A Sermon for
the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 20, 2021
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Almighty and most loving God, through your Son Jesus, who came among us as a slave choosing rather to serve his disciples than to be served by them; help us in our weakness not to seek to oppress others, nor to make peace with any form of exploitation, but in all things earnestly and of our own free will to seek to serve each other following Christ’s good example, this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From the Juneteenth Liturgy of the Diocese of California
Duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide.
Back to the narrow way patiently win them;
Tell the poor wanderer a Savior has died.
Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying.
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.
I have a memory from my adolescence of being at home with my sisters. Daddy and Momma had built a basketball court for us just above the house. It was a Summer day, and we were outside playing. We were apparently making a lot of noise. Daddy was trying to take a nap and we must have awakened him. He told Momma, “Tell those children to go home.” She replied to him, “I can’t, they are ours.” When she told us, we thought that was hilarious. Poor Daddy, I am sure that he was exhausted—he was a very hard worker. And yet, that was the cost of being a father. We were indeed his children and could not be sent away. In retrospect, I just hope it wasn’t Father’s Day!
I would like to take a moment today to acknowledge all our Fathers, Grandfathers, Step-Fathers, Godfathers, and all who serve in a “father-like” role. I include Uncles, and Mentors as well. May God Bless you in your vocation to love, provide, serve, protect, and nurture. This is such an essential role and truly a life-changing one. May your be strengthened when you grow weary and empowered to make God’s love real, present, and effective, in the lives of those entrusted to your care.
1) “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
In the Holy Gospel According to Saint Mark, today, we hear the disciples say the most amazing thing to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” This is a truly honest question, and is one which rings true to us from that very day to this one. It is a question which has meaning on so many levels, and is one which I would like to explore with you today.
In the context of this Gospel, it is a genuinely surprising question. It comes from commercial fishermen. They make their living fishing on the Sea of Galilee. I cannot imagine that they have never been caught in an unexpected storm before. And yet, there is something different about this storm. The short passage tells us only this, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” This must have been an unbelievably bad storm, indeed. Even for these experienced sailors, this is unexpected. They may have been in bad storms before, but this one has them terrified. They are literally at wit’s end. They have done everything in their power, and now they are hopeless. They fear that they are going to die.
And then, in their fear, their worry, their despair, they realize that Jesus is asleep. They think that he is unaware of what is going on. They are about to drown, and he is sleeping through it all. And so, they wake him from his sleep, and confront him. We are about to die. Don’t you even care? Are you just going to let this happen? Can’t you do anything? What is wrong with you?
Jesus might well have yawned, stretched, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and looked around. He clearly sees what is going on, recognizes the danger, understands the terror which has gripped those in the boat with him—and in the other boats which are with them, and then, in love, he acts. “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.”
Why is it, we might well ask, that Jesus reacts in such a radically different way in this circumstance. Why are the disciples so afraid, and Jesus is not? Well, of course, the Gospel does not actually tell us enough to know how Jesus felt. Clearly he understood what was going on. He was in a different place, though, he speaks from a place of trust. In another passage he tells his disciples that “fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” In short, he knows that even in the misdst of the worst storm imaginable, God is with them. And in a very practical way, he refuses to be incapacitated by fear. He responds in love and takes action. What is really being calmed? Is it only the waves, the storm, the wind? Or could it also be that Jesus speaks peace and calm to the storm-tossed friends all around him.
The answer-both literal, and metaphorical astonishes them. They are amazed, they are in awe! “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They recognize the presence of God. Their fear dissolves immediately, and they are now as shaken by that realization as they were previously shaken by the fear of the storm. Jesus, good teacher that he is, asks them a piercing question, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
I was curious when I read this last comment, and do I went to the Greek text of Mark to make sure. The Greek word, pistin does not mean necessarily mean “faith” in the way that we use the word—as in “don’t you believe?” Here it could mean, don’t you trust? Or, if Jesus were being sarcastic—and do remember that he had just been awakened from a sound sleep, his question might have been, “you still don’t get it?” I suspect that he is far gentler and more compassionate, though, and is really saying to them, “Look at what just happened. In the midst of this huge and fearful storm, God was present to us. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear control your lives and deprive you of hope.”
Of course, the story does not end there. They cross the lake safely, and continue their journey. In the days, and months, and years to come, they will encounter many other storms—some of which will be even worse. But we know that they will remember this incident, and that they will not always panic in the storms which follow.
2) “Are we not afraid that we are perishing?”
It seems to me that this Gospel passage wants to challenge us in another way. It invites us to examine the ways in which we find ourselves in storms throughout our lives-both as individuals, and as Beloved Community. What do we do when we realize that we are in peril? Do we allow the fears which overwhelm us to pull us under? Or, at the other extreme, do we become so blindly trusting that we nap in the boat and ignore the danger—naïvely trusting that God will take care of everything? To use another metaphor, if we discover that our house is on fire, what do we do? Do we have the good sense to get to safety? Do we rescue those who are with us in the house and gather outside? Do we then assess whether we can do anything to put the fire out, or do we realize that it is out of our control and quickly call 9-1-1?
For some of us, the past year or so, has made us feel that we were in a storm which might well pull us down. We were in a house that was on fire. In our country alone, more than 600,000 of our Sisters and Brothers have died from the Coronavirus. We have witnessed the brutal acts of violence against our Black, Colored, and Indigenous Siblings. We have seen failure and virtual collapse in the political structures which we had just taken for granted. It feels like we are in danger of perishing. The challenge then, is what do we do? Do we just wring our hands and say that it is “out of our control.” Do we choose to sit on the sidelines and do nothing? Do we just expect a miracle-that God will somehow take care of everything and make it all better. That might be more like a kind of magic, than faith or trust. Does not God expect us, and challenge us to do everything in our power to make a difference? Does not God ask us, in the language of Mother Jones to “pray for the dead and to fight like hell for the living?” Does not God ask us to do our part as well?
3) Are we not afraid that others are perishing?
A great danger is that we could fail to connect what we do here today to the rest of our lives. We could choose to use our time of worship as a consolation. While it is a true that they mystery of our encounter with God wants to heal us, restore us, and make us whole, there is more to it than that.
The Eucharist which we celebrate is not primarily a dessert for having lived a good week. It is rather bread for the road—strength, nourishment, and sustenance for the challenging week ahead. It is bread to be broken, to be shared with others. And so, this very meal invites us to be mindful of others. It invites us in the words of that fourth verse of the old hymn, “Rescue the Perishing,” to care for those who are dying, to patiently love them, and to proclaim to them good news. It is our duty, that song tells us. It invites us to trust as well. After all, we are not alone, God is with us, God is present in each encounter with others, God will provide the strength we need for this labor.
In these closing days of June, we are challenged by two significant secular celebrations. Yesterday, we celebrated for the fist time, the new Federal Holiday of Juneteenth. It reminds us of that joyous day in 1865 when the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendants in this country were finally freed from the bonds of Chattel Slavery in the former states of the Confederacy But it also reminds us that was only the first of many steps which are needed. After more than a century we still struggle to move from emancipation to equality and justice. We must celebrate this victory, this milestone, but we can not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that we have no need for conversion, repentance, lamentation, apology, and reparation. May God bring to completion the good work begun in us.
Next Sunday, the Pride March in New York City—and in various places around the world, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot, will remind us of the oppression, injustice, and violence experienced over so many years by our LGBTQIA+ Siblings. In particular, it challenges us to be especially concerned about violence against Trans Persons and Trans Persons of Color. May we create a world in which sexual orientation, and gender identity are regarded as sacred gifts to be treasured, valued, and affirmed. A world in which each and every person is loved! May God bring to completion the good work begun in us.
May we trust absolutely that God does care that we are perishing. May we fully care that we are in peril and work to find solutions to the dangers which surround us and perplex us. May God enable us to care for those all around us, who are in danger of perishing, and work to make a Beloved Community of Peace in which they too will be safe, and protected from chaos, fear, and harm.