The year my brother turned 30, he joined a small crew on a 54-foot wooden sailboat named the Princess Taiping on a journey across the Pacific Ocean. The boat was a replica of a 16th century Chinese ship, traveling the course from China to North America and back again to prove that China's greatest admiral of the Ming Dynasty could have reached North America 600 years ago. And the Princess Taiping, with her 11-person crew of Japanese, American, and Chinese sailors, nearly achieved this goal. But at 2 a.m. on the stormy night before they expected to arrive in Taiwan, just 30 miles from shore, all crew members were called to the deck. Looming over their heads, a huge chemical freighter approached and then plowed over and through the Princess Taiping, slicing the boat in half. My brother and his crewmates all survived; he has explained to me many times how the wooden vessel saved them in a way that fiberglass surely wouldn’t have, but I’m not still not sure I could explain it to you.
Nevertheless, their fate wasn’t obvious for many hours, since the freighter continued on, leaving Larz and the others clinging to that same wooden wreckage in the dark, cold, night. They were in the water for nearly four hours, unsure if they were waiting for death or rescue. When Larz talks about this time, there is reverence in his voice. He speaks sparingly of a mystical knowledge, understanding, that we are but complex drops of water in this vast world ourselves. This is no longer an idea for him, but a felt and known reality. And yet, amazingly, this experience did not lead him to a place of terror or despondency. Because at the same time, he says, came an equally powerful experience of benevolence at the heart of it all, a peace and goodness that he is as sure of as our smallness. Even when he thought he might be perishing, no more significant than a drop of water in the ocean, he caught a glimpse of God’s care.
How can this be? I once pressed a bishop on this question of God’s goodness in the face of abject human suffering. To his credit, he answered with a humility and sincerity I have never forgotten: I can’t answer with words that will be satisfying, he said. But I can only tell you that when I lived in Haiti, among the world’s poorest people, and I questioned God’s justice, this is what they told me again and again. Le Bondieu est bon. God is good.
Today we hear of Jesus, sleeping in the back of the little fishing boat on a pillow as the water comes pouring in. There is something comical about the scene until we hear the disciples question: “teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Suddenly the story is no longer funny. Our hearts leap to the painful storm of this week: the horror of nine beautiful men and women killed as they gathered to meditate upon God’s word, Jesus’ place in their lives and how they might live forth that truth. Good Lord, we cry: Do you not care?
Of course I care, Jesus cries in response. I was there. I was there, in agony, receiving each saint with loving care.
But picking up the killer by the scruff of his neck and throwing him out of the room is not my way.
And there’s the rub, isn’t it?
Because we latch on to stories like Jesus calming the sea and jump to simple-minded conclusions: God can do anything, right? So why won’t God stop this darkness, this hate, this pain?
Yet our scriptures and tradition calls us back to this hard truth again and again: If you want a manhandling, super-hero god, Jesus is not your man, Christianity is not your religion. Jesus calms the waves, casts out demons, multiplies bread, invites folks to follow, but he never exercises such power over a human will or human life. Our freedom to choose life and love seems caught up in the very essence of what it means to be made in the image of God.
When our brothers and sisters lie in a pool of blood, it is reasonable to ask what’s so great about free will.
But think back to a situation in your life, if you can, when you felt coerced, forced, controlled. Love suffocates. Creativity withers. Compassion dries up.
And while elements of God’s sovereignty remain forever beyond our gaze, this much seems clear: God as revealed in Jesus relates to humans through humility, not conventional power and dominance. God is a small peasant man who subverts conventional structures of authority, like family and patriarchy, with stories and words, not the royal pupeteer pulling divine strings of power and influence. On this earth, at least, God seems to care more about fostering a depth of love -- for God and for others -- than ensuring order and obedience. We know not why.
As we rage, as we struggle to understand, as we cry over the injustice and pain of our national community, we are not lost, alone, powerless. Jesus’ way may not be to pick up men and women by the scruff of their neck, but it is not just sitting around in denial or apathy, either. Even in our uncertainty, there is so much we can do to practice Jesus’ way. He asks us to hear, really listen, to what the suffering are saying. He asks us to open our eyes and see what is really going on in our communities, in our country. He asks us to pray and watch with him. He asks us to follow him in confronting the institutions and people that continue histories and legacies of oppression. We see this way, Christ’s way, in the victim’s family members who lost a son, mother, grandmother, and faced their enemy in person by speaking truth about their pain, AND their trust in the ultimate victory of forgiveness and love over hatred.
This morning, during the prayers of the people, we will hear the bell ring nine times, for our nine brothers and sisters in Christ of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: for
• Cynthia Hurd, a sister, a librarian.
• Susie Jackson, a grandmother.
• Ethel Lee Vance, a sexton.
• DePayne Middleton-Doctor, an admissions counselor.
• Clementa Pickney, a state senator, pastor, father, husband.
• Tywanza Sanders, community mentor, barber, and aspiring businessman.
• Daniel Simmons, father, pastor, retiree.
• Sharonda Singleton, mother, pastor, track coach.
To hear, to see, to pray, to follow: it might sound overwhelming, terrifying. And yet in the midst of the storm: Mon Dieu. Bondieu. There is God, bringing peace. We know not how.
The Rev. Laurel Mathewson
June 21, 2015 / St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego