Sunday, June 21, 2015

Storms in Charleston and our world: Peace, be still, be calm

Emmaneul AME Church,
Charleston, S.C.
I preached today about the horrific events in Charleston, South Carolina, and the many storms in our world.The gospel for today is Mark 4:35-41.

I also talked about General Convention this morning -- we are headed to Salt Lake City today. Here is my sermon from this morning:

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See now is the acceptable time;
See now is the day of our salvation.

         Jesus and his followers camped along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They had been there for days and it was hot and intense.
He told many parables about seeds and small things that grew to big things, and how they should let their lights shine that others may see, and how to listen and see the presence of God all around them and within them.
He told them over and over, you are loved by God, you are the beloved; and you must love others as God loves you.
Crowds had gathered to listen.
         The crowds had never heard or experienced anything quite like this. They wanted more.
But evening was at hand, and Jesus was wrung out. Even the Son of God needs sleep. So he and his followers got in a boat and began to sail across the lake to look for a quiet place away from the crowds.
As they rowed, the wind rose and sea became rough. Before long they were in a terrible gale.
         And somehow Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat.
         His followers woke him up – do you not care our boat is about to be swamped and we might drown? Geez, Jesus, do something!
         Peace. Be still. Be calm.
         And so the wind ceased and the sea became like glass.
         Then Jesus spoke: Why are you so afraid? All will be well, even in the storms. Have a little a faith that God will bring you through.
         So it is that this story itself can be heard as a parable about the storms of life.
Peace. Be still, be calm, have a little faith.
You will get to the other side.
This past week, we’ve been reminded once again that our world and our nation are in the midst of many storms.
Terrible conflicts rage in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
The number of refugees in the world is as high as it was after World War II: 60 million people fleeing wars and famines, half of them children. The number of refugees swells by 45,000 a week – about the same number of people who live in the city of Charlottesville.
Closer to home this past week, we’ve seen yet another massacre at the hands of a deranged gunman.
This is time it was in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – the oldest African American church in the South.
As you know by now, nine precious people in a Bible study group, including the pastor, were murdered.
Words are not enough this week. Words are just not enough.
The mental health of the perpetrator and the easy availability of guns are certainly at issue.
But to talk only about mental illness and guns is to avoid the elephant in the room of our collective national soul: The legacy we still carry from slavery, segregation and racism.
The gunman was motivated by white supremacy, and news reports say he wanted to unleash a race war. His targeting of a black church was not a random act of violence. This young man did not grow up in a vacuum. He learned his racial hatred somewhere – and from someone.
Like it or not, we are in this storm together as a nation and there is no escape.
 Jesus, aren’t you afraid we are perishing?
Peace. Be still, be calm, have a little faith.
You will get to the other side.
There are other forces at work, not just forces of hatred. Even now, there are people who are surrounding hate with love and forcing it to surrender.
         This parish has its own legacy of hope and courage in the storms. Decades ago, this parish took a stand against segregation when it was hardest to do.
In the many years since, the people in this parish have worked in the community to bring racial reconciliation and hope and healing.
This parish surrounds hate with love and forces it to surrender.
Many of you attended a prayer vigil the other night at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church across town, an African American church which this parish has had a long relationship with.
 This parish knows how to stand up when it counts. This is one of those times.
 And, sometimes, we need be reminded that we are a part of something larger than this single parish. This is one of those times.
We part of the Episcopal Church, which is a part of the Anglican Communion. But we are part of something even larger than that.
We are a part of the Body of Christ – the church universal for all time and in all places, and that means the church in Charleston is our church.
The tears of Charleston are the tears of Jesus. We cannot be disciples of Christ without sharing his tears – and knowing in the same boat with our brothers and sisters in Charleston.
Yes, we are on stormy seas.
Peace. Be still, be calm. Have a little faith.
Amidst the storms we’ve also seen something else this week. We’ve seen signs of hope. In a Charleston courtroom, we heard an outpouring of forgiveness from the families of those who were murdered. Can we do less as faithful people?
A half-world away, we heard a pope this week give voice to the collective outcry of the planet that is endangered by climate change.
And within our own Episcopal Church, we’ve heard our bishops pledge to engage more fully with the issues of racism, poverty and justice.
To give one example, Bishop Jim Mathes of San Diego, who is a friend of mine, said this: “The next time we recite our baptismal covenant and say the words, ‘to respect the dignity of every human being,’ race relations and reconciliation are what we should be thinking about.”
Our diocese in Virginia recently began a dialogue on race.
This dialogue has been hard starting. It has felt as though there is an underlying fear about the demons that might be unleashed like genies from a bottle.
But it is time to face our fears.
If this conversation does not begin with us, then with who? Reconciliation must begin with us.
It happens that the leaders of the Episcopal Church will be gathering in the next week for our national General Convention, held every three years.
I will be boarding an airplane later today bound for Salt Lake City where General Convention will be held.
I will be representing the Diocese of Virginia as one of four clergy alternates. This will be my third General Convention.
General Convention is not something we ordinarily talk about from the pulpit, but I want to do that a bit today. General Convention is our highest governing authority in our denomination.
It has a language all its own – rather than “delegates,” we have “deputies.” All of the proposals are to be found in what is called “the blue book,” though it is no longer blue or a book. You can find all of it online.
General Convention is a bicameral legislature, with a House of Deputies that functions like a House of Representatives, and an upper house, the House of Bishops, which functions like a Senate. 
Proposals must pass both houses in identical form to win passage.
The deputies were chosen by each diocese at local conventions two years ago. Each of the 110 dioceses elects four clergy deputies and four lay deputies, and eight alternates. I am an alternate clergy deputy.
Others from St. Paul’s are also going: Emily Shelton, one of our UVA students will help represent the Episcopal Peace Fellowship; and Grace Aheron, one of our youth leaders, will be participating in several events.
It is easy, too easy, to criticize General Convention as outmoded or inefficient or too expensive.
But it is worth celebrating that a democratic legislative body governs our church. We do not have a magisterium handing down edicts from on high. We elect our leaders.
This will be a momentous General Convention. This is the end of Presiding Bishop Katharine’s nine-year term, and the bishops will be electing a new presiding bishop.
They will go behind closed doors and will not emerge until they reappear with the presiding bishop-elect, who must then be confirmed by the House of Deputies.
The candidates include Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina, who by the way, ordained Pastor Heather a few years ago.
If elected, Bishop Curry would become the first African American presiding bishop in our history. There are three other candidates, imminently qualified and faithful bishops. Please keep all of them in your prayers. It is a tough job.
Also on deck is a proposal to change the marriage ceremony to allow for the marriage of two people of the same sex.
A great deal of debate has gone into this, and a task force has spent many years examining the theology, the biblical passages and the cultural, legal and social issues. This is not a new topic for our church. Where this will go, I cannot predict.
General Convention is more than legislation, much, much more. There will be three times as many people in Salt Lake attending General Convention as there will be voting deputies and bishops.
 General Convention is a festival, with worship services, workshops, reunions, and networking to-the-max. I always learn something new and meet new people.
Going on side-by-side with General Convention is a national youth gathering, and the triennial meeting of the national Episcopal Church Women.
I’ve always found General Convention fascinating, uplifting and full of energy.
Please keep in your prayers all of us who are going to Salt Lake.
Let me close where I began – with the story of Jesus in the boat quelling the storm.
There is one overriding point to the story that I hope all of us will keep in mind in the days and months ahead: the Risen Christ is in charge, not us.
The responsibility falls to us to be the stewards of this church.
We must be the ones surrounding hatred with love and forcing hatred to surrender.
And know this to the depths of your soul: the Risen Christ is here in this boat with us, guiding us, calming the storms, drying our tears – and will be with us forever. AMEN.


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