A sermon preached on August 13, with reference to Matthew 14:22-33.
Maybe you know, or maybe you don’t know, that part of my letter of call to this congregation stipulates that I take two weeks each year for continuing education. That’s standard across our denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America believes it is important for pastors to continue to learn. Throughout the year, I go to seminars and workshops and conferences as part of that continuing education, in the hope that it will help me grow as your pastor.
This past week, Sunday through Thursday, I attended a conference specifically for pastors and deacons in the ELCA. We celebrated the community we have as members of the body of Christ, specifically as Lutheran Christians. We had hard conversations about the changing demographics of our denomination, how, on average, fewer people are active in the ELCA and more congregations are struggling to find a pastor. We had Bible Study and small group discussion and worship. We were challenged by the wisdom of speakers and colleagues. We also had the opportunity to explore some of Atlanta’s history.
So when I registered in May, I signed up to visit the King Center. A few blocks from the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., the King Center is part of the national park system. Inside the center, visitors can walk through the life of Dr. King, from his boyhood questioning why there were separate drinking fountains for white and black people, through his education, his family life, his critical role as as leader of the American Civil Rights movement.
The marble tomb marking the place where King and his wife Coretta are buried stands at the center of a shallow pool. It reminded me of the power of water, that we believe can wash away sin and join us to Jesus Christ. The whole week would have been worth the trip even if all I had done was go to the King Center, and so I thank you for graciously supporting me in going.
There’s been one thing from the King Center that I have not been able to stop thinking about. In one of the video interviews, another leader of the Civil Rights movement said, “In the South, white people don’t care how close you get, so long as you don’t get too high. In the North, white people don’t care how high you get, so long as you don’t get too close.”
Like many of you, I was born in Iowa. Like many of you, I have lived my entire life in states that remained in the Union during the Civil War. And as I attended school in Iowa, in Indiana, in Kansas, in New Hampshire, in Michigan, in Minnesota– I always came away from studying the Civil Rights movement with a kind of comfortable satisfaction because, after all, it was the South that seceded from the Union in order to keep slaves. It was the South that pushed African-Americans to the back of the bus. It was the South, always the South, playing the villain in these history lessons, and because I was a northerner, it meant that it wasn’t my problem. In fact, I came home from school one day in first grade and passionately declared to my mother that I could never be friends with anyone from the South because they used to have slaves.
But there it was: “In the South, white people don’t care how close you get, so long as you don’t get too high. In the North, they don’t care how high you get, so long as you don’t get too close.”
I remembered that in a moment of curiosity, I looked up the census data on Cedar County when I first moved to Tipton. In 2010, the most recent census, Cedar County was 97.8% White. Then I remembered the parts of U.S. history that I would have preferred to forget, that in many northern states, cities and towns simply wrote statutes that forbade non-whites from owning property.
I remembered conversations I was a part of, when I listened to longtime residents express concern over the “new people” coming to town from Davenport or Cedar Rapids or Chicago and I confess that I said nothing because it was easier to say nothing. I remembered hearing that a swastika was painted on the home of a Tipton resident who is part of a racial minority and I confess that I didn’t do anything. I remembered a conversation with a woman who has lived in the county for twenty years and told me she is still called by racial slurs on a weekly basis, and I confess that I was too timid to do anything but stutter an apology.
You see, like many of you, I grew up entirely north of the Mason-Dixon and I was allowed to believe that segregation and slavery were the symptoms of Southern-ness, not of sin. I thought white supremacy was over and done with. I let myself think that racism would just go away, given enough time.
And then I saw photos from Charlottesville, Virginia, these past two days. And what I saw made me weep. I saw white men carrying torches, swastikas, and crosses marching through the night, surrounding a church. And inside that church, I saw a little black girl crying in the arms of the white pastor who comforted her. I saw bodies in the air as a car drove into a crowd of people. I saw all the symptoms of racism, antisemitism, and hate coming out into the open like a cancer destroying the body it infects.
And I heard a great deal of silence. I have, myself, watched in silence too often– whether in public or in private, and God help me, I repent and I will try to do better.
In the silence I heard, I remembered words attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for resisting.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that our faith impacts the way we live in the world because it tells us that we are, all of us, children of God, made in God’s own image, and we cannot escape God’s demand that we act like it.
We don’t have to know exactly what to say, or what to do. We don’t have to be as wise as Martin Luther King or as brave as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But we can’t keep being so paralyzed by fear or by not wanting to disagree that we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the storm.
After all, you belong to Jesus. He doesn’t lose anyone who follows him. The uncomfortable part is that he does change us. He takes away our excuses. He expects us to do justice. He makes us confront our own sin and repent of it. He even takes that sin away, so that we stop holding on so tightly to what hurts us.
We follow the God who calms storms. We follow the God who holds our hands when waves try to pull us under. We follow the God who might very well lead us onto a stormy sea in a little fishing boat, sitting with people who are every bit as frightened as we are, and come to tell us: peace. I am with you. The storm shall not sweep you away.