The Beast Among Us

High Summer at The Hil

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2015
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 17:1a-7, 32-49; Mark 4:35-41

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In the name of God…

I was rather pleased with myself this past week. In anticipation of the Yard Sale on Saturday, I had the bulletin ready to print by Wednesday evening, and my sermon had been largely finished as well.

But then came Thursday, with the news of the terrorist attack on the good people of Mother Emmanuel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. I discarded my planned sermon, and started anew.

Nine souls, engaged in Bible study and prayer, were ruthlessly shot down by someone whom they’d invited into their midst.

Almost as upsetting to me as the event itself has been the acrobatics attempted by Fox News and its kind, attempting to spin this horrific killing as an attack on Christianity.

It wasn’t.

As the shooter’s manifesto, made public yesterday, clearly revealed, this was racial hatred, pure and simple.

Nor was this a one-off; a unique occurrence; for Black people and Black churches have been under attack in this country since the era of slavery.

Between 1882 and 1968, the year MLK was assassinated, three thousand four hundred and forty-six black men, women, and children were lynched in this country.

If such attacks had been perpetrated by folks of Arab extraction shouting “Allahu Akbar”, we’d be at war with yet another Arab country by now. Yet, we are apparently willing to tolerate such heinous acts on the part of our own.

Jon Stewart, host of the Daily show, which for those of you unfamiliar with it is a daily sendup of current events and political news, was unable to open with his usual round of jokes and banter.

Instead, he said, in part:

“I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack s—. Yeah. That’s us.”

Each time such violence occurs, the cycle is the same. We hold vigils, we pray, we demonstrate, some of us preach, and then it just slips below the wave of current news and disappears…until the next time.

We’ve allowed such massacres to become the new “Normal”.

The events become known by their place names: Newtown, Sandy Hook, Columbine…and now Mother Emmanuel in Charleston.

The violence that we fear from ISIS, or anyone who follows Islam, for that matter, is nothing compared to the violence we are apparently willing to visit on ourselves.

As president Obama said (and I paraphrase here), mentally unbalanced individuals with racial hatred and violent ideations exist in every Western nation. But only in our nation can such an individual purchase a deadly weapon with his birthday money.

This is not a matter of politics, my friends: this is a matter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The level of violence we tolerate in our culture is inconsistent by any definition with what it means to be a Christian.

In fact, this monstrous violence is nothing less than the Goliath of our time: a Goliath built of racism, prejudice, fear, and ignorance—a product of a culture that worships idols instead of The Lord.

And the only thing that can conquer that raging menace—that pagan monster—is the love of Christ.

Indeed, in the story that we heard from 1st Samuel today, it was not advanced weaponry or heavy armor that felled Goliath, whom we are told was over 15 feet tall, but David’s faith in the Lord, and his fearlessness in facing this monster.

His willingness to face down his foe, his trust in The Lord, and his honed skill with sling and stone got it done.

Yet, instead of confronting this Goliath of our own time, we feed it; encourage it; enlarge it until it becomes a ravening beast, out of our control.

We have fed this Goliath with our fear; we have pumped it up with steroids of our indifference, and to protect ourselves, we build higher walls and arm ourselves with bigger weapons to keep out “The Other”.

And we hide it all behind our privilege and ignorance.

Instead of calling out this young man for the killer he is, we’re hearing phrases like “Misguided”, and “Unbalanced”; “Mentally ill”.

If you want a clear definition of White Privilege, think back to the arrest last summer of Eric Garner, a middle-aged overweight black, unarmed man selling cigarettes on the streets of NYC.

He was body-tackled by the arresting office, and placed into a choke-hold that killed him.

Contrast with this self-confessed murderer of nine black men and women at prayer in a church who, upon his arrest, was given a bullet-proof vest to wear as he was led away without handcuffs.

This is our Goliath of racism in action.

And, instead of facing down this monster of our own creation, we cry and wail, wondering where Jesus is.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Like children, we are crying to Jesus to fix things, instead of using the gifts of faith and reason to our advantage that we’ve been given.

David, armed just with his faith and a few well-chosen stones, felled the beast.

However, like the disciples in today’s gospel, we are all about fear and ignorance. The disciples, still clueless about who Jesus really was, are unable to draw upon the great gifts he has already conferred upon them.

This was not just any recreational excursion—no Boston Harbor Cruise. This was nothing less than Jesus taking his disciples out for a ride on the Sea of Life.

He’s in a boat with his disciples, about to go over to “…the other side.”

Indeterminate phrases like “Crossing over”, and “The Other side” are devices often found in folklore and legend, as well as in scripture, to describe an experience in which the participants step out of “normal” time into a kind of “altered” time where things don’t quite work the same way. So, in telling us this story, Mark is letting us know that something supernatural is about to happen, which indeed it does.

Jesus is taking a well-earned snooze after a day’s preaching. I know how I feel after one service; I can’t imagine how he must have felt after spending an entire day with a demanding multitude.

A great wind comes up, and all the boats on the water find themselves in great danger. The boat with Jesus and his disciples is already getting swamped. No bilge pumps in those days!

“Teacher”, they ask, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus wakes up, rebukes them for their lack of faith, and then says, “Peace…be still”.

The wind and waves immediately subside, and the disciples are left wondering: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Who indeed. Not only have they no faith, they still don’t understand who this guy Jesus really is.

What do you think this is all about? Did they have so little trust in Jesus that they thought he would simply let them drown?

Jesus, on the other hand, as God’s son, had complete confidence that his Father would protect them.

As Bible texts so often are, this passage is replete with layers of meaning. On the surface, Jesus is rebuking his disciples for their lack of belief in his ability to save them, or to keep them safe.

Unlike David, who went out to face Goliath armed with just a few well-chosen stones and a vast store of faith in the Lord, the disciples have the very son of the living God right on board with them; and yet, they are still afraid of the wind and waves.

Like the vicissitudes of life which all of us face, the wind and stormy seas are challenges which Mark shows us can be overcome by simple faith.

However, by crossing over “To the other side”, the disciples are going from the known to the unknown; from a community that knows and worships the Lord to a community that doesn’t.

Just as David went forth from the nation that worshipped the Lord, to fight a warrior from a nation that worshipped pagan idols, the disciples are preparing to bring the word of Salvation to those who have never heard it before.

The “Faith Factor” here is not simply a matter of whether or not they’re going to drown in the high seas that are swamping their boat.

It’s whether they have the confidence to bring the gospel message to an unknown community; to preach the good news about the God of love, compassion, and justice to another people when they get to the “Other Side”. After all, if they don’t truly believe it themselves, then how will they be able to convince others?

And, if we don’t truly believe it ourselves, then how can we save ourselves from this monstrous Goliath of our own making?

If we allow ourselves to be continually driven by fear and prejudice; to deny the racism and white privilege that are embedded in our culture, then we will simply create a monster that will eventually consume us.

We opened our service with a confession:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 john 1:8)

We so don’t want to acknowledge our racism. Many of you are perhaps thinking, “I’m not a racist…I have black friends”. Well, Dylann Roof apparently had black friends as well.

Until all of us are willing to confront those elements in our culture that allow this kind devastation to take place again and again, we are complicit in it; we are feeding the monster without even realizing it.

We crave comfort and security, and seek those things by maintaining the status quo.

So our salvation begins with a willingness to confess our wrongs; to admit our shortcomings; to face them, and to ask God for the strength and courage to change them.

If we want to live in peace with one another, instead of building walls to keep others out, we must face our embedded racism and privilege

To refuse to give up those things is to feed the beast.

To refuse change is to accept the status quo, and to accept the status quo is to simply insure that the violence will continue.

We’re losing our ability to think critically and analytically.

We look for simple explanations and easy answers—simple answers spoon-fed to us by certain media organizations that put the entire responsibility on “The Other”, leaving us free to just keep doing what we’ve always done.

It’s so much easier for us to allow ourselves to be spoon-fed with the lies we want to hear, than it is to face the challenge and truth that real change requires.

It was notable that, after the killings, the state flag of SC and our American flag were flown at half-mast. The Confederate flag, however, was still flying high and proud.

The Confederate flag, that symbol of the oppressor—of the fight by certain men to protect their right own slaves; to buy and sell other human beings as mere property; to protect an entire culture built on white supremacy, and the enslavement of another race.

Germany had the good sense to outlaw the display of the swastika—that symbol of the Third Reich that spelled death and devastation for over six million European Jews, and others deemed “Undesirable” by Hitler’s killing machine.

Yet here in America, the Confederate flag is still flown with pride: that symbol of a culture that was built on a theology of white supremacy, and an interpretation of Scripture that encouraged the owning of slaves.

After the Second World War ended, good citizens of Germany, who lived in communities adjacent to those terrible death camps, were forced to tour them.

“We had no idea…” and “How could this have happened?”, were the responses most often heard.”

How could this have happened? Because they allowed it to happen. They accepted the lies and the comfort those lies brought to them, blaming an entire ethnic group for all their woes.

And our indifference towards the systemic evil in our own midst is precisely the same: more food for the beast.

We can no more address this systemic evil in our midst by ignoring it than we could cure a case of measles by covering the rash with makeup.

“Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Yes indeed, Jesus does care, and in response, he’s given us all that we need to address the problem.

However to do so requires great courage to stand up to those would slather over this monstrous beast with the phony rhetoric of how Christianity is under attack.

My friends, if we can’t face down this Goliath of racism, then it will surely consume us.

If, instead of examining our own hearts, and putting on sackcloth and ashes as we beg the Lord to forgive us our sins and show us the way to repentance, we continue to blame others in far away countries, building up our fears against anyone who is not like us, we are merely stoking the flames of our own destruction.

We hear rhetoric about “American Exceptionalism”, which is simply an expression of our own intransigence—our unwillingness to critically examine ourselves, and to change.

The ancient Israelites made the same error, forgetting the core values of who they were—forgetting whom the Lord God had called them to be.

They too claimed their own Exceptionalism, and were punished by being driven into exile for two generations.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus does indeed care—and deeply so. However, we nail Jesus to the cross again and again each time a violent act of hatred takes place, and it must stop.

How? Right here…in this place, at this time…in this very moment, simply by making up our minds to do so.

Can we do that? The strength and power of God’s Holy Spirit is with us, but only if we are ready to confess our complicity in a culture of violence that has been allowed to go on for far too long.

Let us pray:

Holy God, we confess to you our sin of indifference to the affliction of your people, our sin of silence in the face of oppression, our sin of complicity in a culture where black lives matter less than white.

Use your churches and all communities of faith to bring into being that beloved community where all your children are treated with dignity, love and compassion.

This very day give us wisdom and determination to turn our prayers into actions to stand with those who weep and wail, to heal those who are driven by ignorance and hate, and to end the culture of violence that afflicts us all.

In the name of Jesus Christ, we ask this. Amen.

 

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