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Gospel Message and Sermon

June 1, 2015

Mark 4:35-41 Tragedies of Life

The seascape can change in an instant. One moment everything seems perfect—the wind is at your back, the ocean is calm, the sun is shining. The next thing you know you’re being pelted with stinging rain, and your boat is being thrown around in a violent sea. Not only that, but you’ve lost your bearings. The way home no longer is clear. The Gospels tell of Jesus and the disciples in just such storms. This is Mark’s rendition.

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Life, much like the weather, can change in an instant. We have witnessed that truth too many times. This week has once again exposed the vulnerability and fragility of life. There are beautiful days and dark days. There is sunshine, and there is rain. This week has been a lot of the rainy variety—both literally and figuratively.

It would easier to talk of how we handle our personal storms of life and ignore what happened in South Carolina. Sometimes we expect worship to be the place where, no matter what has happened around us, we will walk out of here renewed and feeling good about life. Many times that is true, but there is always someone who won’t be able to feel good about life even after singing powerful songs, hearing the trusted promises from scripture and being reminded that God is with us always. Sometimes the pain is too real.

In a horrific act on Wednesday night, 9 innocent people were killed, their families torn apart, and we have once again come face-to-face with evil. The pain is too real. While we know every day people die from illness and accident, this evil knocks us off our feet. No less than 6 times since 2006, places of worship have been part of a storm of violence and hate that continues to permeate our society. Yet this morning, the sun still rose and life went on.

I could say nothing more and simply move on. But if I ignore the racism that fueled the hatred and shooting of innocent people, I fail my own conscience. And I will have compromised my right to speak on behalf of the other excluded communities for whom I advocate.

One of the things that came to light in the last day or so was the alleged gunman and his family were members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, one of our mission partners and a progressive Christian voice. Two of the ministers killed graduated from ELCA seminaries.

The presiding Bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton wrote this:

All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own. We might say that this was an isolated act by a deeply disturbed man. But we know that is not the whole truth. It is not an isolated event. And even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly. Nine victims leave grieving families. The family of the suspected killer and two congregations are broken. When will this end?

While I feel compelled to address the racism that fueled this hatred, I don’t speak as one who has the answers. I also don’t speak for anyone else. I am conscious of the faces of color in this room and I don’t want to speak unfaithfully in their presence. Here’s what I know from a personal perspective. I know that even on my best days, I am constrained by years of white privilege, that thing that makes it easy for me to go about my life without worrying if the color of my skin will make me a target of cruel jokes and offhand comments or even something worse.

I know, even on my best days, my first thoughts are not always without prejudice. I know, even on my best days, I might let an offhand comment go because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person I’m with. I know, even on my best days, I have to stop myself from stereotypical thoughts about neighborhoods that are safe, or identifying someone by the color of their skin or thinking about whether they belong somewhere. The color of our skin, unlike our sexual orientation, is right out front. And I know the entrenched messages from my teenage years of living in a racist community can be in my thoughts before I know it.

So I am taking to heart ELCA Bishop Eaton’s advice:

I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.

When Mark tells this story about Jesus, he says that it was Jesus’ idea to take this boat trip across the lake. Jesus knew that storms could come up quickly. Like everything else in life, the trip was not without a risk. Wednesday night at Emanuel AME Church a group of people gathered to pray. They are in their most intimate of communities and a stranger who doesn’t look or dress like them joins in. They don’t judge, they just welcome. During their last hour, nine people of faith welcomed a stranger in prayer and fellowship. “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The letter known as First John tells us “God is love, and those who live in God live in love and love lives in them.” Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine. Can we do even more to put love in action? Can we do the right thing instead of the easy thing? Can we do one thing today to right a wrong, to communicate a kindness, to create the world we want—a just world: a world in which all lives, but especially black and brown lives matter; a world in which all love, including gay love, is sacred; a world in which all abilities are valued; a world in which every life is precious.

When will this end? Perhaps we can’t stop this kind of act from ever happening, but we can work toward that goal if we, the people, have the will to be the nation we claim to be. We have the resources to feed the hungry, to lessen poverty, to provide not just an education for every child, but a good education. Do we have the will?