Saturday, June 20, 2015


"Why are you afraid?" Jesus asks.  "Have you still no faith?"
But I am afraid this morning, and my faith is again being tested.  For I find myself at a loss for words, as we try to process the outrage at Mother Emmanuel Church.  The racial hatred that still stalks the land this Juneteenth weekend, this 150th anniversary of the end of slavery; the Confederate flag that still flies over the state house in Columbia, not even lowered to half-mast; the judge who expresses more concern for the killer's family than for the mother who played dead, lying in her son's blood; the country we love awash in guns; yet another massacre; Fox News contending that it could have been averted had the victims been allowed to bring concealed weapons into church; the sense of futility, of hopelessness - it's all just too much. 
The words are stuck at the bottom of my throat, afraid to be spoken, for they all have four letters and are devoid of those that spell hope.  For I know how this will once again play out…how it will end. We will rage. We will petition our lawmakers. We will march and shout and pray and preach.  And the NRA - the EVIL NRA  - will dispense its money and twist the arms of lawmakers who know better…who knowing better, will once again cave to the gun lobby.  The sense of despair – un-Christian despair – weighs heavily on me this morning.  No words, it seems, will suffice.
But I must try.  Not because we need to "make sense" of this.  It makes no sense.  Not because we need to search for some good that will come of this.  There is no good that can come from such profound evil.  But I must try because I am afraid and my faith is in danger.
And in our fear and anguish, this morning's Gospel speaks to us in ways that are especially poignant, especially important.
In unpacking that Gospel, let me begin by acknowledging that today is Fathers' day.
Let me wish all you dads out there… and all you men, who mentor children or who may, unknowingly, be an icon to some child, a happy Father's Day.  Sometimes it can be hard to be such a man.  I know.  I remember.
I know, too, that some of you could get up here and tell us just how hard it can be to besuch a man, to be a dad. 
But let me tell you about another dad - someone I got to know on a train, – someone who experienced many storms in his life and who always stood tall in the lives of his sons.
When I worked in Washington – the one back East – I would often take the Amtrak Metroliner to New York to visit my family.  On the train, I would invariably run into then-Senator Joe Biden.  Heading north, he always got off at Wilmington.  Only later did I learn why.  I'll let him explain in his own words:
Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever.  While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call.  My wife and three children were Christmas shopping, a tractor trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter.  And they weren't sure that my sons would live.
So I began to commute -- never intending to stay in Washington.  And that's the God's truth.  I was supposed to be sworn in with everyone else that year in '73, but I wouldn't go down.  So Mansfield thought I'd change my mind and not come, and he sent up the secretary of the Senate to swear me in, in the hospital room with my children.
And I began to commute thinking I was only going to stay a little while -- four hours a day, every day -- from Washington to Wilmington, which I've done for over 37 years.  I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day.  No, "Ozzie and Harriet" breakfast or great familial thing, just climb in bed with them.  Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it's gone.  And when it's gone, it's gone.  And it all adds up. 
As you know, the Vice President's oldest son, Beau died of brain cancer a few weeks back at age 46.  The funeral was in their parish church.  Next day, the Vice President kept a date at Yale – the commencement speech at the alma mater of his youngest son, Hunter.  Through his sunglasses, he offered the young graduates the following advice:  "Don't forget about what doesn't come from this prestigious diploma — the heart to know what's meaningful and what's ephemeral; and the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment."
My kinda guy.
So let's talk about what's meaningful in all this.  Let's talk about overcoming the fears we must all confront in the face of life's storms...the sorts of storms that have so buffeted Joe Biden's life…the storm of doubt and despair that threatens us all in the wake of the killings at Mother Emmanuel.
God knows – literally, God knows  – I've had my fair share of both – the storms and the fears - sitting in the dark of night at the edge of a rice paddy, fearing being killed and fearing more killing others; riding out the "perfect storm" of two converging hurricanes in a small ship and the twelve foot waves of another in a 25-foot boat; fearing the reaction of friends and family to my coming out; fearing praying for a miracle, as Mimi lay dying, lest the absence of a miracle destroy my faith; praying a prayer for new beginnings, as I said goodbye to who I was and began again; confronting a crisis of faith in the midst of the politics of a General Convention– not in Jesus, but in a church that, out of fear, chose silence in the face of injustice.
But, again, you've all faced such storms and maybe worse.  And they test our faith.
Today, Mark offers us a vivid example of such a test.  It was night.  A mighty wind whipped up the waves.  They were rocking and swamping the boat.  The sails were flapping and tattered.  Been there, done that.  I know how the disciples must have felt, adrenalin pumping, scared as hell.  And they were probably a little annoyed at Jesus, exhausted from a day of teaching, sleeping in the stern.  "Don't you know we're about to drown!  Do something!"
And he did.  Calming the wind and the waves, he turns to the awe-struck disciples and asks them "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?" 
Elsewhere – in Matthew – we hear a similar story.  This time Jesus comes walking across the water toward the boat.  Again, the disciples are terrified.  They think they're seeing a ghost.  But Jesus says "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."  But Peter wants proof.  "Lord, if it's you," he says, "tell me to come to you on the water."   "Come," Jesus replies.  Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.  But, hearing the wind, he panics.  He's afraid.  He loses faith that he can do it.  And, beginning to sink, he cries out, "Lord, save me!"
Every time God speaks to us in the Bible – whether through an angel, some cloud, or Jesus – we hear that familiar "Do not be afraid."  And, in today's story from Mark, Jesus draws a tight connection between our fears and our faith.
We've all heard that question "What is the opposite of faith?"  As often as not, we answer "Doubt."  Were we on a TV quiz show, we'd probably hear that annoying buzzer - "Wrong answer."  Fact is, it's not only okay to doubt, it's required.  If we didn't have doubts, there would be no need for faith.  Doubt, as Saint Augustine and Paul Tillich have said "is not the opposite of faith; it is an essential element of faith."
No, the opposite of faith is not doubt.  It is fear...the sort of fear I feel this morning  As Ron Rolheise, a Canadian priest, puts it, "To lack faith is not so much to have theoretical doubts about God's existence as it is to be anxious and fearful at a deep level."  As I've said, we'll all experience one or another storm in our lives – and probably several.  And it's okay to worry how we'll fare in the moment.  "What opposes faith," Rolheise says, "is not so much worry about this or that particular thing as worry that God has forgotten us, worry that our names are not written in heaven, that we aren't in good hands, that our lives aren't safe, and that there is every reason to fear and be anxious because, at the core of things, there isn't a benevolent, all-powerful goodness who is concerned about us."
"Our anxiety opposes faith," he adds, "when, however vaguely we might have this feeling, we have the sense that God is not fully trustworthy or powerful enough to assure that, as Julian of Norwich so wonderfully puts it, "in the end all will be well and every manner of being will be well."
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was anxious to his core…anxious enough to pray that the cup of suffering he was about to endure be lifted from him…if it was his father's will.  But knowing that "in the end all will be well,' he prayed, as we will at communion, "Thy will be done."
Many of you probably know the New Zealand form of the Lord's Prayer in which "lead us not into temptation' becomes "save us from the time of trial."  There's yet another version, we used at my last church, St. James in San Francisco.  Perhaps because we know there will be trials in every life, it's a version that I think speaks more truly to the human condition.  It reads "Be with us in the time of trial."
There will most assuredly be trials and perhaps some awful storms in our lives.  The most honest plea to Jesus, the most honest expression of faith is not to ask for the laws of nature to be suspended or to be issued a one-time, personal get out of jail free card, but rather to ask simply that Jesus walk with us through the inevitable storms. 
Rabbi Nachman, the famed Reb Nachman of Breslov taught that all the world is a very narrow bridge, and that the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear as we walk toward God.  Walking that narrow bridge through life, we will be buffeted by many storms.  It takes courage to make it through without being blown off.
I'm deathly afraid of heights and the rabbi's image stirs up another that sends shivers up my shoulder blades and stirs a queeziness in the pit of my stomach.  It's an image of a French high-wire artist walking a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  Having eaten at Windows on the World at the top of one of the towers and, having felt the tower sway, I knew the strength of the winds at that height and knew what a single gust could do.
For all of us, the wind is gusting this morning.  We need the courage that is faith…faith not so much in the existence of God, but that God loves us and that, in the end, all will be okay. 
We need the courage and faith of the relatives of those killed in that Bible study class at Mother Emmanuel…the courage to say "I forgive you…the faith to insist that "Evil will not win."
Their faithfulness should give us all hope in this storm…hopefully enough to take the hand of Jesus as we walk, hopefully enough to keep our eyes on the prize, hopefully enough to find the faith that God loves us and waits for us with open arms, the faith that, in the end, all will be well

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