St. Philip Lutheran Church
20 June 2021 + Lectionary 12B (Pent. 4)
Emanuel Nine, Martyrs (June 17)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
The summer before I started seminary, I took a vacation to Charleston, South Carolina. With churches and places of worship in just about every direction you could look and a skyline dotted by steeples, Charleston’s reputation as “The Holy City” became readily apparent … and it was a church nerd’s dream.
During that trip, in August 2014, I visited a lot of churches … but I don’t remember if I passed by “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street. I certainly didn’t anticipate that, less than a year later, on June 17, 2015, Mother Emanuel would so grip the nation’s attention as the center of a hate crime that targeted and killed nine church members gathered for Wednesday evening bible study:
Clementa C. Pinckney
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Daniel Lee Simmons
We say their names and remember the Emanuel Nine this day - not just because the ELCA now commemorates them as martyrs every June 17 on our liturgical calendar - but, more importantly, to reaffirm our commitment to repenting of the sins of racism and white supremacy that led to this horrific act of violence - and to lament the ways, now six years later, that racism and race-based violence continue to pervade our world and our church.
In such moments, as one hymn text begins: “Sometimes our only song is weeping… Sometimes it seems that God is sleeping…” (ACS 1050)
The familiar story opens on Jesus with his disciples in a boat, when suddenly a great storm picks up, the waves crashing into the boat, the disciples doing everything they know as seasoned fishermen, desperately splashing water back out of the boat, surely thinking they would drown… and their teacher… asleep on the job. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Then Jesus wakes up, calms the storm, and the miracle story concludes happily ever after.
That’s the Sunday School version … but what I find most interesting is the disciples’ question: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
The disciples were afraid - of the storm, yes. But also that Jesus could not save them. There’s an underlying fear to this question that Jesus might not be who he said he was, that they had put their trust in the wrong person … and now what?
But that question also presupposes its own answer. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Of course God cares. God cares very much that we are perishing. God cares very much when we are afraid. God cares so much, in fact, that God is in the boat - in the midst of the storm - with us.
So why the question? It would be easy to chalk up the disciples’ fear to a lack of faith - but I don’t believe for a second that being afraid means that we don’t have faith. Fear is a natural part of life. Fear is a part of our evolutionary adaptability as humans and can actually keep us alive. There’s a tornado warning, for instance, so you go down to the basement. That’s normal.
Instead, I think that the disciples’ question is not so much a question of doubt, but a prayer of lament. In the biblical tradition, lament is not the absence of faith, but quite the opposite.
In the words of Psalm 22, the quintessential lament psalm, lament begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” - but ends with “In the midst of the assembly I will praise you…for God did not hide God’s face from me but heard when I cried to God.” Lament is not an absence of faith but testifies to God’s abiding presence despite all evidence to the contrary.
The disciples ask a question that presupposes its own answer. Think about that. The fact that they address their question to Jesus implies that there must be something about Jesus worth putting their trust in, even in their fear.
That’s the gift of lament. We cry out because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do, the only prayer that we have. In the aftermath of unspeakable violence that guns down nine beloved children of God gathered for bible study. In the midst of an unfolding pandemic that continues to claim lives and change so much of what we know as “normal.” In the wake of our own grief and uncertainty and fear in whatever life throws at us.
But we also cry out because, in the end, we know we’re not alone.
Jesus is in the boat, with his disciples, in the midst of the storm. They cry out because they know what he can do.
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Or as one fellow preacher this week rephrases it: “Why did you doubt that I could save you?” I don’t hear that question as a criticism of the disciples’ faith but rather as an invitation to deeper trust … a reminder of who God is and always has been … and God’s power to save.
Let me be clear: To have faith does not mean that we are never afraid. To have faith means that we can trust Jesus is with us and that Jesus saves us - not from death but in death. That’s an important distinction. Jesus doesn’t always take us away from the storm but comes to us in the midst of it … speaking a word of peace and promise.
Faith reminds us that we are not alone. Faith trusts in a God who is in the boat with us and who will bring us through to the other side.
“Sometimes our only song is weeping…
Sometimes it seems that God is sleeping…”
Yet, in the midst of our weeping and our fear and our lament, the hymn goes on:
“Who hears the song our sorrows swallow
and offers hope to calm our fears?
When all our words seem frail and hollow,
God heeds the prayers within our tears.”
The miracle of this story is not that Jesus calms the sea. The miracle is that Jesus is in the boat with us and will never leave us.