Today’s gospel reading is something of a haunting passage to be reading in a week that is darkened by the senseless violence of a single man that held such hatred for African-Americans that he felt it necessary to go into a church, sit for an hour with a group of faithful disciples, and then to kill them with the precision of a firearm. And we think that we are beyond the conversation of racism and prejudice in America….perhaps not.
The gospel reading this morning starts with the disciples and Jesus journeying to the other side of the sea. For Mark’s first-century readers, they would have picked up on the clue that Jesus was going from Jewish territory and into Gentile territory. Jesus was, simply by going to the other side, breaking huge cultural norms and taking the good news of the gospel beyond the grey clouds of the storms of the first century. Instead of simply remaining in his own territory and consorting with the “proper” folks in the Jewish lands, he dares to go into a territory that has a different culture and is inhabited by people that are looked down upon. The storm in Mark’s narrative this morning is a metaphor for many different storms that were present during Jesus’ time, and Mark is using it as a way of illustrating how Jesus intended break through those storms in order to take the love of God out to all of God’s children. The story is not simply a story about the power and authority that Jesus has over creation, as exemplified in the calming of the waters but also is about God’s action in human history to reconcile humanity back to God. It is a story that is meant to propel us into the wild world in order to share that same love with other people. It is a story about the reconciliation of God to God’s people, and it is a story about our own attempts to be reconciled to each other.
Unfortunately, this week brought us a reminder of just how far we have to go before that reconciliation is complete. We are left in the wake of the tragic deaths of nine people in South Carolina, and we find ourselves not in the waters calmed by Jesus but in the terrifying waters of the storm as they threaten to swamp the boat in which we float. We find ourselves mourning, yet again, a group of people killed as a result of senseless gun violence.
The deaths of the nine people in South Carolina serve as a reminder of the gaping wound of racism in our country. It is a wound that has never had an opportunity to heal because of the vast divisions that continue to exist across our country’s landscape, and it would be irresponsible of us to forget the ways that the Church, the very institution that is meant to bring hope and care into a tragic and tumultuous world, has been partly responsible for the depth of that wound. It seems that the lyrics of the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” continues to serve as a prophetic voice for the Church and the world:
Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place on which our fathers sighed?
we have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our star is cast.1
The second verse of the hymn reminds us that we have a long way to go before we reach that place where the white gleam of our star is cast. We still have very far to go before we are able to say that racism and prejudice are truly things of a gloomy past. Today, we are still within the reaches of the storm waters that rage around us, and we are called, as disciples of Christ, to cross over to the other side despite the threats of the stormy seas. Our job, our duty, our offering to God, is to reach out to those that face the violence of hatred and racism and prejudice. God is calling us to begin building the kind of relationships that are able to weather such stormy seas and, through those relationships, break down the barriers of superficial differences.
The work that we have to do is risky work. It is work that demands the love of Christ to see us through to the end – to the day that we can honestly say that the sins of racism and hatred and prejudice are a thing from a gloomy past. We are being called to build relationships that reflect the love of Christ for all of God’s children, and if we are going to do that, we need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.
In a blog post written in February for Black History Month, I wrote that the United States was in need of a “difficult” conversation like one might have with a close friend. It is the kind of conversation that might make your stomach drop because you have an intuition that you have hurt someone that you care for deeply. It is a conversation that is difficult to initiate, and it is a conversation that is difficult to hear. That being said, it does not excuse us from having the conversation. We must enter into that kind of painful conversation in this country in which we are able to actually listen to the ways that people have been hurt because of the sins of hatred and racism. We must also recognize that as the conversation unfolds mistakes will be made on both sides of the conversation, and it is imperative that we bring the forgiving love of Christ into the conversation at that very moment, which means that we have to be able to recognize the mistake, to recognize the pain that comes from it, and to offer forgiveness for the mistake, for the pain. Just as Christ went to the other side to bring the reconciling love of God to the Gentiles, so too must we bring the reconciling love of God to our own country by creating deep relationships with people that might appear to be very different from us.
As for today, in this moment of sorrow, we are left with the ministry of intercession for the family, friends, and loved ones of Rev. Clementa C. Pinkney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson, and Susie Jackson. For today, we are called to offer lamentation for the senseless violence that has infected our nation and the world. For today, we are left to remember the saints that have died working to end the sins of racism and hatred.
For today, we pray:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.1
1. James Weldon Johnson, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing | Academy of American Poets’, accessed 21 June 2015, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lift-every-voice-and-sing.