The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Do you ever feel like the boat we’re in is so small and the sea we’re in is so big that we will never make it through? Do you ever feel like we are all just scrawny kids with slingshots going up against a terrible giant warrior?
Do you ever feel helpless and afraid in the face of chaos and evil too great to understand?
I think that’s how many of us feel in the wake of the murders in Charleston on Wednesday night. Nine people were killed, people who went to church that evening and will never come home again. I looked at the pictures of those nine people of Emanuel AME Church, and thought, they look like so many in our own congregation here of St Michael’s. They were doing what so many of us here do, gathering at church to pray and to study scripture and to build each other up for good work in the world. And they were killed while doing it. Because of someone infected with the hatred that is so powerfully at work in our country. Racist hatred that kills and destroys, that creates nothing of good. Hatred that is the power of the Evil One made flesh.
In times like this, we instinctively want to come to church, to gather with our community, to pray, to be reassured of God’s hand at work in the world. We want to come where sanctuary is assured. But some of you here today may be extra aware that even here, and maybe especially here, you are not safe. Today you had to be brave to come to church. And I’m so glad that you did. This evil will not overcome us.
One great gift of the Holy Spirit: it’s almost like the lectionary readings for this Sunday were chosen on purpose for this moment. They have so much to tell us, all of us here terrified and hurting, not knowing how to protect one another. They have so much to tell us of God’s power and the possibilities for hope.
First we had David and Goliath – a Sunday School story, the one that makes all the little guys stand up straighter. Young David the shepherd, at the battlefield just to deliver some food to his brothers and see how they’re doing, steps out and pits himself against the terrible Goliath of Gath, the big bad guy. And Goliath is really, really big – six cubits and a span, which is 9’6”. With all that amazing armor described in such perfect detail, Goliath is superhuman, what one writer calls the WMD of the Philistines. He is more than an ordinary foe. He is one of the giants of Gath, descended from the Nephilim, offspring of rebel angels and mortal women – a race of giants who are violent, fierce warriors. It is not just that he is a big guy – he is a symbol, a personification of the forces of chaos and violence in the world. Fighting Goliath is fighting against evil itself.
And David, the young boy, the insignificant one – David kills him with one shot to the forehead. But he doesn’t do it by his own good aim. He acts in the name of the Lord, as a sign that God is with him and with the Israelites – the whole purpose of his victory is to show that God can do anything. From David’s perspective, the story is all about God. David’s defeat of the giant is God’s defeat of all the forces of death and violence in the world. No wonder this story holds such power.
And then there’s that storm story in the gospel, where Jesus calms the storm on the sea. The disciples are panicked and scared, and they’re sure that Jesus with them is sleeping and not able to help – but he wakes, and subdues the great deep with power in his voice. And again, it’s more than just the waves that Jesus is up against. The sea is the embodiment of chaos and death, the symbol of what can’t be controlled; Jesus conquers it with a word. God is stronger than anything we fear.
Last week Meredith reminded us in her sermon that things are not always as they seem. We heard about the mustard seed, the tiny seed that grows into a plant that takes over. And we heard about the anointing of David to be king – David, the youngest in his family, the one everyone forgot about. God chooses what is weak and insignificant, not what is mighty and powerful. And that theme continues today – God prevails over the evil giant Goliath through a small boy with a slingshot. God prevails over the forces of chaos through a young man asleep in the boat. God is incarnate in a vulnerable baby, who grows up to be crucified. And yet God is the power of good who is stronger than evil. God fights against the forces of chaos and death. God is the one who reassures us that we need not be afraid.
Yet I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, that someone in our country can buy a gun and use it against people in church. I am afraid for so many of you, vulnerable to the actions of the evil one because of the color of your skin. I am afraid because this kind of thing has happened so many, many times in just the last few years alone, and there does not seem to be anything done to stop it. Nothing done to stop the guns, to stop the hatred, to stop looking the other way and pretending that we are not all in danger here. I want to put up a wall of protection, a wall that is strong enough to guard the children in our schools, that is high enough to protect this church and all of you in it, that is powerful enough to keep all those who are hated away from those who hate. And I know that there is no way to do that. And it all feels so big – so beyond human strength. And there is so much work to be done.
And yet my fear, I know, is itself not strong enough to keep God from working. That’s the other message of our readings today. God saves even when we don’t have faith that he will. Everyone around David doubts that he can possibly conquer Goliath – Saul tries to make David wear his armor, even though it doesn’t fit; Goliath snorts with derision when David steps out against him; David’s brothers are crazy with fear as they watch the baby of the family march boldly out with his slingshot. But David prevails – God wins the victory over the power of evil, even though no one believes it is possible.
Likewise, the disciples in the boat are panicked, shaking Jesus awake, crying, ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ And Jesus rises and rebukes the wind, and the storm of chaos ceases. Don’t you have any faith? he asks the disciples. But he doesn’t make it a condition of saving them. He just does it, whether they believe he will or not. Having Jesus in their boat is more than enough to save them, even though they’re too scared to see it until it happens there in front of them.
This is the truth: God is stronger than our fears, more powerful than the worst we can imagine. God’s strength is stronger than our weakness – God’s weakness is even stronger than our strength. Whether we’re able to believe in God’s loving power to save or not, God can do more than we can ask or imagine. With God’s help, all is possible. This evil cannot win.
The horror of what happened in Charleston means that we should treat one another with extra care and gentleness today and in the weeks to come. Those of us who aren’t black need to listen and make space for those who are, those for whom this attack in Charleston struck home in a visceral, all too familiar kind of way. We all need to love extra big, to hear without assuming we already understand, to name and recognize our fears. We need to keep working on what we have begun here in this congregation, telling our stories and listening deeply, risking real relationship over false community. When it comes time for healing prayer today, if you need it, I hope you go over to the chapel and ask for it. Pray for those nine sisters and brothers in Christ, and for their families and all who are grieving.
But do not give way to despair – do not see only the smallness and insignificance of our stature, the frailty of our boat, the malevolent power of the Enemy we face. Hear the strength and power of the family members of those who were killed – who were able to say to that deranged young man, we forgive you. They could say that because they are grounded in God’s great power. They could say that because they would not accept being made victims, because they know in the depths of their souls that even in this horrible loss, God’s power can be made evident. They know – they are teaching us – that God does not judge by the color of our skin. That God does not countenance these divisions we create and the hatred we cling to. That God will not tolerate this status quo the way we have done for far too long. They know and they proclaimed that God’s love is greater than all the hatred in the world, and they want to be part of that love.
So we are not to be afraid. We are not to turn away. We are meant to step forward, to face up to the evil of racism, in our world, in our community, in our selves. To face up to the worst of the human soul, and to act in love. To build up our own community and broaden it to truly include all colors, all classes, all people. To call out to our elected officials stuck in their own fear that they must not be afraid – they must risk and do what is right, to limit the availability of weapons that kill, to join the conversation on symbolic and actual levels so that we learn and remember that we are all God’s children, all part of one people. This can’t keep happening. This storm of chaos and evil will be overcome.