We Are Perishing 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 4:35-41. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

That’s what the disciples said to Jesus when they were terrified, when they were all alone in a little boat in the middle of big wide water in the center of a big wild storm. That was the single sentence into which they poured all their fear and anxiety and perplexity and helplessness, the only way they could think of to cry out that they were lost and scared and didn’t know what to do. “Master, don’t you even care that we are dying?”

And the thing is, Mark doesn’t make it clear what exactly it is the disciples think Jesus can do. Do they think that he will rescue them? That’s what happens. But they are so surprised when it happens, that it’s kind of hard to imagine that’s what they expected in the first place. What did they think Jesus could do? When they cried out to him that they were perishing, was that a cry of hope?

Or was it a cry of despair? Were the disciples so sure that they were about to die that they wanted Jesus to wake up and see them before they all drowned? Were they afraid that if Jesus kept on sleeping he would not have time to say his last prayers before the boat went under the waves? Did they want their friend to stand and face death with them? Did they say “Master, don’t you even care that we are perishing?” because they were filled with despair?

Sometimes we are not exactly sure what we are praying. Sometimes the storms of life, the winds and the waves, the fears and the confusions, the hope of rescue and the anxiety of annihilation, are so overwhelming, so mixed up together, that we’re really not sure what we’re crying when we cry out to God. Sometimes the line between hope and despair is very thin indeed, and we are not entirely sure which side of that line we are on. Sometimes we cry out “Master, don’t you care that we are dying?”, and we don’t even know what we expect God to do about it.

I imagine a lot of us are praying that way today, and have been praying that way for the last couple of days, ever since the news broke of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Nine more deaths, nine more people gone, nine more lives blanked out in the spiral of violence, the whirlwind of hatred, the seemingly endless cycle of killings that dominate our news and our national life. We are dying.

Maybe not us, here, in this room, on this morning. Maybe we feel safe enough. But like the Bible study at Emanuel AME, our doors are always open, and anyone can walk in and join us in prayer, and we have no idea who might have a gun tucked in their waistband and did not come here to pray.

We may feel like the color of our skin protects us from racially motivated hatred and violence, and that the actions of Dylann Roof have no effect and no reflection on us.

But we are all citizens of one nation. We are all members of one humanity. We are all sisters and brothers of Christ in Christ’s Church. If one member suffers, all suffer together; and it’s not us and them, it’s we; and we are dying.

And there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to stop it. We try to break the connection between guns and violence and it doesn’t work. We try to improve mental health services and help people before they turn violent and it doesn’t work. We try to engage in anti-racism and building up right-relationships in multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities – even something so simple as our Trinity Church partnering with Allen Chapel AME for music and prayer and Lenten devotion and food – and no matter how hard we try, the hatred is still out there. We are dying, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to stop it.

And in fear and sorrow and helplessness and outrage we join the disciples in the Gospel today and we cry out, “God, don’t you even care that we are dying here?”

In the story I’m not sure what the disciples expected. What happened was that Jesus woke up, faced into the winds and the waves, said “Peace! Be still!”, and then turned to the disciples themselves and said “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

And I have always thought that there are really two miracles in this story. There’s the outward and visible miracle of calming the storm. But there’s also an inward and spiritual miracle of calming the disciples, stilling their fears, giving them courage to do what they need to do in faith.

Remember, several of the disciples were fishermen. Oh, sure, Matthew was a tax collector, and Simon the Zealot was a political activist – but Peter and Andrew and James and John were all fishermen. They’d worked on Lake Galilee all their lives. They knew how to handle boats. They knew how to handle storms. They knew that storms were dangerous, and they knew when they were in genuine peril – but they also knew what to do about it, how to haul in the sail and bail out the boat and do what they needed to do to keep on going through the storm. They knew all that – but they were so afraid, so overwhelmed by the storm of feelings within, that they forgot they knew how to do what they had to do. They forgot – until Jesus said to them, “Peace. Be still. Don’t be afraid. Trust in God. Do what you have to do.” Then, with God the Holy Spirit strengthening them, they could sail their boat.

And I think that is pretty much what Jesus is saying to us today. “Peace. Be still. Don’t be afraid. Put your trust in God. Do what you have to do.” Our grief and fear and outrage and helplessness and shame are all very real; but the strength and courage given us by God the Holy Spirit are also very real. And, with trust in God, we know what we have to do.

We hear it in the words of the victims’ families, when they spoke to Dylann Roof in court on Friday. One family member said: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

We hear it in the statement made by Joseph P. Riley, Jr., mayor of Charleston: “A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he’d be able to divide, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more.”

We hear it in the press release from Bishop Charles von Rosenberg of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina: “As paths of response, may we seek and develop avenues of racial conversation and reconciliation; may we refuse to accept things as they are in our world; and may we strive for the vision of peace offered by Jesus himself. In terms of self examination, may we not neglect our own complicity in an environment of polarization and suspicion, and may we respond with sincere and profound confession to God, who loves us all.”

We know what we have to do. Pray. Forgive. Confess. Hope. Don’t look the other way. Love. Trust in God. Trust that, in God, love wins. Hate won’t win. Love wins.

And, trusting that love wins, act it out. Act out your baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons – especially persons who aren’t like you, whose race and history and class and background is different from yours.

Pay attention to our laws and ordinances and community customs, pay attention to which ones make life easy for some of us and so much harder for others, and which ones build up fairness and genuine equality.

Use your influence, whatever kind of influence it may be – and we all have some kind of influence somewhere –use it to move toward love in action and equality for yourself and those around you and everyone you can reach.

Put your trust in God, and do what you can do.

May the love of Jesus calm our fears, and strengthen our courage, and break down the barriers, and send us out to do the work – the hard, communal, building-up work – of love. Amen.