Friends near and far:
This long blog entry is the sermon I preached one year ago - June 21, 2015. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the massacre in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel Church. I share it here that you might read. Pray over my words, and where my words fail you I pray you will find your own.
I regret that this Sunday I am compelled to repeat much of what I said below. The problem and the challenge persist.
"How long O Lord, to sing this song?"
May grace abound. And may our land be free from the specter of murder.
(Please forgive typos, syntax, and grammar errors. This is rough and unedited copy of the original sermon).
From June, 2015:
Storms…or Who is This?
Christopher H. Edmonston
Mark 4: 35 - 41
When a pastor begins a sermon, we begin with a deep reading and exegesis of the text. So when preaching this text— the story of Jesus calming a storm on the sea of Galilee — we look at the early chapters of Mark, we look to other stories in the Bible about storms, about water, about survival by God’s hand: the parting of the Red Sea or Jonah and the great fish.
Then we look for a hermeneutical and homiletical approach — we look for touchstones — for those places where our lives are touched by the claim of scripture and how we interpret scripture for today.
There are at least two things we do not wish to happen: the first is that we don’t want to divorce our message from the essential message of scripture. The pastor’s life is a constant conversation with the text and a calling to be faithful to it. There are few nights I do not go to sleep without a text echoing in my mind.
The second thing we hope for is that in the application of the text we are faithful to the times in which we live. We avoid making our preaching so removed from our experiences that people cannot relate to the text. We don’t want to bore folks to death. The stories are living because God is living — we are not to present them as though they were dead.
And so this week I was all prepared to preach a sermon about storms in our own personal lives. I was going to begin with a couple of stories — the first about being on the sea of Galilee 15 months ago and how I could easily imagine a storm on that small sea. I was going to tell you about how this story of Jesus and the disciples in a storm would have been a terrifying experience on a first century boat.
I was also going to tell a funny story about being in the dead-to-naught middle of the Pamlico Sound two summers ago, just ahead of a great storm. I was going to share about my fears and my prayers as the boat we were in hit 6 to 8 foot swells, the boat lurching and lunging with every wave. I was to talk about my profound thanksgiving once we made it to the lee of the channel, and the winds were blocked and the water calmed. I was going to talk about the relief we feel when the storm passes.
I was then going to compare that experience with the storms of failure, fear, joblessness, poverty, shame, and sin. I was going to remind us that in scripture and in our lives not all storms are driven by winds.
Then I was going to make a final move, and tell you all about Leon D’Orleans and Haiti Outreach Ministries. I was to talk about how through the storm of poverty so crushing it cannot be described in words, except to say that our groups routinely see children eating mud pies, and through an earthquake of historical proportions that Christian people are joining Leon there and building oases of clean water, education, self-improvement, and GLORIOUS worship. It is among the most inspiring things I have ever seen.
I was going to tell us that Jesus Christ is still calming storms and rescuing disciples from the clutches of death.
I still hope to preach that sermon one day. I have the folder with my sermon outline and my resources from the trip.
But I cannot preach that sermon today.
Instead I must preach a sermon about naming the storm of evil in our own country. I once again have to preach about the storms of racial hatred and gun violence. Are there any two storms which so greatly threaten the future of our people or of our churches?
Charleston happened. After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Ferguson, Baltimore — do I need to go on? After all of that nine precious souls at a Bible Study at one of the 10 or so most historic and important churches in the great, and I do mean great American south, my heritage and my birth land — nine precious souls were gunned down.
And in that gunning we were once again reminded that while we fight wars on terror and combat extremists around the world, our own streets are made unsafe by the storms of racial hatred and gun violence. This is factual and it is incontrovertible.
In recent years, parents have been worried about sending their children to school and how many of our brothers and sisters are wondering today whether or not it is safe to go to church? How many of our black and brown skinned brothers and sisters, and they are our Christian family, how many of them live in daily fear? I imagine it is more than most of us can imagine.
I told my 13 year old that I was going to rewrite my sermon and that I was going to talk about race and murder, and he asked me if that was a good idea.
“Are you going to get in trouble?” he asked.
“I might,” I told him.
What is that we consider taboo in the church today? Could I say something today that upset some so badly that they will be angry with me, or angry at the church, or put it in someone’s mind to consider leaving for some other church?
Then again, if we cannot talk and pray about these storms, about these real challenges which face our very community, if we cannot talk and pray about them at church, then where can we talk and pray about them? Shouldn’t the people of faith join in conversation about the very winds which threaten all that we have worked for and all that God has done?
We must talk and pray. And then we must act. If not, then we cannot know how to respond to the storms. We are not bottles aimlessly subject to the will of the winds and the tides. No, by the calling of our lives and through the Holy Spirit’s creation of the church God has made us into agents of witness and action.
When Jesus says feed my lambs,
tend my sheep,
do unto others,
love one another as I have loved you,
and love your neighbor as yourself
— it is not lip service. Those are mission statements. And his mission for us is one that we had better take to heart.
And we must take it to heart here at this church. Take it to heart today.
Why? Because the storm is raging, and it must stop. And nearly every member of this church is in a position to join Jesus on the boat in the midst of the storm and influence the future. We are business leaders, government leaders, church leaders, PTA leadership, school leaders, legal leaders —we are members of the Raleigh Hall of Fame, we are founders of non-profits, and we are community builders. And we can help the Godly cause of peace and the healing of our land. We can be the peacemakers Jesus himself has called his church to be.
But only if we allow ourselves to be a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenienced, and concerned and upset enough to take some actions.
A generation ago the church did as much.
I was the pastor at Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro where the most beloved pastor in that proud church’s history was a man named Wellford Hobbie who journeyed and marched in Selma in 1965. His actions were not understood by everyone easily, but the church knew something was at stake. Because something happened in 1963 which changed the timbre, the tuning, and the tone of the conversation amongst Christians in the United States.
Songwriter Patterson Hood wrote about then event which occurred in 1963 - an act of terrorism against a church.
The song I am referring to begins, “Church blew up in Birmingham and four little black girls killed — For no good reason — All this hate and violence can't come to no good end — It’s a stain on the good land.”
A stain on a good land. I could not say this better myself.
I have been a pastor in North Carolina for 16 years now, and have been with your here right at four years, I have yet to meet anyone that I believe to be a hatred-filled person. I have yet to meet anyone who is unconcerned about the VERY REAL challenges that our black and brown brothers and sisters in faith face.
I do not think that the people in our churches are an acute part of the problem. In fact, I think that we are good people, sinners saved by grace. I believe that most of are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. And I take comfort in this. Perhaps I am even a little sinfully prideful of it. It makes me feel like I am one of the good guys.
But if we can see evidence of a problem which is dogging the children of God in our midst and we refuse to use our resources and our influences to be part of the solutions, to be workers in the calming of the storms, then we become part of the problem.
This is a legacy moment — the church, the black church, the black community — has been attacked and it’s children are on the ropes. I am a history nerd and in the great struggle for the black soul of our nation there have been two large moments. The first was emancipation. The second the civil rights era. And the third is upon us, in my estimation is less about the legal questions than it is the personal questions. This is a storm that must not be challenged in the courts so much as it must be faced in our neighborhoods and communities, heart by heart, mind by mind, soul by soul.
No one pastor can heal the wounds. No one church can solve the storm alone. But what can we do?
Well, for staters we can pray. We start today. Join me in the Chapel after the 8:15 service, across the street. I am going to pray for Charleston, pray for our neighbors and pray for the soul of our nation. After 11 I am going to do the same — yes I am going to risk my Father’s Day lunch reservation — in the sanctuary. We are going to pray.
We can each of us take the time to learn the history of our part of the city. Did you know it was not originally known as Cameron Village, but instead as Oberlin Village. It was named so by James Harris in 1866. James Harris was a freed-slave and he created a 150 acre community for former slaves. Our neighborhood was once one of the most significant African-American communities in the state. At its center was Raleigh’s largest black cemetery, just mere blocks from here. Today I commit the resources and the influence of this congregation to the grass-roots movement through Wilson Temple United Methodist church to restore the cemetery and ensure its preservation.
As a church we are going to work hard to increase our relationship with our neighbor churches and somehow through Daniel’s Middle School and our church partners we are going to work to reach the Youth of those communities in new ways.
I am going to write a letter to mother Emmanuel AME Zion church in Charleston, expressing the horror of our church family and I am going to research what we can do for them and in memory of those who were massacred.
Maybe you’ll have ideas as you pray and work along side us — and maybe, just maybe we can leave a legacy that no matter how large or how small our great-grandchildren will be proud of claiming as a heritage of peace and hope and neighborliness and love.
We, the local we that is White Memorial, and the collective we that is North Carolina and the United States can do better. We must do better. I am so proud and so moved by the people of Charleston as they move toward healing and change. Let’s start with prayer and join our Lord and our Savior in their example, and be present as the storm is calmed and as the wounds are healed. Let’s stand by our neighbors in South Carolina.
Y’all still with me?
What of guns? Is there a less digestible topic, any more inflammatory topic that divides people more than guns in America today?
I am no lawmaker or legal expert, but I stand before you today an American citizen who says that whatever we are doing about the intersections of mental illness and hatred and guns and access to guns is not working.
There are tens of thousands of homicides every year in the United States and more than 7 out of 10 of them involve a gun. There have been more than 70 mass killings in the United States in my four decades of life. The death of our fellow citizens and the death of the children of God does not honor our creator and, I believe, makes Jesus weep.
Violence, and in particular, gun violence is public health crisis.
Murder is moral issue — beginning with the Ten Commandments which say, “you shall not murder.” And then continuing with Jesus Christ who warned us of living and dying by the sword.
What has happened in our country is that this moral issue has become politicized, and the very challenge is one that citizens are facing in their neighborhoods, their universities, their elementary schools, and now, O Jesus Christ forbid it, our churches. We are helpless in a wash of constitutional and political fights. There must be a better way.
I can speak only for me, but I am going to begin daily praying about murder as a public health crisis. And I am going to educate myself about what I, and our church can do going forward.
Because I cannot imagine our grandchildren and our children, yours or mine, growing up like this any longer.
What do I mean, when I say “like this?” What I mean is that if those 9 people in Charleston had died from SARS, or Ebola, or malaria, or the bubonic plague — our nation and its resources would be mobilized. And yet because of the complexity of the politics, because of the complexity of the legal arguments and the variances in the interpretations of constitutional rights, but of the complexity of talking about mental health and racial hatred, we seem to be powerless in conversations about societal change.
Theses storms, these two cultural and historical ones, just like the literal ones which stir the oceans and the seas, they threaten to overwhelm.
Today I throw my trust upon Jesus Christ. Today I call upon all us to throw our trust upon Jesus Christ. For he is the calmer of the storms. He is the healer of broken hearts and broken souls. And he invites us, just as he invited the disciples long ago, to join him on the boat, in the middle of it all, engaging the storm and giving a witness to the calming miracle of faith.
The disciples were witnesses to the calming of a storm - which before it happened they believed was impossible. Let’s believe as much. At least hope for as much. Our good land has been stained far too long.