Scripture – Mark 4:35-41
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 21, 2015

Do you fear for your safety? Not here. We are sitting in one of the safest places in the world. Driving to church, even walking to church, puts your life at risk. Statistically, staying in your home is much more risky than being in church. Less than one tenth of one percent of deaths occur in a church.

That feeling of safety was shattered in Charleston, a few days ago when a 21 year-old entered an historic African American Church, sat for awhile in a Bible study, then began slaughtering people of good-will with the .45 caliber Glock handgun he had purchased with birthday money.

Recently, the killer told a friend that black people are "taking over the world" and that "someone needed to do something about it for the sake of the white race." On his Facebook page, he posted a photo of himself wearing a jacket with the flags of the former white-racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia, and he had a Confederate flag on his license plate. These were the symbols that motivated him. And now, one more community, in what seems like an endless string of cities, has been assaulted by the deadly effects of racism – vile ideology that claims that one race is superior to another and has the right to dominate others.

Jon Stewart summed up the situation in our country very well. Stewart, normally a clever comedian, put all jokes aside Thursday night and said, "The Confederate flag flies over the capitol of South Carolina, many of the roads are named after Confederate generals and the white guy feels like his country is being taken over." Stewart went on to raise the question of which is truly more threatening to our society: Is it Islamic terrorism or is it the racism that festers in our nation? He said, "We have spent over a trillion dollars fighting foreign wars and thousands of Americans have lost their lives to keep Americans safe. We even torture people in the name of keeping Americans safe." Why won't we muster that same degree of determination to end racism at home?

Despite not personally knowing the people who were shot, we must not turn our heads or imagine that we have no attachment to them. This young man walked into a house of worship and murdered nine sisters and brothers in Christ.

The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emmanuel AME Church and a state senator, Cynthia Hurd, a librarian for 31 years in the Charleston County Library, Tywanza Sanders, a recent college graduate working as a barber to pay his bills and preparing to go to graduate school, Susie Jackson, the aunt of Tywanza, who at the age of 87 still sang in the church choir, Ethel Lee Lance, a long-time sexton at the church, The Reverend Daniel Simmons, a retired AME pastor, Myra Thompson, the Bible study teacher and wife of a pastor, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a college admissions counselor, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a high school speech therapist who also coached the girls track team. These were nine fellow Christians, contributing members of society, whose lives were snuffed out for one reason – the color of their skin.

Their assassin adhered to vile white supremacist ideology. No one here would espouse such an evil creed, but can each of us honestly say that we have done everything in our power to be a counterforce to racism?

Have you ever laughed at racist jokes? Do you size up a person based on skin color?

I cannot imagine the nightmare of the families of the victims. The suddenness of their loss, the violent way they were killed, and while they were studying the Bible in their church. This morning's passage from the Gospel of Mark does not prescribe easy answers to such unjust suffering and it contains no magic incantation to take away the immense pain the victims' loved ones are feeling, but it may provide some degree of help as we wrestle with this tragedy.

It so happens that the gospel lectionary reading for this Sunday had in mind the plight of people who were being unjustly persecuted. The author of Mark wrote to second generation Christians who had lost loved ones and who lived in fear of being killed not for the color of their skin, but for the faith they professed. Today's passage is focused on the distress, the turmoil, and the fear that a crisis can provoke.

Our passage begins at sunset. Jesus and his disciples are standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus says, "Let us go across to the other side." The disciples climb into the boat and set sail. In a short time, the sun vanishes below the horizon and darkness blankets them.

As they are making their way across the sea, the wind picks up force, the stars disappear and the waves become angry. They are far from shore now, and the wind velocity is ramping up. The waves begin to crash against the sides and some are high enough to spill into the boat. They are in danger of being swamped or having someone washed overboard. The disciples, several of them experienced fishermen, are having their kills pushed to the limit. Every able hand is bailing water and straining every fiber to keep their boat from capsizing, but they are terrified that they may not survive the tempest. Everyone is frantically doing what he can to keep their vessel afloat. Everyone, except Jesus.

The gospel writer says that Jesus is in the stern, asleep on a cushion. The disciples wake him up and say, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" If you say, "Wait a minute. How could Jesus be napping in a boat that is about to be swamped," then you have picked up on a clue that this is not simply a retelling of a breath-taking moment when Jesus and the disciples survived a nasty storm. Rather, it is a symbolic story that evokes rich images to which everyone who has faced a harrowing experience can relate.

In ancient times, to talk about the sea was not only to talk about a particular body of water. The sea was highly symbolic. It represented the watery chaos that preceded the creation of the world and continued to be a menacing threat to life. In Genesis 1, we read, "In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."

The sea was not only associated with danger and disorder, but also with evil. In the seventh chapter of Daniel, the prophet speaks of "four great beasts that came up out of the water." And in Revelation, the author writes, "I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads."

Our passage is not simply about a fierce storm that nearly ended in catastrophe on the Sea of Galilee, it represents any howling disaster that threatens to destroy us. Who has not felt as if you are drowning, frantic with fear, hope slipping away, desperately crying out, "Jesus, where are you? Are you asleep? Can you not see the danger closing in on me?"

Our passage appears to give too simple of an answer. After the disciples wake him from his slumber, Jesus shouts at the storm and all is calm. He then appears to berate the disciples for their lack of faith. Giving such an answer to the victims' families in Charleston would be cruel. Their loved ones were not murdered for their lack of faith. God did not drop a protective shield that sheltered them from harm because their faith was tepid. Perilous seas are a part of life because God created a world in which we are free – free to love or free to kill. Without freedom our lives would be meaningless; with freedom, our lives are vulnerable.

After calming the storm, Jesus says, "Where is your faith?" Is he trying to make them feel guilty because they were scared out of their wits? Was he saying, "Have faith that everything will turn out fine." Or, could his question be an encouragement to ponder their faith and to realize: Faith is where you can find courage to face the crisis. Faith is where you can find strength to battle the storm. Faith is where you discover that you need not face the storms of life alone.

Gathering as a community of faith reminds us that we are not alone in the boat. In Charleston, many people – black AND white – have gathered in worship services to shed tears together and to lean on one another. They are surrounding the families of the victims with love and prayers. They are offering strong shoulders to sob on and baking casseroles. They are focusing a spotlight on racism to expose it for the evil that it is. They are reminding people that we will continue to forge a path to hell if we do not put our energy into loving one another, treating others with kindness and respect, and standing for what God has shown us is right and just and promotes the common good.

Following the death of his 25 year-old son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a small book lamenting his loss and piercing grief. At one point he confronts the beatitude of Jesus that says, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted." He writes, "Blessings to those who mourn, cheers to those who weep, hail to those whose eyes are filled with tears, hats off to those who suffer, bottoms up to the grieving. How strange, how incredibly strange!"

For the most part, "it's the smiling, successful ones we cheer. 'Hail to the victors.'" We salute "the nations that won in battle, the businesses that defeated their competition...the athletes who came in first, the politicians who won their campaigns. We turn away from the crying ones of the world. Our photographers tell us to smile."

"Blessed are those who mourn. What can it mean? Why does he hail the mourners? Why cheer tears? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm...The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God's new day, who ache with all their being for that day's coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence...They are the ones who ache when they see someone blind...They are the ones who ache when they see someone starving...They are the ones who ache when they see someone beaten down...They are the ones who ache when they see someone treated with indignity...They are the ones who ache when they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries."

Jesus calls on us to "be open to the wounds of the world...to be in agony over humanity's agony. But to do so (knowing that a better day) is coming."1

No one is to be alone in suffering and no one is to be alone in combating the evils of our world. This tragedy in Charleston reminds followers of Jesus that we are called to band together "to weep with those who weep" and to oppose the angry waves of racism that threaten to capsize us. This has nothing to do with being politically correct. This has everything to do with being true to our faith.

Today's passage also reminds us that there is someone else in the boat with us – someone who does not remain asleep and unconcerned. In him, we can discover the courage to face the howling winds and the determination to withstand the ferocity of the chaotic forces. He will show us the course and steer us in the direction of justice and peace.


  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), pgs. 84-86.


Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Eternal God, blessed are you, for you are the stronghold for the oppressed; you raise the lowly and set them in seats of power. You are the firm foundation upon which we stand, the foundation which offers us courage in the face of adversity and hope in the face of despair. As we come to this sacred space this day, we come hoping to be filled with new direction, desiring that we might find words to guide our steps, offering our cares and concerns to you.

But this particular day as we gather many of us find ourselves wondering...wondering why someone would enter into your house of worship and open fire on your children. Only you, O God, know why hate would run so deep that it would cause one of your creations to kill others you have formed. In our confusion over this senseless act, we appeal to you for understanding and for courage to continue to fight for justice. We pray right now for the families of those who lost lives at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. on June 17, and ask that you would wrap your loving arms around them and the entire community. And, as hard as it is for us to pray for those who hurt others, we also pray for a young man whose heart was filled with such hate, such fear, and whose hands held such power, that he could commit 9 murders in a sacred space. Likewise, O God, we pray for an end to the continued racial unrest and violence that permeates the United States and the world, and ask you to guide us to work earnestly for change.1 Help us to trust in the power of love more than in the power of hate, to trust more in the power of forgiveness than the power of vengeance, to trust more in the power of acceptance than the power of division, more in the power of self-sacrifice and self-giving than in the fire power of guns.

Where there is grief in our lives, our community, or around the globe, mend broken hearts. Where there is pain, embrace with your comforting arms. Where there is despair, send showers of hope.

As we gather in this space today, we lift up to you those who have been fathers to us...whether they raised us from childhood, or taught us in school, or served as role models as we were growing up, we thank you for all those who have accepted us, helped us become who we are, helped us to believe in ourselves and our abilities. And, we pray for your comfort this day on those who wish to be fathers but for some reason can't, and those fathers who miss their sons and daughters, and sons and daughters who miss their fathers. And we pray for understanding and healing where relationships between fathers and children are fragile or broken.

1 Portions of this part of the prayer adapted from prayer found at pcusa.org.