Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Other Boats are With Us" -- Sermon for 4th Sunday of Pentecost: 21 June 2015

Sermon for 21 June 2015
4th Sunday after Pentecost

"Other Boats are With Us"

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not an easy morning to talk about miracles.

"Jesus Calms the Storm" by Ketut Lasia of Bali
This morning we hear the story of Jesus miraculously calming a storm, a few days after an arson attack by Israeli extremists at the site of a different miracle—the Church of the Multiplication, built where Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.

This morning we also hear the story of Jesus miraculously calming a storm, only a few days after a racist terrorist shot and killed nine people in a church in South Carolina, USA. Nine people, who were gathered for a prayer meeting. Nine people, who welcomed an unknown man into their Bible study for an hour before the killings. Nine people, who thought they had boarded a ship of safety when they entered their church building, but who found themselves instead tossed about by the mighty winds of racism and a tidal wave of hate.

This is not an easy morning to talk about miracles, because this morning it feels like Jesus might be asleep on the job. There was no miraculous rain shower to drown out the fire at the church in Taghba. And there was no miracle for the nine members of Emanuel AME Church killed on Wednesday evening. Shortly after the news of this terror attack broke, I started to see my African-American friends posting these nine words on Facebook:

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

These nine words are from our miracle story this morning. This is the fearful cry of the disciples on the boat, tossed about by the storm, while Jesus remained sleeping on the cushion.

 This is the cry of black Americans—not in 1950, but still today in 2015—imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, ignored, appropriated, and shot to death in their own churches.

This is also the cry of our Palestinian neighbors living under occupation for 67 years.

This is the cry of the 4 million Syrian refugees still fleeing persecution and death.

This is the cry of thousands of girls in India, who are victims of rape and sexual violence.

This is the cry of all who are oppressed, hungry, violated, and waiting for a word of hope.

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? These words also echo the psalmist, who sang again and again:  

“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.” (Psalm 44)

“Rise up, O God, and defend your cause!” (Psalm 74)

“How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 80)

How long will you sleep?

Do you not care that we are killing each other?

Perhaps you can tell that this fresh tragedy in my home country, together with the violence perpetrated on one of Christianity’s holiest sites—not to mention the Palestinian young man shot and then crushed to death by an IDF tank last week, and the Israeli man shot and killed by extremists in Palestinian territory on Friday—have me struggling with how to preach the Good News to you this week.

On the one hand, we are blessed with this beautiful miracle story this morning, a text full of hope and power and very rich images for preaching.

On the other hand, I am wary of moving too quickly to grace and forgiveness and redemption when the wounds are so fresh.

And perhaps I identify a bit too much with the disciples on the boat today. It does feel like Jesus is asleep while his people are suffering. While I take comfort in knowing he’s with us in this boat, I also want to shake him awake and demand some action.

Living and working here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, we know the winds and the waves all too well.

We know what it feels like to proclaim that our neighbors and even our enemies bear the image of God, only to be trapped in a conversation filled only with talking points and political platitudes.

We know what it’s like to talk about God’s justice and peace being for all people, only to be drowned out by talk of biblical real estate deals and how one side or the other “teaches hate”.

And you know what this feels like? It feels like being on a boat in a storm. It feels like sea water covering our feet, and then our ankles, and then up to our knees, all while Jesus is asleep on his cushion. In these moments, we cry out with the disciples, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Even in the storm, I have faith that the power of Jesus and his Gospel of love will ultimately rise up and calm the storms of racism, gun violence, occupation, division, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Christian-o-phobia,

but I tell you that right now,

in this moment,

in this conflicted holy land,

in this divided city,

in this white body, which bears responsibility for the deaths of those nine black bodies (among so many others),

in this world battered by the storms of hate, violence, and extremism,

the time can’t come soon enough.

Lord, I want to see Jesus.
Lord, let it be today.
Lord, I want to hear your miraculous words that calmed the raging seas: “Peace! Be still!” Amen!

Dear sisters and brothers, this has been a week when the storms of our own human sinfulness seemed certain to overtake us. But the storms are not over--especially when we're in the boat with Jesus.

Crossing seas, crossing boundaries, confronting fears and smashing human-made divisions is always controversial, and the powers and principalities of the world will always push back. When Jesus and his disciples got in the boat and left the shore, it wasn’t just for an evening tour of the sights of Galilee. This journey was Jesus signaling that his Gospel of love was not just for the Jews, it was also for those people over there, the people in the country of the Gerasenes, the folks we don’t like to talk to, the ones who are “different” from us. Jesus was bringing his faithful followers across the sea to a place others considered foreign, forbidden, and even dangerous. He was taking them to the other side.

It should be no surprise to us that when we choose to follow Jesus and his Gospel of love,
when we confess our own implication in racism and violence,
when we speak and act against an illegal occupation,
when we refuse to accept extremist rhetoric from any side,
when we venture with Jesus across the sea toward those who are considered the “Other”,

we will be battered by the storms of controversy. 

There will be pressure to come back to the shore. There will be those who tell lies about us, who try to fill us with fear, who will try and discredit Jesus (or our interpretation of his message), and who will tell us we are simply foolish.

And yet, even in the storm, even in this storm, there is Good News. Though it feels at times like Jesus is asleep on the job, he is always with us. We may be afraid, but he is our strength. We may be lacking in faith, but he never leaves our side. With Jesus on the boat, we know that storm or no storm, God’s word will never be drowned. Storm or no storm, because Jesus is the Son of God, because our Lord is crucified and risen, because the Holy Spirit has empowered us to carry his message from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, the Gospel of love will triumph even over a tsunami of hatred. Amen!

Yes, this is the Good News we need to hear this day. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Holy Spirit.

But there is something else for us, too, another anchor in the storm. Hear again the beginning of today's miracle story: 

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

It’s funny, as often as I’ve heard this story, this detail escaped me until now:
Other boats were with him.

As Jesus and his disciples made their way to the other side—a dangerous, foreign, unpopular, politically incorrect, professionally damaging other side—other boats were with him. They were not alone.

Other boats were with them on the sea, because the power of Jesus and his Gospel of love is greater than the forces which try to keep us tethered to the shore, chained to old habits, and anchored to patterns of racism, hate, and abuse of God’s image.

Other boats were with them, because they had heard God’s kingdom is not just for the Jews, not just for the religious authorities, not just for the twelve who first heard the message, not just for the women who first saw the resurrected Jesus, and not just for the white Europeans who made the Jesus movement into a mighty colonial power.

Other boats were with them, because the Gospel of love is the message the world needed then, and it’s the message the world needs now.

Just as other boats followed Jesus through treacherous waters to take his message to the world, so we are not alone on our storm-filled journey.

Other boats are with us. We are joined by a great cloud of witnesses, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel AME Church, who welcomed a white boy into his Bible study and sat next to him for an hour studying the word of God, before being shot and killed by him.

Other boats are with us. We are joined by former slave Denmark Vesey, one of the men who founded Emanuel AME Church in 1818. He won a lottery and was able to buy his freedom, only to be hanged for teaching in the church about the Israelites being led out of slavery.

Other boats are with us. We are joined by Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian Christian known as the Gandhi of Palestine. He was kicked out of Jerusalem (and his homeland) in 1988 after founding the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence, which advocated peaceful protest, planting olive trees, and above all, never, ever picking up the gun.

Other boats are with us. We are joined by Dorothy Day of New York, Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Martin Luther of Germany, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and the newly-saintedPalestinians Marie-Alphonsine and Mary of Jesus Crucified.

This is not an easy morning to talk about miracles. But here is one: 

In spite of the winds of war, the waves of hatred, and the incessant stormy acts of violence committed by humans against humans, other boats continue to join Jesus on the journey toward a world of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Others are with us—believers like Maya and Zion, our young people who will be affirming their baptisms this morning and joining us in God’s mission. Together, we will get there. Together, we will have faith in the storm. Together, we will trust in the one who invited us on the journey, who promises to be with us to the end, and who can still the mightiest storm with just a few words: “Peace, be still.”

I invite you now to an extended moment of silence, to remember those who have died, but also to listen for that still, strong voice of Jesus, calming our fears, and calling us to continue the journey with him in faith.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 14 July 2015: Parable of the Mysterious Growth of the Kingdom

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: 14 June 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some days, it feels like nothing will ever change.  I read the other day that 82 percent of Israelis fully expect another war with Gaza in the coming months. Same suffering, different summer. Same wall, same illegal occupation, same dialogues happening with the same people, with no different outcome. Friends in the States, especially African-American friends, have lamented how tired they are of the same racist story coming out of a new city every day. Same human brokenness and sin, different context. This unrelenting status quo of human suffering means Jesus’ parable about the mysterious growth of the kingdom—and the sleeping farmer—is especially meaningful for us today.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The parables of Jesus use familiar images to reveal unfamiliar and challenging ideas. In this case, the challenging idea is that the growth of the kingdom happens only by God’s power, and in fact is happening right now. Something is happening, something is germinating, soon the change will come, although all we see now is a pile of dirt. This is a message of hope, an encouragement to disciples who wonder why, if the Messiah has already come, we don’t see more evidence of the promised kingdom of love, peace, justice, and abundance for all.

There is a history in the church, however, of interpreting this parable as a license to just “let go and let God” when faced with the injustices of our broken world. There is unfortunately a tradition of reading these words of Jesus as a call to quietism and calm, a bucket of water to drown the flames of passion and to cool the agitators for justice, revolution and change. The farmer in this parable, after all, is just having a good nap while waiting for the kingdom! The growth not only happens by God’s power alone—the farmer seems completely irrelevant to the story! Therefore, “Don’t worry, God’s got this, it’ll all make sense when we get to heaven” has been the message of many a preacher.

This is a convenient interpretation, especially for those whose lives and privilege will be disrupted by the coming of God’s kingdom. It allows us a theological excuse for doing nothing right now, and biblical justification for maintaining the status quo. God will take care of it, in God’s time.

One of the most memorable challenges to this quietist interpretation came from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he quoted a message he had received from a “white brother in Texas”, which said:

"All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."

To which Dr. King famously responded:  

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

The time is always ripe to do what is right. And yet Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

The growth of the kingdom happens only by God’s power, and the mature harvest comes only at a time designated by God. But injustices surround us, and the time is clearly now to speak up for our brothers and sisters. So are we to be sleeping farmers, or are we to be the “co-workers with God” Dr. King envisions?

Tractor blessing for Rogation Sunday
Capron Lutheran Church, Capron, Illinois
Photo by Carrie Smith
Not surprisingly, it was my time as a country pastor which gave me a new perspective on this parable. I knew nothing at all about corn or cattle or tractors or the seasons of a farmer’s life when I was called to be pastor in a tiny church in rural Illinois. I did arrive with stereotypes and assumptions about what farming was like. One of those assumptions, soon shattered, was the idea that farmers sit idle and mostly “hang out” during the growing season, once the seeds have been put into the ground. This is a lot like saying the pastor only works on Sunday mornings! (This is not true, in case you were wondering!)

The planting and harvest seasons on the farm are of course the busiest, but there is plenty of work to be done while the invisible growth is happening. Watering. Weeding. Tending to the animals. Watching the weather. Caring for the machinery. Caring for relationships, so there will be friendly neighbors willing to help when harvest time comes around.

In the end, of course, whether or not the crop is a good one is in God’s control, and the exact time of the harvest can only be guessed. But the growing season isn’t naptime! The time between the sowing of the seeds and the harvest isn’t lost time, it’s life! It’s the life to which we have been called as Christians. Sowing the seeds was just the beginning. Now is the hard part. Now is the time for loving our neighbors, building relationships, preaching the Gospel, and praying for those in need. Now is the time for challenging systems, advocating for change, and standing with the oppressed. Now is the time for sleeping, and rising, and trusting in God for the harvest—and doing it all again tomorrow.

It’s true that some days it feels like nothing will ever change, and the harvest will never come. Some days, we look at the empty field, the wall surrounding Bethlehem, the rockets coming out of Gaza, the police holding down 14 year old girls, and the children killed by ISIS, and we wonder if the seeds are really growing. We wonder if the kingdom of God is really on its way. Some days, we may be tempted to despair and passivity. Other days, we may consider possibilities promising a faster path to the harvest—like the invitation to extremism or violence.

But Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Hear the Good News: The kingdom is coming! The harvest is near! In the meantime, our sleeping and rising, our laughing and loving, our praying and hoping, working and resting, our trusting in God in spite of the evidence, is not being idle. It is not being passive. It is not bowing to the voices urging us “Don’t fan the flame” or “just wait, God’s got it.” This is what it means to be a farmer. This is what it means to be a co-worker with God.

This is resistance.

Just as farmers resist the call to despair when the weather report is bad, and trust in the invisible growth happening beneath the soil, Christian discipleship and trust in God is a form of resistance. We resist the temptation to settle for faster-growing crops, for something lesser than the kingdom but still better than what we have. A kinder, gentler occupation, for example. A nicer, less offensive racism. An icy tolerance of each other instead of true peace with justice.

We resist, because Jesus has taught us that God’s kingdom is worth the wait. God’s kingdom is greater than we can ever imagine. God's peace is everlasting. God's mercy is boundless. God's love is for all people. God’s kingdom is like the “mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Thanks be to God, that kingdom has already come near in Jesus, our brother. We have already known the beauty of the kingdom through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Dear sisters and brothers, we may not be able to see it, but things are changing. Growth is happening.  After all, we can’t see what happens at communion, and yet we experience Christ’s real presence in the bread and the wine.

We can’t see what is happening in the hearts of others, and yet we have seen broken lives restored to wholeness, and friendships formed from sworn enemies.

We can’t see how the occupation will end, how two peoples and three religions will ultimately live together in this place, what we can do about ISIS, or how poverty and racism and will be eradicated once and for all.

But because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we know that our faithful God will not fail to bring the harvest. God will not fail to bring justice and peace. God will not fail to bring salvation. Until then we will sleep and rise and love and live and resist and build relationships and prepare, for the time is at hand. The harvest is almost ready. The kingdom has come near. And it is worth the wait. Amen.