First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss… God spoke: “Separate! Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place; Land, appear!” And there it was. God named the land Earth. He named the pooled water Ocean. God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:1-2, 9-10, The Message)
From the start, the waters are a symbol of chaos in scripture, and God is the one who orders the chaos. It is God who turns what is threatening and inky into what is good.
In today’s gospel, Jesus stands in a boat in the midst of a storm at sea and commands the winds to “Be still!” Jesus is reenacting the taming of the chaos from which creation is brought forth by God. He is showing that “just as he is,” he is God.
As part of that first creation, God gave humans free will, memory, reason and skill, in order that we might make real choices and participate in ongoing project of God of love. In Christ, God recalls his followers to that work and assures them that God will be with them in doing it through the power of the Holy Spirit. We who live in our own stormy seas are called by Christ as agents of God’s work. As members of the Body of Christ, we are empowered and commissioned to stand up in the boat and speak truth to power, speak peace to chaos.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC has a long history of choosing to respond to chaos with Christ’s peace. They have, again and again, claimed their agency in the face of long odds and violence.
- This church was burned to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt.
- For years, its meetings were conducted in secret to evade laws that banned all-black services.
- The church building was jolted by an earthquake in 1886.
- Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., spoke from its pulpit and led marches from its steps.
- And this week, its Pastor welcomed a young white man to sit next to him at Bible study.
Like the Apostle Paul, who was rebuffed by the very community he founded in Corinth, Emanuel AME has, through the years, been rebuffed by the larger American church. They have had to work to convince the broader American church, where power is in the hands of white leaders, to join them in their work of racial justic. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s epistle describes their journey well.
As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (From 2 Corinthians 6, NRSV)
Emanuel AME has been and continues to be faithful in speaking to the chaos of racial injustice. Over and over, they have followed the example of their savior. It has cost them dearly. And yet they persist. The words of forgiveness offered this week by relatives of those killed by the young man welcomed into a Bible study are such a deep witness to a community grounded in the peace of Christ and adept at standing in the storm and speaking “Peace.”
And what of us? “Now is the acceptable time” to do the work Christ calls us to do for love’s sake — to use our free will, our memory, reason, and skill for the reconciliation of community in our nation.
There is so much to say, so much to be done. Let me just say four things today:
- I want to start with this: Racism is not of Christ. Jesus intentionally crosses boundaries and touches those of all races and backgrounds, over and over again throughout his earthly ministry. There is nothing in the gospels to support racist attitudes or behaviors. Nothing.
- We need to acknowledge our denominations’s historical complicity in racism. In the early years of our nation’s history, The Episcopal Church – in the North as well as the South — was a force for order, not freedom. Slaveowners were slow to share the gospel with slaves, and when they did, they did it with reservations. For example, Episcopal slaveowner Francis LeJau required slaves to swear an oath prior to baptism “that you do not ask for the holy baptism out of any design to free your self from the duty and obedience you owe to your master while you live.” After the Civil War, there was a mass exodus of African Americans from Episcopal Churches in South Carolina – General Convention in 1868 reported an over 90% loss. Where did they go? They founded the AME! The African Methodist Episcopal Church and a few other denominations emerged in the 19th century largely because there was no place for voice and leadership of African Americans in Episcopal and other Protestant churches.
- Today in the Episcopal Church, we continue to countenance great inequity of resources for urban ministry, as well as meager incentives to serve in African American neighborhoods. The pay and pension system in Episcopal Church is such that a pastor in an urban neighborhood, with the same credentials, working same number of hours as a pastor in a well-resourced suburban church is likely to be paid significantly less. And even in a progressive diocese like this one, few people of color are being ordained or serving as delegates at convention.
- We are called to “cross the lake.” Jesus went from the safe, known places to the unknown, risky places. He left his home to confront demons in others and in himself. It was only by moving out that he could have encounters like the one with the woman who told him “even the dogs seek the scraps under the master’s table” and open his heart to her. And it was through these encounters that the full grace of God worked through him and transformed the world.
Jesus went out on the lake “just as he was.” We are called to go “just as we are.” You don’t need a PhD in social history or a fat checkbook, or community organizing training to be a force for reconciliation in this work– although if you have those tools or others, please bring them along! Just as you are, you have gifts to offer. You have a handshake to offer; a voice to speak and sing; a pen to write a letter; feet to walk; a heart with which to pray, and maybe a prayerbook to get you started.
I’d like to end this sermon by giving you a minute of silence. In that silence, I invite you to pray about what the one next step is for you. What is the action to which you are called next for the healing of divisions between races and the bringing of peace to a violent world? Let’s offer one another a minute of silence, and then I’ll close with the prayer for social justice from the prayer book.
Silence is observed.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.