A sermon delivered June 21, 2015, at Central Presbyterian Church-Waxahachie by the Rev. Matt Curry.
In 1988, my mother was away on a trip that she had been planning a long time, and I was home with my Dad. For some time he had been experiencing some health issues for which we had no answers.
He began to notice that when he got up from his recliner, he would careen to one side, and it seemed to be getting worse. I noticed he had trouble signing a check. His handwriting was shaky and tentative. My mother was still away when we received the news that my father was suffering from a brain tumor that in months would end his life.
That was a difficult day, of course, and it was followed by what I remember as a very dark, lonely night. I was wide awake. I had lots of questions running through my mind, and plenty of fears. Those thoughts tormented me for most of the night. But my father did not let his new reality overwhelm him – at least not to the point where it prevented him from resting. As I thought about what his news meant for the future, the unmistakable sound of his snoring traveled across the hallway from his room to mine.
I worried, while he slept.
In the years since, I have been accused by certain members of my own household of being a fairly sound sleeper myself. There have been times, for example, when I have awakened from a restful night, and the first words I have been asked are, “What about that storm last night? Did you hear that thunder? What about that lightning” and “the dogs were going crazy weren’t they?” And I will have to respond, “That what, and the what and what? Sorry, I was asleep, did not know anything about it! I missed it!”
And not everyone is entirely happy when I miss all the excitement – apparently, excitement is meant to be shared!
Of course, to be honest, though I am able to sleep through thunder and lightning, I have been less successful in sleeping through the storms of life. Worry holds me captive from rest on more than a few occasions, and frankly, it is not always over life and death matters. Sometimes it is related to a relationship, or when I was in seminary, it could relate to an important final exam. Sometimes I know that I am being kept awake by something that is really not worth losing sleep over, but as I think about that, I only lose more sleep. If you share this problem with me, know that at least we are in good company. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
I am not the sound sleeper that my father was — and apparently, nobody can sleep like Jesus.
Jesus was very tired after a day of teaching parables: the parable of the sower; a lamp under a bushel basket; the parable of the growing seed; the parable of the mustard seed. He spoke the Word to the people through parables, as they were able to hear the Word. Privately he explains everything to the disciples, and that must have been exasperating, because they often just do not get it. We affirm that Jesus was 100 percent human, 100 percent God. In the fullness of his humanity, he must have been really tired when evening came – that was a lot of parables to explain, after all – and so he and the disciples finally decide to retire for the night, leaving the crowds behind. They head out in a boat to the other side of the water. But a great windstorm arises, according to our NRSV translation.
Other translations refer to a fierce gale of wind. or a violent windstorm. This must have been a very serious storm because, remember, there are people on this boat, experienced fishermen, who know what it is like to deal with bad weather on the sea. And they are concerned. Waves batter the boat and break over the boat, quickly filling it with water. As the disciples grapple with this grave situation, the one whom they follow is sleeping on a cushion in the back – nice and comfortable. The disciples are frightened, and certainly they must also be angry. And if they even had time to think, perhaps they are thinking something like this: We are trying to bail out this boat, perhaps we will survive if the waves don’t tear our vessel apart – and here is the so-called captain of our ship, at rest. And someone probably said: Wow, Jesus is really a sound sleeper. That man can sleep through anything!
Jesus is not stirred by the terror of the moment; not by the crashing waves; not by the storm all around them; not by the violent tossing and turning of the boat; and so finally they go and shake him awake! Do. You. Not. Care That. We. Are. Dying!
And I think they raise a pretty good question.
Why is Jesus sleeping when the storm is at its peak?
I have been hearing that question a lot lately. When an armed white racist walks into Bible study in a historic black church and kills nine people – in a church, at Bible study – is Jesus asleep?
Is God on vacation?
For others, this, along with the continuing epidemic of hatred and gun violence, is further proof that there is no benevolent, supernatural being overseeing the world. This is not a new concern. Check out the trials and tribulations of Job, or read Lamentations or the Psalms. The psalmist writes that my tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?
Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?
Instead of answering their question, Jesus responds by demonstrating his command and control over the elements. The wind ceases at his word and the conditions become overwhelmingly calm. And now he has two questions for them:
Why are you afraid?
Do you still have no faith?
And it does not say in the text, but I wonder if he then went back to the stern of the boat, found his cushion and continued with his nap – because Jesus was apparently very good at sleeping soundly.
The disciples, however, are still restless. Even now, at this point in their journey together with Jesus, they wonder just exactly who this is whom they have followed. They are filled with a great awe. this translation says. Literally, the original text says they are filled with a great fear – even now, after Jesus calmed the storm, or perhaps BECAUSE he calmed the storm. They have a glimmer of understanding when it comes to this matter of faith but it is not a fully resolved matter for them. Jesus’ power over the wind and sea leads to more questions. And ultimately, the Gospel of Mark repeatedly directs those questions to us: Why are we afraid? Do we have faith? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
Sometimes Jesus falls sound asleep. And maybe that is so his followers will learn to rely upon their faith that God is in control, even in the height of the most disastrous storms. Jesus’ ability to rest in the midst of trouble is not abandonment. He never leaves them in the boat to fend for themselves. You know, I guess he could have said I have had it with you guys. got out, and walked his way across the water over to the other side. But he does not do that. He stays with them. His restful sleep in the back of the boat is not due to his lack of concern, as the disciples initially suggest, rather, it is a sign of his complete and obedient faith in God. It is not only faith in Jesus that saves – but the faith of Jesus by which God has claimed us. It is a faith that stands in stark contrast to the worry of fishermen tossed around on a boat or a seminary student who tosses and turns in bed all night.
God vindicated the faith of Jesus by raising him from the dead, and it is in the very midst of the harsh realities of our world that we are called to consider who he is to us.
Fred Rogers, the children’s television personality and Presbyterian minister, said that when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. And so, Mr. Rogers would say, even in the midst of disaster, he remembered his mother’s words and was comforted by realizing there are many caring people.
When my father was diagnosed with his brain tumor, it felt for a time as if God had abandoned us – but I don’t think my Dad ever felt that way. If he did, he never expressed it. I came to see Jesus in my father’s ability to do the best he could with the news he had been given, and to hand the rest over to his Lord, even to the extent that he could sleep soundly at night. Not only that. I saw that Christ was present in the people who came from the church to our home to kneel with my Dad and me and pray. Those same people stood with our family in the difficult days that followed.
Yesterday at Joshua Chapel AME Church here in Waxahachie, clergy and parishioners from churches throughout the city joined our sisters and brothers to share our love and concern for them, as well as for Charleston, S.C. and for our nation. Some of you were there, too, and your presence in that prayer service made a difference.
On the day of the tragic shooting, many understandably asked, “Where is God?” If you watched the arraignment of the young man arrested for this crime, then you heard families of the victims say words like I love you, I forgive you, I encourage you to repent and give your life over to Jesus and be saved. Only God could do something like this.
Where is God? From across our nation and in our own city, the answer has begun to be heard: God is in the helpers, in those who are praying and responding, in those who are mourning with those who mourn and in those who are standing up to say they will do whatever it takes to make our society a better place for all of God’s children.
We live in difficult times – times that call for taking a stand and making a difference. Make no mistake about it: It takes faith. When gunmen are entering churches and killing worshippers and shooting pastors, we each have decisions to make – questions we must answer for ourselves. To choose fear is to align ourselves with powers and principalities that are the rulers of darkness in this world.
But we are Children of the Light, already claimed through the obedient and complete faith of Jesus. If he is asleep, it may be only so that we will wake up and do his will in the world.
Why are we afraid?
Do we still have no faith?
Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
Let us pray:
Gracious God, in the midst of a chaotic, broken and sinful world, sometimes it seems as if you have abandoned us. Help us to remember the faith of your son, which claims us, and the commitment of the prophets to justice, reconciliation and peace. Give us the strength and the audacity to stand with Christ and to share his love, even when waves are swamping the boat. In the name of the One whose trust in the sovereignty of God produces restful sleep – even on the tumultuous sea – AMEN.
Father’s Day post: Building something that will last
Originally posted on Witness to Grace :
Every Father’s Day, I remember ‘The Bus House.’ And every day in between, I miss the presence in my life of its determined builder and caretaker. (This was first posted here on Jan. 12, 2012.)
From our big picture window, the skinny white building at the end of the gravel road looked like a sentinel, standing at attention against the backdrop of a cold, gray Texas sky.
Bundled in my winter gear – the ski mask reminded me of Dr. X, one of the bad guys from the “Championship Wrestling” show on Friday night – I trudged the quarter-mile route carrying my metal, Charlie Brown lunchbox and perhaps a few worries over what the new school day would bring.
The path ended at the cattle guard, which lay between two handsome red brick pillars. Just this side of the last barrier between our farm and the road to town…
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Why I went to McKinney and what I saw there
Last Sunday after church, I was scrolling through Twitter when I noticed the hashtag #McKinney. Not knowing what I would see, I clicked onto that now viral YouTube video .
You know what I saw: a foul-mouthed white police officer chasing black teenagers in swim suits, pulling his gun at one point and forcing a girl’s face
into the ground and climbing on top of her– behavior the McKinney police chief now acknowledges as “indefensible” and clearly “out of control.”
I am thankful to God that officer did not kill anyone. We would be having a far more troubling and sorrowful conversation today. As tensions escalated – mainly his – who knows how close he came to opening fire on what was, at most – depending on whom you believe – not much more than an unauthorized pool party.
So, on Monday, I went to McKinney.
In order to explain why I went, I must also tell you how watching that video made me feel. As a father, I felt physically sickened by the level of violence used on children, many of whom, it turns out, may not even have been involved in the incident that prompted police to arrive in force to the Craig Ranch subdivision where this all took place. And I wanted to cry for this community and for our country.
I could not sleep Sunday night, and I knew if there was a protest on Monday, I had to go. It is not my community, so it is not my place to tell them what I think should be done. But I just wanted to walk beside those parents who were feeling grief over what happened. And I remembered that Dr. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Just as I did not know what I would see when I first clicked on the YouTube video, I did not know what I would encounter at the protest march in McKinney.
What I saw was hundreds of people from different races, backgrounds and religions calling for justice and fair treatment for all of God’s children. I saw protesters escorted safely and respectfully and without interference by McKinney police. I heard speeches from people representing various groups and political perspectives with very different ideas about how to work for justice. Many voices were gathered at one large, diverse table.
I saw hundreds of marchers and only two counter-protesters, one of whom held a sign that said “I support the police!” Many of the marchers would have agreed with that statement. They spoke of their frustration as taxpaying McKinney residents who would rather feel protected by police officers than fear them. One marcher held a large sign that said, “Lord, heal our nation.” Others said they are thankful for officers in their community – especially the two who grabbed at Eric Casebolt when he pointed his gun in a fit of rage. The protesters also expressed a deep and heartfelt connection to tragedies in Ferguson and Baltimore and other places where black lives have been shattered under the color of official authority.
The spirit in that rally Monday was positive, energetic, and it was not mean-spirited or ugly. Not from what I saw. I only recall one sign that made an offensive statement toward police. (By the way, it was held by a white person). A group of young African-Americans near whom I was marching “self-policed” our group as we wound our way through the narrow streets of Craig Ranch. They sternly ordered marchers to stay off homeowners’ lawns and to stay either on the sidewalk or in the street!
I drove home that night with hope – though I also remain troubled. I am worried that the resignation of a single officer will lead officials to consider this a “solved” problem instead of engaging in real dialogue on race within their community. I appreciate that a number of officers perhaps acted appropriately – at least one was an example who certainly shined by comparison . But I wonder: Why didn’t officers forcibly detain Casebolt at the scene before this situation worsened? And what about the white civilian who is walking around aiding him in his abuse of children? Why would that man take part in promoting the indefensible actions of an out of control officer? Why would anyone? It occurs to me that “supporting the police” is a dangerous mantra to follow if you mean support must come no matter what they do.
I wore my clerical collar to the march. A white, college-age man asked to take a photo of me with another pastor so he could show it to his mother – who is also an ordained minister but did not attend the protest with him. These young people, black and white, give me hope for the future.
What if …
The painting is called “His Supreme Moment,” and it depicts Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee being cheered as a conquering hero while riding past his troops following victory over the Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville.
The framed Mort Kunstler print, commemorating the May 1863 battle, was a birthday gift, and it hung prominently above the desk in my study.
This was a gift I had insisted on having, a culmination of my many years as a Civil War enthusiast who has visited battlefields and compiled a somewhat extensive library on the bloody All-American conflict.
But a few years ago, I began to see the painting in a different light. What had at first seemed like a friendly guest in my suburban home gradually became unwelcome.
I came to a decision then: It had to go. So, as we began to pack up our house to move to a new community where I would serve as a pastor, the print was boxed up for either sale or storage.
It has remained in storage for nearly three years now.
In case you are wondering, no one made me put it away. There was no discussion with anyone about it, ever. No great debate – other than a lingering conversation within – led to it being put out of sight instead of re-adorning a wall in my new home.
There were some factors, however, that seemed to contribute to the ultimate decision that I no longer could share living space with the print. One was the night my African-American brother-in-law slept on a couch in my office while Gen. Lee, surrounded by Rebel flags, stared down at him throughout the night. He never mentioned the painting, and I never asked. But I kept returning to the thought: How did it make him feel? How would it make me feel, if I were him?
I also thought about a conversation with a colleague at The Associated Press, where I worked for 13 years. The conversation centered on a then-hot topic: “racial profiling.” We talked about our individual encounters with police. Both of us were college educated. Both of us were writers. Among our differences – besides the fact that he was black and I am white – was that I had never been stopped for simply driving in the wrong neighborhood, and I learned it happened to him many, many times. I heard then of an expression that is well known in the African-American community: DWB. That is, being pulled over or arrested for Driving While Black.
Many of us have no idea what it would feel like to be constantly reminded we live in a society in which we are a minority and in which the ancestors of the majority once held our ancestors in brutal bondage. And what if those who held our ancestors in servitude were honored with statues on the courthouse square, or their banners were waved from pickup trucks or even in the annual Fourth of July parade? Or maybe the era was heralded in an article in the paper every Sunday. Could we join in celebrating this heritage ?
If we are honest, we have to admit that even though it is no longer enshrined in segregation laws, racism still exists, only in different ways. Not to say that vast progress has not been made. Yet in the small community where I live, we remain segregated by race and class. There is a polarization – a deep line of demarcation – that is ever-present, yet almost never talked about. Isn’t it easy for many of us to simply “back the Blue” in the wake of our nation’s recent civil unrest while disregarding the idea that some people might be very frustrated and angry with civil authority for legitimate reasons? We prefer simple solutions, but they will not lead us to justice and reconciliation. We have not yet even begun, it seems to me, to deal with root causes of our tragedies. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring just as true today as they were during the civil rights movement:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
In my childhood, I bought Confederate flags at roadside stands and displayed them in my bedroom, and I regret to say that in my zeal for that period in American history I have done my part to contribute to the glorification of slaveocracy and the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. As a son of the South and the great-great-grandson of a slaveholder, my wish is to seek repentance and chart a new path.
This morning I was reading First Corinthians 13 – the love chapter. You probably remember some of the words: Love is patient … love is kind…love never ends. This passage is often read in weddings, but we should remember that this is about something much stronger and deeper than the excitement of a new relationship or the warm sentiment of a Valentine’s Day card. Scripturally, love is action – action on behalf of the other, modeled after the greatest act of love, God’s self-giving sacrifice in Jesus.
Verse 11 says this: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
I have not put an end to all my childish ways, but I am trying. I do not want to live in a way that is offensive and oppressive to my neighbor, and so I not only want to put away Confederate flags and vestiges of institutional racism, I also want to move from attitudes that have been engrained within me simply by being born into the dominant culture and playing a part in upholding it throughout my life.
I want to stand for justice for all people, which is what my Bible teaches me to do. (And yes, that includes police officers, whom I respect and realize have a very difficult job that I would not want to have.)
I talked recently with representatives of a social service agency about how we might listen more to the people in our community who are not ordinarily heard. Our conversation seemed to immediately turn to what they should do to live into our expectations. And so we failed from the start: We were just listening again to ourselves, and none of the people whom we were talking about were even in the room. I understand that people of color are more than familiar with this phenomenon.
What if, though, we who are in the majority put away our childish things, voluntarily, out of our love for our neighbors who might be harmed by our careless and dangerous playthings?
What if we began to realize that we live in a different world than some other members of our community and tried to find ways to see them, hear them and even walk in their shoes?
What if we started simply by seeking to get to know our neighbors and listening to their worries and their dreams? They talk. We listen. (In Presbyterian churches, we commit ourselves to doing this every Sunday morning in which we recite our Brief Statement of Faith. which says, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” How are we doing on living that out?
What if, as a community, we quit romanticizing an idealized past that did not really exist and started working toward a common future based on dignity for all God’s children?
What if, in doing these things and more, we discovered that there is not only much that separates our community, but much that unites us as well? Could we not then begin to walk a path to a place where we could all equally mourn the injustice of a black life lost, or the loss of a police officer killed in the line of duty?
Could we not begin, as hearts are changed, to change our community and change the world?