From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 7, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2015
In the Gospel lesson we just heard from Mark, Jesus’ disciples are shouting. In the middle of the lake, in the midst of a howling gale, in a boat that is beginning to sink, they shout at Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” These are words that could come easily out of our own mouths. We, too, have known storms in our lives, storms where it seemed that chaos had the upper hand. Teacher, do you not care that we are drowning and perishing? Today, we gather in this place that is sometimes called a sanctuary, perhaps wondering if this is a safe place. We may be wondering if God is going to be here for us. I believe that in the middle of the maelstrom, in the tumult of the tempest, God is with us. God has the power to still the storm, but more importantly God has the love to open our hearts and calm our fears. God is still with us.
Most of us have heard about the horrific tragedy at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, this past Wednesday. I will not retell the details. Some of us are still in shock. For some of us it is too much to hear the particulars. I will simply say that a terrifying and evil act was committed in a holy house of God. Nine innocent lives were lost in the name of racism. Although we believe one individual man committed this horror and took these lives, we also know that the evil of racism is a horror that goes beyond any one person and has taken many lives. It is easy to ask the question at a time like this: Where is God? Abominable violence was committed under God’s own roof and what did God do? The people had gathered to hear the Word of God, including the person accused of the crime (and I say “accused” simply because that is the way our justice system works…innocent until proven guilty). This could have been one of those hopeful stories we hear about a conversion. Why didn’t the Word of God penetrate the hard heart of the young man who did this? Jesus calmed the storm in the Gospel story today. Surely the Holy Spirit could have calmed the young man and stopped him from carrying out his plan. Was the Spirit asleep, like Jesus in the back of the boat?
These are not new questions. We can ask them any time evil raises its head. If we pay attention, we could ask them every day, because the power of evil is alive in this world. It distorts our humanity and seeks to divide and destroy what is good. I use the word, “evil” intentionally. In our baptism we renounce evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. I believe it is those forces of evil that corrupted a young man’s view of his fellow human beings. I believe it is those forces that perpetuate a racist system in which our identity as children of God is twisted. Why does God seem to allow this? Where is God when again and again we are divided and held captive? Certainly God has the power to say to the storm: “silence, be still.”
I do not think we will ever get a satisfactory response to our questions about why God does not stop some evil. I say “some evil,” because I believe God is stopping evil all the time, and we just do not know about it. We can always hope for an ultimate end to evil as described in the prophets and visions of scripture. For now, we do not understand God’s ways of responding to the forces that rebel against God. What we might begin to understand, where we might find some hope, is in what we do believe about God. God is still with us.
Going back to the Gospel story about that boat in the storm: the disciples are shouting at Jesus, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” Their shouting is born of fear, understandable fear for their lives. What they fail to see in the midst of their fear is that God is with them. Sure, they see Jesus, their teacher, sleeping in the stern, but they do recognize him as the son of God. They do not appreciate that God is right there, in the boat with them in the middle of the storm. He seems to be sleeping, but his lack of action does not mean he is absent. Jesus’ peaceful presence as the storm rages has a lesson to teach all its own.
God did not stop a man from committing violence in the Emanuel AME church on Wednesday evening. That does not mean, though, that God was not present or active. What then was God doing? I believe that God was loving. God was loving each of those people who died. God was loving the ones who were left alive. God was loving their families and all those who would be affected by this tragedy. God was even loving the person who did this (and we have to pray him too). Remember the words of Jesus on the cross about his own executioners: Forgive them, for they know not what they do. I believe that God was loving at Emanuel AME church last Wednesday, because I believe that Jesus was loving when he was on the cross. God in Christ endured the same kind of brutal and senseless death. Jesus calmed the storm in today’s Gospel lesson, but that power was only a warm up for the power he showed on the cross. Far from being passive, Jesus showed how love is stronger than hatred, more powerful than prejudice.
So I have to believe that in the middle of that storm inside the church, God was not far away or sleeping. God was right there, loving. I wish God had made a miracle happen and saved the physical lives of the nine victims. But God never promised us that our physical lives would be saved. Jesus never promised to still every storm that comes along. What God has promised us is to be with us in every storm. What God has promised us is to show us how to love no matter what, how to be free from fear, how to have eternal life. God is more concerned with our ability to love in this life and the next than with our physical safety. God is more concerned with our capacity to know peace in the middle of chaos than with removing the chaos from us. The spiritual forces of evil rebel against God, but God does not get drawn into the fight. It is not in God’s nature to struggle with evil; God is almighty. God is love, God showers love, mercy and grace upon a broken world, abundantly, relentlessly. We, on the other hand, struggle mightily against those rebellious forces. We need God’s grace and assistance as we renounce the evils of our world, including the evil of racism, and seek lasting peace and reconciliation in our time.
I said earlier that this place where we are gathered is sometimes called a sanctuary. The sanctuary specifically refers to the area around the altar where the bread and wine become the holy body and blood of Christ in communion. Sanctuary does not mean “safe;” it means “holy.” This larger room is properly called “the nave,” and that word comes from the same root as the word “naval,” pertaining to ships and the sea. Some churches are built so that the ceiling looks like the hull of a boat. This church is our holy vessel. This church is where we ride out the storms of life and occasionally witness a miracle of peace and calm. This church may even be a place where we may be called to confront evil face to face. This church is where we can have the courage to sail into troubled waters that cause division.
As our nation tries to see the way forward, there will be division and disagreement. But in this boat, we do not need to fear disagreement. We do not need to fear one another. Remember that the name of that AME church, “Emanuel,” is another word with a lot of meaning. Emanuel means “God is with us.” God is with us in this boat. God was at Emanuel AME last Wednesday. God is there as there as we pick up the pieces and struggle to find our way. God is with us in the storms, in the calm, in the face of evil and in the face of good. God is with us, loving us, tending to our hearts. God is with us, reminding us that Christ has suffered alongside us. We may want to shout, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” God’s response to us is “I am with you.” “Know my peace and give me your fear.” “Open your heart.” “There are no limits to my love.”