When It Feels Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel: A Sermon on Charleston for June 21, 2015

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about Charleston. Wednesday night people were gathered at a church. They were studying the Bible, and they were praying. And when a young man came in, they expanded their circle and let him in to their fellowship.

There are no words that adequately describe the tragedy of what happened next. And it will be a long process of discernment as we as a society decide how we respond to the evil we saw in Charleston. And for those of us who are people of faith, there is another question that I’m hearing, too: Why did God let this happen?

It’s a fair question. The nine victims were in God’s house, studying God’s Word, and lifting prayers up to God. They were welcoming the stranger, the way that Jesus asked of us. And they were, by all accounts, good and kind people who lived out their faith. No one deserves what happened, but of all people, why them?

By chance, the lectionary this week brings us a story of another time when the people of God were in the midst of danger. The passage and sermon title had been chosen before Wednesday evening, and they, unfortunately, became more relevant this week.

The Gospel we read today tells the story of how the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat. And we are told that Jesus is with them, but that he is asleep. A storm rolls in and the rain and wind start to beat against the boat, until it starts to take in water. The disciples think the boat was about to sink, and they are about to die. And they start yelling at the sleeping Jesus, waking him up and shouting, “Don’t you care that we are dying!”

Copyright, NBC News

Copyright, NBC News

“Don’t you care that we are dying?” Wednesday night I thought about those words, not for myself but for those nine souls in Charleston. “Jesus, don’t you care that they are dying? Don’t you care about your own people, gathered there in your own church?”

I think through the centuries, in many more places than that boat on a Galilean sea and a church basement in Charleston, good people of faith have asked that question. “Jesus, don’t you care? Why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why aren’t you stopping it?”

Like I said it’s a fair question. And those disciples in the boat, they at least got a response. When they woke Jesus up and yelled their question to him, he took action. He spoke to the storm and the sea and said “peace, be still”. And when he did, the rain and the wind died, and they were safe.

The disciples, they got a happy ending. But today I don’t tell you this story to say “everything is going to be okay”. Because the end of the story has not yet been written for us.

But I do tell it, because I believe that it reminds us of something very important: Jesus does not will for God’s people to suffer. What happened on Wednesday night in Charleston was not God’s will. It’s not what was supposed to happen.

Instead, it was what one angry, racist, violent young man chose to do. It was the horrible way that he chose to exercise his free will. It was his turn away from the message that Jesus gave us all, one of peace and love for our neighbor. And it was choosing an act of evil, even after being shown the love of strangers.

And it is horrifying. But, it is not unprecedented.

When I went to college in Atlanta, I would drive by Dr. King’s old church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And I’d drive by The Temple, a Jewish synagogue that had been bombed in the Civil Rights movement. And I’d drive by other houses of worship that had been targeted decades before and think about the kind of hatred that would drive someone to carry out an act of violence against a peaceful place of worship. I’d think about how strange it must have been to have lived in that era.

But, as we know now, that era isn’t over. And I should have known better, even at age 18. Because the truth is, I knew racism was alive and well. I grew up in the South and I remember my friends from well-educated “good families” repeating the racist epithets of their parents while we played outside. I remember classmates who shaved their heads and started to wear neo-Nazi insignia. And I remember Confederate flags on the front of cars, or in front of fraternity houses on my college campus, hung by people who called it “heritage”.

Much like the disciples sailed a sea that was sometimes violently restless, I grew up in the South sailing a sea that was far too often disturbed by the undercurrents of hate. But unlike the disciples, who sailed waters that were unsettled by the weather, when we encounter racism it does not come from a natural place. We are sailing on a human-made sea of hate. It does not have to be there.

And like the disciples, we can call out to Jesus to ask him to calm the storm. But unlike the disciples, this storm is one of human making. And it will not be calmed by our silence. That didn’t even happen for the disciples; why should it happen for us?

Instead, it is our job to not just call out to Jesus, but to live out the values he taught us. It is our job to calm the stormy sea by choosing to speak up against hatred and bigotry. It is our job to love our neighbors, no matter who or where they are. And it is our job to reject silence when words are needed. We need to name racism for what it is: not a breach of social etiquette. Not a political concern. Not a relic of a bygone era. But instead, something that we must resist. Something that is a sin.

It may be tempting, here in New England, to think this is not our work. On Thursday, as I rang our church bells in remembrance, I thought about how different our context is here in Exeter than it is in Charleston. I wondered really what we could do from so far away.

But as I was sitting there, I was convicted by a story that the Rev. Bob Thompson told this past year when he came to a We the People lecture to talk about racism. Despite growing up in West Virginia, Bob said, “Exeter, New Hampshire is the only place I’ve ever been called the “n-word”.” And it didn’t just happen once.

And so, we have work to do. We have work to do because we are human beings and concerned citizens, but we also have work to do because we are Christians. And because just like Jesus calmed the storms by saying “peace”, Jesus taught us what it means to be peacemakers. And he was always clear that the peacemakers are the ones who work for justice for all God’s people.

So how do we start? I think the story tells us a little about that. Because the thing that has always struck me about this passage is the fact that Jesus did not calm the storm from back on the dock. He was not waiting for them there on the opposite shore. Instead, in the wake of a horrible storm, Jesus was right there with them, in the same boat.

And so that’s the hope in this story. Jesus does not ask us to do this alone. But Jesus does ask us to get in the same boat, and go where he is going.

Scripture tells us that other boats were out there on the sea that day. The same is true for us. There are a lot of boats out there. There are boats of anger. Boats of fear. Boats of vengeance. Boats of denial. And I’ll admit that sometimes they look pretty attractive.

But when it comes down to it, this is the only boat I want to be in. Because this is where Jesus is at the helm.

That doesn’t always mean that it will be smooth sailing. Because, be warned, no one said that following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it costs everything. But like Jesus himself said after he stilled the storm, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I want to be in that boat. And I want to have faith. I want to have that faith because on Wednesday night, not even bullets could destroy the faith of Emanuel AME church. And not even bullets could stop their hope.

So much so that when the shooter was arraigned on Friday morning, when he was brought into the courtroom where the families of his victims sat, their faith and their hope lived. And even in the face of a man who had done such an evil thing, they were able to say something to him that no one expected: “I forgive you”. Again and again they said it. And they said “May God have mercy on you.” And “we will pray for you”.

If they can say that, if they can stay in the same boat as Jesus even when no one could blame them for jumping ship, I can say the things that I sometimes don’t. I can say “that’s not funny” when I hear a racist, xenophobic, or a bigoted joke. I can tell the truth when I hear someone spread misinformation. I can say speak up when it would be easier for me to say silent. And I can say the things that will help to cause change. Because we never know who is listening, and we never know how much power our words, or our silence, might have. And if the families of those lost can say the things they did to the man who killed their loved ones, this is the least I can say from my place of comfort.

That’s my pledge in the wake of Charleston. You can choose the same, but that is your choice. But if you do, let’s pray for one another. Let’s pray that we will be the peacemakers on a sea that sometimes seeks to destroy us all. Let’s pray that we can stay in the same boat as Jesus, even when the waves get rocky. And let’s pray that one day soon we will find the other shore.

But today, let’s first pray for the souls that were lost. The martyrs of the faith. The ones who gave their lives doing exactly what Christ asked of them: transforming their minds, lifting their voices in praise, and welcoming their neighbor with open hearts. And let us do so by speaking their names and keeping our silence for a moment:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton
Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

(Silence.)

Prayer: O God, whose son stilled stormy seas, we lift up these names and these lives to you. And we lift up our hearts to you as well. God, transform them, and give us the strength and the will to silence the storms of hatred, and to speak words of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.

Why Do the Hateful Choose Our Houses of Worship?

One day during my first pastorate, back in Vermont, I went to the Post Office to get the church mail. That day there was an envelope with the name of a fake organization on it and no return address. It was addressed to me, and so standing there in the lobby I opened it. For the next five minutes I read about how gays and women like me were destroying both Christianity and the country, and how I was a “pitiful excuse” for a minister and human being.

I had just done work in New York advocating for marriage equality, and I had written some pieces for national outlets that had been widely shared. The letter had been sent from another state and to the church’s box and not my own (a box anyone in the area could have easily known). The postmark was also from Florida, and so I assumed the letter was from someone I had never met, and never would, who simply disagreed with my writing.

At home I laughed it off. I pointed out the irony of the fact the sender had chosen a stamp with the word “Equality”. I joked with my wife about putting it on the refrigerator. I told worried church members who had heard about it that it was nothing, and they shouldn’t be concerned. I’d received anonymous emails, and even texts like this before.

What I didn’t tell them is that they’d never been quite this hateful. I didn’t tell them I’d taken the letter to the police and been told they could do nothing. And I didn’t tell them that on Sunday mornings when I preached I now kept scanning the back of the church, waiting for the doors to open.

One Sunday shortly after a man I did not know came into the church midway through the service and walked to the front of the sanctuary. As he walked down the aisle I kept preaching. But with every word I thought to myself, “This is it…he’s going to shoot me.”

He didn’t. He had no ill intent at all. But that day I realized just how much fear I had been carrying around with me.

I don’t know why that memory came back to me so strongly last night when I heard about the shooting in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church. But it did. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and made my stomach turn. And it made me think of driving through the streets of Atlanta when I was a college student there. It reminded me of driving past Ebenezer Baptist in Sweet Auburn or The Temple on Peachtree and every other house of worship that had been targeted during the Civil Rights movement. I used to think about what it must have been like back in the days that people hated so much that they’d try to blow your church or synagogue apart.

I know now that those days are not in the past. I know the fear I lived with for a few weeks is nothing compared to the fear that others live with all their lives. And I know that for many they would give thanks if their worst experience was a hateful anonymous letter in their church mailbox.

IMG_5845Today at noon I rang the church bells here in Exeter, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful, sunny day; the kind that make me never want to leave New England. And I sat on the front steps of the church afterwards and marveled at the dichotomy between a night of terror and a day of beauty, and between my life of mainline white Christian privilege and the life of constant fear that too many of the faithful face.

I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study last night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them. And I thought about a mosque in Arizona, and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship. And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti they found one morning this spring.

There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship. It’s because that’s where so many of us put our hope. You can commit a hateful act anywhere, but if you really want to hurt a community, you choose the place they worship. You bomb the synagogue. You shoot up the church. You point your gun and shout at small children trying to get into the mosque. That’s how you cut the faithful so deeply that their hearts never stop bleeding.

But the ones who choose to do evil in the gathering places of the faithful forget one thing: These are not mere buildings. They are the symbols of communities, built often in resistance to hate. They are the places first built by new immigrants, or freed slaves, or spiritual refugees, or genocide survivors. They have known pain before. And they know how to survive it, and transform it. They know how to thrive in the face of the worst that the small-minded and hateful can do. And they know how to live with a faith that those who take up violence will never understand.

Today we ring bells. A small, insignificant-seeming act. And yet, there is meaning. The bells are tolled in remembrance for each life lost. And the bells are tolled as assurance that God is always with us, even in the midst of great evil. But we cannot forget the last reason we toll the bells: as a divine wake-up call to ourselves. The bells are saying it is time to do the work of justice. It is time to stand against hate. And it is time to call the evils of racism and bigotry, and the terrorism that comes with them, by name.

The bells cannot keep silent. And if we really believe in this faith we proclaim, neither can we.