by Ellen Sims
texts: I Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
After yesterday’s events in Charlottesville, I ditched the sermon I’d planned to preach today. The violence we witnessed yesterday is on our minds and hearts, so we need to speak of it. Maybe like me, you have been rattled by the white supremacist hate mongers. As I watched fellow clergy put their lives on the line yesterday, I was startled by how easily I placed myself in those televised scenes. And ashamed for the times I’ve almost blithely marched the streets of Mobile with you in protest of injustice, how I’ve taken for granted the privilege of gathering with you for a prayer vigil, and how fearlessly we’ve spoken at rallies or town hall meetings. We have been aware of some risk on those occasions. But what happened yesterday seems different. Unlike, for example, the Pulse massacre committed by one person, the fatalities were fewer at Charlottesville but the violence went viral as an armed mob replaced a lone gunman. So this morning’s sermon may sound disjointed. Because I feel disjointed. Because, as Hamlet said, “The time is out of joint.”
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of Heather Heyer, who died as a brave ally, and to the loved ones of the two police officers who died while patrolling by helicopter, and to the nineteen injured when a car was used as a weapon aimed at a crowd, and others injured by various ways that a mob does violence. We take time again to remember these in silent prayer. . . .
What is the church’s response to proud racism? A few people I know responded to yesterday’s events by criticizing the “counter-protesters” because they were seen as just drawing more attention to the neo-Nazis and stoking the flames of hatred.
There is that risk. But ignoring bad behavior is the strategy a teacher might use to disempower the class clown. “Just ignore him, class” isn’t going to silence or de-escalate the rabid racists. Clearly, the national leadership of the United Church of Christ felt that a public witness against racism was necessary even though potentially dangerous. The UCC has often spoken out against racial injustice in counter-cultural ways.
In 1846, the first anti-slavery society with multiracial leadership was organized by the Congregationalists, a predecessor denomination of the UCC.
In 1959, because many Southern television stations refused to report news of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked the UCC to intervene, so our denomination fought for and won a historic federal ruling that declared the airwaves are public property.
In 1973 the Wilmington Ten were civil rights workers charged with arson of a white-owned grocery store. One of them was a UCC missionary and community organizer. All but one were black. Convinced the charges were false, the UCC’s General Synod raised more than a million dollars to pay for bail. (See UCC Firsts)
What is the church’s response to racism and violence? Sometimes we in the UCC take it to the streets, as Rev. Traci Blackmon and other UCC leaders did yesterday in Charlottesville and as she did in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown almost exactly three years ago. In a newspaper article about her leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement, I discovered excerpts from Traci’s sermon the Sunday after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old, unarmed Michael Brown. Because the same lectionary readings cycle around every three years, her sermon then was based on today’s very same Hebrew Bible text: the story of Elijah fleeing for his life and hiding in a cave.
You may remember that before becoming Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, Rev. Blackmon was pastor at Christ the King UCC near Ferguson. She is also a mother of African American sons. One day before Michael Brown’s funeral, Traci preached from 1 Kings 19 about Elijah hiding in a cave after threats on his life. She compared Elijah’s plight to that of people of color “who have been in a cave far too long” and “living in neighborhoods structured for containment, rather than community.” She continued, “I’m talking about those of us who live quiet lives with low expectations – we lose our collective potential because we have been hurt so long and so much that we are scared to try anything else. So we do just enough to get by, just enough to stay alive but not enough to thrive, just enough to keep breathing. But we won’t risk anything to go to the next level.” But she reminded those in attendance that “the Lord found Elijah in the cave,” she said. “Aren’t you glad that every now and then, the Lord will come and find you?”
The Lord found Rev. Blackmon and is using her to draw many out of the caves we’re hiding in.
To segue to our Gospel reading, God is also drawing many of us out of the safety of the boats we’re cowering in.
An early symbol of the Church was a boat, an ark like Noah’s that saved God’s people. In times of persecution the mast of a sailing vessel could be depicted to look like a cross—but disguised—as a secret sign of the church. The architectural term for the main body of a medieval church is the nave, from the Latin, “navis,” which means ship. (It’s the same word from which we get “navy”). That’s because the arched beams make the ceiling of a cathedral look like the inside of an upside down ship’s hull.
Our Gospel story today places the disciples cowering in the church boat. In this scene we hear liturgical language that the church used early on and still today. Peter’s call for help–“Lord, save me!”–is a prayer, of course. When Jesus got into the boat with Peter, the wind ceased “and those in the boat worshiped him.” Those in the boat called Jesus “Son of God,” a confession of faith. This Gospel story pictures the church gathered in worship. These liturgical features of the boat/church story are additions Matthew gave to the similar story from Mark’s Gospel. Matthew uses this metaphor to convey the dangers and doubts those in the countercultural Church will experience with the winds against it. Matthew acknowledges the exhilaration and fear that following Jesus may provoke while prompting the question of when to hunker down in the church and when to venture out of the church. (See Overman, J. Andrew. Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew. The New Testament in Context. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996.)
We’re hunkering down this morning after experiencing yesterday the raw violence of racism. But soon we’ll venture out again into the turbulent events in our society. In faith, we’ll meet Jesus there. Remember that in antiquity the sea was associated with danger, chaos, and demons. The boat of the church navigates through such waters. But Peter’s role in the story raises the possibility that sometimes some of us find Jesus by leaving the boat/church. Peter, who became the rock on which Jesus built the church, encountered Jesus dramatically in a liminal place between doubt and faith. Jesus, who appeared to his frightened followers walking across the stormy seas, can meet us inside and outside the church.
Some of you may have experienced Jesus powerfully outside the church—and sadly, may have felt distanced from Jesus inside the church at times. In the context of yesterday’s events, we can imagine Peter’s encounter with Jesus outside the church boat by picturing ways we step outside the church boat to walk faithfully with Jesus. The clergy who yesterday locked arms and knelt in prayer before a line of KKKers had stepped outside the church boat into violent waters. I think Jesus then came and found them in that street and “stretched out his hand” and led them back to the safety of the boat with him. Thank God. I trust those brave souls are taking time this morning, as we are, to sit with Jesus as the winds calm and the waters gentle.
What is the church’s response to racism and violence? Sometimes we gather in this inclusive and capacious church boat. But sometimes we, individually or collectively, leave the boat to activate our faith, to respond to Jesus despite doubts, to meet a new challenge, to know the saving power of God amidst the violence and chaos. Sometimes that means we help end the ancestor worship of heroes cast in bronze who defended slavery. Sometimes we declaim that peaceful protesters bear no responsibility for the violence those with evil intent have planned and salivated for in darkness. Sometimes we leave the cave of cowardice and complacency to act for justice.
Traci asked her church three years ago, “Aren’t you glad that every now and then, the Lord will come and find you?”
I know I am.
For the shelter of the ship, and for the challenge of the seas, we give you thanks, O God, and ask for courage and faith. May we continue to make room for all who wish to journey with us. Amen.