a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7)
Jesus tells us that we need to cross over to the other side. The question is, Will we let our fears prevent us from even getting into the boat?
When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across
to the other side.”
One of the enduring metaphors for the Church is that of a ship or boat. In church architecture, the main seating area for the congregation is called the nave. It comes from the latin word, navis, which means, “ship.” It’s where we also get the words “navy” and “navigation” from. In a traditional church building, the ceiling of the nave often has ribs, like the bottom of a boat, just as you see here in this room.
But the purpose of a boat is not to provide a roof over our heads. The purpose of a boat is to carry us from one place to another across the water. Since the earliest times, ocean crossings have always been dangerous, even deadly, and this is still true today. Storms could come up at a moment’s notice, creating wind and waves so terrifying that even the most experienced sailors fear for their lives. There has always been an element of risk, whenever we get into a boat. And so it just makes sense that whatever our destination, it needs to be so much better than where we are starting from, that it is worth taking the risk.
Jesus knew all this when he said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” The Sea of Galilee is known for its storms and squalls but he also knew that they needed to travel, that there was more to his ministry than simply staying where he was. And he knew that his disciples needed to go with him.
Now, the disciples were not novice sailors. Most were experienced fishermen, who had sailed on the Sea of Galilee since they were young boys. They knew how to navigate and how to handle a fishing boat, and they knew that sometimes the seas could be rough. But when the storm came up so swiftly and violently, they were terrified. Perhaps they were afraid of the massive waves pounding on the hull of the boat. Perhaps they were afraid of mythological sea monsters. Or perhaps they were simply afraid that the cargo they were carrying, Jesus, was too precious to lose. We don’t know the reason, exactly; all we know is that they were terrified.
Of course, ships carry all sorts of cargo. Sometimes they carry food, or building supplies, or products headed to market. And sometimes, they might carry also human cargo. Anyway, the sad fact is that ships brought slaves to this country through Charleston harbor. The conditions on those ships were brutal and the seas were very stormy. Many people died while they were packed into the hull of the ships like sardines in a can and shackled in place. Then, forty years before the civil war, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded, and since that time it has been a ship full of faithful disciples who have carried Jesus in their midst. They have weathered the storms of slavery and racism before. And they have faced the ravages of these storms not with fear, but with faith and love.
The latest storm was a 21 year old man from our city, Dylann Roof, who was intent on inflicting as much pain and creating as much destruction as he possibly could. He zeroed in on Mother Emanuel Church precisely because it was such a prominent symbol of strength and comfort for generations of African Americans. His stated goal was simply to start a race war for some muddled, long discredited, white-supremacist cause.
But the people of Emanuel surprised him with their love. He told the police, “They were so nice to me, I almost didn’t go through with it.” And yet he did go through with it, murdering nine people simply because of the color of their skin, people who are now martyrs, saints who died because they welcomed a white stranger into a prayer meeting.
The irony is that this man did not destroy the church, or even the people who survived this horrific slaughter. If anything, he simply proved how faithful, how loving, the people he attacked were. At his arraignment hearing, five of the nine families of the victims spoke directly to the killer. There was not a trace of fear in their voices:
One said, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know… But as we said in Bible study, may God have mercy on you.”
Another said, “…I just thank you on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry….But one thing my sister taught me [is] we are the family that love built….We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.”
These are the words of those who were most directly impacted by this latest storm. But perhaps the hardest words to hear might be in today’s Gospel when the disciples ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Of course, Jesus did care – God cares for the suffering of all his children – and he immediately awoke and quieted the storm. But I wonder if the same question could be asked of us. Do we not care that our brothers and sisters are perishing? Do we not care that every time we have another mass shooting, someone rushes to dismiss it as the work of a madman, as if that is excuse enough? Do we not care that the vast majority of unarmed victims of shootings are people of color?
Of course we do care. The problem is, we are afraid. We’re afraid in this country and in the Church to talk about the sin of racism. We’re afraid of offending our friends or members of our family. We afraid to “stirring things up,” as if things aren’t stirred up already.
The question that Jesus asks us is this: How we are to live – in faith or in fear? Because when he says, “Let us go across to the other side,” he isn’t sending us across on our own. He promises to be with us every step of the way. And when he says “Where is your faith?” he isn’t trying to belittle us. He’s telling us that faith is what saves us from being paralyzed from taking action in the face of our legitimate fears.
Now I don’t know exactly what kind of action we should take. But surely this church, whose mission is to welcome, to rejoice, and to be Jesus in the world, can take a stab at it. Surely this congregation, where several years ago some of us actually marched to remove the Confederate flag from the dome of the capitol – this congregation, where all are welcome to fully participate in the life of the Church regardless of the color of their skin, or how old they are, or who they love – surely this church can be a safe place for honest conversation about the challenges we face in our community. We can begin simply, maybe with a conversation among ourselves about the symbols we use, or how our language influences our behavior. Or maybe we can simply begin with a discussion on the history of race in the Church.
Whatever we do, it will only be a start. But when Jesus told the disciples, “let’s go across to the other side,” nobody asked, “what if there are storms?” They knew that storms were a real possibility. And nobody asked, “Why, what’s over there? Is it really worth all the trouble?” All they knew is that Jesus was telling them to get in the boat and go. And really, isn’t that the hardest part?
God cares that his children are perishing. And if God cares, we have to care.
Let us leave our racial baggage behind and get into the boat with Jesus Christ. Only then can we begin to go across to the other side.
Thanks be to God.