A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped…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. Mark 4:37, 39
It has been anything but a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, to paraphrase the opening of Garrison Keillor’s weekly monologue about his fictional Minnesota home town on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” In fact, this week has been much more like the storm that came up on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus and the disciples were sailing across to the other shore.
Jesus had a very full day of teaching and preaching to the crowds that had gathered at the beach; in fact the crowd was so large that Jesus had been preaching from a boat, which acted as a natural amphitheater. At the end of the day, Jesus had the disciples weigh anchor and head to the other side, giving him a little time to get a nap. And then the storm hit.
This past week many of us were making plans for Father’s Day, kids and teachers were keeping their eye on the calendar waiting for that last day of school, the 8th grade dance at Central School in Stirling was celebrated with great festivity, we went to work, we went to Shop-Rite, we went about our lives as usual…maybe some of us even got a nap in. And then Wednesday night a storm arose in Charleston, South Carolina that most of us didn’t know about or feel until sometime Thursday.
Dylann Roof walked into Emmanuel AME Church and killed nine people in cold blood.
When asked why he wouldn’t stop, he gave a racially motivated reason; and in addition to racist comments and photos on his Facebook page, his website displayed a clearly-written manifesto against black people and Jews that would be right at home in any KKK, or terrorist, or neo-Nazi propaganda. And the families of the victims, when invited by the judge to speak at the shooter’s bail hearing, all mentioned the hatred and the violence that they recognized in Dylann’s heart and mind; those who spoke also forgave him, but prayed that God would have mercy on him, and that he might repent and be delivered from the evil within him. The members of Emmanuel Church knew racism when they saw it.
Part of the past week’s storm has been a media storm, with every politician looking to score points and show off his or her leadership chops, and every media outlet trying to make a point from their own angle, and often times just making more noise and wind and hot air – sometimes in a bizarre way. But there has also been a storm of emotions – anguish, anger, grief, astonishment, bone-weary recognition, horror, heart-brokenness, numbness, devastation, a sense of ‘déjà vu all over again.’
A number of people have wanted to ascribe Dylann’s actions to mental illness; but he is not psychotic, or schizophrenic; he was not hearing voices; he was following a carefully thought-out plan. He is sick, all right, but in a soul sense, a sin sense – because that’s what racism is: sin.
It’s a sin that gets inside of you and eats away at you, corrodes your soul over time and many choices and actions and decisions, bit by bit. And it’s also a sin that lurks in our culture, like a virus that remains hidden in the nerve endings of the body until there is a flare-up, often coming back with a vengeance. It’s a sin that infects individuals and social structures in which we all participate
I think it’s important to understand what racism is and how it works. In their pastoral letter on race way back in 1994 the Episcopal House of Bishops described the essence of racism as prejudice coupled with power, and as much as it settles into the souls of individuals and groups of people, it also gets into the fabric of our institutions, our patterns of life, our assumptions about how things should be; and in its extreme forms takes the path of violence. That’s why the civil rights movement was necessary – laws, schools, businesses, the entertainment industry, the military, sports, law enforcement, the professions all needed to be changed, and they weren’t going to be changed without courageous, concerted, and consistent effort on the part of the black community and white people willing to stand and work – and yes, fight - alongside them. Individual hearts and minds needed changing, but so did institutions, customs, habits, and assumptions, and that kind of work is not over, and probably will never be over until Christ returns.
Of course, racism in the US doesn’t only target African-Americans – we know to our shame that Japanese-Americans, Latino immigrants, Jews, South Asians, people of Middle Eastern descent have all been targeted in different times and places; but this specific spiritual virus is strongest and most entangled with the black community because of our particular history of slavery going right back to the earliest days of our country.
I’ll tell you, as a white person, it is not easy for me to think and talk about racism, because it’s not targeted against me, it fades into the background, I have to focus on it to be aware of it – and because I don’t want to think that I might be participating in racism in some form; I don’t want to be that kind of person.
My great-great-grandfather was born in 1821 outside of Baltimore, and in1863 he came north to New York State and met and married my great-great-grandmother. In my child’s mind I had made up a story that he had left the South because he disagreed with slavery. I never thought much more about it until nine years ago when we were having a family history discussion over Thanksgiving dinner. Somehow it came up that my great-great-grandfather was a dry-goods merchant, and after the wedding in New York they had gone back to Baltimore to live. Now, he did not own slaves, but what is sold in a dry-goods store? Cotton cloth. And where did that cotton come from? It came from the blood, sweat, and tears of black slaves. My great-great-grandfather was a very wealthy man, and in many different ways over the years, I have benefitted from his wealth. It’s not easy.
I suspect that it is not so hard for those of you who are African-American or have black family members to talk about racism – painful, but not difficult; I am sure you have experienced it in ways I will never know anything about.
So where is Jesus in this storm? Are we just to throw up our hands and say – well, we did what we could do in the 1950s and 60s and that will have to be good enough? Or say that we bear no animosity or ill-will or hatred toward a person of another race and so racism doesn’t affect us?
No; in our baptismal promises we are asked if we will renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God – and our answer is: I renounce them. And we are also asked if we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and if we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Our answer is: I will, with God’s help. As baptized people we have committed ourselves – each one of us – to following Jesus in these ways, among others.
The work of action, attitude, justice, and prayer is something we are each called to undertake as we are able, as the Holy Spirit leads us and gives us the ability. The fight against racism is not over yet; we are called to keep on keeping on, knowing that we are not alone, that Jesus is in the boat with us, and has the power to say to the storm: Peace! Be still!
As we go forth to do God’s work, let us remember that the power of God’s love is stronger than the storm of hate, that the power of peace is greater than violence, and that the goodness of God’s purposes for all his children as shown forth in Jesus’ death and resurrection trumps all else.
The Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina has asked us to join with all those who are praying for Emmanuel Church and the people of Charleston and say together the Prayer of St. Francis, found on page 833:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2015