Now is the Time: Charleston and the Secret Meeting Sermon 6/21/15

Now is the time. Last week when Bishop Jeff Fisher was with us, we were queued up with the choir for procession, listening to the choir sing the Spirit Song, “Jesus, Come and Fill Your Lambs,” when one of the choir members got my attention and pointed to the small clock posted about the entrance to the worship space. The hands were spinning out of control. They hadn’t been doing that just a few minutes before, as I was nervously checking the time, wanting my first visit as priest from a bishop to go p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y. I got the Bishop’s attention and pointed toward the clock. We both chuckled and smiled. We were entering God’s time. Today again we enter God’s time. Today we are getting into the boat, pulling away from shore and heading into deep water. Deep ocean I’m going to tell you about the first time I met Ben Bythewood. I always hoped that some day it would be the right time to tell this story about the young former mayor of Woodville, Texas, but I never imagined it would be this soon. And I never imagined that it would be because of this set of circumstances. A couple of weeks ago, nobody imagined that Ben would go out on a cruise with his cherished wife Amy – one of my high school classmates – and that on that cruise, the Lord would take him home. This past Wednesday night, nobody imagined that a young man would kill nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Nobody imagined that our personal lives, our community and national lives could get so stormy…that the wind could blow so hard, the water could come into the boat, and we could be so shaken in sorrow and fear. Nobody imagined. But now Ben is gone, standing face to face with his Creator, beside the nine from Charleston. And this is the time. The time is now.

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The Hon. Ben Bythewood, former Mayor of Woodville, Texas, and a true man of God. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Photo: Ben’s Facebook page.

I was standing with Amy and Ben at a gathering at Woodville Methodist Church as we were meeting each other and making introductions for the first time, and suddenly Ben – the huge, tall bear of a man he was – leaned in and whispered to me. He said, “Can I ask you something?” Not having any idea what he was going to say, I said, “Sure.” He looked fearfully to his left and his right and leaned in further, and in hushed whispers, asked me if I’d be willing to be part of a gathering of a few local ministers to begin an effort to work together on race relations in Tyler County. I was brand new to St. Paul’s and Woodville, and I really had no idea what the state of racial relations was in Tyler County, but I knew my answer: yes. Ben whispered that he’d have his secretary call me. A few weeks later, about the time I thought I had imagined it all, I got a call from Ben’s office, inviting me to “the meeting.” Soon after, I went to the meeting. It was a mixture of black and white ministers and some regional officials. We had a meal and spent time telling our stories – about our raising and our backgrounds, being honest with each other, and vulnerable to each other, about our upbringing and life experience as it related to racism. Then the tenor of the meeting changed. We talked vaguely about what areas we might be able to have an impact on. “You know we need to get into the schools!” We talked about it, but we didn’t really know what the next step was. We prayed together. To be very honest, it felt like a weak effort and I went away disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but it didn’t feel very glamorous to me. I wish I’d made time to have this conversation with Ben. But now is the time to have it with you. And for you to have it with each other. And for us to have it with this community. The time is now. Our scriptures today remind us that whether you are facing Goliath or facing the storm, the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. God works his mighty power through what seems small and vulnerable. Empires cannot stand against the true power of God. The empires of violence and racism cannot stand against the true power of God. In Samuel, it seems like Goliath is an insurmountable force, but David goes to meet him in the storm of battle, not with the heavy armor of Saul but just as he is, just like Jesus was when he got into the boat – armed with faith, walking in the way of the One True God, believing that God is working in the world.

Illustration by The Beke.

Illustration by The Beke.

In Mark, the disciples are afraid of the storm and rush to wake up Jesus, desperately asking, “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” They don’t yet understand that God is already at work. He is already on the boat with them. So to show them again, he rises and calms the storms. Jesus is the King of all Creation, and the power to calm the storm is in his hand. God is at work stilling the storm. Are you listening? Or are you still, like the disciples, stuck at “Who is this?” God is already in the boat with us, and he is at work stilling the storm. How, where? He was on that cruise ship – blessing Amy and surrounding her with helpers who supported her and her family. And when she got home, he was there in the outpouring of love from this community to shield her and hold her up through these difficult days. God is at work in that beautiful, bright blue-eyed grandson she holds that looks so much like Ben. God is at work calming the storm. God was at work when that 21-year-old man from Charleston stood up before a judge for his arraignment, and one after another, family members of his victims stood with heartbroken voice and said, “We forgive you. We forgive you. Every fiber of our being is aching, but God says to forgive. Turn to Jesus. We forgive you.” As people sank to their knees outside that hearing and outside Emanuel AME, as they stand this morning inside church after church across the country and hold hands and embrace in peace, as we sing and pray, God is at work calming the storm. I wish Ben were here today, because I would apologize to him. First I would apologize for thinking that he didn’t accomplish much at that meeting. I would apologize and beg his forgiveness, and God’s, for failing to have enough faith to see that the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. I went away disappointed because I didn’t realize that God was at work in that group of pastors who felt helpless, but who still had the courage to come together and start SOMEWHERE. I see it now. Thank you Ben. May we have the courage to continue what you started. Now is the time to go out into the storm and face our Goliath. Now is the time to stand up for God’s justice, to love with his mercy, and to walk humbly with him when we find ourselves being Goliath. This week our bishops have put out a call for us to pray for Charleston, and for priests to speak a call to action from our pulpits. I share these words from Bishop Doyle with you: “Now is not the time for a cowardly church but a proclaiming missionary church which is at work offering a vision of a kingdom that is being built and a reign of God underway. Now is the time for bravery and commissioned missionary work where our hands join the hands of God to still the storm of the world and to heal the sick, help the blind to see, and the poor to have good things. “Now is the time for our voices to join the voice of God and still the storm around us. It is our opportunity as missionaries to name God in the world putting down the forces which seek to destroy God’s creation and the creatures of God.” God is at work. Now is the time.

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