, raging storm, the Mother Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston has been a rock. The church was founded in 1816 by a black minister fed up with racism in other churches. It became a haven for slave and free alike. It was disbanded and burned down in 1821 because they were suspected of inciting a slave revolt. But the members continued to meet in secret. This is not the first time that violence and hate has come knocking on their door.

This is a side of our history that we rarely think about, or talk about, and certainly don’t preach about. It seems better to keep those gathering storm clouds out of sight and out of mind.

Until something like this happens. This event hits close to home since two of those killed were graduates of the Lutheran Southern seminary. But even more shocking was the fact that the shooter Dylan Roof was a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation in South Carolina.

In short, he was one of us. Had his family lived a few hours up the highway, they very well could have been members of our own congregation. 

Dylan wasn’t created with hate in his heart. He wasn’t baptized into that abomination. It’s a safe bet he wasn’t taught it from the pulpit, or in Sunday School, or at church camp, if he went there. But somewhere along the way, he learned that white people are superior, that black people deserve to die, and that Jesus agrees with him.

And no one corrected him. What if he was a young adult here at Good Shepherd? Would we have intervened? Would we have said something? Or confronted him? Or would we have looked the other way, let that comment slide by or laugh it off. Would we have assumed that someone else—his parents, or friends, or teachers, or pastor—would correct it?

Racism is a sin. It is a lethal sin. It’s a pernicious sin. It disguises itself very well. We deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re not affected by it, that it’s not our problem. But whenever we look the other way, we become complicit in its effects and it taints us. And like a gathering storm, all the fear and prejudice and violence will strike and eventually engulf our world.

The disciples were inundated. They had lost control. Nothing they could do would save themselves. So they turned to Jesus. And standing up in the midst of the storm, he orders the elements—the thunder and the lightning and the waves—to be still.

That’s the calling we have as Christians. When the storm is raging all around us, it falls to us, the body of Christ in the world to stand up and speak out. When we are baptized, we take a vow that we will strive for justice and peace in all the world. And I can think of few greater needs, few bigger challenges, than the dangerous effects of racism in our country.

It’s hard. We don’t like to do it. It’s depressing. It’s overwhelming. It’s too easy to be offended or defensive.

But we are not followers of Jesus for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbors. We live to proclaim the life-changing (sometimes offensive) gospel in the world.

As Paul writes to us today: “We commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, telling the truth, and God’s power.”

Telling the truth, admitting the truth, is hard. But a true disciple of the cross does not call evil good and good evil. They are not afraid to call the thing what it is. 

Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote this week urging us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. “And then we need to get to work,” she says. “Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act.”

I admit that while I thought about this, I wasn’t quite sure how to act. And to be honest with you, I still don’t know exactly what to do. The problems seems to insurmountable, the storm so fierce that it’s hard to know where to start. 

But perhaps the places to start are through relationships, honest conversations, and prayer. I make these commitments to you today: In the coming weeks, I will reach out to African-American congregations in Mt. Holly—specifically the AME church—to get to know them, to build relationships with them, and to hopefully find ways that we all can walk together, supporting and loving each other in real and tangible ways.

I will also seek out training in anti-racism. I will commit myself to learning better ways to talk about this problem and to lead a healthy and life-giving conversation within this community.

And I urge you to go home today and think of ways that you yourself can be Jesus’ voice and presence. Reach out to your friends and neighbors of other races, listen to their stories and experiences. Parents talk to your children about the evil of racism, how to treat those who are different, how to stand up for others. If you hear a racial comment or stereotype, speak up about it, confront it head on. Have courage to tell the truth. Because when we do this, God is on our side.

And above all, let’s pray. Not just passive prayer. I’m not talking about prayer as avoidance or withdrawal or hiding. I’m talking about the type of prayer that truly transforms us through repentance, forgiveness, and love. I’m talking about the type of prayer that takes us into the heart of God, so that we may then be sent out into the heart of the storm.

Because that is where God is, in the middle of it all. The grief and loss, sorrow and despair, guilt over things we have done and things left undone, the deadly sin of racism—Jesus carries all of it to the cross. “Peace,” he says. “Be still.”

And so, let us pray now through song, using the words of the great Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”—first sung in Charleston, SC. But we won’t sing it in the same way that our brothers and sisters at Mother Emanuel Church would.

For us, this is not a song of protest or of righteous defiance. Rather, this a song of lament and a plea for forgiveness. It’s a prayer that we will overcome our own shortcomings, our despair, our frustration, our inaction. It’s a prayer that the storm will not overcome us, but that someday, God’s power will truly and deeply change us.

Because after all, we cannot calm the storm alone. Only God can do that. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

 

Photo credit: David Goldman, AP