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.

The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

When I was younger I used to hear people use the phrase “shake the dust from your feet” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Someone would leave a job or their relationship would break up and another person would tell them, “just shake the dust from your feet and move on”.

It’s a weird phrase. What dust are they talking about? And what does shaking dust from your feet have to do with moving on from a bad relationship? It wasn’t until much later when I read this passage that I understood where that language even came from and why it made sense.

Jesus is sending out his disciples to the people. He’s sending them out two by two and he’s telling them to be prophets. That means he’s telling them to speak a hard, but liberating, truth to the people they meet. He tells them to leave everything behind. Don’t even take food. Just go.

Jesus tells them to stay in any place that welcomes them for a while, but if they are rejected, if people refuse to hear what they are saying, to leave. And he tells them that as they walk away they should shake the dust off their feet as a sign that they had not been welcomed.

When I think about Jesus I usually don’t think about him like this. I think about the shepherd who leaves the flock behind to find the one missing sheep, the one who never lets us go. But then I remember that there was a time that Jesus faced rejection too. He tells the disciples that a prophet is not without honor, except in their hometown. He knew that from personal experience. He knew what the disciples were going to face.

This is not Jesus rejecting or leaving people behind. Instead this is Jesus telling his disciples that sometimes this is the hard truth: you will be rejected and you will have to move on and hope that the ones who rejected you will later change their minds and follow you. Jesus knew that sometimes it was impossible to get everyone on board, but that sometimes you had to move forward anyway before the train derailed.

Its sort of a Leadership Principles of Jesus 101 class. As much as you want consensus, as much as you want everyone to join you, that won’t always happen. And sometimes you have to just move forward and do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about this last week. I was watching the webcast of the biannual national meeting of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church. It’s a church I still love, but I, like many others, had my own moment of shaking the dust from my feet in order to join a church that was truly committed to moving forward and embracing all in their ministry.

What struck me this day, though, had to do with youth and young adults. The Presbyterians stop periodically to worship. They had been in the midst of heavy, contentious debate, so the worship came at the best possible time. And on this day these young people, mostly high school and college students, had planned and were leading a very good service.

Except right before worship started, many of the meeting attendees slipped out. The youth found themselves with a far smaller crowd than they should have had. But that was okay. They moved forward, and they worshipped God anyway, and it was wonderful and prophetic.

In the midst of this, one wise adult quipped: Next time we wonder why young people are not staying in our church, we may want to remember this. They were right. The young people were bringing a prophetic voice, and it was being ignored. It makes perfect sense that they might shake the dust off their feet and move on to a place that hears their message and wants to work with them.

Now, Im not calling out the Presbyterians here, because this is an issue for the larger church. This happens in denominations, and in churches, all over. The younger generations, including my own, don’t want to engage in church arguments. We don’t want to watch lukewarm churches debate endlessly about doing something good, no matter what it is. We want to be in places of justice and action and goodness.

Those youth had just watched their church being torn apart over an issue that in their minds is greatly settled. But then they offered worship, and no one listened. They were so exhausted from the arguing, that they walked away from the balm of Gilead. I think that’s an example of why so many young people, and people of every age, have shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet, and decided to forge their own spiritual path instead. When the church doesn’t receive prophetic voices, those prophetic voices will walk away from us shake the dust off their feet, and walk into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus, a person of prophetic action, was talking about not being welcomed in his hometown, he was talking about the church?

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the church, and particularly mainline churches like ours, like the Presbyterians, like the Episcopalians, became places focused on listening to God’s still speaking, prophetic voice, no matter where I came from? What if we were less focused on weighing the pros and cons until the time for action had passed and we had become irrelevant? What if instead we chose to become a people of action, welcoming the prophetic voices that all of us have? A people known more for our good works, than our hesitation.

What if we shook some dust from our own feet, and left the places that were holding us back behind? What if both in our personal lives, and in our lives together, we looked at the places where we felt stuck, where we felt paralyzed with fear or anxiety or inertia, and we decided that we were going to leave those places behind, shake the dust from our feet, and follow Jesus.
If we did that, I believe we could create something that people would take notice of, and want to be a part of. Even the ones who had shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet might come back and join us.

There’s a business book that I’ve been looking at that might have some relevance for those of us in the church. Now generally I’m wary of mingling the corporate and the church worlds, but the reality is that God can speak through anything.

The book is called “Blue Ocean Strategy” and it was published about seven years ago. In it the author talks about two different kinds of oceans. Blue oceans, and red oceans. Red oceans are overcrowded, and contain a glut of organizations that to the outside observer may as well be all the same. They look like, they talk alike, they offer the same thing. Eventually they make one another irrelevant.

But blue oceans are different. They offer a new product. They do it in a different way. They explore the spaces that have never been explored before. And eventually, they stand out and they attract people to them.

The book is about marketing, but I’m not talking about increasing profits. At least not with an “i” I’m talking about increasing prophets, with an “e”.

What is to stop a casual passerby from driving past one more church and thinking that church looks exactly like the last one and the one before that and the one before that and I’ll bet their all the same?

Being a church that blends in doesn’t help to grow prophets. People have rejected “all the same” whether it comes in a white meeting house church with traditional hymns or an auditorium with guitar music. They want something different.

So how do we do that? I don’t ask because I want more people on our roles. The mark of a faithful church is not its membership numbers. I ask because I want us to become a place that welcomes Christ’s voice, and shares it with the world.

Do we offer that free meal? Do we go out of our way to welcome people who may feel unwelcome? Do we finally start that men’s fellowship we’ve been kicking around for years? I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.

But I do know this. Christ has sent us here with a message for the world. One that is important enough that he didn’t want us to waste any time. If we are really going to follow him, everyday we have to look at the places that are holding us back, shake the dust from our feet, and go. If we do that, we will find much more than a blue ocean. We will find the kingdom of God, and we will be welcome there. Amen.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.