As we gather in worship this morning, along with countless others in countless churches across the country and beyond, our hearts and minds are brooding over the tragic slayings in Charleston, what Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP, who spoke from this pulpit one month ago, has aptly called ‘racist terrorism’. We think of these nine lost lives. We lift them and their families in prayer. We lift their AME church, and the AME connection itself, in prayer. We wonder just how to say something that is both honest and hopeful, both hopeful and honest. Honesty about the storm. Hope in the Still Point who is ‘the Teacher’, our Lord.
Others have done so before. In Rome, about 70ad, a preacher, it may be, stood before a small group of men and women, gathered in a home or courtyard. Though varied in aspect, they who gathered were similar, for they came from various margins, the margins of life. Some were women. Some were Jews. Some were slaves and former slaves. Some were rich, but most poor. Some were educated, but most not. They shared Jesus Christ, crucified. They shared Jesus Christ, risen. Together they had already been seized by an allegiance to him, the still point in a turning world. They were walking in faith. As we are. But they were alarmed, angered, frightened and saddened. As we are today. They were haunted, perhaps by the memory of the Emperor Nero, who famously fiddled as Rome burned, but who found time for an Empire wide persecution of those on the margins, including the early Christians, and if legend serves, including to martyrdom both Peter and Paul. We are not haunted by Nero. We are though haunted by months and years and memories of violence, racism, terrorism, gun culture and untimely death.
In this borrowed upper room or small courtyard, it may be, the preacher acclaimed Jesus, whose word is Peace and whose voice says Be Still. The raised crucified, the still point in a churning world. The preacher, perhaps, remembered from of old and from afar, his days on the Syrian sea, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee. He imagined in his sermon a night scene. He offered in stylized memory an account of a boating mishap. Some recollection of the book of Jonah may have stirred him. The preacher looked straight into the hurt and heart of his storm tossed church, if you can use that word for that gathering at that time. He could see their fear of drowning, of perishing. He painted into his story portrait other ‘boats’, boats always a symbol of the church. He told of Jesus sleeping. He fixed his hearers’ anger and sadness right in the belly of the whale of the sermon: ‘we are perishing’, they cried. We know that cry, that crie de cour. Then he stood solemnly. Facing all storms, offering in a prophetic spirit the very voice of Christ, he said, ‘Be still’. And the sermon ended. And there was a fullness. And there was a dead calm. A word had been spoken and heard, in resurrection time and space. Around the Still Point, they paused, in silence.
Jesus meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm. He speaks to us the eternal word. Peace. He speaks to us the saving word. Be Still. He is the still point in the turning, churning world.
Eliot: ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is’
His is a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken, for us. For we are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation. The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard. Newtown, Marathon, Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, North Charleston, and McKinley. And now this Charleston church killing, this unspeakable horror, this malevolent mixture of guns and illness and ideology and racism.
This one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding is the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?
Here we are. The storm is raging. The winds are blowing. The waves are swamping our little ship. The raging tide of racism. The towering undulation of gun availablity. The windstorm of violence pressing upon us from all sides. We get this today.
Like the little Roman church addressed in today’s Gospel, for whom the lakeside story, the nature imagery, the threat of drowning, the savior’s voice, the mysterious and miraculous heeded command, Be Still, were offered in the soulful, caring preaching of the early pastor, if one can use that title, we too dread drowning.
We dread drowning in a sea of guns. We dread drowning in a tide of deeply embedded, persistent, perduring, encultured racism. We dread drowning in a great windstorm, with waves beating upon us, and the boat half swamped as it is. After a week like this, it is hard to know what to say, if we truly want to be both honest and hopeful.
For these nine dear Methodist souls in Charleston, praying in church, died because of a persistent, pervasive racism that covers this land like a flood tide. They died because of a sea of guns, available to anyone, well or ill, well intended or ill intended, at any time, without any consequence, financial consequence, to the seller, the procurer, those who profit. These nine died because of an ongoing ignorance about the pervasive continuing impacts of chattel slavery 150 years ago, impacts measurable in economic, social, educational and civic life. These nine died because of a fiercely advocated and heavily funded broad agenda to privilege states rights over human rights, gun ownership over human survival, and individual freedom over the common good.
Charles Pierce wrote honestly this week:
What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unthinkable.” Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them.
What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.
We should speak of it as an attack on history, which it was. This was the church founded by Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in 1822. Vesey was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. On Wednesday night, someone turned it into a slaughter pen.
Yes, at least this one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding, the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?
But the gospel does not end there. Maybe it would be easier if it did. The Scripture brings us both honesty and hope. The hope is harder to hear and to live. The hope requires of us ears and minds to discipline ourselves, to prepare ourselves with a spiritual discipline against resentment, to train ourselves for the long distance run, to hope against, for hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see.
In the ancient sermon, in Rome, in 70ad, a still voice, a voice to still the storm was heard. Can we hear that voice this morning? Can we hear a rumor of angels? Can we at least hear that none of this historical tragedy is inevitable? It is not inevitable. Because it is not, it can be changed, changed for the better, changed in the future. You can lend your voice to that of the man who stilled the water, to that of the man who calmed the sea. You can make a difference.
You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.
By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil. But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment. You can do this. One of our members, a native of Charleston, asked to read a lesson today, which he did. You can engage and support others. You need the pew fellowship, the breathing community of different others. If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow, and which this great land, full of latent goodness, needs in practice and for practice. But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments. Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner. Others–who are other. Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address communal issues on the grand scale, when so often our communal orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves. This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles. This summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’. But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.
King: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
By vote I do mean election-day ballots. One of our BU administrative leaders here, when asked at year end what advice she might have for graduates of 2015 said, simply, ‘vote’. Yes, go to the polls. But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference. Personal engagement. Susan, one of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer four years ago. How we miss her. One day we were walking together on the Esplanade. We were talking about gun violence. In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman. She said, in her usual spirited voice: ‘They know me there. I have them on speed dial’. She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person. Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money. She was a great person. We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.
By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence. Several gathered here on Marsh Plaza for a vigil on Friday noon. Others attended other events. A pastor gathered a multi faith service in Medford last night. There is another at Charles Street tonight. You may have decided to attend an AME church one Sunday this summer, to be present, to be in communion. Good. Tell them Dean Hill sent you. So, let us find ways to act. There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of seemingly endless unsolvable contentions.
You can recite the litany. 300 million guns there are across the land. The top 20% send 84% of their children to college. The bottom 20% send 8%. The average asset value of the majority household in this country is $110,000(car, house, savings). The average asset value of the minority household is $9,000. The number and percentage of young men of color imprisoned, at all levels, is itself a crime. The agenda of individual rights, like gun possession, and states rights, like denial of health care, has seized control of state house after state house across the middle of the country. Look sometime at a photo page of elected officials in Kansas. Yes. Yes. I know. These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful. But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change. In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door. It read: ‘Do one thing. There. You have done one thing.’ I have a voice, and I will use my voice. You do too. Use it.
You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.
A couple of weeks ago a woman in our community sent me a prayer. Prayer is much on my mind, just now, as a form of action as well as contemplation. It gives me some measure of hope to have received this prayer. I asked permission to use it, with attribution, and with its honesty and hope we conclude. Here is Terry Baurley’s prayer:
Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)
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