Spine Tingling

September 11, 2015

The Rev. Emily Mellott
Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard 

Texts for the day included 1 Samuel 17:32-49Mark 4:35-41

It can’t really have surprised the experienced fishermen among Jesus’ disciples when a storm blew up and started battering their boat on the way across the Sea of Galilee - sudden and violent storms are normal if unpredictable on that lake - but the terror they felt was appropriate and real.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, even if you’re close to shore, even it’s normal, water is deadly when it churns and blows. But when the disciples wake Jesus up for help, they seem to be looking for comfort and assurance more than rescue.  Instead of calling "Lord, save us," they ask "Teacher, don't you care?”
So Jesus is exceeding expectations when he gets up - turns right into the face of the storm - and says,“Sit! Stay!”
(Literally translated, it’s “Silence! Be muzzled!”  — sharp, severe commmands.)
And the storm obeys. The calm is sudden and paralyzing.
Until he asks them about faith, and all their anxiety returns as awe and wonder, and they shy away from the realization of just how close they’ve been sitting to God’s power: the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything obey.
That same unreasonable power is on display when David faces Goliath.
The Philistine champion is genuinely unbeatable - stronger than any other man, experienced, skilled and well-armed. The terror of Israel’s army was appropriate and real, and King Saul was quite right to try to protect the crazy young boy who volunteered to fight the champion.
Saul suits young David up in his very own armor - the best protection and weaponry to be found - but David strips it all off.  “I can’t walk in this,” he says, and sets out to confront the impossible with one slingshot, five stones, and theology.
In the face of the champion’s deadly strength and skill, it's not the slingshot, the weapon, that knocks down Goliath. It’s the theology.
It’s the way that kid leaps without a net, takes a hopeless stance, because he alone remembers the terrifying power of God, and is willing to shed all the assumptions and protections that stand between him and that power, protections most of us are so used to we can’t function without them.
While Saul, and his army, and everyone else around them  forgot the sheer power of God;
the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything stop and listen.
It’s actually easy to forget how powerful God is.
Even when we pray for miracles,  even when we recite the Creed — full of impossible things we declare that we believe — even when we talk and think about God’s power, it can be easy to forget the raw reality:
forget that direct exposure to God’s power turns your bones to jelly and runs tingling down all your nerves, the way you feel after a screechingly narrow escape from a car accident,
but more so.
So it’s a lot more comfortable to forget; to live without a constant shiver in your bones and trembling in your soul. It’s a lot more attractive to pray and discern God’s will, or try to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, than to expose ourselves to that power that’s impossible to resist or deny.
Most of us don’t actually have to experience that power directly as we try to follow Jesus or know God, but we get ourselves in trouble if we forget it’s real.
I’ve wondered this week if the people who gather regularly for Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston had a lot of practice being stirred by God's raw power.  Their history suggests that like the disciples boating on the Sea of Galilee, they knew that sudden, violent, even deadly storms are a reality of life in the systems of race and class in this country.
The forces that stir those storms, of course, are different from wind and wave, but they are as powerful, more dangerous, and often feel just as intractable.
But welcoming the stranger is something you do as a disciple of Jesus, just like crossing over the Sea of Galilee.
Most of the time you don't drown,
most of the time you don't get shot, or firebombed, or beaten.
But sometimes those predictably unpredictable forces kick up, the danger is real,
and the faithful cry out, "Teacher, wake up, we're dying!"
I watch this happen in the news, and I grieve and pray, but I suspect that - like the disciples in the boat - I've forgotten to call on God's power,
and only remembered to call for comfort and assurance.
I think I’ve gotten too used to grief and anxiety in the face of tragedy, and that experience has made me more comfortable with the subtle, impersonal forces of racism and violence that stir up the violent storms like Charleston and Birmingham and the arson wave of the 90’s, and the Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple shooting,
than with the spine-tingling power of God that shakes and challenges me to my core.
But that power is real,
and it's still possible for Jesus to stand up among us today and command our messy, dangerous, fragile, common life to heart-stopping calm.
I suspect, though, that this story today requires the whole body of Christ, the whole church together - black, white, brown, new, old, young, shy, evangelical, traditional, conservative, liberal, diverse as can be - that only the whole body of Christ can command this storm to still.
And we won't do that if we're not constantly re-opening ourselves to the nerve-wracking, sense-jumbling power of God.
Because just like David standing in front of Goliath, human power can't make the difference.
We have to strip away the armor of custom and expectation and safety, and leave ourselves vulnerable to the power of God.
And the armor we have to discard for that is any belief that these storms are localized,
any belief that the problem isn't ours,
or that someone in charge can solve it.
I doubt many of us consciously choose those beliefs - they are the armor given to us by life - by Saul, by powerful leaders who want to protect us. And good armor is complicated to remove. But like David we have to learn when that protection actually gets in our way,
when to choose to disarm,
so that nothing stands between us and God's hair-raising power.
I've got some pretty good armor of my own that says "you can't preach this one as racism and an epidemic of guns because inflammatory words will keep people from hearing the gospel. You can’t preach what will sound political."
And I might be wrong about taking off that armor now.
(You’ll let me know if I'm wrong.)
But I can’t knock this giant down on my own, even with the best armor, and maybe God can.
It's not even a very big risk to put that shield aside for a few minutes – I’m not dying, I’m not even taking down all the armor that protects me in talking about race and violence - but it still makes my spine tingle a little, because I love you and I don't want to hurt you by starting a fight,
and because I am afraid of both racism and guns.
And it's precisely the shiver in my spine I want to share with you today.
Will you, this week, find something to raise your goosebumps or shake your nerves,
a little, or a lot?
Stand outside in a thunderstorm (we have an abundance of opportunities for that!),
say something heartfelt but truly risky in conversation,
love a neighbor you honestly don’t want in your neighborhood.
Do something that lets go of your safety net just enough to feel it in your spine and skin.
Not because every adrenaline rush comes from God, but because it's prayer.
Because if we stay in our armor we forget to demand miracles and transformation from God, we think we can do it ourselves, and limit what God can do with our vulnerability.
It’s a lot easier here and now to stand in a violent thunderstorm or preach a sermon than to volunteer for single combat or to dissolve racism, fear, and violence throughout our country.
None of these are what we do for fun. But I believe it’s worth it to try.
Because right now people are calling out to the Body of Christ, “Wake up! We’re dying! Don’t you care??”
So it might be a good idea for you and me to get our nerves raw with God’s power, to renew that connection:
to remember that the fearful awe, the spine-tingling shaky reaction, is a reality of faith.
Because we’ll need that awe to be part of God’s great and life-saving miracles.
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