Normal isn’t good enough
A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns
on 20 June 2021 [4 Pentecost]:
Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
In today’s gospel we heard that Jesus and the disciples were caught in a storm and as usual were freaking out because they thought they were going to die. Which should not surprise us in the least because prior to Pentecost, and this story takes place well before then, the disciples do little more than freak out and not understand most of what Jesus tells them, which is fitting since as disciples of Jesus, we do not get what he is saying most of the time either.
In the story they are on a boat and are crossing the sea, I assume it is the sea of Galilee. Whenever bodies of water appear in the bible, I immediately think that it likely represents some sort of barrier and in this case the raging storm represents the emotional barriers we place between ourselves and God. The irony is that it is only God that can help us break the barriers we use to keep them away, or even keep us from creating them in the first place.
Let’s break it down. Jesus, a.k.a. the embodiment or manifestation of God on earth, has been teaching people, especially his disciples, how to be faithful followers of God. He has encouraged them to have faith, to trust that God will not let them down. Jesus has now led his disciples onto a boat, and they are crossing the Sea, which is a great unknown. No one then or now really knows what lurks beneath the waves and sudden storms are common on the Sea of Galilee, so floating around on a hunk of wood is not exactly the safest thing to do in the first century. Jesus is so sure that everything will be fine that he takes a nap, knowing full well that the faith he has in God will see him through his journey. The disciples on the other hand are awake and as soon as the storm begins, they jump to the conclusion that they are going to die, and they are shocked that Jesus could be so calm that he is sleeping through it. Once again this is a demonstration of what it means to have a little bit of faith versus what it means to have complete faith in God. Jesus has no doubt that he is safe, but the disciples just cannot let go, they cannot overcome their fear, they cannot break the barrier they have placed between themselves and God, which is what the storm represents. The storm is the fear and anxiety that lurks in us all, it controls us, it causes us to hide behind false logic and assumptions, but the good news is that with the help and grace of God we can get through it. It is God that remains calm, even in the face of what seems like certain death; it is God that is always present to the truth; it is God that has and will continue to be at the rudder, patiently waiting to steer us in the right direction.
Sometimes the barriers we need to break through are personal, but many are collective. The greatest of all barriers between us God, between us and God’s kingdom is fear. It is fear that keeps us from learning our history, or more likely fear that helps us forget it. I think that many people fear that we may find out that things in the past were not as rosy as we think they were. It is also fear that causes us to think that the past is the past, and we need to leave it there. It is fear that causes us shy away from repentance and reconciliation because we do not want to face the pain it may cause in ourselves, and certainly in others. Ultimately, we simply fear the unknown and the harsh possibility that we may be wrong or have even caused harm to someone, which at our cores we don’t want to do.
Yesterday marked the first ever federal recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday. Juneteenth has been celebrated by many in the black community for a very long time as the day that slavery was finally abolished in the United States because it was on June 19, 1865, that the Union Army arrived in Galveston Texas and issued General Order no. 3, which required that all slaves in the rebel state of Texas be freed immediately. Slavery was officially abolished with the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865, but effectively it was over as of June 19 of the same year. The creation of a new federal holiday to celebrate the ending of slavery is a huge deal and it is long overdue, however it does not mean that we can now sit back and assume that all is forgiven, that racial reconciliation has been achieved, because that is not the case. If anything, this is a long overdue first step towards reconciliation, it is a step that God has been pushing us towards for a very long time, but it is only one step, all be it a wonderful one.
Systemic racism is one of the larger barriers through which God is trying to guide us. It is a barrier between us and God because it violates almost every tenet of Christianity, but most importantly systemic racism is a prime example of how our society does not treat everyone the same. Legal and emotional barriers were constructed to ensure that people were separated and those systems, while legally gone, are still affecting millions of people and the level of resistance to just naming and recognizing those systems, let alone addressing them, is staggering. Those systems are the storm, and we are all in it, but a good number of us refuse to accept that the storm even exists.
There are much less turbulent storms, such as the barrier we have constructed around COVID and the future. There is a great desire to get back to normal, and in many ways, we are, but we are also afraid. We are afraid that normal will not come or that normal will be different, but the truth is that normal, at least the normal we desire is wrong, it is wrong because the normal we desire is not the kingdom of God, it is not creation as intended, normal is the raging storm of systemic racism and self-centered hypocrisy. The normal we long for is comfortable, it is safe, it is peaceful, but it is not God’s vision for creation, which means that it isn’t as good as we think it is. If returning to a post COVID world means going to back to ignoring each other and the many issues that separate us, instead of taking care to ensure everyone is safe and included, then I don’t want to go back. I am absolutely ready to stop wearing a mask, and have done so, but what I don’t want to lose is the sense of community I felt as we all did our best to stop the spread of a deadly disease, because we didn’t only do it to protect ourselves, we did it to protect humanity and that means that during COVID we took a step in the right direction, we took a step towards kingdom living, we lived our faith and gave meaning to the words “love your neighbor as yourself”.
We took a step in the right direction, but we are by no means ready for the marathon. We can get there, but we need to train, and we need to make sure that our training regimen is the right one. We need to read scripture, we need to learn the truth about our society and how we treat each other, we need to pray that God will guide us, and then we need to take another step, trusting that God will steer us in the right direction.