Let’s think for a moment about the most basic, elemental conversations we have with God; conversations that are beyond words and touch on fundamental human experiences at the core of life. Surely, one is this:
Us: “I am filled with awe and wonder.”
God: “This is life as I intend it.”
I remember having this very conversation with God in the moments after the birth of my first daughter – that initial moment when I become a father.
Here is another:
Us: “I have screwed up. I am an utter failure.”
God: “You are forgiven. It is in the past. I love you and you are precious to me.”
This can be a conversation that goes on for a long time because it is not always easy to let go of our mistakes or the message that we are a disappointment.
Another fundamental conversation:
Us: “I am not sure what to do.”
God: “Let me show you the way.”
I am not sure how many of these archetypal conversations there are between us and God. I am confident we could identify at least a few more if we put our heads together. There is at least one more conversation that we hear in today’s gospel reading:
Disciples: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Jesus: “Why are you afraid? Have you still not faith?”
This particular back-a-forth is so central to our experience with God. We are afraid and God is perplexed. “What is going to happen to us?” “Why don’t you understand that everything is going to be OK?” It is easy to make the case that we don’t understand and trust God, but, based on this give-and-take, it is equally true that God does not entirely get us. One commentator I read this week invites us to recast today’s gospel reading as taking place on an airplane where the engines have failed and the craft is in a severe dive. “Why am I afraid, God? Are you serious!”
For years now, Wednesday nights have been popular evenings for churches to hold functions. First Baptist Church just down the street swells with activity on Wednesday nights. For the past few weeks, we here at St. Paul’s have gathered for a pot-luck dinner and discussion. While we are not setting attendance records, those of us who come enjoy the food and fellowship.
It is sobering to realize that at the very time we came together here in our church, an unspeakable and senseless horror unfolded at a similar gathering at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. The Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina called it an “unimaginable tragedy” that “calls for prayer, response, and self examination”.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, writing on her blogsite, posted this:
As a white woman witnessing this horror from afar, I feel called to teshuvah, to soul-searching. What can I do to change the reality in which this kind of hate crime is possible? I want my nation to be better than this. I want humanity to be better than this.
My thoughts and prayers echo hers. I also resonate with what the words of Guy Sayles, a Baptist pastor in Asheville, NC:
In many ways, American culture is harsh these days… We’re afraid of unpredictable terrorism and of uncertain economic conditions. We’re prone to scapegoat those people who are different from us—to blame ‘the other” for our insecurities. Far too often, we’re willing, as in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, to “pass by on the other side” and to leave people battered by violence, whether physical or emotional or economic, bleeding in the ditch.
I don’t know precisely what can be done, but I do know that we need for people who believe in the rightness of the dream of a beloved, just, and merciful community to speak and act in ways which counter the harshness all around us.
Our own bishop, Holly Hollerith wrote this to our diocese:
The recent killing of nine innocent members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina represents the tragic convergence of three very serious social issues plaguing our county today: racism, gun violence, and inadequate mental health care - particularly for our young people.
Given the fact that the AME Church is historically rooted in our own Episcopal Church, I believe this event should be a wake-up call for all of us. I strongly encourage all parishes in the Diocese of Southern Virginia to be diligent in assuring that conversations are taking place on the local level around these serious social matters. I likewise encourage our parishes to be part of consciousness raising efforts that lay these matters before our respective local governments for the purpose of seeking solutions.
Most importantly, I ask all Episcopalians in Southern Virginia to be diligent in praying for the victims of Emanuel AME and their families, the City of Charleston, the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, and those through out the world who suffer from acts of violence.
The disciples said to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” He responded by asking, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
I am not sure what I would have felt had I been one of the twelve disciples on that boat after Jesus calmed the storm. Certainly I would have felt relief, felt awe, felt joy. But I also think I would have been terrified that the world as I knew it had bent in ways unimaginable to me, albeit to my benefit.
In Lief Enger’s book Peace Like a River, Reuben Land, the narrator, tells the story of an apparent miracle that saved his father’s life at birth. Reuben then ruminates on how we tend to elevate all manner of lesser events to the level of miraculous, thereby domesticating those events that are truly beyond us. Listen to how Rueben makes his case:
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave — now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time.
Rueben then goes on to make this insightful and disturbing observation: “People fear miracles because they fear being changed.”
So much of the conversation around gun violence in our country boils down to this simple truth: we are willing to live with horrific events like what happened in Charleston because we are unwilling to step into a new and unknown alternative. We are afraid of being changed.
I think it is worth noting that today’s gospel reading takes place not just on the Sea of Galilee, but at a point of transition. Jesus and the disciples have left the known confines of Jewish communities and set sail for the land of gentiles – a new and unknown world. Isn’t it predictable that the worst storms and the greatest challenges come at these moments of potential change! Reuben Land has a challenge for those of us who tend shrink back at such moments: “People fear miracles because they fear being changed,” he said, but then he adds, “though ignoring them will change you also.”
After the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech I thought things would change. When Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds was stabbed by his mentally troubled son (who subsequently took his life), I thought things would change. I am confident that when Senator Deeds applied himself to the problem with all he could muster, he thought things would change. But in our commonwealth, as in our country, the beat goes on without any change. And even here, in our own community, gunfire is a regular feature of nightly gatherings in our neighborhoods.
Nancy Rockwell, another blogger, reflecting on today’s gospel reading, writes this:
Faith… is the antidote to fear. It doesn’t prevent the conditions in which fear arises from occurring. Faith did not provide them and their boat with a safe journey over the sea. Faith is a way of walking through fear, without succumbing to its grip. Fear draws us into rage, helplessness, desperation or despair. Faith draws us to rise to the occasion in which we find ourselves, as steadfast voices for Peace, as creators of calm.
Well, I began this sermon by thinking about some of the basic conversations that take place between us and God. Let me end by holding up the possibility highlighted at the end of reading. “Who is this,” the disciples asked one another, “that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Somewhere beyond the disconnect between us and God and beyond the fear of change there is the possibility of amazement; amazement at what God can do. And while the disciples where overcome with this feeling of awe while doing nothing to engender it other than waking Jesus from his sleep, I suspect that as our nation grapples with gun violence, racial tension, and mental illness, we will have to move toward change – sometimes dramatic change – in order for a new, more peaceful order to emerge.
We Christians talk about the kingdom of God. We pray for it. What are we willing to do to see it become a reality? Why are we afraid? Why do we still not have faith?