Silence in the Storm
Our Gospel begins with Jesus doing again exactly what he did last week in the story of the Transfiguration—going up on a mountain to pray, as if we can’t be reminded enough times of the importance of prayer. Only this time we’re told that he goes alone. And it’s clear that he very intentionally wants to be alone—the text says he “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” And always in Jesus’ life we’re to look for a pattern for our own lives. And so, it’s okay to need to be alone sometimes. In fact, it’s necessary to take this kind of time to recharge and re-center.
But before we go making ourselves Jesus in this story, it’s probably more likely that we’re the disciples. They’re out on the sea of life, in their little boat, and we’re told that the boat was “battered by the waves, [and] was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” How often have you been there? Battered by the waves, the wind against you? These are the conditions of life in the world. The wind at times will feel against you—in the fight with your family, in the fight with your parish family, in your struggles at work.
And this is the direction I wanted to go in in this sermon—the way Christ reaches out to us in the midst of our storms when we are sinking in the water like Peter. But then things changed this week. Then Charlottesville, VA happened. Then white supremacists reared their ugly heads. And then suddenly people feeling the wind against them wasn’t about my little problems anymore. It was about black and brown people and minorities of every kind feeling the wind against them, feeling battered by the waves, feeling what they’ve always felt.
Our country is in the midst of a storm. And we cannot underestimate its force, its power. Racism, white nationalism, is a growing movement in the United States of America. It’s far too easy for us to think that we’re just dealing with little holdout pockets of dying racism from a dying generation. But no, there is a racist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi movement in our country and it is working overtime to recruit new members, to infiltrate our government, to attempt to sound intellectually respectable. It is alive and well and all around us. Just yesterday right here in Kingston I saw a truck drive down the road proudly flying the flag of the Confederacy—and when you see that in the North—and in the South—it can only be a symbol of racism.
We are in the midst of a storm, and a lot of our black and brown sisters and brothers are sinking, are feeling overwhelmed by the waves that have been crashing against them their whole lives. I posted on facebook this past week how shocked I was by the well-organized, unabashed, unmasked white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville. White supremacist terrorists whose movement murdered 1 and injured 19 others yesterday. White supremacist terrorists demonstrating with guns and torches in the streets.
I was shocked, dumbfounded, devastated. And then a brown, Muslim friend responded to my post; she wrote: “I have to say that I'm almost relieved that these things are becoming more and more public. It's much more frustrating to speculate on the smoky trails of prejudice without the hard evidence to prove what you know in your heart is true. I think the only people who are not surprised by this are minorities. Outraged? Yes. Shocked? No.” Black and brown people aren’t shocked by this; this is what they’ve always known, what they’ve always lived. It’s only white people who have been able to pretend that racism ended in the 1960s.
In the wake of this weekend, I watched a video interviewing young white nationalist leaders. It was terrifying, and in part because they aren’t the uneducated hicks you want to think they are, but smart, savvy, passionate, driven people. And they talked about how hard and confusing it has been for them growing up in a multicultural world, how they need to be with their own kind, need to protect their culture and their identities.
Yes, it sounded utterly absurd. Yes, they sounded like whiny, white-privileged brats. But they are for real, and they are clamoring for power, they’re getting it, and they are winning converts. And so what do we need to do? We need to preach the Gospel. Again, it was right there in our epistle reading from St. Paul: “…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all…”
The Gospel is not a cultural phenomenon, not a white phenomenon, not a European phenomenon. The Gospel began among diverse peoples in Middle Eastern lands and it has worked to break down barriers and boundaries and walls of every kind over these 2,000 years of its unfolding. And the Gospel calls us to find and stake our identity in something other than culture, or race, or color—as beautiful and celebrated as those things can be. The Gospel calls us to draw our deepest identity, our primary identity, from the calm center in the midst of the storm.
This morning’s text tells us, “[Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea... [and he] spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’” Jesus, who has just been alone on the mountain, Jesus who is living from the center. Jesus who is the living symbol of the center within each of us. And that center is identical within all of us, brown, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew. We all share the same empty, infinite, open space of love. But unless we know that place within us, we will stake our primary identity in all those other things that we can then oppose to each other.
But the miraculous thing that happens when we stake our identity in the silence of the heart is that everything else gets included. You may have seen the video going around of clergy from diverse traditions marching in silent protest in Charlottesville this weekend, and eventually they form a wall of silent presence and love in front of the white supremacist armed with guns and dressed in camo. And then more white supremacists come marching in making the loudest noise and shouting white supremacist slogans, marching like a storm around them, and the clergy become the silence, the calm, at the center.
In our reading from 1st Kings, we were given the beautiful passage about the Prophet Elijah encountering God: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle…”
And God was in the silence. Not in the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, not in the noise, but in the sheer silence. I’m convinced more than ever that this contemplative dimension of the Gospel that teaches us that we’re more than all of our labels and identifiers, that teaches those of us who are white that we’re more than fragile, white egos, that teaches all of us that we share a common center of love… I’m convinced more than ever that this is what the world needs, that this is the only way to educate our hearts and heal our planet.
Peter steps out on the water, steps out into the storm. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and [began] to sink…” A lot of folks are frightened and sinking right now. And once we start to sink, it’s easy to go down deep, to get lost under the waves, in the turbulence. And so we all need more than ever to find that Jesus within us, that Jesus who “immediately reaches out his hand.” And we have to start reaching out from the center, reaching out to one another, forming the Beloved Community, forming the Body of Christ.
And so, spend time on the mountain top, find that sacred center, and then step out in the storm, step out into the noise and the fear that surrounds us, and be that sheer silence, that calm center, reaching out to those sinking beneath the waves, and take the hands of your sinking brothers and sisters, because this is how Christ will save the world.