Sermon: After Charleston: Getting Into the Boat

21 June 2015 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: The calming of the storm at sea is a familiar story to many people.[1] Although it’s a miracle story, and we may have problems believing the miracle happened physically, this one is easy to understand symbolically. Probably all of us have gone through storms in life, and we can relate to the disciples’ panicked fear, the lurching of their stomachs as the boat goes up and down and up and down. We may wonder why Jesus is sleeping at a time like this, why he isn’t awake and fully present with us. Then Jesus brings calm, and we are reminded that whatever storms we face, we are not alone. Jesus is always with us. It’s a story we might come back to in times of worry and fear; when I’m going through a stormy time in my life, I often pray with this passage. It’s comforting and calming to be reminded that Jesus is with me and I don’t have to be afraid.

Our symbolic readings of the calming of the storm tend to focus on the miracle. I wonder what happens when we turn our attention to the bigger picture. What’s going on here? Why are the disciples out there on the lake with a storm brewing, anyway? What is so important that they had to cross to the other side?

This trip in the boat happens at evening. All that day, Jesus has been teaching by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The crowd gathered to hear him was so big that Jesus had to get into a boat and teach from the water, while the crowd sat on the beach. As the waves lapped at their feet and seabirds cried overhead, Jesus taught them parables to help them understand the kingdom of God. The disciples were there too, in the boat with Jesus; they didn’t always get Jesus’ teaching, but he explained the parables in private to them. When the day draws to a close, Jesus tells the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” He means the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the alien side, the pork-eating side, the non-Jewish side. So they sail away, leaving the crowd on the beach. Jesus falls asleep, the storm blows up, Jesus wakes and calms the wind and water. And then they reach the other side, the country of the Gerasenes. As soon as Jesus gets out of the boat, as soon as the sandal hits the shore, immediately a man with an unclean spirit comes to meet him. This man is in a bad way: he’s so dangerous he has to be chained up, and he’s broken the chains so often that he now lives in the tombs, as though he is already dead. And Jesus heals him. Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, restoring the man to sanity, community, and fullness of life.

That’s why the disciples and Jesus are in the boat: they are going to the other side. And they are going to the other side because there’s important work to do over there. There’s a hurting person who desperately needs help over there. It was probably just as well that the disciples were already in the boat when Jesus told them where they were going. If they’d known, they might not have agreed to go. You can just imagine their protests: “Jesus, are you nuts? You want us to go where? That’s not our place; the people there are not our kind of people. We can’t do that.” Going to the other side will change them, and perhaps they don’t want to be changed. They’re comfortable where they are, in a familiar land, with familiar people. But Jesus knows they’ve got to reach the other side to help someone. It will change the disciples, of course. Maybe that change is part of the work Jesus needs them to do.

And this is where this comforting story challenges us, where it takes us to a place we may not want to go. This is where Jesus calls us out of our comfort and safety to get into the boat, sail to the other side of the lake, and be changed as the disciples were changed. This next bit is hard for me to say, and it may be hard for you to hear. But you’ve shown me that St Bede’s is a place where we can have challenging conversations in a spirit of love and respect for one another. You have surely heard about the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during Bible study last Wednesday evening. Nine people died, including four pastors, a longtime librarian, and a young poet who recently graduated from college. Evidence including the killer’s own website points to his being motivated by an ideology of white supremacy. Of the many words written about this, few are as chilling as those by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. He says, “We have, quite likely, found at 110 Calhoun Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, the place where Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown cross with Baltimore, Ferguson, and Sanford. We periodically mourn the deaths of a group of Americans who die at the hands of another armed American. We periodically witness racial injustices that inspire anger in the streets. And sometimes we witness both. This is, quite simply, how we now live.”[2]

This is how we now live. That should give us all pause. Mass shootings and racial injustice happen often enough that they are no longer unusual. This is normal to us now. As a country, we have done so little to stop this violence that it appears we have pretty much said, “This is acceptable to us. We are willing for a certain number of people to be shot to death for no good reason. We are okay with acts of violence being committed against people of color out of sheer prejudice.” When that storm on the lake was at its height, when the winds were swooshing and the water threatened to swamp the boat, the disciples cried to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” And of course Jesus cared. He cared enough to calm the storm and save the disciples. He cares about every person who died in Emanuel Church, for those who died in Aurora and Newtown and Baltimore and Ferguson, for all the grieving families left behind. But if we are Christ’s body on earth, if we are supposed to represent Jesus Christ to other people, do we care that they are perishing?[3]

There have been many calls to prayer over the last few days, and it is right and fitting that we pray for Emanuel Church, for an end to prejudice and violence. But do we care enough to get into the boat and cross to the other side? Do we care enough to turn our prayers into action? We may have the same protests the disciples might have made: “Jesus, you want us to go where? We can’t do that. Surely someone else can go with you.” Except that Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Cynthia Hurd, and the others who died are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are part of us, and we are part of them. That’s why Jesus asks us to get in the boat with him. Yes, it will change us, but maybe that change is part of the important work Jesus needs us to do on the other side of the lake.

Often we don’t act in situations like this because we don’t know what to do. The problems of prejudice and violence are so vast, we may feel powerless to change them. But we can act; we do have the power to change things. Here’s one thing we can do: we can come together as a church community to read and discuss The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores the disproportionate effects of the war on drugs on African-Americans. I’ve read this book, and it is compelling. The Urban Peace Collaboration of our own Episcopal Diocese has developed and field-tested a discussion guide that helps create a structured and supportive space, so the conversation is not so tense or awkward and it will lead to action. I want St Bede’s to be part of this. I want there to be so much interest in this book that we need two or three or even four groups to make enough room for everyone to participate. By itself, this won’t get us to a place where black lives matter as much as white lives, where people can go to school and church and the movies without fear of being killed. But it does get us into the boat, on the way to the other side where there is important work to do.

There is challenge aplenty in this, yet there is comfort, too. We do not go alone. Jesus is there in the boat, waiting to travel across the stormy sea with us. We don’t have to get it right; we’re not going to get it right all the time. That’s okay. The disciples got it wrong again and again, yet still they were able to change themselves and the world because Jesus was with them. We can do that too. Let’s get into the boat.

[1] This sermon is indebted to Karoline Lewis, “The Other Side,” Working Preacher, June 14, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3645 (accessed June 17, 2015).
[2] Jelani Cobb, “Murders in Charleston,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/church-shooting-charleston-south-carolina (accessed June 18, 2015).
[3] I owe this to Sara Anne Berger.

Proper 7B: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

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