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Sermon: "Praise You in This Storm."

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on June 21, 2015.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Samuel 17:32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable,
O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
Amen.

Several storms blew over our house last night. Rain pelted windows. Thunder shook walls. Lighting lit up the sky. Storms induce fear in our dogs, so much that little girl Gili crawled up onto the furniture with Chrissie, and wedged herself in between Mom Dog and the back of the couch. Gili was already trussed up in one of my T-shirts that serves as a homemade thunder shirt, and she smelled of lavender. (Lavender is a calming scent.) She was still panicked. Panting. Clearly upset, despite our best efforts to offer a calming presence.

         We all experience storms in our lives to a greater or lesser degree. Storms can steadily approach, or hit unexpectedly. Storms can shatter our reality, shake our confidence, induce fear, and lead us to question. They might be personal or relational. They could be within local communities, across the national stage, or further abroad around the globe. What are some of the storms in your life, and how do you respond to them?

         In 2004, we received a frantic phone call sometime after midnight while we were visiting friends three hours away. Our niece Shannon had suffered a brain bleed from an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation. It was five weeks before her senior prom and six weeks before she would graduate from high school. What Chrissie remembers distinctly from the call from her sister was “Pray. Pray hard. Pray with everything you’ve got.” As we departed without goodbye hugs or kisses, our friend asked, "How does this happen?"

         We left Yorktown, heading back to Fairfax, but swung through Charlottesville to pick up one of Shannon's brothers. Scott had finished exams at UVA and his mega-party celebration was interrupted by the same seemingly cryptic message. He thought she was dead; we assured him Shannon was still with us. After a few short questions and quick answers, he climbed into the back of our car to sleep, intermittently providing us updates he'd gotten from his father while we were driving.

         It was a long dark journey back. Full of adrenaline. Chrissie and I held hands most the way back. We prayed individually and collectively. We were especially vigilant for beasts that would bound across the road. (At one point on Rte. 29, five deer came crossing our path, causing us to slow down and catch our breath.) And while we had news that kept us hopeful, we were still terrified at what we would find.  

         Shannon lived through that particular event, attended her prom and graduated from high school, and then ten months later, she suffered a more catastrophic brain bleed. Yet she is still with us, has graduated from college, and has a job. We constantly call her "Our Amazing Niece."

        

One of the anchors for Shannon in her many storms is a song by the contemporary Christian rock band, Casting Crowns, "Praise You in This Storm." Since I saw the lessons for today several weeks ago and knew I'd be preaching, I've playing it repeatedly and singing along. It's relatable to the account of David and Goliath and the Gospel from Mark. The refrain from "Praise You in This Storm" resonated with Shannon; it also resonates with me; perhaps it will also with you:

I'll praise You in this storm

And I will lift my hands

For You are who You are

No matter where I am

And every tear I've cried

You hold in Your hand

You never left my side

And though my heart is torn

I will praise You in this storm

         In First Samuel, the description of the soldier Goliath vividly depicts the superiority of Philistine military might. In contrast, young David is armed with a slingshot and a deep reliance on God. "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." David’s victory witnesses to the whole earth that “there is a God in Israel.”

         Today's Gospel from Mark is another life-threatening moment. The disciples who accompany Jesus fear the winds will shred their sails and the waves will sink their boat. As Jesus sleeps, they panic, and waking him, they ask, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And after rebuking the wind and calming the sea with the words, "Peace! Be still!" Jesus challenges his disciples with "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" I want to think that Jesus wanted to ask them, "What is it like to have God with you?" Immanuel. Immanuel. God with you.

These same followers of Jesus have been with him. He had recently rebuked demons through the power of his word. Jesus has been revealing himself through his teachings and signs to be the Son of God. And yet, the disciples still wonder who Jesus is. Who or what do they imagine Jesus is? How do we see and know Jesus? Do we see God with Us? Do we acknowledge God with US? Immanuel. Do we see this?

         Friends, storms rage all around us. It seems our nation is caught up in an unending line of storms, one after another.

         One blew up in Ferguson, MO leaving Michael Brown dead in the street. Another exploded when Eric Garner in New York, trying to sell cigarettes, died as the result of a choke hold. Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD cried out in pain as he was taken in by police, and later died while in custody. Last month a video went viral of Dejerria Becton, a 15-year-old girl in McKinney, TX being shoved face-first to the ground by a police officer as he drew his gun on her and her pool party friends. And Wednesday night, nine people die in a shooting massacre carried out by a 21-year old during a prayer service in the historic "Mother Emanuel" African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.

         Sadly, these storms are too often characterized as being black and white, or maybe more honestly, White on Black. These storms, these violent events are not isolated, nor are they unrelated incidents. Racism is a long-standing affliction in this country, and I fear this virus affects us all. But I am grateful our Bishop, Shannon Johnston, has called this Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to actively engage in dialogue towards racial reconciliation.

         The Bishop wrote recently in the Virginia Episcopalian about the Hand-in-Hand Listening Sessions initiated around the diocese. He knows that focusing on racial tensions will not be easy work and that it will require time and effort. As we've seen, incidents constantly flooding the news confirm that, despite decades of efforts to bridge racial divisions in our nation, estrangement remains very real and emotions are still raw. So the Bishop reminds us that "reconciliation" is a core value of our Christian faith. Holy Scripture is explicitly clear about this. In Second Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that through Christ, God "reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation." The Bishop has issued a call for us to become reconcilers in these challenging times. I attended one of the first sessions, and I believe and hope that Immanuel will become a beacon for change because our voice and witness is needed.

         As Bishop Shannon evoked Second Corinthians in his letter, we read even today that Paul and his fellow workers experienced great hardships and even rejection while carrying out their missionary work. We have seen in our own day riots, looting, fire, destruction and harm directed at those who are trained to "serve and protect." Innocent lives have been lost. Communities have been scarred. But Paul speaks of different ways people can respond to great affliction. These past few days in Charleston, SC has shown us another way. People gathered hand-in-hand to pray. Family members of those killed have faced the shooter to acknowledge their hurt and loss while also offering him their forgiveness. St. Paul continuously proclaims that God has not rejected us, but is graciously working for our salvation. I believe Jesus wept tears of sorrow when death visited "Mother Emanuel," but I hope that our Lord might be weeping now tears of joy, rejoicing just a little in the response from this hurting community.

I don't have the answers to address this. But I know something has to start with me, how I see myself in relationship to and with those who look differently from me. I believe that work in me has begun, but there is so much more to be done.

         How do we praise God in a storm? When people die, or are killed because they're different, in skin color, orientation, or ideology; when relationships break down and diagnoses come, how do you praise God?

In Mark's account, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples. And there are other boats with them. And what does that mean? Jesus is in the boat with them. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" When Jesus issues his rebuke, I wonder if it was intended for the wind and waves, or if it was directed to the hearts, minds and spirit of the disciples. Perhaps both. The elements listened and obeyed. The disciples heard and wondered. "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

I don't know about you, but I believe we are in the midst of a racial storm. People have tried to deflect what happened in Charleston, SC. Mental illness may have been a part of it. But this was racial terrorism. A young white man, apparently impassioned by white supremacy and displaying pro-apartheid alliances, said in very clear racist terms what he was there to do and why. What I'm trying to say, right here, right now, is that "Black Lives Matter."

With the hope we will begin this work of reconciliation here at Immanuel, let me close with something that Sam Faeth, a dear friend of mine and former rector of this parish, posted to Facebook on Friday:

"There is a dear young woman who has been assisting at the pharmacy I use for several years. She greets almost everyone by name. She asks about family, vacations, health like a friend would. When I was very, very ill a year ago, she put a "be right back" sign at the pick-up window and carried my bag of medicines to the car lest I over-exert myself. I often think that she could teach a seminary workshop on the fundamentals of pastoral care.

         This morning, she saw me coming to pick up a prescription. She came around the counter, threw her arms around me, put her head on my shoulder and sobbed, "How could this happen in a church? Church is where I go to learn and connect, to heal and be strengthened. How could he sit through a prayer service and then get up and kill nine people?" We clung together, my pale arms and her beautiful mahogany arms entwined while I crooned, "I don't know, darlin'. Your questions are the same as mine." The top layers of our skin were a study on contrasts, but our hurting hearts and our falling tears were the same color."

People, it is time for Reconciliation. This is our work. Let us get to it.

In the name of God, who created all of us. Amen.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jun. 22nd, 2015 03:12 am (UTC)
*claps* -Shannon
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )