Speak in the Storm
The Rev. Emily Williams Guffey
All Saints' Episcopal Church,
Chicago 21 June 2015
• Fourth Sunday after Pentecost • Proper 7B
Hi, I'm Emily, and this is my first Sunday here at All Saints'. I have been looking forward to this day for a long time.
I was talking with my mom and dad last night and realized that I've been discerning a call to ordained ministry for twelve years. More than that if you count high school and college, when I changed my major a million times, trying to figure out what it was God wanted from me. I've spent the past eight years in formal discernment in The Episcopal Church. In that time, I've worked in hospitals, restaurants, and also in churches as an organist and choir director. I went to Northwestern for college, then came back to Evanston to Garrett-Evangelical Seminary for a Master's in Music Ministry, and most recently I've been at Virginia Seminary for a Master of Divinity.
I say this just so that you know a little bit about me and where I've come from, and how long I have been looking forward to this day. I am so excited that your discernment and my discernment have led me right here.
If you think about it, someone's first day also means that they've never done this before. I'll be learning lots and lots as I go, and I ask your patience and support. Bonnie, I'm grateful for this one Sunday before you leave me in charge for two weeks. By tomorrow, I'm sure that I'll know exactly what I'm doing!
On this first day, I can't help but think of another important "first day" in my life: the day my first child was born. Like today, I had been anticipating that day for quite some time. Being pregnant gives you clues that something is changing. So, at that time — like the time I just spent in seminary — I read lots of books about babies, went to classes about what to do with said babies, acquired at least some of the stuff people recommend you have for babies, and took in lots of advice from others who knew about babies.
But none of this really prepared me for the day I met my baby. None of this really prepared me for the steep learning curve that is being a new parent. In a day, I went from thinking I knew about babies to thinking, "Oh my gosh, what do I do now? I don't know what I'm doing!" In a day, I went from well-rested to...well, not. In a day, I went from never having met this little person to being absolutely in love with him.
And while I'm thinking — and hoping — that ministry with you will afford me more sleep than a new baby will (please), know that I will love you and cherish you, as I do my own children. Later this year, it is you - and the bishop - who will make me a priest. I become who I am through you, just like children make someone into a mother or a father.
So as a parent and as a person of faith, this week has been tough, hasn't it. More news of ecological demise. Maybe you saw the report foretelling the extinction of animals at a much more rapid pace that usual — even classic animals like lions and tigers, the animals my kids learn to mimic even before they learn regular daily words. More incomprehensible violence, as a racial terrorist walked into a church — just like this — and killed nine black Christians at prayer, just as we are today.
These days are stormy. Terror and injustice crash like wind and waves all around us. I think - like the disciples in the Gospel - that we just might be perishing by the weights of racism, and our own despair and hopelessness. And where is Jesus? Asleep? Seems like it.
In this storm I have looked for comfort. These past few days, I have found it in the words of one of my mentors, a priest who mentored me in Washington, DC, when we were both there. Now, he is living in South Carolina. He is African- American, he is wise, he is bold, and he is full of words. The morning after the Charleston massacre, he offered these:
"I sought and found, I trust through the leading of the Spirit, who can illumine truths that I, in my aggrieved blindness, cannot see, two comforts.
One. I do and dare believe that there are more of us who live and move and have our being within the ethical economy of good will than there are those of us in whose hearts evil prospers.
Two. Those of us who still, after innumerable assaults to the soul of grievous experience, whether personal or that of others, can wince in agony means that we are not morally benumbed and have retained the quintessential elements of sensibility and sensitivity that compel our deeper commitment to love and justice for all." (The Rev. Paul Roberts Abernathy, via Facebook, June 18, 2015)
That he could find and share these words just hours after the massacre — which, as an African-American clergyman in South Carolina, must have cut into his heart in ways I may not fully understand — both impressed me and comforted me.
More comforting still, though, is how I see the sensitivity of which he speaks, this compulsion toward love and justice, at play here at All Saints'. See, on Tuesday night I had what you might call a "quintessential All Saints' moment". It was about eight thirty, and I had just finished washing dishes after the Community Dinner. (Or really, had just learned about the whole dishwashing system and had done one small part: I watched that dish sanitizer really well!) And I came upstairs to the vestry meeting.
Now I have been to a few vestry meetings before, and they were not the most engaging conversations. But here, I sit down, my hands still a little wet, and someone asks me, "What might a sacred conversation about racism be like? We've been talking about it," she continues, "and we'd like to ask you. What might a sacred conversation about racism be like?"
And I thought, "Of course. Of course this is what the vestry is talking about, because this is All Saints'. And All Saints' is a place where we talk about the things that need to be talked about."
In the meeting, we went on to watch a documentary called Cracking the Codes, which is designed to illuminate issues related to racism, and to help folks talk about them. When someone invites you to watch the documentary, I encourage you to do so. It really is good.
And I have a hunch that when we gather to talk about racism, when we gather for these awkward and emotional conversations that perhaps we'd rather avoid, we will begin to see Jesus right there — awake, not sleeping. We'll hear him there whispering "hush!" to the storm.
But paradoxically, if we stay silent, if we don't talk about what needs to be talked about, we might think the storm will just pass along on its way — but it will not. It will rage on and on; if we stay silent, then the storm will never be silent. If we don't make time – if we don't dare — to have holy, hard conversations about racism, then what good is it to pray for safety or comfort or peace?
I find it hard to pray to God for things that I'm not willing to take part in, to help bring about. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that [like Jesus in our Gospel today] is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."
All Saints', in my few days with you, I have heard and I have seen that you are people who pray with your hands and your feet and your hearts. Today I ask you to remember that whenever you do so, whenever you seek lasting peace perhaps at the expense of your own comfort or fears, you indeed are of that creative force that will bring down evil. Please, let me join you.