Mark 4:35-41                                                                         Rev. Julie Yarborough

Isaiah 43:1-3a                                                                        Christ Church, Summit, NJ

June 28, 2015

 

In the Midst of the Storm

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Wow! What a week this has been! We have much to celebrate with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters this weekend with the historic Supreme Court decision on Friday to allow for marriage equality in all fifty states!  Our children don’t realize the historic implications of that decision. One of my friends was trying to explain it to her 8 year old on Friday, and she realized that her daughter had no

context for why this is different.

“Wait, that used to be illegal?” asked the little girl.

“Well, yes in some states,” answered her mom. (They live in Connecticut)

“But like a long, long time ago, right?” asked the daughter

“More like this morning,” her mom said.

“Wow.”

Wow indeed.

 

With all of the rainbow flags flying, the rainbow lights appearing on buildings and landmarks across the country, and the rainbow profile pictures on Facebook, I am reminded of the passage from Song of Songs that says: “For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”[1] This weekend is a time for celebrating!

 

And yet… there is still much work to be done to ensure equality for all of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  And there other storms, still raging, that need our attention as well.

 

Our story today begins with Jesus and the disciples getting in to a boat after a long day of teaching the crowds beside the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus suggests that they leave the crowds to go to the other side.  Maybe the disciples think that they’re going for a little peace and quiet after a long day, and what a treat it will be to have Jesus all to themselves again! But they’re in for a surprise, aren’t they? First of all, Jesus is exhausted and he goes to take a nap. Then, when they reach the middle of the sea, away from the safety of land, a huge storm blows up and threatens to swamp their boat. Then, when they get to the other side, they will have to confront evil personified, as they come face to face with the Gerasene Demoniac, a big, strong, scary wild man, possessed by demons, and living in a cemetery.  Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do.  It takes courage, faith and a willingness to speak up against injustice and evil.

 

Last week, horrified and heart-broken over the news from Charleston and not knowing what to say, I was listening to some of my black friends reflect about the massacre– which, incidentally, was perpetrated by a white supremacist whose middle name is “Storm” – and it became clear to me that I needed to find some words to speak about the storm of racism in this country that is impacting all of us.  Like many of you who are white, I hesitate to offer words of wisdom on race, lest I put my foot in my mouth and make a fool of myself, or worse, inflict unintentional harm on my black brothers and sisters for speaking about something of which I know very little first-hand.

 

Talking about the dynamics of race can be uncomfortable and painful for white people, especially when we confront our own inner biases and racist thoughts; but that discomfort pales in comparison to the pain that our black neighbors and friends live with each and every day.

 

“Do you not care that we are perishing?” the disciples ask of Jesus.  This same question is being asked by many in the black community to those of us who are white.[2]  We are in the midst of a storm in this country, and it has been raging for a very long time. What will it take to wake us up to the fact that it’s pouring outside and our boat is in danger of capsizing?

 

Jordan Davis, shot at a gas station for playing loud music; Yvette Smith, shot when answering her front door after a report of domestic violence; Trayvon Martin, killed by a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante for wearing a hoodie; Eric Garner, held in a choke-hold for selling cigarettes; Walter Scott, shot in the back after a traffic stop; Freddie Gray, dead in police custody after being refused medical care; and most recently, “The Emanuel Nine.” Clementa Pinkney, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons, Cynthia Hurd and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton were gunned down by a white supremacist in the midst of a Bible study. These are not isolated incidents. Although these men and women were not killed by the same perpetrator, their deaths are all connected by the same racial bias and hatred that underlies our culture.  And this week, several black churches have been burned to the ground by arsonists.

 

Racism is inherent in the social structures that make up the society in which we live, and oftentimes, these structures are invisible, especially to the untrained eye.  As Charles Blow mentioned in his op-ed in the NY Times this week,  “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”[3]

 

Exploring the dynamics of racism means acknowledging that those of us who are white benefit from a systemic structure that gives us inherent privileges.

When we begin to unpack what that might mean for us as a culture, and as individuals, we get in touch with some painful stuff.

 

I’m reminded of a poem by Audre Lorde, called “Contact Lenses.”

 

Lacking what they want to see

makes my eyes hungry

And eyes can feel

Only pain.

 

Once I lived behind thick walls

of glass

and my eyes belonged

to a different ethic

timidly rubbing the edges

of whatever turned them on.

Seeing usually

was a matter of what was

in front of my eyes

matching what was

behind my brain.

Now my eyes have become

a part of me exposed

quick risky and open

to all the same dangers.

 

I see much

better now

And my eyes hurt.[4]

 

Examining racism in our country (and in ourselves) is undoubtedly an uncomfortable process.  When we don’t experience discrimination on a daily basis, it’s easier and less painful to ignore it, or acknowledge it and move on. That’s a luxury. That’s what is known as “white privilege.”

 

As Julia Blount has written, “If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”[5]

 

For those of us who live white privileged lives, it’s easy to build gates and put up walls – whether they’re metaphorical or literal – to keep ourselves protected from that which we do not wish to see.  We have the choice of wearing blinders and looking only at what is in front of our eyes, matching what is behind our brains.

 

And yet, Jesus calls us out of our comfort zones. Jesus calls us to go where the hurting is, and to see what needs to be changed.  When we are followers of Jesus, we don’t just look at the painful stuff and then close our eyes.  We hurt, too. We weep with those who are weeping and stand in solidarity with them. We see where the hurting is, and go there, even if we don’t know what to say or do, simply to be present as witnesses, and as bearers of God’s love.  And when we do find our voices, we need to speak up against injustice wherever and whenever we see it. Jesus calls us to get over our fear, to have faith, and to find the courage to speak peace – and justice – to the storm.

 

This spring, more than 100 people in Summit and the wider community, including many Christ Church members, gathered in small dialogue circles to discuss racism and its implications in our lives, and to talk about the consequences of racial disparity throughout our nation. The Summit Interfaith Council carefully assigned people to the groups to ensure racial and gender diversity. Some participants shared first-hand experiences of discrimination, others shared opinions of what they had seen and heard in the news each week.  Some were surprised and challenged by the notion of white privilege. All were affected by what they heard and experienced in the groups.  It was an important exercise in the life of our community, and it will most likely be continued in the fall. I urge all of you to consider being a part of one of these groups when they start up again.

 

Perhaps the most important aspect of being a part of this dialogue group was listening to the stories of discrimination and heartbreak encountered by people in the room with darker skin – the difficulties of finding housing in predominately white neighborhoods, the random traffic stops, being overlooked for accomplishments, watching black children suffer indignities and not being able to protect them.  All were things that I had heard before, but the stories were made all the more powerful and poignant, coming from people whom I know personally.

 

As (Christ Church member) Bola Lawrence said of the endeavor, “If nothing else, we can gain allies through our personal stories. It’s one thing to intellectualize an experience but until you personalize it you cannot become emotionally invested.  My hope is that through these dialogues we come to an understanding on a personal basis just how evil and deeply entrenched racism is and that that galvanizes us to do something. I want my kids to grow up in a country where relations are much improved from what they are today.”[6]

 

This week, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, our denomination’s national biennial gathering, is meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Representatives and delegates from UCC churches all over the country are gathered to worship, reconnect, celebrate, do mission work together, conduct business and pass resolutions.  In other words, they’re doing the work of the church!  Rev. Caroline Dean, Frank Bolden and Jeanette Brown are there representing Christ Church, and Frank is presenting a resolution on “Dismantling the New Jim Crow,” on behalf of the Central Atlantic Conference, which is comprised of NJ, DE, MD, VA, and Washington, DC.  This resolution is based on the ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, about the racial disparities in our drug laws and our criminal justice system.  If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. There is much work to be done to change the structures of racism, and reading this book is a good place to start gaining knowledge about what we are up against.

 

The storm of institutional racism is real in this country, and it’s been pouring for a long time. The boat that we are in is in danger of capsizing, and our sisters and brothers are perishing.  Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

We must face our fears, rely on our faith, and find the courage to speak up. For if we say and do nothing, this storm will continue on its destructive path. Let us not be afraid to speak peace to this storm, let us not be afraid to speak justice to this storm. Let us not be afraid to speak about and to confront the evil of racism, and to find ways to dismantle the institutional structures that allow it to exist.

 

“Do not fear,” God says, “for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, and you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

[1] Song of Songs 2:11-12a, NRSV.
[2] Thanks to The Rev. Emily Scott and her wonderful essay, “Preaching While White,” who suggested this take on today’s scripture. http://sitandeat.typepad.com/blog/2015/06/preaching-while-white-this-sundays-lectionary-and-emanuel-ame.html
[3]Definition from the Aspen Institute, as mentioned by Charles Blow in the New York Times on June 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/opinion/charles-blow-confederate-flags-and-institutional-racism.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur
[4] Audre Lorde, “Contact Lenses,” The Black Unicorn, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), p. 94.
[5] Julia Blount, http://www.salon.com/2015/04/29/dear_white_facebook_friends_i_need_you_to_respect_what_black_america_is_feeling_right_now/
[6] Lisa Glover, “Dialogue Circles on Race: Learning to Live Together in a Better Way,” published in Fountain Baptist Church newsletter, spring 2015, forwarded to me in a personal email with permission to share widely.