As July rolls into August, high seas and ferocious winds threaten to swamp the Ship of State. Huge surges of new waves of coronavirus inundate hospital emergency rooms. This week one of our own at St. Francis has been hospitalized with COVID-19 (she is slowly recuperating). Nationally, we are experiencing over one thousand deaths daily. California, Florida and Arizona have surpassed previous records for their daily death rates.
Then comes the presidential retweet promoting a doctor who claims that wearing face masks is of no help, hydroxychloroquine is a potential cure for COVID’19, AND gynecological problems are the result of sex with demons and witches in dreams — oh, did I mention that she asserts there’s a medicine in the works that incorporates alien DNA? This is about as wackadoodle crazy as it can get. The republic is sinking in ignorance and folly. What’s worse, whole bunches of people believe this nonsense.
Is it any wonder that much of Europe has contained the virus while in America it continues to surge out of control? We are floundering. It’s time for an SOS.
The account from Matthew of Jesus on the storm-tossed sea brings perspective. In the images from this story, the church drew guidance for the turbulent age in which it came into being. This was an era of tyrants, privation and disease.
In this account, Jesus’ disciples are headed for the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee. This lake was notorious for the fearsome storms that could arise at a moment’s notice. Evening came – we all know that fearsome things and enlightening spiritual moments always happen at night. So, don’t you know it. Their little boat is soon battered by towering waves. They are far from land and the wind is against them. If that were not terrifying in itself, they see a spectral form coming towards them. “It’s a ghost,” they shriek. But as the apparition becomes clearer, they recognize their teacher, Jesus, walking over the waves. Impetuous Peter is beside himself. “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And so, Jesus obliged, giving the command. But as Peter stepped out of the boar, he looked down and noticed the fearsome sea, the howling wind. And he began to sink. His courage shrank and he began to go under. Peter, is an original Lone Ranger. He’s the American ethic – I’ll do this myself. Don’t need your help, thank you.
Now we can understand Churchill’s not-so-gentle chiding to Americans when the country was faced with the onslaught of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the late 30s. “Americans always do the right thing. After they’ve tried everything else.” Same with Peter. At last, in desperation, he calls out to the one who is their Rock, “Lord, save me!”
As the tempestuous sea of COVID-19, a pandemic out of control – an economy in collapse – and our citizens trust in their government in the basement. With systemic racism and age-old racial disparities in housing, education and in our economic life, threatening national unity, we cry out in despair. Chaos is winning. Fear seizes hearts and minds.
We blame our health professionals. Recently, state and county health epidemiologists and doctors have been assaulted by mobs of the irrational and fearful. For many, the stress has led to resignations. We would rather trust our luck to politicians who preach happy talk and willful ignorance. Yeah, if you’d rather trust some pol who’s got no more than a mail-order M.D. from the School of his own Imagining – if you’d rather trust your children to this abysmal ignorance than a Dr. Fauci, or your accredited county health official – well, good luck with that. No wonder the daily death rate in the U.S. is averaging over one thousand per day, while the daily death rate in places like Germany and Taiwan is zero! So many are sore afraid that they vent their anger on those who might lead us out of this thicket.
Our stormy heritage of racial intolerance has come back to confront the brutality of our society with the unassailable demand for justice. Reports on systemic racism and misconduct in our nation’s police departments come as huge waves crashing down upon our frail race relations. Trust evaporates.
The Los Angeles Times reports the costs of misdeeds by secret gangs of sheriff’s deputies. They have cost the County of Los Angeles twenty-one million dollars over the past ten years alone.
These rogue bands go by such names as “Vikings,” “Regulators, “3000 Boys” and “The Banditos,” operating with impunity for decades. In the County Jail sheriff guards forced inmates into the most brutal fights. On the streets law abiding citizens are abused and humiliated. Tell me what part of “protect and serve” these outrages cover. The ocean of criminality here seems without limit.
Out of the brutality of a fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, comes the national moment of reckoning – #blacklives matter. With the loss of so many, it’s enough to cause one to lose heart. But it is the agonizing eight minutes and forty-six seconds of slow death of George Floyd we all witnessed, live and in vivid color, that galvanizes a nation. Finally, white folks experience some of the same reality that our citizens of color have endured for generations. White America is finally WOKE. At least, enough are. Many of us begin to experience in our gut the waves of injustice that crash over too many of our precious brothers and sisters of color. Finally! Some of white America are being pulled under with them. Trayvon Martin is now our son, our brother. Breonna Taylor is now our daughter, our sister.
“Say the names,” the sign demanded. “Say the names.’’ George Floyd is only one of the latest. Breonna Taylor. Atatiana Jefferson. Freddie Gray. And the list goes on. And on. Far too many gone.
We make the theological connection. These heretofore unknown faces are the very face of the Christ in our midst. We behold the wounds, know the anguish. Until George Floyd was family to us, we just didn’t get it.
Something indeed has changed in America. Something fundamental. You catch sight of it out in the streets all across this nation. What I see is the sacramental presence of Christ in these young and old, black, brown and white together. Right up from Torah ethics personified in the prophets – Isaiah, Amos, Hosea.
Running straight as an arrow right to and through the heart of Jesus of Nazareth was this one and same Spirit. It was embodied in the One who bent down to include a small child. And it rose up in righteous anger, lambasting the holier-than-thou crowd with stones in their hands and murder in their eyes as they encircled a cowering woman. This is the same spiritual heritage flowing through Peter and Paul, through the Reformers Luther and Wesley, and, in our later day resting on the shoulders of those who integrated lunch counters and joined the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It tenderly cradled our brother Martin as that shot rang out and he slumped to the floor of that balcony of the Lorraine Hotel amidst shrieks of horror.
This very, this one and same Lord was in the midst of those who on Bloody Sunday crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge with our brother John Lewis, our sister Diane Nash — with all those unnamed souls who fell beneath the nightstick and bled that day. This weeping Spirit stood watch as James Lawson and others simply asking for service at a Woolworths lunch counter suffered the indignities of racial slurs and the blows of fists – their food dumped over their heads. This heritage of martyrs and prophets, gentle servants, mothers, students and glorious trouble makers – this is our Rock. These are the vanguard, the sacramental courage, that summons us forth from our storm-tossed bark. “Fear not,” they cry.
Amidst the tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, we recognize this Christ in the faces of those who stand for the ones who can no longer stand for themselves. There is our Lord, crossing the storm-tossed, the blood-soaked story of this nation. Right up to our time. These are the ones who now surround us a great cloud of witnesses. The “balcony people” who cheer us on.
They now call us to venture forth from our tiny boat, to step out like Peter. If we but keep our eyes on this true and steady vision, this Gospel Truth, we find that we walk. If we but steady our gaze on our companions in the struggle, we perceive not a ghost in the swirling chaos, but the very Rock of Salvation, the Lord of all Creation. We are steadied. Though the wind howl and the waves breach ancient certainties, we find strength. We persist and we persevere. We hear that far off voice which whispers in the lull of din and strife, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Closer to home, I rejoice even in this time of pestilence and upheaval my shipmates on another voyage, the voyage of hope for those addicted. We are the ones who, God willing, will bring birth to a House of Hope.
In these days of August, we approach some critical funding benchmarks for the House of Hope, both in the Ohio Valley and in San Bernardino. Our hopes are high. May our small craft be guided safely to the shores of full funding of this vision. I sense the Spirit of Christ in my companions on this mutual journey. No, there aren’t crashing waves or shrieking winds. That’s not what I fear. It’s the tedium of one Zoom meeting after another. It’s tired eyes that glaze over, perusing an endless stream of forms and attached instructions. It’s chasing down one lead after another. It’s the distraction of a hundred and one other things. It’s the mild depression that creeps up unawares when others don’t see our vision, don’t catch the dream.
I used to think that the biggest obstacle to the mission of the church was our culture of disbelief. Perhaps ambivalence, or possibly the L.A. Dodgers losing streak. No, none of these. We would not succumb to any of this. No, It’s death by mimeograph machine. It’s the mind-numbing daily routine of stuff that kills the dream, dilutes the vision. That’s what I felt running off the Sunday bulletin when the mimeograph machine just chewed up the last five or six of them. Now it’s people who don’t return phone calls. It’s trying to spy out the few important e-mails among the hundreds that came in during day. In the midst of all this, true saints are found.
Yet our little band of House of Hope visionaries, through disappointment and tedium – we make that one more call. We earnestly pitch another potential funder. We write that letter and scan that grant application. We pump up our joy as we explain to one more shopper in the checkout line at Stater Brothers what we are about. All the while, knowing that the dream is sound and that God is faithful.
This is the divine presence. It is sacramental in the flesh of the faces and voices of those who labor with us. It is redemptive in their laughter and encouragement. It is the substance of Hope in those who answer, “How can I help?”
There’s an old Sunday school song I sang with those gathered in a circle when we actually had children in the church. “With Christ in the Boat We can Smile at the Storm.” Now, as those young people have grown to adults, I’m sure that they’ve found that it’s a bit more complicated than that delightful song. Life is messy. Yet, the message still holds. With a Centering Presence, with a Rock to cling to – we do endure. We claim the blessing as surely as did Jacob who wrestled with God in the desert waste. “Hearts are brave again and arms are strong.”
I used to poo-poo what I considered simplistic, feel-good environmental actions. Like changing lightbulbs or turning down the heat. I derisively called it eco-pietism. Actions that made us feel good, but were negligible when compared to the frightening scale of global warming.
Then someone wised me up. They explained that such small, symbolic actions often lead to real commitment. That lightbulb changed is transformed to involvement in significant, sustained climate action. It mutates into political action to actually make a difference. One ends up starting a new chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (yeah, Google it).
Maybe such is the case with discipleship. St. Augustine put it this way: “Faithfulness in the little things is a big thing.” Kindness counts. Make your bed. Respect is key. It all can draw one into something far deeper. Draw you into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble – John Lewis sort of trouble. Every parent knows the truth of example.
Start small, if necessary.
Tip your server. Return your shopping cart. Pick up a piece of trash. Hold the door for the person behind you. Let someone into your lane. Talk about “we” instead of “I.” Small acts can have a ripple effect. That’s how change begins.
If you’re fortunate, you may find your heart opened to the ache of the world, to the hope of the world. The waves won’t seem so high or the wind so strong. You might possibly find yourself on the threshold of life eternal as you meet One coming towards you out of the tempest. Blessing beyond measure.
Now…could I get another chorus of “With Christ in the Boat?”
August 9, 2020, Pentecost 10
The Rev. John C. Forney
Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33