Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, June 22, 2015

Compelled and Propelled by the Holy Spirit

June 21, 2015., just a few days after the murders of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston S.C. 

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

If you do a google image search for “Jesus calms the storm,” most of the pictures that will come up for you will probably look something like this: a some-what moonlit night with a mildly foamy sea, a little rain falling and the disciples looking a bit worried. Jesus is usually at the very front of the boat,  “King of the World” style, looking calm or maybe bored. Like he’s saying to the waves, “Let’s just simmer down, ok? Please? Ok, thanks.”

And then I saw an image, a painting by Daniel Bonnell, that truly captured how this week felt for me and for many people, I think. The moon is shining, but it’s like it’s pulsating in an ominous red sky. The water is sweeping and black and churning and takes up about most of the painting. It’s hard to tell if you’re looking UP at the moon from the bottom of a whirlpool or across at these ridiculously high waves. As I looked more and more at this picture, I felt something similar to what the disciples might have felt, something that I have only (fortunately) only a few times in my life: while sitting in the basement during tornado warnings as a kid, or on the eve of hurricane Irene and Sandy. It’s a kind of dread you can almost taste.

Then I realized… where’s the boat in this picture? Where is Jesus, where are the disciples? The boat is super tiny, in one corner of the picture, on the top of one of the steep waves, with Jesus and his out-stretched arms really hard to make out against the red sky.

This week, like in this painting, it seems like a distinct possibility that the storm just might win. This week it seems that the winds and waves and rain and darkness are stronger.  The winds of injustice and violence … the waves of fear and hate….. masked by the stinging, cold rain of blindness and apathy.  All threatening to capsize us, especially on a week like this one.

I am referring of course to the events of this week in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine African American church members, including the pastor, were killed by a white gunman during a Bible study Wednesday night at Emanuel AME Church. This church, one of the oldest African American church in the US, has a long history of involvement in the civil rights movement, this house that proclaims the love and freedom of God’s kingdom was desecrated that night by the kingdom of hate and violence. Nine people died because one man acted on his prejudice and racism, and because he had easy access to the means to do it. It seems unimaginable that we live in a world where people are still targeted based on the color of their skin. And that we allow the means of such destruction to be within such ready reach.

And so that storm rages on. And at the same time, other storms rage, often just below the surface. In the outside, put on the brave face, don’t fall apart, don’t ask for help, even if inside you might be drowning. The storms for you might come in the form of being swamped and going under financially, due to unseen expenses. It might be that a family member is struggling with a mental illness or depression.  It could be that someone you know is addicted to painkillers and now they have turned to heroin because it is cheaper and incredibly easy to get, and the road to recovery is difficult and lacking in enough resources.

These storms take on endless forms, but in one aspect they are all alike: in our every storm, that little figure of Jesus in the boat does not seem to be doing us much good.

In fact, when the storm starts for the poor disciples in the boat trying to cross the lake, Jesus is curled up, asleep! Snoring away on a cushion! It seems pretty understandable that the disciples are pretty P.O.ed at Jesus right about now. After all, it was all Jesus’ idea in the first place to take this crazy trip across the lake, in the dark, after a long day, to a place they didn’t want to go.

The other side of the lake is where THOSE people live. Those people, who look differently. Those people, who cook and eat differently. Those people, who act differently and dress differently than us. Why in the world would Jesus want to go over there? And why do we have to go with him?
After all, we certainly have a hard enough time worrying about our own, those we love, the things happening are right in front of us. Why should we concern ourselves with what’s happening on the other side of the lake, other side of the country, other side of the tracks, anyway?

We could easily ask ourselves, along with the disciples, “Who the heck IS this guy, anyway?”
In that storm painting I talked about earlier, you can’t see the other side of the lake. You can’t see these poor, frightened disciples.  In fact, you can barely see the boat. But what you can see, starkly against the freaky-red sky, are the outstretched arms of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has one job to do: to usher in the Kingdom of God. Only that kingdom is not going to look like we expect. God’s kingdom just might involve that big weed that I pulled from the side of the road which got a place of honor, where we usually place our Easter lilies, right? This kingdom might be more like a shrub – not to a might cedar or an impressive sequoia, but instead to an invasive plant that no one wants but spreads like crazy. It just might involve Jesus bringing together different kinds of people– people that will be related, not by blood, but instead by doing his father’s will.

God’s kingdom just might have something to do with Jesus endlessly reaching out to people, to stretch his arms out to encompass and heal and teach and welcome any who come to him – even stretching so far and wide as the beams of a cross, stretching so wide as to even reach beyond death and the grave. All so that you, me, the mustard seeds, and the people across the lake can be included.

And that makes the powers in this world that defy God shake in anger and terror. These powers, forces, institutional structures, and ways of sin that pull us away from God will do everything in their power to throw every obstacle they can in your way: send you people to discourage you and tell you to lighten up when you say their racist joke isn’t funny. They will make it easier to choose blindness to institutional racism and white privilege. They will send us messages through the media that paint certain people with broad strokes, saying they are lazy or dishonest or loud or rude or even that their language is “out to take over our country.” They will make it SO EASY to want to believe them.
And the closer we get to Jesus and the more we try to live as part of God’s Kingdom come near, the worse this storm will actually get. It will get bigger and uglier, until it consumes our entire view, like it seems to in the storm painting.

But we’re not out there in the storm by ourselves. Jesus is in the boat with us. Jesus is the one calling us out into the lake, steering us in the right direction, not us. Jesus is the one who is in charge of whether the boat sinks or floats, not us. Jesus is the one who has command over the wind and the waves, not us. Jesus is navigating us, not us, making sure that we will get where we’re supposed to go.

As we can see by the world around us, we often wreck what we try to control. And we can’t control the storms that are bound to crop up as we follow Jesus’ lead. But God is steering us toward a future of love and freedom and peace, where are of God’s beloved children are loved, where we don’t have to remind ourselves that “black lives matter,” because we will remember that all lives matter.
We’re part of Jesus’ armada of peace, crossing the lake to the people on the other side, and that is bound to make waves. But fear not, the Lord is with you. He will calm our storms and give us peace. Amen.

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