First Congregational United Church of Christ

June 21, 2015

Mark 4:35-41 “Crossing Boundaries”

Rev. Diane K. Hooge


I woke up Thursday morning to the horrific news of the church shootings in South Carolina.  I sat at my desk and memories came flooding back to me…memories of attending so many vigils on the north side of Minneapolis.  I then abandoned the text and sermon I had planned for this Father’s Day.

It was the meeting years ago of Don and Sondra Samuels into the church I served in Minneapolis that pushed me to take a stand for the African American neighborhood on the north side of the city whose members were being gunned down on the streets.

Don had grown up in Jamaica and was a successful toy designer in New York when he felt God’s call to attend seminary.  He moved to Minnesota and attended the Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul.  He began attending the American Baptist Church where I served as pastor. He told me that he wanted to be ordained at Judson Church, but he didn’t want to be a church pastor.  His call was to serve the neighborhood.  He was ordained in October and the following year ran for the City Council Position for Ward 5, which is made up of seven neighborhoods, and represents some of the toughest issues that come with poverty, gangs, and racial tension.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus and his Disciples trying to cross the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile territory on the Eastern side of the lake.  What we are given is the reality of what takes place when one defies the systems of one’s day and crosses boundaries.  Chaos is a part of the journey.  Shipwreck is a strong possibility.  When one tampers with gender, race, class or cultural differences, the outcome can be incredible storms.  And, boundary crossings by their very nature tend to push us like an undertow into violent upheaval.

I can appreciate the disciples struggle. They were tired from a full day of meetings and interacting with endless crowds.  Most of us feel that we are operating at maximum capacity.  We juggle careers, child care, school teacher meetings, Olli classes, time at the gym, choir rehearsals, grocery shopping, and doctor’s appointments.  If we have kids at home, we often feel like we spend a good portion of our lives living in the car as we get them from game, to lessons, to school functions.  A seemingly mundane question like, “Did you remember to pick up the milk?” can create waves.

What Don and Sondra Samuels did was to make a radical lifestyle change when they made their crossing.  Don made a commitment to the run-down neighborhood with more than its share of boarded up property that he chose to serve.  He bought a home in the Jordon neighborhood where nightly gunshots were the norm.  He took on a campaign to speak with his African American professional friends and invited them to join him in reclaiming the neighborhood from those who kept people locked into their homes before nightfall for safety.

As City Councilman, he saw it as his role to begin the vigils to honor each life that was slain on the streets.  Emails would be sent out from his office as to the place and time of the vigil. I would arrive to where the murder had taken place.  At each site a card table would be set up with notepaper to write notes to the family, and we would gather in a circle. Word would reach the neighborhood, and soon we would have a crowd.  Some dropped off flowers and left, some stayed to join with those gathered that included local clergy who would often be asked to provide a prayer.  People were invited to offer their reflections on the victim and give words of comfort to the family.

This is what Jesus message was all about.  It was and is about risking going through the storms and trusting that God desires healing and wholeness for everyone.  His teaching was about faith—faith in a God who calls us to care for one another—to stand with one another in our joys and in our needs.  He taught that institutions have a lot to lose with change, and pushing boundaries stirs up the winds of resistance.

I get the disciples frustration and anger at the sleeping Jesus. Each time I got my email announcing another vigil, I don’t like having to admit to dealing with the fear of what it often took to show up.  And once there, with my white privilege I was always so aware that I could return to my car and drive away from the risk of gang retaliation, and from the drug dealers who were so very present on the streets. I was also so very aware of the folks who were in those vigil circles who dealt with the energy drain of daily living with violence, schools whose scores didn’t compete with other neighborhoods, and the lack of a neighborhood grocery store.

In our crossing to South Carolina this morning to try and begin to fathom the level of racial violence that took place in a sacred setting, I found it helpful to reflect on Sociologist Diana Butler Bass’s visit to Ashland in March, when she spoke on the topic, “Christianity after Religion”.  She talked about how with every Great Awakening has come a nativist or traditional movement that has sought to protect society against the changes—a movement that attempts to slam us back to the past.  I experienced it as a clergywoman in Massachusetts when there was a backlash in the 90’s against women as pastors.  We see it happening as hostility to homosexuality keeps bubbling up over the issue of Marriage Equality. We have been so very aware of the dialing back of the rights of citizens of color.  It is often framed under the guise of voter fraud and welfare fraud, but what we know is that it undermines the ability of minority citizens to vote. As we heard so painfully clear here in our sanctuary with the panel on Immigration issues, our history of welcoming immigrants is being shoved shut.  With the shrinking of white majority has come the re-shuffling of voting districts.

And, so, like the bombing of the black church in Birmingham, Alabama 52 years ago, the lessons of this tragedy must be wrestled with as a nation.  Dr. King’s words following that horrific day was to urge people to ask NOT just who did the killing but “about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

And, so we wrestle with coming to grips with all the pieces of this tragic story in a landmark black church whose history from slavery to the Civil War is part of our nation’s wrenching struggle with race.  The irony of the Charleston church site is that it is known “As the holy city” for its many houses of worship.

I view this Father’s Day Sunday as a collective vigil as we honor the lives of those who were slain.

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41 the church pastor and prominent state senator whose senate desk is covered in a black cloth as the state mourns his passing.

Cynthia Hurd 54 –librarian for 31 years

Sharonda Coleman 45 speech therapist and the coach of a girls track team

Tywanza Sanders 26 recent graduate of Allen University who dove in front of his aunt to protect her, and received the first bullet meant for her.  It was his mother and 5 year old niece who survived by playing dead on the floor of the church.

Ethel Lance, 70, church Sexton for 30 years.

Susie Jackson, 87 longtime church member

Rev. Depayne Middleton, 49, member of the church staff and mother of 4 daughters.

Myrna Thompson 59, wife of Rev. Anthony Thompson

Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. 74, member of the church staff

All nine died in the act of hospitality.  All nine died at the hands of a gunman who shot them in order to appease the god of white supremacy.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, a photographer captured a unique image.  The setting was a cemetery in the historic district of the city.  Trees were toppled, some burial vaults were smashed, some vaults broken and debris covered the ground.  However, in the middle of this devastation, untouched by the pounding storm, stood a statue of Christ, arms extended wide, offering a benediction amid the violence of the storm.  This is the image offered every generation through today’s lesson.

As always, we’re invited into the biblical story.  Where are we on the water? There is a piece of this story that is important to visualize.  It wasn’t just one boat…but the text says “other boats were with him.” It strikes me that just as we are one community in our boat on the water, so there are countless communities of faith in their boats making their crossings, or seeking to discern what crossing they are to make.   Through divine support we have withstood our storms that came with this church’s stance when we said “No” to the Vietnam War. We withstood the conflict when we became a sanctuary church in the 1980’s  And we offered painful good-byes to those who left this church when the majority vote was to become a church that believed in welcoming LGBTQ folks to our doors by becoming an Open and Affirming Congregation.  We have been led by Randy Ellison in taking a stand for abused children and have sought to continually make sure that we are a safe haven.  We have been led by David and Kathleen King to continue to educate ourselves about mental illness and how to become more supportive and welcoming.  Yesterday we paid tribute to Gail Price who was born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents defied the doctors who felt she should be placed in a care facility, and who took pride in raising her.  She found a place of belonging in this community—and her very presence and voice profoundly influenced those who sit in our pews.

And, now we wrestle with the question of what boundary crossing do we take on and/or continue to take on in this era of our church’s life.

I came back from vacation to find signs in front of the Shepherd room that said “No to Fracking” and No to Liquefied Natural Gas pipeline projects.  Our youth, along with a Portland youth group took a stand on the Ashland Plaza and made their voices known.

Friday, I watched a painfully good video offering a history of Radio Progresso in Honduras, which was passed on to me from Lucy Edwards.  Over the last 5 years, 36 journalists have been killed.  They are the front line truth tellers for the people of Honduras.  They seek to navigate their way between the cruel power-players:  the drug lords, politicians and the international mining corporations who seek to mow down anything or anyone who get in the way of their mining operations.  The work of these journalists takes more than courage…it seems to me that it takes a divine call to keep speaking the truth to power.  I was touched by the clips of Padre Melo, Jesuit priest, Director of Radio Progresso who is so committed to taking stands for human rights. I give thanks for this church community who has supported so many trips that have been made by Lucy Edwards and Jim Phillips as they have been our representatives to Honduras.

I sat at my computer listening to the families of the church victims expressing their anguish to the 21 year old shooter. I was overwhelmed —overwhelmed with the pain in their voices, and  overwhelmed that they could live out their faith in such a way as to offer forgiveness…. And to let those in the courtroom know that they were choosing the path of peace and of love—not hate and retaliation.  They clearly are following the way of Jesus who asks us to care for our enemies.  But, I also know that we need truth-telling and accountability.

As we paddle our way through the chaos of national and international storms, we are invited to step out in faith over and over again.  We’re called to stand in solidarity with those seeking to change unjust systems. We dare not do this work in isolation. It always demands that we look to God and one another. It also demands that we be connected with other boats on the water—other communities of faith seeking to go up against those with disordered power in order to change the systems that need realignment.  I celebrate our involvement in Inter-faith circles because our nation needs the strength of unity that comes when we bind ourselves together to create a movement with enough clout to break through the rise in racism that has been moving through our land.

The Gospel of Mark was written for the Church when it was threatened by the forces of chaos, confusion and violence.  Over two thousand years later, we seek the power of this one who promises wholeness all in the name of peace.  May we dare to release our fears and discern which crossings we are being called to make, and which crossings do we leave to others.  May we cling to the hope of peace and restoration in the name of faith–faith in the Divine intervention that Jesus offers each one of us. May it be so.  Amen.


Benediction: “It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”

Audre Lorde