The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 7); Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41 Video
I grew up on the Ohio River, and I’m a river rat at heart. I love the water, but I have a good, healthy respect for its power—my father taught me that. And I have been caught in some fierce storms. I’ve been on a 40-foot houseboat when it got caught in a whirlpool. I have seen sunny days turn to raging storms in the blink of an eye. The only time my dad ever got angry with me for making a really stupid choice was when I didn’t read the clouds right and got caught out on the river in a severe thunderstorm. The force of the wind bent the trees all the way down to the water as I brought our ski boat back up the creek. He was angry with me, but beneath all that anger was full-on fear. He knew what wind and water could do. He understood the sheer force and power they held; they were not to be messed with.
And I have been on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We crossed it at sunset one night, and it was gorgeous, beautiful, peaceful. But that body of water sits down in a bowl and is surrounded by mountains. We were told that fierce storms can blow up, just like that, with huge waves. Those first followers of Jesus were fishermen, so they knew daggone well what could happen to their boat.
Jesus had been teaching the crowds all day from a boat just a little bit out from the shore, and when evening came, he said to the disciples, “Let’s go across to the other side.” So, they left the crowd behind on the shore and set off across the water. The wind started to blow, hard, and the waves grew larger, and those waves were pummeling the boat. Pretty soon, the boat was getting swamped, and they were fighting for their life.
And where is Jesus in all this? He’s in the stern, on a cushion, asleep.
The disciples woke him up, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” He woke up, and he rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. A dead calm. The greek describes it as “a great calm,” “a spacious calm,” and when that greek word is speaking of natural events, “a violent calm, a mighty calm, a strong calm.”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with, oh, the NRSV translates it as “great awe,” which is that kind of total awe and deep reverence that come together when you witness power and majesty. It’s that feeling of awe and respect I feel when I witness the power of a storm. And it’s especially that awe and reverence you feel when you have witnessed the power and majesty of God. But the grammatical construction can also be translated this way: “and they were filled with fear, like really fear; great, big, crazy fear” and they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him; who then is this, that even the wind and the sea listen to him?”
Powerful storms. Crazy wind. Powerful waves. Cross-currents that can destroy your little boat. And they were just trying to get to the other side. Could there be a better story to capture what we are feeling in the wake of the shootings Wednesday night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina?
African-Americans just trying to get to the other side to a life where they and their families can live in safety and thrive and worship and pray. And their boats are getting swamped by waves of hate and violence, and pummeled by a perfect storm of winds that blow from places of deep-seated, systemic racism, enhanced by a culture of violence, supported by privilege that is blind to how bad the storm really is.
And those of us whose skin is white, many of us mean well, and we’re just trying to get to the other side, trying to understand these currents that seem so much bigger than us, and our boats, we’re caught in this storm, too. Our boat is sinking, too. Every time hate unleashes itself, we’re all wounded.
And somehow, the people who perpetrate this violence, who spew this hate, who are so consumed with fear of the other, they are in a boat, too. I don’t buy the mental-illness argument or the this-man-was-working-alone, this-is-an-isolated-incident argument. As one commentator said, “This young man was wearing patches representing South Africa in the apartheid era and Rhodesia”—according to the Anti-Defamation League, both symbols of white supremacy. Tell me, what typical white 21 year old in America just happens to know the flag of Rhodesia. You are taught such things. Dylann Roof says he did not grow up in a racist family or environment, but there are other powerful forces that shape us. He learned this somewhere. This hate is taught, and it has been taught for generations—sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, but taught all the same.
And the hard truth is—we are in the boat being pummeled, AND we are a part of the storm itself. When we lack the courage to do the hard work, and to be in the hard conversations, and to examine, fearlessly, how this whole system has benefitted those of us whose skin is white, then we are a part of the storm. And the storm is swamping us, and we’re all drowning.
“Teacher, wake-up, don’t you care that we are perishing?”
“Peace! Be still!”
“Waves of hate and violence, winds of racism, culture of violence, privilege—I am AWAKE” says the LORD—“Peace! Be still!” Remember our lesson from earlier; remember that passage from Job? Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind…God is calling to us through this storm, and the LORD commands this insanity to STOP!
And in the moment of dead calm that follows, in this great, spacious, violent, mighty, strong calm that follows—we might feel awe, but we might also feel a lot of fear, because in this calm, we are going to have to put our oars in the water and start working our tails off to get to the other side. You see, I think this calm is really scary because as long as the storm is raging, and you’re just trying to keep from sinking, you don’t have time or energy to see anything else; you don’t have time or energy to understand the root causes of the racism that is a cancer in our country’s soul; all you might have energy for is casting blame in somebody else’s direction. As long as the storm is raging, we can only see the one incident in front of us; we can only see as far as the discrete bucket of water that we’re trying to bail out of our boat to keep from sinking altogether.
No, Jesus demands more of us. He is calling US to PEACE. He is calling US to BE STILL. He is going to give us enough calm to look at all these forces in the clear light of day and to understand our part in them. He is calling us to work hard to get to the other side because the kingdom awaits us on that shore. Jesus is longing for us to get out of our little boats and join together on that shore— ONE people, ONE family, ONE bread, ONE body.
Maybe this power that we see Jesus display scares us to death because somewhere, deep inside, we know, as those who have been baptized into Christ’s body—we know that he has given US this same power. The world may well be looking at us, “You Jesus people, don’t you care that we are perishing???” It’s time for us to WAKE-UP. It’s time for us to stare straight into these storms raging in our country; it’s time for us to dare to proclaim with all the majesty and power of God, “PEACE! BE STILL!”
And then, we’ve got to commit to the disciplined, long, gritty, hard, painstaking work to get to the other side because in a dead calm, sitting back and letting your sail do the work won’t take you anywhere. No, this is going to involve US, our whole being, and it’s going to be work. And our salvation, our wholeness, depends on it.
As long as African-Americans can’t live their lives in peace and joy and without fear of violence, then neither can we; we are ONE body. If they are wounded, so are we; we are ONE body. And as ONE body—we die together, we rise together, we cry together, we rejoice together. We won’t be whole until we understand how to live as ONE body.
So, how do we get there? Well, I don’t know the whole way, but I do know some next steps.
Yesterday, Pastor Reggie Hunt, the African-American pastor of Cornerstone Church, called me to get together at 8:45 this morning with other pastors to pray and share communion before heading to our services. Between our two services, I hustled over to his church at Hardin Park to be a part of that. We, as pastors, are meeting for coffee this week to talk about how to lead our people in this time, and to talk about our own feelings. Trust me, a church shooting strikes fear in all of our hearts. We will be calling all of our people to come together for a time of prayer in the very near future.
So, step one—PRAY. Pray in your own prayers for our country and that the racism that infects our hearts and the heart of our country may be transformed into a force for love. And, wherever and whenever you can, pray together, across races, across traditions.
Step two—we have to WAKE-UP. Attend the Unlearning Racism Dialogue Series—the next meeting is Tuesday night at the ASU Student Union. If you can’t make that, find something to read that will help you deepen your own consciousness on this; better yet, find an African-American to mentor you and hold you accountable in this work.
Step three—think of one African-American person that you can call this week just to tell them that you are thinking about them and praying for them. Is that a vulnerable thing to do, you bet, but will it make a profound difference in that person’s life, absolutely. Our African-American friends and neighbors need to know that we are thinking about them, praying for them, and that we are committed to this work.
Step four—be fearless in entering conversations about race and racism. I know this is vulnerable; I feel intensely vulnerable every time I enter this arena. But I also know, as a white person with a whole lot of privilege, I can opt in and out of this work, I can move in and out of this arena—African-Americans don’t have that luxury; they are never not in the arena. We need to stay in the arena.
Step five—if you want to understand the depth and power of forgiveness that is necessary for the work ahead of us; if you want to see what a Christian witness of such forgiveness looks like, go out on the internet and watch what the families of those who died said to Dylann Roof at his first hearing on Friday.
Beyond these first steps, I don’t know the rest of the way, but I do know that if we step out on this path, Jesus will guide is in the Way we are to go. The qualities that St. Paul names today are good ones to cultivate: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. This is kingdom work, and it will take every ounce of courage that we, with God’s help, can muster.
I want to leave us with St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, but hear them now addressed to us: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians, we have spoken frankly to you St. Lukans; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return…open wide your hearts also.”
“Why are you still afraid?”
The only way to the other side is to“open your heart wide.”
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 21, 2015