Charleston: Do You Not Care That We Are Perishing?

I have felt physically weak ever since I heard the news out of Charleston.

Nine shot down and killed at Bible study by a white man because they were black.

It is as though another gun violence massacre has drained me of all hope.  I don’t know how to say, “We cannot let this happen again,” without it sounding like a cruel joke.

And then I read our gospel again for today and felt like I’d seen a ghost.

The words, the story, already powerful in their own right, struck me to the heart when I thought of them in conjunction with this tragedy.

Scripture can sometimes be our only solace in times like this.

I believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, but I’m not sure I know how to find it today after what has happened this week.

But just like the victims at Emmanuel AME church, we are people of faith, and just like they were doing moments before they died, together we will go to the Word of God in search of truth and hope.

I can’t even read the first line of the gospel without crying.

“When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’”

I think about Jesus leading the disciples onto the water that night even though the storm was coming, and I think about Jesus leading those nine people to their church that night even though the storm of death was approaching.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never really hesitates to lead us into danger and lead us to our deaths?

That is because we have to confront danger to confront evil and we have to enter death to come to resurrection.

But some people, like African Americans in our country, find that their paths intersect with danger and death much more than those of white people.

The people at Emmanuel AME did not hesitate to get on the boat with Jesus and set out into the waters, even though they did not know that a storm was coming.

Because they did it every week.

Every week they showed up for Bible study, following Jesus where he led them because they trusted him and wanted to follow him.

Let me tell you something about people who go to Bible study: they are the salt of the earth.

No one has to go to Bible study.  It’s not an obligation.  No one will look down on you or consider you an unfaithful church member if you don’t go.  There are a million and one other things you could be doing.

The people who go to Bible study every week, month after month, year after year, have two qualities: they are faithful, and they are hungry.

They are faithful to the discipline of carving out the time and showing up to hear not just their own thoughts on scripture, but someone else’s.

They have the humility to know that they could use some help understanding scripture, that they haven’t got all the answers themselves.

And so they slog it out through all weathers and all seasons, sitting through sometimes dull sessions with the same people telling the same stories and getting on the same theological hobby horses (and I include the priest or pastor in that characterization), because they are hungry for God and they will do what it takes to get closer to God, step by hard-won step.

I see it every week at our Bible study here at St. Luke’s, and I know it happens at our lay-led Bible study at St. Thomas.

The people at Emmanuel AME answered the call of Jesus and got in the boat as night was falling, unaware that the storm was bearing down on them, unaware that this time the trip to the other side would be more final than their friends and family could bear.

“And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

Just by going to Bible study, they were leaving the crowd behind.  Just by going to church, they were leaving the crowd behind.  Just by being Christians, they were leaving the crowd behind.

Just by being people of faith in a world that seems harsh and indifferent, a world poisoned by racism, they were leaving the crowd behind.

But the first hint of light in the darkness: “they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  Although the boat would soon be swamped by the storm, they were not alone. Jesus was with them on this final journey.

And then comes the line that haunts me.

The boat is being swamped by waves, the disciples are about to drown and die, and the cry rings out: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

That is the cry of the oppressed minority in this country.

“Do you not care that we are perishing?”

For Dylann Roof and those like him, members of hate groups, the answer is not just “no,” but they are actively seeking ways to harm people of color.

But the larger and far more dangerous reality is the many thousands more people who when the cry comes, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” have an answer of “no” so deeply buried in their hearts that they can’t even acknowledge it themselves.

That is the sin of racism that runs through our country like a cancer and a poison that we do not fully understand the scope of.

If we want to be able to answer “yes!” when the question is asked, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” we have to have a better response than simply shaking our heads in regret when a crime like this is committed.

We have to get in the boat and go out on the waters, in the boat with Jesus and in the boat with the people Jesus loves most, which is anyone who is suffering, oppressed, discriminated against, alone and hated.

There is no solidarity with people of color from the safety of the shore, comforted by a white privilege so comprehensive we can’t even see it.

Following Jesus means being with Jesus.  Being with Jesus means confronting injustice, offering our own compromised hearts with humility to him and to those who bear the cost of racism, and together going out to face the storm.

Consider this sermon for a moment.  I only have to preach it from and toward the perspective of white people because there are only white people in this church.

That is the first time I’ve thought about that since I’ve been in this pulpit, and there is my white privilege on display.

It’s hard for us to understand the perspective of people we don’t spend time around.

And God’s kingdom is not complete without all of God’s children at the table.

Maybe there is not a lot of diversity in Franklin and Shelbyville, Indiana.

But what would it be like to be the church in this town where the whole spectrum of race, gender, orientation, and socioeconomic status felt truly at home?

What would it be like if we really prayed for that with hearts open to the change it would take to make it happen?

When we think of nine innocent people at prayer being gunned down in a house of worship, it is easy to feel like God is asleep at the wheel, just like Jesus is asleep in the boat in our gospel story today.

It is easy to cry out with the disciples to God, this time with our whole country, “Do you not care that we are perishing in our own sin, in our own racism and violence?”

But there is a reason Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat during a storm.

The reason Jesus sleeps while the storm descends is that Jesus trusts the disciples.

He trusts them to steer the boat.

The same is true today.

We are all in this together, black and white, Democrat and Republican, gay and straight.  We’ve got to find a way to live in this boat together, and Jesus has entrusted us with the task of steering it through the storm.

And when the cry goes up, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”, when it all becomes too much and the storm is overwhelming us, when we cannot bear the faces and the stories of the churchgoers who were murdered because they were black, Jesus does answer.

He is there to calm the storm.

We have seen him in the trembling voices of the victims’ families who have so bravely already offered forgiveness.

We have seen him in the crowds of people of all races joining hands and singing in Charleston.

We have seen him in the determination of protestors refusing to stop demanding justice in Baltimore and Ferguson.

When we actually get into the boat with him and set out into the storm, we know that when we call, he will not fail us.

Jesus asks us today, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

And I am rebuked by those questions, because I am afraid.

I am afraid of the next gun violence massacre in this country.

I am afraid that this type of racist violence will be as common in America when I am eighty as when I am thirty, and I am afraid I am contributing to it with my lack of action.

When Jesus asks me, “Have you still no faith?” I want the answer to be “no” but I am afraid it is “yes.”

So I will look outside of myself and outside of our church for an example to follow.

And I find it in nine faithful Bible study partners in Charleston, South Carolina.

They did not know that their showing up at Bible study that evening was a profound act of courage, that they were about to be made martyrs for Jesus Christ.

But theirs was the simple, everyday courage of following Jesus week in and week out, year after year.

They were faithful, and as they left their earthly bodies behind, they heard Jesus say to them what he said out on the storm-tossed waters: “Peace.” And that peace became theirs eternally.

When I think about confronting the sin of racism in our country and healing the deep wounds it inflicts every day, I get overwhelmed.

I feel like I’m out in the boat in the storm and I can’t possibly handle this myself, and Jesus is asleep and no help at all.

But then I remember that Jesus called me onto this boat and that he is here with me.

He said to us, “Let us go across to the other side.”

We don’t need the courage to go out and face down gunmen.

We only need the courage to show up for Bible study.

The mustard seed of courage that lies within the discipline of daily faithfulness to the humble life of discipleship is what the martyrs of Charleston bore within them, and that is what racism and evil cannot stand against.

One drop of water cannot hurt hearts of stone, but drip by drip by drip the hardest stone dissolves away.

We don’t have to have the courage and the power to defeat the storm.

All we have to do is have the courage get on the boat—to engage with the problem, not to run away from the storm of racism.

Jesus promised we would get to the other side.

He took nine people to the other side in Charleston this week.

“Why are you afraid?” he asks. “Have you still no faith?”

Though the storm of fear rages on, here in our boat, I think I feel the smallest spark of faith.

 

 

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