They were gathered in a safe place, meeting as they had many times before, perhaps countless times, for a bible study. They had come together to study what was probably for most of them, a familiar text. The passage was Mark 4:16-20, just a few verses before the Gospel reading we just heard. They were in a familiar place among people they loved. They were joined this night by a stranger, a newcomer. They welcomed him in and for an hour he sat and listened. At the end of the hour, he shot nine of them dead. Emanuel AME Church was a safe place, a sanctuary no longer.
But then, throughout its history, it had never been a sanctuary The history of the AME church began when African-Americans left the Methodist church because of their treatment by whites. Emanuel Church had been burned down in 1822, after one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was implicated in a slave rebellion plot. After being rebuilt, was closed in 1834 when Charleston banned African-American church services. In 1865, after the end of the Civil War, Emanuel was re-founded. In the 1960s, it became a center of the Civil Rights movement.
The church is not a sanctuary; it’s not a safe place. After hearing of the shootings, I emailed the pastor of a local AME congregation to offer my support, sympathy, and prayers. As I tried to craft the few sentences, I imagined the fear he and members of his congregation will experience the next time they gather for bible study.
For African-Americans, there is no sanctuary, no safe place. Among the many things I’ve read since the Charleston massacre were words written by newly-ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church Broderick Greer who wrote,
black people can’t walk to a convenience store, ask for assistance after a car accident, play with a toy gun or study the Bible without the looming reality of the violent white gaze.
I didn’t want to write this sermon. It seems like all I’ve been thinking about, talking about, preaching about for the last months has been racism. Racism has been in the news across the country and in our city and I know most of us would like to turn our attention elsewhere, to take our gaze off the ugly side of American history and society, to put our original sin of racism back in the furthest corners of our hearts and minds, where it’s always lurked.
But we can’t because events like the Charleston Massacre bring it back to light, bring our sin and guilt back to our consciousness and demand we pay attention, demand we address it. We’re gathered here this morning in this place, at an hour that Dr. King called the most segregated hour in American, an hour when Christians across the country are gathered for worship, an hour where, even in Charleston, at Emanuel AME Church, members of that congregation have gathered with the wounds and grief still raw, gathered to worship God, to ask why.
We seek God’s will moving forward, we strive to be the body of Christ, in this place and across the country. But Christ’s body was broken on the cross, as bodies, black bodies have been broken for four hundred years in this country, broken by the chains and whips of slavery, broken by the nooses of lynchings, the hatred and oppression of Jim Crow, and the ongoing racism of White America. The body of Christ is broken in America, broken by us, by our racism, violence, complacency, and privilege.
On this day, in this context, we may cry with Jesus’ disciples, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” This rich, familiar story of Jesus calming the storm from Mark’s gospel speaks to us in our painful situation. Mark’s brief story is full of important detail and symbolism, not least in the very way he places it in his larger narrative. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd, telling them parables. In Mark, this is Jesus’ only extensive use of parables. The crowd listening was so large that Jesus taught from a boat in the lake. Now at the end of the day, Jesus tells his disciples to cast off and cross the lake. It’s odd, really, if you think about it, that they would undertake this lake crossing in the evening. They are crossing what could easily became a dangerous lake, and they will come into foreign, unknown territory on the other side, Gentile territory, where they will encounter a man possessed with demons.
Jesus decides to take a nap in the stern, while the disciples, presumably, do the hard work of rowing or sailing the boat. A storm comes up. One of the things that strikes me in Mark’s version of this story is how he depicts Jesus—sleeping on a cushion in the midst of a mighty storm. Mark presents us with an image of Jesus at ease, comfortable, resting, while all around him is struggle, noise, and tumult. Jesus sleeps while the boat is being swamped by the waves. Only then, as all looks lost, do the disciples come and wake him, asking him the question, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Awakened, Jesus says simply, “Peace be still.” And as dead calm comes upon the lake, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is the first mention of the disciples’ fear in the story and it invites us to wonder whether their fear was caused by the storm, or by the fact that Jesus calmed it. Their final question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
Was it the storm that caused their fear, or was it that Jesus brought the storm to an end? Which power is more frightening, more awesome, the power of a storm or the power of the one who can calm the storm?
Our tendency is to focus on the miraculous in this story, on Jesus’ power to calm a storm. On one level, it’s a story like other miracle stories in Mark’s gospel. Indeed, the word Mark uses for Jesus’ actions in calming the storm—he rebuked it—is the very same word Mark used of Jesus in the very first miracle story he records, when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from a man in chapter 1.
While we’re tempted to focus on the power displayed in these miracles, seeing them as evidence of Jesus’ divine nature and identity, Mark uses them for a rather different purpose. This story ends with the question, “Who is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” Even after this display of Jesus’ power, the disciples are uncertain of Jesus’ identity.
In fact, it’s interesting that the word “disciple” is used only once in this story, at the very beginning, in Jesus’ instructions to them to go to the other side. They’re in the boat with him, but it’s not at all apparent that they really know who he is, or who they are in relation to him—the only clue is that they call him “Teacher” (In Matthew’s version of the same story, they address him as “Lord.”)
And here, I think, is where we can find help for us in our situation. Look at those disciples in the boat. We look to our faith, our relationship with Jesus, the church, for solace, support, help in time of need, and yes, sanctuary. We want the church to be a safe place in the midst of the storms of life. Of course, some times it is, and needs to be. Some times, we need to recognize that the places we think are sanctuaries, places that are sanctuaries, safe places for us, are places of danger and violence, fear and foreboding for others. Sometimes, making our safe places safe for others, means that we need to leave our comfort zones or protective shells.
But even if we need those safe places, they aren’t necessarily the places to which Jesus is calling us. Other times, perhaps most of the time, Jesus is calling us forward across the lake, into new territory. To be his disciples means following him into those places of discomfort and fear.
Can you imagine what must be going through the hearts and minds of the folks gathered at Emanuel AME church in Charleston this morning, as they grieve, and fear. Can you imagine what it must be like for African-American Christians in this city and across the country as they gather for worship—as they grieve and fear? How many of them are asking, “Teacher, do you not know that we are perishing?”
And we, the white church, white America, do we even know that we are perishing?
We must perish. Our complacency and privilege must perish. We must tear down the walls that separate us from our brothers and sisters. Only then can we cross over with them into new territory where racism no longer exists, where justice reigns, and there is peace.