Sandra Bland and the Stormy Sea: John 6.1–21

lead_960Delivered at Ames UCC on July 19, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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I opened up my social media streams on Saturday morning and immediately my blood pressure spiked and my chest felt heavy. Sandra Bland was being buried.

If you haven’t followed her story, here are the currently verifiable facts: On a Friday she was pulled over by an officer for changing lanes without signaling. As dashcam footage shows, Sandra expressed frustration at being pulled over when she was just trying to get out of the officer’s way on the road: he seemed to need to get past her.

The officer asked Sandra to put out her cigarette and when she refused, he became angry. He threatened her with a taser, saying “I’m going to light you up.” Sandra exited her car, there was an off-camera scuffle, and she was ultimately charged with assaulting an officer. That’s how a traffic infraction resulted in a weekend in jail.

Sandra was held apart from the general population because of the nature of her charge. But over the course of the weekend she spoke with family and friends, and seemed in good spirits, given the circumstances.

On Monday morning Sandra was dead in her cell, from suicide by the local authorities’ account. Sandra was African American and the police officer was white.

As a result, an appalling number of my black friends are feeling the need to post statements like “If I die in police custody, I did not kill myself.” One friend and fellow leader in the United Church of Christ wrote:

Someone told me to remember to put on the whole armor of God when I wake up. I know what the scripture says, but in these yet to be United States of Amerikka people of color need to sleep in it, bathe in it, keep it on 24/7.

Then, of course, there was coverage of the latest movie shooter, this time in Lafayette, Louisiana. This on the heels of the Chattanooga shooting of army recruiters. And that on the heels of the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston.

Sudden, violent death, it seems, is a gun purchase or turn signal away, especially for African Americans.

Maybe that’s part of why—because of the world’s horrors—today’s scripture is so very popular.

Significantly, it is the only of Jesus’ miracle stories to appear in all four gospels. Keep in mind that the gospels were not contemporary accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and Easter mystery. Instead, they were stories shared orally by the original witnesses and then passed among followers for decades before being written down. So we have a good amount of variance between the gospels, in language, in detail, and in emphasis.

But the feeding of the 5,000 made it into all four. Something about this story was strong enough, resilient of truth enough, to make it through from oral to written tradition across time and geography.

It is a feel good story—a feel GREAT story. Because of the generosity of a child, the hungry are sated. The worrywart disciples get schooled on grace—the grace of God and the grace of the gathered crowd. In Jesus, all are fed.

Then there’s today’s second miracle story. It appears in three of the gospels, also paired with the feeding miracle.

I suspect it is slightly less popular within progressive church communities as it is harder to rationalize away. For many of us it is easy to see Jesus as a divinely-infused inspiration for good (discounting just what a miracle inspiring good can be) but not one who could bend the laws of physics.

But the story withstands our doubts.

Jesus took off to avoid being crowned king–he had NO interest in human power structures–and the disciples set off on the sea. There was a storm and the disciples were scared. Jesus appeared. The disciples wanted to pull Jesus into the boat, to protect him from drowning. Instead, “immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.”

I mentioned during my candidating weekend here that some of my favorite theologians are from the black liberation and womanist traditions: James Cone, JoAnne Marie Terrell, Monica Coleman, Dolores S. Williams.

Each of them try, theologically, to make sense of the violence to done African Americans, very often in the name of God and Jesus Christ. They ask where God was in the middle passage, the cotton field, the Great Migration, and now Baltimore, Charleston, Ferguson, New York, and Walter County, Texas.

It’s the same question our faith ancestors asked.

From Genesis to Revelation, we hear them ask,

“Where was God?” Walking around the garden.
“Where was God?” Reframing the covenant after the flood.
“Where was God?” Calling for a mass exodus.
“Where was God?” Protecting Sarah’s motheright but not Hagar’s.
“Where was God?” Silent in the face of religious wars.
“Where was God?” Focused around a manger.
“Where was God?” Weeping at Mary’s side.
“Where was God?” Unleashed and unbounded by Empire.

The national United Church of Christ is inviting us to engage the question, too, specifically in relation to this last year’s epidemic of black death and gun violence.

In a release to all churches, our national minister for racial justice, Elizabeth Leung, wrote,

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, a collective of UCC faith leaders from across the country have gathered on conference calls convened by the Rev. Geoffrey Black. They share about the on-going efforts at local and conference settings to keep people mobilized and engaged in countering institutional racism and sanctioned violence. And they seek to identify all-Church initiatives with course of actions that can make a difference over time. They have recommended Sunday, August 9, 2015, the actual anniversary of Mike Brown’s death, as a time for the UCC to pray together for racial justice…

If you’d like to help me plan that gathering here at Ames UCC, please let me know. Because as all of these deaths show—from Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Charleston to Lafayette—asking the question is not enough.

All Americans are on the sea of gun violence, and Black America is drowning in the particularly nasty squall of racial violence. We are all starved for peace.

So regardless of our individual positions on guns and racism, our personal experiences and analyses of what is going on in our nation, we must do as Christ invites us, just as he did with the disciples who seemed to quarrel so often: come away together to pray.

There are disciples among us who have, in the midst of outrage, sorrow, and fear, set their sextants on the as yet invisible morning star that will deliver them again to a sought-after, safe shore.

Once fortified by prayer, we may join them to give of our listening and our trust, our commitment and our compassion as would a child with barley loaves and fishes.


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