Job 38:1-11,16-18; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Mark 4:35-41;(5:1-20); Psalm 107:1-32 or 107:1-3, 23-32
THE REV. PORTIA SWEET
On the evening of October 17, 1989, I arrived in Charleston SC from San Diego and rode with my to-be manager to Edisto Beach, about 40 miles away to what was to be my home and place of employment, Fairfield Resort. We opted to eat at the restaurant bar so we could watch the World Series, being played in San Francisco. Instead of the ball game, however, there was awful news of the San Francisco/Oakland earthquake - a major disaster in which 67 people died and over $5Billion in damage occurred. I was immediately frantic, for my sister, with whom I had been living, was in SF earlier in the day. I was not sure the time of her returning flight to SD. It was hours before I finally reached her by phone, and even then, she had not been able to contact her husband who had remained in the City.
All of this was about a month after Hugo, a Category 5 hurricane had struck Charleston and ripped an awful path of destruction in the region. And so began my experience with Charleston, SC: its beauty, its charm, and the stormy period that astonished me in many ways.
My role at the resort was that of site Human Resources Director. The employee population was about 50/50 Caucasian and African American. In 1989, although all the Civil Rights Laws had been passed, segregation of the races was still very much a way of life. Having lived in various other parts of the country for the previous 15 years, I was astonished that so many descendants of the old Southern families there were living in an antebellum fantasy world. I was astonished driving down Highway 40 toward Charleston to see time and again a church for white folks on one side of the road and a church of the same denomination for black folks a block away on the other side of the road. I was astonished to walk into an employee party to find black and white at opposite ends of the room, like junior high boys and girls at a school dance. I was astonished when after church one Sunday, a fellow parishioner whose family went waaay back, said to me, "You don't have to be Human Resource Manager to those N...'s do you?"
I saw the storm brewing, and set about finding allies to help me avoid yet another disaster. For my job description included conducting diversity training and seeing that all employees were treated fairly. I was already in the boat with Jesus, yet like the disciples in the Gospel reading, I was not sure who he was in this situation.
Now there were many lovely and kind people living there. The people who became my supporters and who shared my view of social justice turned out to be Christ followers, black and white. With their help I gained the confidence of the African community on that island and was able to make some progress in doing the work I was hired to do.
So this past week, when I awoke to the news of the storm, the massacre at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC, I was horrified, I was very, very sad, but I was not particularly astonished. The storm warnings had been there for a very long time.
The Psalmist for today wrote "Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe. He gathered them out of the lands from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some went down to the sea in ships and plied their trade in deep waters....Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose, which tossed high the waves of the sea......They cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.......and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for." (PS 107)
In his letter to the Corinthians which was read earlier, Paul makes it clear that following Jesus as a faithful servant does not guarantee a life of all sunshine, no pain, no storms, no scary moments. He lays out rather specifically his own storms and yet Paul remained faithful, knowing that Jesus could and would calm the waves so that he, Paul, could continue his work and do it with affection for those whom God gave him. Remember that Paul was certainly a counter-culture figure, and so was Jesus, and so are any who seek social justice in this time and place.
So what has Charleston SC have to do with the community of St. Andrew's in the Heights? Are we not diverse, loving, welcoming, generous, and faithful? You see, the storm that brewed and still does, in SC, as I see it, was one of silence and tolerance for that which should not be - denial. It was 1989 when I was there and this is 2015, not 1860! Jesus was about calling a spade a spade - especially when dealing with self-righteous Pharisees who would choke on a gnat and swallow a camel when it came to moral law. Jesus was about social justice in his command to us to love one another - ministering to the least, and the most awful of punishments being set aside for those who would harm the most vulnerable among us.
In loving one another as ourselves, we are called to give to the needy and we are also called to speak for the voiceless, to speak up against injustice. When we do, we will find ourselves in the eye of a storm.
I was reminded yesterday in a sermon preached by The Rt. Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, Bishop of Kansas at the ordination of deacons, that it is the duty of deacons to stir up storms - the winds of justice in the midst of silence that brings about the kinds of social eruptions and sin that occurred this week in Charleston. In some ways those eruptions occur daily here in Houston and if you listen even once a week to the local news you will know that what I say is true. It can be scary and risky work to seek justice when no one wants to admit an injustice is being done. When great corporate and personal profits are being realized through unjust treatment of marginalized brothers and sisters. There is big business in the trade of narcotics and sex. There is lots of money to be made by squeezing out small business merchants through legislation that prohibits their profitable existence or trade practices that eliminate thousands of jobs in order to increase shareholder dividends! I wonder at the true reasons for closing so-called under achieving schools in Houston, which not so coincidentally are the places many impoverished children go to learn.
I confess, I hold shares in some corporations and I have worked for public corporations and small businesses. Profit is not a dirty word in my vocabulary; EXPLOITATION is.
Author Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as saying, "We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
One more thing astonished me. A news anchor was interviewing a former federal investigator, talking about how some members of Emmanuel AME Church, and especially members of victims' families, were ready to forgive the man who murdered in their sacred space. The anchor woman asked, where would the thought, the courage, the wherewithal come from to forgive such an act? She could not understand. I was astonished.
"A great windstorm arose," wrote Mark, "and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern asleep; and they woke him up and said, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' "
There are many about us - we pass them, perhaps unnoticing, every day, who wonder, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" They and we are in the same boat. Should they perish because of our silence, our neglect, we will perish as well. Are we afraid to speak out for them? Jesus said, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Jesus came to reconcile ALL people to God: From the east and from the west; from the north and from the south.
I believe it is time for all of us who profess to be Christian, or Jew or Muslim for that matter, to engage in some honest self assessment and ask God for forgiveness for our sins of silence. I believe it is time for us to Say, "Jesus, I care that they are perishing. Please show me the way to help you calm the storms and stem the tides of injustice, hate, ignorance, and other evils." Jesus can still calm storms, small and great. Jesus does care that his sheep are perishing. We are Jesus' eyes, hands, feet and voices in the stormy world. We must put ourselves into the midst of the storms of injustice - both the loud ones and the silent ones, so that in believing, we can do the work he sends us out to do. And believing, God will always equip the willing to bring about his peace to his creation.
For whom will you speak up? On what issue will you write letters, demonstrate before City Hall, the State House or other venues? What shareholder meeting will you sacrifice the time to attend? How will you vote in the next election?
Patrick Overton reflects in his poem “Faith”: “When you come to the edge of all the light you have And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown, You must believe one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand upon, or you will be taught how to fly.” Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of a future, an outcome, we cannot see. And what we have to hold onto in those moments is our faith that God is with us: that God will be our solid rock to stand on, or that we will be taught to fly.
I invite you to jump off the cliff with me as we develop our wings, and with Jesus' help, on the way down, we can calm the winds of the storms around us. Amen