The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 14
10th Sunday After Pentecost
13 August 2017
I’m wearing red today.
I’m wearing red today in honor of the young woman who was killed in Charlottesville yesterday, as well as for those who were critically wounded as a Dodge Charger was driven at high speed into a crowd of anti-protestors who would not allow the racial hatred of an organized group of white nationalists to go unanswered in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I’m wearing red today because the call to love is a call to action—a call to stand up in the face of hatred, malice, and terrorism—that comes from the Spirit as a mighty wind, as tongues of fire, and as the earthquake where God’s presence is so frequently found elsewhere in scripture, if not in Elijah’s experience in today’s Hebrew testament reading.
I’m wearing red today in solidarity with the Diocese of Virginia whose bishops called on their clergy to stand together with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective as Episcopal and other clergy gathered to pray together, to march together, hand in hand, and who have continued to speak out in peaceful protest against those who marched in the name of hate.
For those unaware of the news from Charlottesville over the past 48 hours, an organized group supported and led by white nationalists converged in Charlottesville for a planned “Unite the Right” rally to protest the city council’s ongoing resolve to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the park of the same name that was rededicated as Emancipation Park in June.
Episcopal Café’s coverage summarized several news sources’ coverage of the events that unfolded.
On Friday night, ahead of Saturday’s planned rally, members of the alt-right and white supremacist groups marched through the streets of Charlottesville, VA carrying torches and chanting slogans steeped in the history of bigotry. “Blood and soil,” a Nazi ideology of so-called purity based on ethnicity and national origin, “Jews shall not replace us,” and “white lives matter” were among their rallying cries. They are protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Some counter-protesters clashed with the white supremacists near a statue of Thomas Jefferson, but many remained in a peaceful prayer vigil at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church. Clergy from many different faiths and from across the nation were present, answering a call from the bishops of the Diocese of Virginia. For some time, the white supremacists surrounded the church, but they were eventually disbanded by police for unlawful assembly. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ minister tweeted that the police weren’t letting people inside the church go out for their own safety.
Rev. Winnie Varghese asked those gathered in the church to invoke in prayer “those upon whose shoulders you stand today, those whose footsteps you follow.” “Let’s take that Love to the streets,” she said in the conclusion of her prayer. Dr. Cornel West spoke yesterday morning at First Baptist Church, saying, this would be the “biggest gathering of a hate-driven right wing in the history of this country in the last 30 to 35 years.”
As the events of the day continued to unfold, counter-protestors gathered in each area where protestors, described by the Washington Post as White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members, convened until in a pedestrian mall, a grey Dodge Challenger accelerated into the crowd of anti-protestors, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring nineteen others.
In the wake of this week’s confrontations between President Trump and North Korea, which already had tensions and fears high, this latest hate-fuelled outbreak in an otherwise peaceful and liberal college town has left many feeling shocked and even more afraid for our future.
Clergy and other friends have cried out on Facebook, and Twitter; some have shared their first-hand accounts of the day, which ended variously in tears or quite simply and literally throwing up from the shock of what they had just witnessed. Others have posted on Episcopal Café, written to local papers. All have voiced their collective shock and dismay. All have pledged their prayers, their support, and their condemnation of hate and violence.
I wear red today to honor all who have responded by getting out of the boat in the midst of the storm. Some have quailed at the storm and have begun to sink, but as Christ not only calls out Peter in today’s gospel, but also reaches out to support him as his courage falters, so too we are both called out and also supported by a Christ who is still standing on the waters of chaos and inviting us to calm the storm within us.
Christ stood hand in hand with our clergy yesterday as they marched. Christ knelt with those attending to the wounded. Christ’s embrace was in the arms of each who comforted and reached out in solidarity to those panicked around them. Christ’s call went out with the call of the Bishops to stand in the face of hate, and fear, and went out again in the prayers and responses of those under the threat of domestic terrorism.
That same call goes out to us—right here in Santa Cruz—as we stand in solidarity with those near and far who seek to challenge hate, fear, and the persecution of those on the margins of society.
We hear in our readings today what appear as two very different experiences of God’s call.
In the familiar storm of wind, fire, and earthquake where the disciples encountered the Spirit and God’s call on the day of Pentecost, Elijah did not hear God’s presence and come out of his cave where he hid in fear, in terror, of those seeking his life. But only in the silence, did he finally find God’s presence.
In contrast, today’s gospel finds the disciples tossed in the waves and wind of a stormy sea, where Christ’s presence is experienced as a terrifying moment of uncertainty amidst the storm.
Yet in both, it is fear that stands between the hearer and God’s call.
Elijah, one of Israel’s great prophets, had worked with God’s presence in wind, fire, and the shaking of the earth to make God’s presence known and triumphant to those who opposed God’s will. Yet in his own moment of fear and trembling, God’s presence was not to be found in any of these. Then came a moment of sheer silence, and in that place where the outer turmoil utterly ceased, Elijah could finally experience the inner calm to again find God’s presence.
Peter found the same response in seeking Christ’s reassurance and call to step out of the safety of the boat and into the stormy sea. However, taking the courage to step out of the boat was only the first step. Amidst the wind and waves of the storm surrounding him, and without the safety of hiding in his boat, Peter’s courage flags and he begins to sink. Crying out to Jesus to save him, Christ takes his hand.
Reflecting on this text this week, and particularly on the heels of both the parable of the sower, and the parable of the mustard seed, I read “You of little faith,” in this moment, not as a rebuff or a rebuke to Peter, but as a starting place.
Having a little faith is that grain that, sown in good soil, will produce the miraculous harvest, it is that tiniest of beginnings from which miraculous things may come. It was the courage to get out of the boat. It was finding the calm in the midst of the storm, or for Elijah, the calm in the mist of the violent wind, fire, and earthquake, in which he could come out of his cave and seek again for God’s presence.
So too, we are called to step out of our own places of hiding. Whether it is the boat on stormy waters or the cave near the mountaintop, when we are penned in by fear and struggling, sinking, shrouded in darkness and despair, and unable to respond, we are invited to an encounter with God’s presence that calls us out of hiding, that calls us to uncurl from our protective balls, that calls us out from behind our walls. And though we may start to sink under the stormy seas that surround us, we are assured that Christ is with us to lift us up, to accompany us, and that God’s presence with us might be a place of calm as we face, challenge, pray, and work in solidarity to overcome not only racism, but all the forces of evil, malice, hatred, and other dangers of our world.
Margaret Aymer Oget, Professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary put it like this:
Jesus doesn’t calm the wind when he’s walking out to his students in the boat. Jesus doesn’t calm the wind when he commands Peter to come to him. Jesus doesn’t calm the wind when he saves Peter from drowning. Jesus stands in the middle of danger, on the water, with the wind blowing and commands his students: “Take courage. I am. Fear not.” Preachers. Christians. In the face of the winds of white supremacy and racism, with the seas of church decline roiling beneath your feet, we are still commanded to walk on water, crying out for rescue when we need it. In the face of “make nice” culture and fear of offending, we are still required to face into the winds with the truth that racism is sin. We are still commanded: Take courage. Jesus Christ is Lord. Fear not.
Finally, dear friends in Christ, I am wearing red today as a symbol of God’s call to each of us to stand together as a community united in witness to God’s love. Following the example of our brothers and sisters of all colors and creeds in Charlottesville, may we take each other’s hands, sustain one another in prayer, and model the courage we wish others would take in helping to make a difference in our world.