The Boat of Mother Emanuel
North Riverdale Lutheran Church ― June 21, 2015
Pastor Monte Stevens
Mark 4:35-41 Jesus Stills a Storm
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
We printed our church bulletins Thursday morning before I knew the full developments of the horrific story of nine African Americans being shot down and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. As you have heard, this is one of the most prominent African American congregations in the south and is lovingly known as “Mother Emanuel.” If I would have known then, what I know now, I would have titled the sermon, “The Boat of Mother Emanuel.”
Our selected gospel passage and lesson for this morning is quite providential, in that, the disciples of Jesus find themselves in the midst of a raging storm and they look to Jesus, their messiah, to calm the storm in which they find themselves. I choose not the say the name of the shooter today, but I will mention his middle name. As reported, his middle name was “Storm.”
His terrible and devastating actions have caused quite a emotional storm for the families and friends of those who grieve the ones they so loved. He has caused the storm of racial injustice to manifest itself again; and he was hoping his actions would cause a new storm, as great as the civil war of our past. He caused a storm of fear in the lives of a community and culture. He caused a storm of past evils like segregation and white supremacy, to show their ugly heads again. He caused a storm of anxiety in congregations across this country, as they think anew about their own safety, inside their own congregations as they gather for Bible study and prayer.
Today’s text says, “A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” One shooter, armed with hate has caused a great gale to arise, and many waves, once diminished, are swamping the boat again.
In the past 72 hours I have learned much about Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. It has been an historically important boat carrying its precious disciples of Jesus since the early 1800’s. Since its earliest days, the chaos and waves of hate, discrimination and injustice have beat upon the “Boat of Mother Emanuel.”
Please allow me to share a little history of the AME denomination. The denomination was officially founded in 1816 in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, a slave who was deeply devoted to Methodism. After white members of a Methodist Church tried to remove him during prayers, he established a church for the black community to worship, free from discrimination. That same year, Rev. Morris Brown, a free black preacher became the first pastor of the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina with a 1,400 member strong congregation. In 1818, Brown and other church ministers were jailed for violating laws; laws that had been created to ban religious gatherings of slaves and free black people without white supervision. In 1822, Mother Emanuel was investigated when authorities cracked down on a planned slave revolt in Charleston. It was plotted by one of the church’s members, Denmark Vesey—a freed slave—who was later hanged along with 34 other black people after word of the rebellion leaked. Shortly after that, the church was burned to the ground for good measure. But the boat of Mother Emanuel was not sunk.
They would rebuild in 1865 immediately after the civil war. During the intervening years between their church being burned down in 1822, and the end of the Civil war in 1865 (the year they rebuilt their congregation) they met in secret. Showing their resilience…after 21 years in the rebuilt church from 1865, their church was destroyed again in 1886, this time by an earthquake. They had the church rebuilt again by 1891 which is the same church where nine of her members were murdered, this past Wednesday, for the sheer fact that they were black.
Mother Emanuel continued to carry Jesus’ disciples in her hull throughout the turbulent storms of the civil rights era and through the mid 1990s as black churches in the south and southeast were being burned to the ground. In 1996, there were 21 churches burned to the ground in the southeast, but Mother Emanuel was untouched by those flames of hate. Through all these storms of injustice, hatred, discrimination, hangings, burnings, and now, this week, nine murders, Mother Emanuel and her faithful disciples have stood tall in the boat that was carrying them.
They have not given up on their church, nor Jesus, who has calmed the storms around them time and time again, by teaching them how to react and how to persevere through patience and “turn-the-other-cheek” love. When the storm of hate has come upon them, they have beat back those storms with Love. When the storm of discrimination has beat upon them, they have offered a gospel of inclusion. When the storm of destruction has come through flames that burned their church to the ground, they built a new boat to carry them forward.
Thank God for the bold witness of these faithful disciples for these past 200 years. Witnesses to God’s love. Witnessed to God’s forgiveness. Witnesses to God’s grace. Witnesses to the trust, that in God, there is always a new beginning. Witnesses to the biblical proclamation that each of us is created in the image of God…and beloved by God. To all of the ugliness of past hatred and discrimination…Jesus says, “Peace, be still!” To the hatred that causes a 21 year old white man to go into a Bible study and murder nine beautiful black souls, Jesus says, “Peace, be still!”
The only way that African Americans, once tragically enslaved, could make it, of out of our once American economy of slavery, and through the struggle for voting rights and civil rights…the only way that they have made it through the storms that have raged so relentlessly and hard…is through their deep trust and hope in the One in the boat with them…Jesus.
It has been the Black Church, as they have called upon Jesus to lead them, save them, comfort them, inspire them, and renew them, that they have survived. It has been congregations just like Mother Emanuel that have nurtured the soul and taught their members how to follow Jesus, with the values of Jesus.
Martin Luther King Jr. had the African American community climb into the boat where Jesus was at the helm, and it was a boat of Love and non-violence. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that the storms they would have to go through would be fierce and battering But they would have to be stronger; they would have to gain their strength from Jesus, who would and could, offer Peace! But first, there would be raging storms of fire hoses, attack dogs, police batons, church bombings, and just days ago, bullets that cut down nine of God’s children, most of whom were in the prime of their lives. As the great Civil Rights anthem declares, “We Shall Overcome!” But, Oh, how the waves have beat against their boat!
There is another line in our text that resonated with me in the context of the tragic events of this past week. Jesus says to his disciples, gives the invitation to his disciples, “Let us, go across to the other side.” Do you remember what is on the other side of the lake? The “other side” could be taken as code words. The other side is Gentile territory. It is a territory where everything is non-kosher, unknown, foreign. It is a territory where demons dwell and the first thing they encounter is the Gerasene demonic, a gentile under the influence of a demon, and a herd of pigs.
Jesus was one who crossed boundaries all through his ministry and this was a big boundary. He crossed boundaries, because God’s love was for all people. God’s grace was for those like me and those who were very different from me. Jesus crossed boundaries of race, culture, religion, traditional roles of women, and economic practices of Empire. Jesus was not afraid to cross boundaries, and crossing “The Lake” is highly symbolic and gets to the core of Jesus mission.
Our human nature pretty much likes us staying right where we are, right where we are most comfortable. Most of us don’t really like the challenge of going to the other side of the lake where we perceive danger, different people, different customs, and different ideas. But Jesus invited his disciples then, and you, his disciples today, “Let us go to the other side of the Lake.”
If Jesus were alive during the civil rights movement he might have said, “Let us go into the bus and sit at the front.” Or “Let us go into the Woolworths store and sit down at the counter and get some lunch.” That other side of the Lake is the place where Jesus wants us to go, beckons us to go, to live out God’s passions for the world. But we can be hesitant to go, because we know just how difficult it might be, and we would just rather stay comfortable right where we are. But once you experience the transcendent God revealed in Jesus, you take up the invitation, and the invitations just keep coming.
“Let us go to the other side of the Lake.” But hear those words again. Jesus says, “Let us!” He does not say, “You go over to the other side of the Lake.” Jesus promises to accompany us, and be right alongside us, for the journey. When we anticipate the storms that will come and the waves that will crash upon our boat, we trust in the One we follow, to still the storm, because we know we have the Truth of God alongside us and with us.
Jesus will take us into a new land, expanding God’s kingdom. In the end there will be Peace, and healing and justice and new community and wholeness and love will win the day. God’s Light will reign in this new kingdom. “Let us go to the other side.” Martin Luther King Jr. talked about that Promised Land where all men and women would be treated equally, where all would be treated, and judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
But who wants to go through the storms to get to the other side? Who wants to do the hard work once you get to the others side? Our American history has recorded the raging storms and the scars of hard work. One person I heard interviewed said, “This shooter was not born to hate.” I agree and believe that we must get to the other side of the lake and begin the work or crossing those boundaries; those boundaries that taught him how to hate, and keeps old fears and prejudices latent in our lives. We must do this hard work, trusting in the One, whom the disciples asked, “Who is this man that even the wind and sea obey him?” That One is Jesus, the One of God who has revealed the Way of God to us.
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander posed the question, “How do we eradicate hate? How do we eradicate the violence?” For me I know that answer lies in following Jesus, and living a life of love, as Jesus so taught and lived himself.
Love will win. Love almost won the day when that young man walked into Mother Emanuel and asked to sit in their Bible study. What is so amazing is that he almost didn’t go through with his heinous act. He almost didn’t go through with it, because they were so loving toward him. Love almost won this past Wednesday night, and would have, if hate had not such a big start in this young man’s life. But the good news is, that we know, with enough time, and with enough love, God’s love will win the day and bring Peace to the storm.
The people of Mother Emanuel are already calming the storm and beating back the waves, pushing up on the side of their boat, and they are doing it as Jesus would have done. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The family members and fellow members of Mother Emanuel are already taking the unimaginable hard first steps of forgiveness and love.
The son of the Rev. Daniel Simmons said of his father, “Although he died at the hands of hate, he lived in the hands of love. We believe Rev. Simmons would want people to celebrate his life in love and peace. Please continue to pray for our family and the families of other victims.”
The family of Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor released a statement that said, in part, “She was the mother of four girls, sang in the choir and preached from the pulpit. Ever since her death was confirmed, our family has been met with unspeakable pain and grief. Our hearts are troubled, but our faith remains steadfast, trusting and believing in God’s power to mend our broken hearts. At this time of grave personal loss, we ask you for two things. First, please keep our family and our church community at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in your prayers. Next, please move away from the sidelines and unite together— regardless of your faith or religious practice―to seek an end to hatred and violence.”
Let us get to the other side of hatred and violence.
Let us get to the other side of racial slurs and stereotypes.
Let us get to the other side of injustice and solving our differences with bullets.
“We Shall Overcome.” But that promise will only be fulfilled, if and as, we follow the path of selfless and sacrificial love that Jesus set before us. Today, we join our brothers and sisters of Mother Emanuel in the continuing struggle that all of God’s people may live in love, peace and harmony, serving alongside each other, for the good of the kingdom.
Let us join our brothers and sisters in the “Boat of Mother Emanuel.” Let us get to the other side!