When I started researching for this morning’s sermon earlier this week, I was looking forward to dramatically re-telling you about Peter’s comical encounter with Jesus and explain how the Big Fisherman got himself into another fine mess because of his vanity and impetuosity. We were all going to have a good laugh, largely at Peter’s expense, and somehow I would bring the message all together, quite cleverly, as a lesson about how Jesus is willing to help us even when we do foolish and rash things.
It was my intention to reach out to those of you who are currently overwhelmed because of your circumstances and give you words of hope and inspiration, so that you could rely on Jesus to rescue you from whatever troubles you are facing. It would have been a humdinger of a sermon, cleverly crafted and passionately presented to help you all, but as Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Poet once wrote,
‘The best laid schemes o’ mice and men, gang aft agley.’
After yesterday’s tragic and disturbing events in Charlottesville, VA, I was left thinking that we are all struggling in stormy times and floundering in a sea of discontent. That ‘sinking feeling’ is owned by every one of us here today because the America that we have loved is sinking under a tidal wave of intolerance, ignorance, and inhumanity. What we saw in the streets of Charlottesville – that beautiful college town full of young people and the very place where Thomas Jefferson, the Architect of our Declaration of Independence, lived – was a frightening return to the anarchy that almost ruined this nation in the 1950s and 60s. We saw racists, under the hypocritical ruse of protecting the Confederacy of the South, force their wicked beliefs on the streets of a town that has flourished and grown in diversity and unity as a 21st century cosmopolitan community. Those same racists flaunted their bigoted message by chanting ‘Sieg Heil!’ using Nazi salutes, symbols, and banners to display their so called ‘strength and unity.’ I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing – especially after burying a great American hero in our church this week – Fran Ayers – who signed up as a teenager to join the US Armed Forces during World War 2 and who survived the Battle of the Bulge, more than seventy years ago, against the same kind of Fascists in Nazi Germany.
How dare those so-called ‘Americans’ besmirch the real and true American heroes of that great generation! Those racists, those white supremacists, those neo-Nazis and members of the KKK, who claim to be true-blooded Americans, are really wannabe Nazi bullies, whose hatred has tarnished the soul of our great nation and soils the supreme sacrifices that US men and women have made in the Armed Forces since our nation began in 1776. We cannot let this highly charged storm of events and waves of enmity to continue. If we say or do nothing, we will sink beneath an ocean of lies, hatred, and injustice, which should not even exist in our 21st century America.
For over four hundred years, Presbyterians like us have been at the forefront when liberties have been threatened and taken away by bullies and mobs. We have always cared deeply about justice and mercy, and the rights of common people – whether as Covenanters in 17th century Scotland, or revolutionaries in the 18th century colonies, or as Abolitionists in 19th century America, or as marchers in the 20th century Civil Rights movement. At each of those moments in history, evil has threatened to engulf all that we hold dear, especially our lives, liberty, equality, and pursuit of happiness – all unalienable rights given to us by God alone – which means that they cannot be taken away or extinguished by those who would force bigotry, intolerance, and racism upon our society, in order to take us back to the captivity, supremacy, and tyranny that evil tries to impose over free people of each and every generation.
You know, as Church people, as Presbyterians, and especially as Christians, we have a divine responsibility – not a divine right – a divine responsibility of confronting racism, bigotry, and prejudice wherever they emerge and occur. We must hold ourselves accountable by refusing to indulge in the hatred of people because of who they are and how different they are from us. If we pass on prejudicial Facebook posts, cartoons, or jokes that diminish others, then we are guilty of racism and prejudice, too. If we see someone being treated horridly because of the color of their skin or ethnic origin, and we say or do nothing, then we are implicated, under the Sovereignty of God, as bigots and hypocrites. If we refuse to hold our leaders accountable for false statements, intolerant ideas, divisional declarations, and unjust words, then we are part of the problem which is beginning to erode our freedoms and overwhelm our communities. We are in danger of sinking beneath the unholy waves of conceit, rancor, and self-righteousness, as well crashing onto the rocks of delusion, indifference, and neglect.
It is said that the great British Parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, once spoke these words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” There is no factual proof that he did express those words, but he did have this to say in 1770: When bad men combine, good people must associate with one another, else the good will fall, one by one, as an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
The great philosopher, John Stuart Mill, in an inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, said this in his speech in 1867: “Bad men need nothing more to accomplish their ends, than that good people should look on and do nothing.”
In the midst of the storm in Lake Galilee, Peter lost his faith in Jesus because of the violent winds and crashing waves. His fear overwhelmed his spirit and he began to sink below the surface. This is what made him cry out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”At that moment, Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter back onto the boat. Only after this, when all of the disciples were united together on the boat, did Jesus calm the storm. Only then, were the winds and waves made still.
Today, my dear friends, as Christians and Presbyterians, as Americans and human beings, we cry out to our Lord to save us not from the storm, but to save us during the storm. We seek His presence to strengthen our faith, our resolve, and our ability to confront this evil in our midst and to advance the Gospel of faith, hope, and love.
Let us be clear on this one fact – Charlottesville August, 2017 has changed us all. The question we face is this today: how can we do something to restore who we actually are as a community of diverse people living in fearful times?
If you look at the very end of our worship bulletin, you will find our church’s Vision Statement. I would like us all to stand and say this, with our right hands over our hearts, and make a true commitment to this vision. I would like to say a prayer, first of all, which I wrote yesterday and shared with many pastors on Facebook, who are using it in their church services today. Let us stand; let us pray:
Our times are in Your hands,
And our nation is under Your care.
We call upon You
To protect us from all evil,
From the tyrannies of bigotry
And the plagues of ignorance;
From the demons of division
And the desolation of disunity.
Free us from unfettered fear
And release us from self-righteousness.
Unchain us from our past mistakes
And calm us during our present crisis.
Let Your love lead us from turmoil
And guide us back from the brink
Of intolerance and inhumanity.
Keep us mindful of Your Will
And allow us the true hope
Of healing, peace, and faith.
In Your Holy Name,
We beseech You.
ALL: Unified in Christ, we actively seek to create harmony in a diverse community through compassion, mutual respect, and love. Amen.
SHARING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST WITH ONE ANOTHER.