Growing up on the coast of North Carolina, I spent a fair amount of my time in fishing boats. We owned an old john boat that had a trawling motor on it for fishing the lakes around my house, a bass boat that we would take out on the Lumber river, a couple miles from my house, and a canoe that we could use in the ponds that dotted the county. However, my greatest joy growing up was any opportunity that we had to go out on the ocean and fish along the gulf stream of the Atlantic Ocean. That was where the biggest fighting fish existed. Now, the gulf stream was in between 30 and 70 miles off the coast depending on where you were embarking from and that usually meant anywhere from 2 to 3, 3 and a half hours, of riding to get there before any actual fishing got to be done. I am convinced that in another life I could have been a sea captain or maybe a pirate because while 2-3 hours of sitting doing anything else would have been unbearable to my 12 year old self, something about sitting in the back of a fast moving boat, getting sprayed by the water that would come off the boat every time it hit a big wave, watching the flying fish rise out of the wake of the boat and sail effortlessly alongside of us, or just looking out at the immensity of the ocean was both relaxing for me but also joyful. And I think I was born with sea legs because from a pretty early age, I was comfortable walking along the sides of the boat, releasing the outriggers, and sending the fishing lines up to the top of them. There are few feelings in this world as exciting as looking out the back of a boat when an 80lb wahoo hits your tackle and pulls out 100 yds of fishing line before you’ve even had a chance to set the hook and no greater sense of accomplishment as standing next to a catch back on the dock, seeing the other fishermen gather around you as you tell them how hard it was to bring this one in and the fishing tales begin.
There is one particular occasion out on the ocean that I will never forget as long as I live. We had gotten up early in the morning, you have to when you have such a long ride out to the gulf stream and you don’t want to spend the vast majority of your day cooking in the Carolina sun with little protection, and had made our way out to the dock. The weather report came in that the seas were breaking 4-6 ft. Choppy but manageable and after some debate we decided to give it a go. And I don’t remember what kind of fish we caught that day (or if we caught any at all). I remember my dad had one of the new guys working at the bank with us who had determined that manly men didn’t take dramamine and so had spent the better part of the day at the back of the boat losing breakfast and last night’s dinner and I’m guessing all his meals from the previous week. He had made a bad decision. But by 2:30, 3:00, it was decided that it was time to head in (probably as a sign of mercy for the manly man who had turned a shade of green that doesn’t easily occur in nature.) And so we turned around and started to head in. As we grew closer, the waves were growing larger by the minute and what was a choppy 4-6 feet had grown into a dangerous 8-12 as a storm head had formed in between the shoreline and us, too big to drive around. The only choices we had were to stop and run the risk of being flipped over by the increasingly growing waves or press on back to the marina. We chose the latter. What followed was 3 hours of the most harrowing boating I have ever done. We lost count of the number of times that the boat popped into the air by waves and smacked down back into the water. In such a situation one begins to wonder if a boat can be cracked in half by the force of the waves and the impact of returning to earth and more importantly if we were going find out on that day. To make a long story short, we pulled into the slip a thoroughly beaten group of fishermen on that day with the manly man vowing to never set foot on a boat again and me kissing the ground in an overly emotional sign of gratitude to the gods of boating luck. And as I have thought about that day over the past week, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how the disciples felt in our scripture for today.
The story for today comes after Jesus has just spent time speaking before an ever growing crowd along the shores of Lake Galilee. And you get the sense that even early on in his ministry, Jesus’s words, his charisma, his magnetism draw people to him in a way that the Jewish folks hadn’t seen in a long time. When he spoke, he talked about seeds getting planted in the proper soil, about letting their lights shine before God and one another, he described how the time was coming for the faithful to begin to harvest from the seeds they had sown, he told them of how things could be if they had the faith of a mustard seed, and by the end of all that, the son of God was tired. And you have to imagine fairly well peopled out for the day. Because you have to think that even those who speak to people for a living, musicians who play a different city each night, writers who go on book tours, politicians who go from place to place stumping for votes, they all get tired, drained, and don’t want to be around anyone but their closest friends and family. They need to feel the security that comes from being only with loved ones until your battery is recharged and you are ready to face the outside world again. And so Jesus turns to his disciples, his closest friends, his inner circle and says, “get me out of here.” And so it is that they load up onto a boat and head out to the middle of the lake where the crowds cannot follow Jesus anymore. And you can almost see it, can’t you? You can almost see Jesus, grabbing a corner seat in the back of the boat, sitting down on a well-worn but comfy cushion and feeling the breeze coming off the lake run through his hair, and against, his face, and through his nose and ears, until before too long he is sound asleep. And it is only then that the waves kick up, that they thunder starts rumbling, maybe lightning hits the water around them, and they know that this could be trouble. Maybe it is the little boat being tossed about, maybe it is the wind swirling in all directions around them that causes their panic, maybe it is the sight of water cresting over the bow of the boat, and there is no worse feeling, no more disconcerting feeling, there is no great challenge to the security that one feels while on the water than to see the space between boat and body of water be breached over and over again until it feels like the whole of the boat is going to sink. Maybe at this point the disciples all band together to begin the difficult task of bailing out the boat, each one grabbing whatever they could to get as much water out of the boat as possible. Exhausted, they start counting members, making sure everyone is pulling his weight when they realize that in the midst of this great storm, Jesus is still sleeping. Incredulity washes over all their faces as one by one they drop whatever they are using to bail out the boat and rush to the back to wake Jesus up. “Don’t you care, Jesus?,” they all ask. “Don’t you care that we took you out to the middle of the lake, gave you a place to rest away from all the crowds, away from all the demands of a great teacher and messiah, and now we are all going to die out here?” There is no indication that he snaps into action following the approach of the disciples. There is no indication that he feels any sense of panic or trepidation at all. All it says it that he rebukes the wind and speaks to the sea. “Peace! Be still!” and the New Revised Standard Version of the bible says that everything was dead calm. I love that turn of phrase. Dead calm. As if the bubbling chaos of the storm that had thrown all the disciples into a panic, and churned the powers of a big lake up into a frenzy, had dropped buckets of rain, and tossed the boat around, all that came to a screeching halt. And all Jesus could say was, “Why were you so frightened? Have you no faith?” And the disciples became filled with great awe. Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?
I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and we were talking about what it means to have faith. And the topic had come up as I had said to the person, what do you do on those days when belief does not come easy, those days when your faith in God, in creation, in humanity is tested beyond its breaking point. I am sure that if we are honest with ourselves, we all have those days at least once in awhile. Maybe they come after some horrible disaster has overwhelmed some destitute part of the world. A few years ago, an earthquake devastated the country of Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere and when it struck many persons of faith were at a loss for how to explain it. Natural disasters are particularly damaging to the poorest populations who can’t build sound structures. For me, the shootings at Newtown were incredibly hard to think about. Being one who has seen up close and personal the amount of grief that can arise in the aftermath of a school shooting, I was transported back to where my wife and I stood on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA on April 16, 2007. The idea that our youngest school children were now targets made me hold my own son that much closer that day and into the night. To try and conceive of a loving God in the midst of knowing that people are in desperate pain is almost impossible. And of course, one a daily basis, people are carrying pains that no one can possibly know about and maybe they aren’t fully aware of themselves, and so I posed the question to my friend, how are we to have faith when the exigencies of the world make it almost impossible. And my friend, much wiser than I, just said, “What else are you going to do?”
Thursday evening a white man spent an hour studying the word of God and praying with a bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC after which, he produced a handgun and shot and killed 9 of the 12 people there including the senior pastor, 4 out of 5 of their pastoral staff, and spreading terror throughout a whole community of people. There are times to remain silent and there are times to raise one’s voice in bitter sadness, in protest, in anger. And perhaps a singular voice raised on a Sunday morning will only become blended into the cacophony of essays, articles, speeches, images that have been plastered onto our television screens and on the Internet and in the newspaper but they must be said. This event that we have seen unfold in South Carolina over the last few days has become terrifyingly commonplace within our society in the past decade with increasingly horrific outcomes. While not as devastating In terms of body count as were the shootings in Blacksburg or Aurora or Newtown, this latest attack on a church removes the poorly stained veneer of presumed safety that virtually everyone feels when they enter into the walls of a church and rips away the scab that had formed over the top of the festering wound of racial inequality that most of us continue to believe is an old way of thinking from a past era in the country’s history and while the vast, vast majority of us wouldn’t wear jackets with patches of flags from apartheid South Africa or the former white supremacist kingdom of Rhodesia as the killer was photographed wearing, nor would we likely adorn our cars, houses, clothes, bodies with the confederate battle flag; we each know the prejudice that birthed that mentality and how it permeates the culture to advantage some and disadvantage others to maintain a status quo that is never adequately challenged by enough persons and will continue on unabated. Nor is it enough to believe that one regional culture is solely to be blamed either for the events of Thursday evening or the racial animus of the nation. As a southerner who has lived in other parts of the country and the world, I can say that racism in all its myriad forms exists and is practiced everywhere whether in the Midwestern town where I served my first church where locals, without an iota of shame, would call the place where the few remaining black folks lived a name I will not utter. Or in The Cayman Islands where people come from all over the world to fall into a racial pecking order. Here in our own Amsterdam, where a growing number of Latinoas are coming to call Amsterdam home, our church is situated to be welcoming community. To be not of the ways of this world but to offer the radical hospitality of God.
In this one moment in time, the culmination of gun violence, racial animus, and faith has created a situation in which none of us should be allowed to turn our heads away from the dark abyss into which pondering it all forces us to peer. We have a singular moment, a kairotic moment to use the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, in which to consider our own prejudice, our own disproportionate advantages gained from a system that bestows the full measure of humanity to only some persons. And as painful as that is, as hard as it is to stare at the bodies of those killed in the attack, we have to. Like the opened casket of Emmit Till, his mangled body displaying the full hatred of racism in the midst of the civil rights movement, these nine bodies aged from 26 to 87 bear witness to the reality that Martin’s dream has not yet been achieved and we still have many miles left in the long march.
And how can I tell you that you are safe coming to church on Sunday mornings? How can I tell you that following Jesus’s commandment to reach in kindness to all those in your midst, especially those who seem to need to feel the love of God the most, how can I tell you that such actions won’t get you killed? If it is possible to violate the sanctity and sanctuary of a church building is there anywhere on earth that is still safe? In reports about the killer’s confession he apparently said that the folks at Mother Emanuel church were so kind, so loving to him while he was there that he almost didn’t do it. But at the end of the day fear and hatred won over love. But as the great singer-songwriter Richard Shindell notes, “love put down comes back, somehow.”
In the courtroom, during the bond hearing for the killer, representatives from each family spoke directly to the killer and each one of them in one way or another offered him forgiveness. They claimed their pain and their sadness and their anger but in the end each one forgave the shooter and prayed that God would forgive him too. There are no words to adequately describe the Christ-like nature of those families or that church and that is the true test of faith and its greatest strength. It is easy to speak of the love of God in the midst of celebration. In the midst of happy times. In the midst of beauty and peace. God is surely a stronghold in times of trouble when there is no trouble. But it is during those really trying times that all we can do is cling. During those most difficult times, all we can do is hold on to God with all our might, hoping, believing, that it is God who will get us through. Some let go. That’s ok. As the events of this week evidence Life is incredibly hard and for some it impossible to hold on to the security of God. And they fall into the darkness. But that is where the true power of God is seen, that is the space that we who are followers of Jesus are called to be. To go into the darkness and pull people, love people, walk with people until that moment when they can emerge into the light of God’s love once more. Our true calling is to shine our light into a world of darkness so that those who are lost in the dark, those whose grip has slipped, have beacons that show them the way, torches that alight the path back to God, who is the supreme light of the world.
Maybe you are in that place today. I cannot know where your soul is. You don’t broadcast that to the world. Maybe you are so lost in darkness that the concept of light seems like an abstraction or a fairytale that we tell our children in the hopes that they will believe in magic just a little while longer, I know I am. Maybe you are spinning so fast in the chaos of darkness that you don’t know which way to go. If that is you, stop. Stop spinning just for a second and look around this sanctuary. Don’t worry, if I see you looking, I won’t tell anyone. But look around at all the people who are walking with you. All the people who are little sparks of God’s grace, gifted to creation. Look at each one. And know and believe that you are not alone. You are never alone. And for those whose grip is just a little stronger, a little tighter on faith. Know that your sole mission in life is to be a beacon of God’s light and God’s love for people who can’t see, can’t experience either. Know that your sole mission is to be a conduit of God’s love, poured over all the world. Know that following Jesus means being the hands and feet and light of Christ to a world in desperate need of Christ.
In the midst of the storm, it feels like the whole of the world might capsize on top of you, that the waters might crest the bough and then crest your head. It might feel like there is no relief in sight. And yet, there is Jesus, calm and sleeping, keeping you safe, keeping you secure, making everything calm. Find that calm and then bring others too. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.