“What’s in the Water?” (Mark 4:35-41)
Alan P. Sherouse

Preaching from the Floor

A sermon preached from the floor, in memory of the empty pulpit of Emanuel AME Church

This morning’s gospel passage takes us to water. Hang around Jesus long enough and you end up here sooner or later. We’ve been down to the river for Jesus’ baptism. We’ve walked along the lakeshore where he calls the disciples. We’ve seen Jesus preaching from the water, disciples fishing in the water, and all of them repeatedly criss-crossing the sea. The story of Jesus’ life is marked by water.

Our lives are marked by water, too: waters we visit or cross, waters we admire and appreciate. But did you know, of all of the freshwater on this earth, only about 1 percent of it is on the surface? See, the rest of it is underground, beneath the surface, flowing in and out without us knowing. Sometimes it seeps into our freshwater supply, where we consume it, but mostly it escapes our notice, until every now and then it churns or gusts, or begins to storm – like it does in today’s passage.

The story appears in all 4 gospels. It’s so important that no story of the good news of Jesus Christ would be complete without this episode. In Mark, it’s one of several sea crossing stories as Jesus moves back and forth from place to place. These crossings – these moments on the water – become critical, defining moments for the disciples, where they have the chance to demonstrate their faith. Instead – spoiler alert – the disciples never miss a chance to act out of their fear and uncertainty. They demonstrate that they long for the shore with all of its stability, where they can plant their feet, enjoy the view, admire and appreciate the water, but keep a safe distance and recoil from it when it makes them feel uncertain and vulnerable.

We’re not so different. I think that’s why from the beginning, the Christian church has embraced this passage and its imagery. In early writing and art, the ship was a metaphor for the church. The Latin word for “boat” is “nave.” “Nave” which is the word in some traditions for the central part of a church building – the place where we are sitting and standing even now. In the boat.

These are the waters that we travel in. And sometimes the crossing is by night, with the familiar things – the landmarks and shoreline – obscured from view. We know waters like these and how quickly the storms can sweep across the surface. Water churning, waves swelling, it asks us to choose between faith and fear.

In this morning’s passage, the disciples are overwhelmed. They can’t see the shore, and the boat is rocking and taking on water. They don’t know what to do, what to say, so they rush to Jesus, “Don’t you care… don’t you see we’re perishing… what are you going to do to save us from the storm?”

We understand the reflex. A racist gunman enters the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church this week, and in the churning, overwhelming aftermath of the massacre, so many of us were left searching for something familiar or stable and we desperately came to God in lament or prayers. “How long, O Lord?” was the cry from so many.

“How long?” we ask. But I imagine God turning toward us in the way that Jesus did to those disciples. Asking us whether it will be faith or fear? Wondering how we will respond to the crisis and what it evokes.

“How long?” we ask. And I imagine God saying, “As long as you continue to gather together and talk about everything except reconciliation, except honestly looking at your past and your present, except organizing for change. That long.”

“How long, O Lord?” “As long as you fail to challenge white supremacy and privilege, patriarchy, racism, and violence – as long as you benefit from it and refuse to interrogate it. That’s how long.”

“How long, O Lord?” And God responds, “As long as you prefer the safety of the shore and keep waiting on me alone to intervene.”

“How long, O Lord?” And God says to us, “How long, O people? How long, O Church?”

For these waters are not new to us. It’s not the first time we’ve tried to cross. In fact, these are the waters we travel every day – the waters that surround this nave. But somehow it’s not until we’re tossed about that we speak or act. Why is that we only seem to notice when there’s a storm?

That’s the murderer’s middle name, you know? Storm.

We’re fixated on him. It’s a particular sociological phenomenon, in the wake of such tragedy: the desire to know the perpetrator. The name begins to circulate, then the face, then the story, the facts, the speculation about motive. It becomes an obsession of the news cycle: security photos, then mugshots, then profile photos from whatever lunatic website to which he’s posted. Within a day, his name and image are known to us and we can’t look away.

Because if I can focus on him, I can make this about a single racist rather than a system – a specific incident rather than a history.

If I can learn his story, I can distance myself from his motives and name them insanity.

If I can just get some quick details, I can assure myself of how different from him I am.

If I can just see his face, you see, then I don’t have to look at my own.

But if I do that, I will have only noticed the surface, and forgotten how much is underground, flowing in and out without us knowing, seeping into our water supply where we consume it, so often while escaping our notice.

This is what the theorist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva means when he talks about “racism without racists.” That is, the problem in our society is not racists. We have fewer overt racists than we did in years gone by. We have fewer people wearing hoods, and fewer people attacking churches. But even if you were to take all of those overtly racist lunatics that seem so different than us, and remove them completely – placing them on an island somewhere where they can all shave their heads and do whatever else it is that racists do – the systems they built would still be here. And without checking it, interrogating it, noticing it, considering it and deconstructing it, the system will continue to function just as it was constructed to in places like our schools, our prisons, our economy. That’s why you can lock up a perpetrator, view his mugshot behind bars, but the conditions that shape him still exist.

And if we only focus on the storm, we will never notice the water.

Jesus is calling us into the water today, “Come let us cross to the other side,” he says once again. It’s what he’s always doing, crossing from one side to another, traveling the great distances, spanning the gulf, and calling us to do the same.

And if we follow him, sometimes we will have to cross by night, with the familiar landmarks obscured from our view. We’ll have to let familiar shores where we’ve been assured and privileged fade into the distance, and we will be exposed out there to the kind of discord and disruption that can sweep across the water, tossing us about and sometimes knocking us from our squarely planted feet.

Some turn back, of course. It’s too threatening setting out to these waters and taking on their motion and noise. So some of us turn back seasick, fed up, hopeless, frightened. And back at the shore we can find stability, assurance, safety… but we won’t find Jesus there.

Jesus is in the boat. Jesus us with those who are seeking to cross the divides. He’s not on the shore with feet in the sand. He’s not hovering 10 feet overhead, immune from the motion or protected from the waves. No, the story of incarnation and the great hope of the gospel is that Christ is crossing with us, sometimes sinking with us, and yet inspiring us and assuring us that there is a way to the other side.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ response to the cowering, seasick disciples is not a rebuke but a question. Not “Don’t be afraid!” But instead, “Why are you afraid?” In the end he’s not seeking faith instead of fear, but faith in the midst of our fears.

For these waters are fearsome even after the storm has stilled. In fact, do you notice? Even after the waves are quiet and the boat steady, the fear of the disciples remains. He stills the storm and asks why they are afraid and “They were filled with awe” our translation this morning says.

A better translation might be the KJV: “They were terrified” or literally, “They feared a great fear.” The great calm of the waters does not preclude the great fear of Jesus’ followers. It doesn’t erase our fears, either.

For some types of fear may be a contrast to our experience with Christ, but some types of fear are a consequence of it. It is the difference between the fear of Good Friday – “Jesus, don’t you care that we perish?” – and the fear of Easter when the women leave the tomb and do not tell anyone because they were terrified by what they had seen, and perhaps what it would ask of them. 

So maybe Jesus didn’t come simply to calm all of our fears, but to invoke some of them, too. For if there’s not some element of fear and risk in the journey you are taking… if there’s not something at stake in the things to which you are giving your life… if you don’t stand to lose something… you might check to see if you’ve boarded the right boat.

My friend Jim Somerville shared this week at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly a story about his daughter, Ellie, who lives in Charleston. I knew Ellie from my former church, Metro Baptist Church in New York, when she moved to the City early in her career in design and publishing. She is now a young professional living in Charleston, about 2 blocks from Emanuel AME Church.

After the tragedy, Ellie spent much of Thursday on the phone with her parents. “I don’t know what to do”, she said, reflecting on the fact that she was one of the few white residents of that neighborhood. She could feel the collective pain of her neighbors… and she likely felt some of the dissonance of being a new white resident in a gentrifying African-American neighborhood. What could she possibly do or say from that position?

Later that afternoon, she spoke to her mother, “I don’t know what to do” she said once again. “Well, it’s important to do something, Ellie. If you do nothing, it might send the message that you’re unaffected and that you think somehow none of this applies to you.”

So Ellie worked up her courage. She got up off the couch, and not knowing exactly what to do, she walked down the stairs of her town home and out the front door. Then she kept walking across the street and she knocked on the door of a neighbor. An elderly African American woman came to the door and Ellie said, “Hi. We’ve not met but I’m your neighbor across the street. I just sort of walked over here today. And I don’t really know what to do, but I’m hurting and I know you must be hurting and I wanted to say I’m so sorry.”

And that older woman and that young woman embraced there on that stoop. They wept. And for a moment the waters calmed.

That’s what you do. You follow the one who is constantly crossing the gulfs, back and forth again and again. And you don’t wait for the storm to begin the work.

I want to close today with some history and then a confession.

As many of you know, Wednesday’s massacre was not the first attack on the AME Church known as Mother Emanuel. The oldest Black church in the South, Emanuel was built by Denmark Vesey, a free black man and abolitionist, and the attack this week was meticulously carried out on the 193rd anniversary of his failed slave revolt (June 17, 1822). Within days of that failed revolt, Vesey and 5 others were immediately executed after a secret trial, with 30 more slaves executed after secret trials in the following months. In the ensuing days, officials exaggerated the scale of the rebellion in order to justify further restrictions on slaves and free black men and women. Blaming the revolt on the local AME Church, they eventually ordered it to disband and burned it down in 1834.

But first, in 1829, the white government of Charleston asked the State to set up an armed force to “protect” white residents, to intimidate the black population, and to reinforce the system of slavery and oppression with military might. They built the South Carolina State Arsenal, which today is known as the original site of The Citadel. They built it where it could be seen by those it was meant to intimidate including those in bondage on the more than 800 slave ships that would arrive to Charleston’s harbor over its history.

Why do I tell you that? A confession: the architect of that citadel was a man named Frederick Wesner, who is also among two credited with the capture of Denmark Vesey years before. I found out this week that Frederick Wesner – architect, slave catcher, and Charleston aristocrat – was a great, great, great, great uncle of mine. Today, the fortress designed by my 4th great uncle, stands within sight of Mother Emanuel Church, where on Wednesday 9 more souls were summarily murdered by racism, white supremacy, and hate.

You see, so much that stands today in this society has been constructed for reasons we might never consider. And we are wrapped up in it in ways we are only beginning to understand.

In other words, it’s in the water.

And we cannot stay on shore. We must follow after the one who even now says, “Come, let’s cross to the other side.”