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Jun 21, 2015

Calm The Storm

Passage: Mark 4:31-41

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Race

Category: Christian Responsibility


Sermon delivered the Sunday following the killings at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.


I am doing lots of spring-cleaning and I came across a sermon preached at the commencement of the Seminary of the Southwest in 1998 by professor Will Spong, brother of the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark and my favorite seminary professor. The sermon was tucked into the pocket of the binder I used for studying the Hebrew language. Let me confirm that it had been safe there since 1998. On Friday morning, I read the sermon with fresh eyes after 17 years. Spong, in that sermon, quoted from South African novelist Alan Paton’s book Cry, the Beloved Country which, when I read it many years ago, opened my eyes to many things.

The quote he used was that of fictional young white man, Arthur Jarvis, who lived in Johannesburg, a city which at the time was 90% black and 10% white. And yet, was controlled by the whites. Arthur’s father was a leader of the community and his church: powerful, wealthy, and influential. Now the young Arthur attended church regularly and from that experience came to believe that apartheid was wrong: unchristian and unscriptural. His father resented Arthur’s progressive views and implored him to set them aside, in the name of God. In the book, the young Arthur’s views are expressed through his writings. This is the quote, from Arthur’s journal, that Professor Spong quoted in his sermon:

“The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe that men and women are children of God, regardless of whom they might be, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows all people with diverse gifts and that life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want the underdog to stay under…and we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to God, creator of heaven and earth, our own human intentions, and to say that God created black, white, free, enslaved, marginalized, for a reason. That one race hews wood in order that another race might drink. We go so far as to assume that God blesses any action that is designed to prevent the marginal ones from the full employment of the gifts that God gave them.”

This passage of the award-winning book describes more than apartheid South Africa. It describes the frustrating endeavor that is membership in the human race. It always has been and always will be. The reason for that is that other humans are not passionate about the same things that we are. They are not disgusted by the same injustices. And they don’t share the same morals and ethics.

This is most obvious when we hear stunning news. This week it was the killing of nine black people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC at the hand of a 21-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist. This is certainly not the first shooting in a historically African-American church and it won’t be the last. There have also been shootings in synagogues and temples, and schools, and theaters and lots of other places where innocent civilians thought they were safe. And that is just in this country. In the Middle East, Christians are being beheaded, shot, and tortured to drive them from their native land. And it is working. Innocent people are losing their life for being who they are, for wanting freedom of expression. And in many of these cases, it is because of extreme prejudices that have festered within this world for millennia.

These atrocities continue to plague our newsfeed, clog the headlines, and invade the comfortable and secluded lives that we hope to live.

And that is why being a member of the human race is frustrating. We have dreams that life will be silky smooth and always happy, but the reality is that it gets treacherous and even debilitating. Jesus’ disciples, in today’s Gospel, felt this debilitating fear. As they sailed across the Sea of Galilee, a storm arose and shook things up. Remember that the disciples were experienced sailors (many of them fishermen by trade), so this was quite a storm if it made them fearful. Yet, Jesus doesn’t even wake from sleep. When the disciples do wake him, they are unhappy with him. They ask, “Do you not even care if we perish?”

After calming the storm, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?” We hear this in other parts of the Gospels. When the angels appear in the birth story, they say, “Do not be afraid.” And they do so again at the resurrection.

It is like telling someone who is fearful of heights, “Do not be afraid.” It’s not saying that being afraid isn’t expected. It is actually good to realize that there are some things that should be feared (that’s called wisdom and self preservation). What we really mean when we say those words as we move near the edge of a perilous drop, is, “Do not be afraid, because the ground is solid and it is safe.” When children are scared of the dark and are being comforted by parents, parents whisper, “Do not be afraid.” But what they are really saying is, “Do not be afraid, because I am here with you.”

Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?” But he inferred, “Don’t be afraid because I am here. I am with you in this time and all you need to do is call my name and the storm will calm.”

Life among humans is like getting on a boat and heading out to sea. Life will seem to be sailing along smoothly, but at times it will get dangerous. Even those most experienced will get scared. But, the natural tendency to fear need not paralyze us, or have dominion over us, or take possession of us, because we are not alone.

Do not be afraid, because Jesus is there to calm the waters. He is waiting for us to call his name and to seek the peace that passes all understanding. Because we are not alone on the boat of life even when it might seem like we are, even when it seems that God has abandoned us and doesn’t care if we perish. Even when nine people die while gathering to study the Bible and pray. Even when they are killed because of the color of their skin.

As the bombardment of headlines continues to disturb the calm we have manufactured around us, it is our work as Christians to remember that God loves us and that we are called to move things forward for the good. We are called to wrestle with the dilemma that exists between the Gospel and the real world. It is not just about moving our own group to a position of security; it is about sharing God’s kingdom so that all people can discover the gifts of God. It is about struggling to leave behind our self-interest to expand God’s vision to every nation and people.

It is about exploring the vision of God that proclaims that all are endowed with diverse and important gifts and that all deserve to live in freedom, to feel safe, to be fulfilled. It is about realizing that God’s mission relies on us giving up the excuses that vindicate our lack of effort to overcome injustice in this world. In light of heinous violence, assassinations in the name of prejudice, we have a calling in the Gospel to bring peace, love, and compassion. We have a responsibility to do everything possible to transform the injustices that plague our lives, to engage the dilemma of Christianity and to step into the frustration of being human, so that a legacy of blessing will rain upon our common lives. We are the instruments of God that provide the hope of that legacy, but it only happens when we acknowledge that injustice exists around us. When we step out from behind our veil of safety, our position of superiority, to engage that injustice that infects all of our lives. And risk being changed ourselves.

That is the Gospel. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. That is the Gospel.

On this Sunday when we remember the gifts of fathers, we also must remember our need for the presence of God in the storms that tatter our lives. We must not be paralyzed, but must ask for Jesus to join us in calming the storm and leading all of us, together, to a new life in Christ.