For the Martyrs of Charleston

Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”   (Mark 4:35)

I don’t know what David was thinking when he looked up at Goliath of Gath, the Philistine champion who was supposed to whup his behind, but I know what I’d have been thinking, and you can’t say it in church. 

Whatever it was, it was almost assuredly not what the disciples were thinking when Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  They had no cause for worry because they didn’t know that their boat was about to get swamped in a storm, and that they would soon be on the brink of drowning on the very lake they had grown up around, fished in all their lives, swam in as children, sailed on every day, and depended upon for their livelihoods.  But the only reason that their fear and trepidation was not on a par with the fear and trepidation that David may have felt – or at least that I would have felt had I been in David’s shoes – is because they couldn’t see the storm coming. 

David could see the giant right there in front of him.  We are told that David talked a tough game, bragging that he had killed both lions and bears while tending his sheep, and declining the use of Saul’s armor.  But that doesn’t mean that he was entirely free from anxiety when he stepped out to meet Goliath.  His heart may well have been in his throat when Goliath told him he’d feed his flesh to the birds and the animals.  And I suppose that he might have had confidence in his own cunning and skill, he might have been certain of his aim, but that is not where he tells Goliath that his confidence rests.  He tells Goliath this, “I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand.”  David approached Goliath with a certain self-confidence, no doubt, but mostly his confidence and trust were placed squarely in God.

Back on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples still had not come to understand who Jesus is, their faith was as yet unformed.  They were not expecting that it would be tested on the lake that day.  They had no idea what they were in for.  All they knew was that Jesus had said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

Let us go across to the other side.  It turns out that this is not an idle invitation.  This is the invitation that God essentially gives to Noah before the flood.  It’s the invitation to Abraham as he’s packing his things to wander in the desert with Sarah.  It’s the invitation to Moses at the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, and again as he sets out for forty years in the wilderness.  And it is the invitation Moses is not allowed to accept as he gazes down at the Jordan River, and across the valley to the Promised Land.  Let us go across to the other side.  When Jesus goes down into that river with his cousin John, he picks up the journey that Moses was not allowed to complete, but he will cross more than just a river.  This is the invitation that Jesus makes when he tells his disciples to take up their Cross – and invitation to go with him to Golgotha, and cross the river of death.  It is an invitation implicit in every mention Jesus makes of the Kingdom of heaven, and when he tells the repentant thief that “today you will be with me in paradise.”

Let us go across to the other side.  This is the fundamental Christian invitation whenever we stand at the font and stir up the waters of Baptism, whenever we stand over a casket to commend the dead to God’s care, and whenever we peer with St. John the Divine into the mystical wonder of God’s revelation of what he will do when all things in this world come to an end, and the new Jerusalem is built in the heavens and there is no pain nor death, nor sorrow nor sighing.  Let us go across to the other side: it is no idle invitation.

This has been a Christian dream – the dream of martyrs and virgins, and crusaders, and monks, and pilgrim, and priests, and many a simple child of God – to follow Jesus’ invitation and go across to the other side… of the river, the desert, the wilderness, the lake, the path obstructed by some giant enemy, the spiritual challenge of evil, pain, suffering, and loss, the vale of tears, and the great, unknown chasm of death.

And of course this was the great dream of those generations of slaves who were shipped to these shores in chains with no hope ever of returning whence they came.  The only shred of Good News that came their way was this invitation in the Gospel that they knew was meant for them: let us go across to the other side.  How sweet the other side of some fabled Sea of Galilee must have looked!  How ravishing the opposite shore of some apocryphal Jordan River must have seemed from their sweat-soaked, blood-stained slave-hood, even if these were only realms of faith found deep in the heart that they could sing about but never actually glimpse!  Let us go across to the other side!

Let us go across to the other side.  You have to wonder whether Jesus knew that he was leadings his friends into a storm.  And you have to wonder whether he knew that he was leading his friends into a storm on Wednesday night at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, when a room full of his disciples opened their doors to a young man intent on killing them when the Bible study was done.

What was Jesus thinking!?!?  Why, oh why, does he ask his disciples to get into a boat, only to lead them into a storm that he knows they may not survive?  And this is not the first time he has done it!  How do you do that?  How do you let your children be sold into slavery?  How do you let them suffer for a hundred years after slavery is abolished?  How do you ask them to endure such slow progress in the battle for their human, civil rights?  How do you ask David to stand up against Goliath, knowing that the armor doesn’t even fit?

God has left himself open to some difficult questions, if you ask me.  And I do not claim to have all the answers.

Jesus doesn’t come across with all the answers either, he just tells his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And then a deadly storm breaks out while he is asleep. 

Most times when we tell this story we focus on Jesus calming the storm as if that was the point of the story, but actually, maybe it is not?  For, once the storm is calmed they are still in the middle of the lake, and the object is to go across to the other side.  So maybe Jesus calms to the storm in order to grasp a teaching moment.   He says to his disciples in the boat, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 

Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?  (Remember that faith was the only thing David was meaningfully armed with when he went up against Goliath!)  The seas are calmed, but there they are in the middle of the lake.  The very next line in Mark’s Gospel, after this story is told, has been identified as the first line of the next chapter, but I think perhaps it should really be the last line of the previous chapter, and of this little episode.  It says this: “They came to the other side of the sea.”  Mission accomplished.

In our own day and age, this lesson in faith is important if we are to put our trust in God, because although we may call them by other names giants there still be; storms there still be; madmen wielding guns there be.  And there is no armor that can protect us against such perils.  And sometimes the only promise Jesus can make is that we will get to the other side.  There is another side, and we will make it there!

A couple of generations ago, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement transposed and translated this faith in the journey to the other side of the sea, as they translated and transposed the songs of the slaves into another song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day!  This was a way of linking their hope to Jesus’ invitation to go across to the other side.  To brave the storms of racism, bigotry and hatred, armed with little other than their faith in the God who promises to get you to the other side.

It can be frustrating to find that we still have so much distance to travel.  But don’t you know that Noah felt that way, too?  Abraham felt that way, Sarah felt that way. Moses felt that way, and Aaron his brother, and all the weary children of Israel.  God knows the slaves who built my own college in Virginia must have felt frustrated that there remained so much distance to get to the other side.

And I am frustrated when I look back at a movement that was in full swing when I was born nearly fifty years ago still has so far to go to get to the other side.  Because racists there still be, bigots there still be, haters there be, and mongers of hate.  The battle must not be over since they refuse to take down the battle flag, fold it up, and put it away in a drawer where it belongs.

But Jesus is still saying to those of us with faith (and maybe nothing more), “Let us go across to the other side.”  It is not just an invitation; it is a promise.  It is a promise that he made to his disciples and that he kept though the waters raged and swelled.

It is a promise that he made to those Martyrs of Charleston: to Sharonda, Clementa, Cynthia, Tywanza, Myra, Ethel, Daniel, Depayne, and Suzie: let us go across to the other side.  And it is a promise he is keeping with them right now, as he carries them in his bosom of love.

And it is a promise he makes to us, as he invites day by day to seek his justice in this world, and his hope in the world to come: Let us go across to the other side.

It is a promise we must not stop repeating in that beautiful translation of the Civil Rights movement, and we must breathe it, and live it, and sing it, and fight for it if we have to: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day!

Storms are coming, but why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?  We shall overcome!  Let us go across with Jesus to the other side, wherever our faith should lead us!  Let us go across to the other side!  Thanks be to God!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

21 June 2015

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 21, 2015 .