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Peace! Be Still!
June 21, 2015
On Wednesday afternoon I completed my sermon for today and breathed that sigh of relief all pastor’s sigh when you hit the print button on your computer. On Wednesday night I moderated the June meeting of the UPC Session where Tim Trickey told us the news you heard this morning about the interim pastor. On Thursday morning I awakened at 5:30 a.m. and left the house at 6:00 a.m. to drive to Dallas for a meeting of the Mo-Ranch Board of Trustees. It was only then, listening to NPR, that I learned of the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina late Wednesday evening.
There are times in a pastor’s life when you know that what you have written–no matter how powerfully you have wrestled with the text for that day–does not speak the Word that God has put on your heart. And so last night after returning from Mission Presbytery, I closeted myself in my study at home.
Hear the Word of God from the 4th chapter of the gospel of Mark:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But 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?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Where are you safe?
Being safe seems to be fundamental to life. But one wonders if there is any place on earth anymore where one is completely safe and secure.
In April Linda and I attended my 50th high school reunion. The theme of that reunion was “our idyllic childhood.” In the reflections written by my classmates over the past few months and the conversations that I had with my classmates at the reunion we all remembered “our idyllic childhoods” growing up in a small town in the 50s and early 60s. And indeed it was in so many ways:
- Playing Little League baseball with my friends
- Swimming at the pool at Central Park
- The freedom to explore the wonders of Duck Creek
- Being able to ride our bikes anywhere in town
- The best chocolate malt on earth at Payne’s Drugstore
- Watching the tractors unload at the cotton gin near our house
- Football on Friday nights and movies at the Plaza Theater on Saturday mornings and worship at First Presbyterian Church on Sundays
We were safe in our little world. Everyone in town knew me and watched out for me and I never gave a thought to the world being a dangerous place.
The Class of 1965 at Garland High School was a proud class. We were proud that we won the State Championship in football both my junior and senior years. We were proud that though our little town had grown and grown during our childhood years, we were the last class ever to all graduate from the only high school in town.
Except that it was not true. We were not the only high school in Garland. On the east side of town sat George Washington Carver High School. It might as well have been in Romania or Thailand for all I knew about it.
The truth is that there were two different Garlands. In the years since I graduated I came to realize that though my childhood was idyllic, it was decidedly not so idyllic for the children on the far side of the MKT railroad tracks. The children who lived there were not safe.
Many of us grew up in such a “parallel universe.” I was unaware in the 50s and early 60s that an increasingly violent storm was engulfing the lives of black children across the South. Almost indescribable events were unfolding in other places where parallel universes and separate but equal were the accepted order.
In September 1963, the fall of my junior year, the Garland Owls were about to begin a season that would end by beating Corpus Christi Miller at Memorial Stadium a few blocks away and the first of two state championships for our class. A day’s drive away, the world shook on its foundations when an explosion tore through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls dressed in white from head to toe (Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch). Their names were Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson.
At the funeral the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. Then he was arrested and from his jail cell he wrote the now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. There he said:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied up in a single garment of destiny.
Now we fast forward over fifty years and again we are confronted with violence ripping the fabric of another black congregation in another southern city. This time, nine devout Christians died at the hand of a young man in Charleston, South Carolina.
And again we ask: Where is the place of safety, the place of peace, in our lives, in our world? In today’s lectionary gospel, we find Jesus in a tiny boat on the Sea of Galilee. With him are his disciples. Surely there is no safer place in the world than in a boat with Jesus. Yet a storm comes up and the wind rages and the lake surges and terror–absolute terror–grips the disciples’ hearts. And where is Jesus? Asleep! Off duty! Taking a break!
And the disciples wonder…indeed the disciples angrily demand…:
“Jesus, don’t you care? Jesus, can’t you fix this? Jesus, can’t you keep us safe?”
And Jesus rebuked the wind and commanded the waves with the words:
“Peace! Be still!”
Those were Jesus’ words to the wind and waves and these are Jesus’ words to us and these are Jesus’ words to all who are gathered in Jesus’ name across our nation this morning:
“Peace! Be still!”
Here’s the thing: Jesus is the epitome of what theologians call “redemptive suffering.” In other words, suffering that is not meaningless. Suffering that saves.
Faith is not the answer to our questions. Faith is not the answer to the unknowable, the incomprehensible, and the unimaginable. Faith is our response to the unknowable, the incomprehensible, the unimaginable. Our faith is WHAT WE DO and WHO WE ARE in the face of tragedy and violence and suffering.
It is telling that the saints at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were in a Bible study on Wednesday evening when a young man was invited into their midst. They did not know he was filled with an irrational hate. They were there to immerse themselves in the life-giving Word of God. The theme for the evening was: “The Love That Forgives/”
Over the weekend that is exactly what they did. They forgave the young man who killed their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and friends. Over and over again as they have spoken, it has been in a sad but soft-spoken voice of forgiveness. It is unnatural. It can only come from a deep reservoir of faith in the one who on the cross gave the world the greatest testimony to forgiveness ever witnessed:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Those who suffered most forgave first.
Faith is what we do and who we are in the face of tragedy and violence and suffering. And this morning in the midst of their stormy turmoil, do you know what our brothers and sisters at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are doing? Exactly what they have always done through their long years of persecution and prejudice. They have come together to sing songs of defiance to the principalities and powers and songs of praise to the Lord of wind and wave. They have come together to pray for those they have loved and lost and for the one who took their lives. They have come together to practice radical hospitality and holy forgiveness. And they have come together to worship their God as they have done their whole life through.
Why would today be any different than any other Sunday for these devout believers? Because it is what Christians do and who Christians are in every circumstance. And as for us, may this place be for us what the sign at the entrance to the Courtyard says it is:
“This is a House of Peace.” AMEN