Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Our Gospel lesson that Andie just read brings us to the immediate aftermath of last week’s story of the feeding of the multitudes. If you don’t remember, Jesus has just learned that his beloved friend and mentor, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by Herod. Hearing the news, he takes off in a boat to find solace and place to pray, a place far away from the crowds that have been following him. Docking at the shore, however, Jesus finds that the crowd is waiting for him, and he sees how lost and hurting they are. Having compassion for them, he puts off his own moment of healing to tend to their sickness and diseases.
When it’s getting late in the day, Jesus’s disciples are getting a little bit concerned about the crowds, especially as to how dangerous the wilderness is at night and as to where these people are going to get food. They encourage Jesus to send the crowds away to buy foods for themselves. Knowing that they need more than just a filled stomach, he instead tells his disciples to feed the crowds. They have nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish, which Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives out. What is left is thousands of full, satisfied stomachs and twelve baskets of leftovers.
It’s at the point that we pick back up in the story, and we find that Jesus immediately tells the disciples to get back into the boat. More accurately, the Greek is that he compels them, forcing them, without giving another option. They do so, and as they begin to drift away on the sea, Jesus disperses the crowds for the night. It’s at this point that he finally finds his chance of solace and prayer in the aftermath of John the Baptist’s execution.
As night falls, the disciples find themselves in the middle of the sea, far from the shore, as waves begin to beat against the side of the boat. We need to remember that, at this point, this would not have been nothing new to them. They have been on this Sea of Galilee many times, as many were fishermen before deciding to follow Christ. They would have known what was expected of the sea, one that was prone to sudden storms and volatile conditions, but that doesn’t make this night any less dangerous or terrifying. In the perspective of these Israelites, the sea was the abode of demonic forces. It’s the places where chaos still reigned on earth, drastically set apart from the relative safety and security of dry land.
And in the early hours of the morning, as the disciples are drenched in water from the sea and from the sky, as their hands begin to blister from their efforts just to stay afloat in the storm, they see in the flashes of lightning a figure walking towards them on the water. The monsters of chaos that lurked in the waters were coming for them, they were sure; ‘It’s a ghost!” This is no ghost but Jesus, who yells back to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
It’s at this point that we have dear, beloved Peter. Peter who always seems to ask the questions that everyone else is thinking but no one really wants to speak out loud. Peter who seems to act impulsively, who is always the one speaking without thinking about what it is that he’s saying. We have Peter who yells out into the storm, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I really don’t think Peter thought this through. After all, the only thing that Jesus says in response is “come.” Anyone can say that, divine or not, human or a ghost on the water. But Peter knows deep down somehow that that this is Jesus. So he sits on the side of the boat that is mooring back in forth, he sets his feet on the tumultuous waters below him, and he pushes himself off of the only sense of safety and security he has in the middle of a chaotic sea and stands on the water. And on that dangerous water, Peter begins to walk to Jesus.
I always wonder what those first few steps were like. I imagine that it may have been like a toddler taking her first few unsteady steps, her arms outstretched towards the parent that is calling her over. Part of me imagines that it may have been a walk that took a lot of effort, much like when you find yourself in mud and have to use every ounce of effort to keep picking your feet up and out of the miry ground. But regardless of how well he was doing it or how easy it was, Peter was walking on water towards the Christ that was walking on water towards him.
We also do not have any idea as to what Peter was going to do once he reached Jesus. Would they stand there and have a conversation on top of the waves? Would Peter and Jesus casually stroll to the shore? We don’t get the chance to find out, because as he’s into his walk, the wind picks up yet again and reminds Peter where it is that he is walking. Peter is reminded of the chaos that is under his feet and around him, and he begins to be afraid.He calls out to Jesus yet again, “Lord, save me!” Jesus, who seemingly has been walking towards Peter just as Peter was walking to him, reaches down to grab Peter’s hand, pulling him out of the water and towards the boat.
If you had asked me at any point in the past week if I knew what I would be preaching this Sunday, I would have given a robust “yes!” I was going to preach on the moment that Peter takes that step out of the boat, how it was a leap of faith that went deeper than reason. I had printed a few articles and even a thesis on Soren Kierkegaard’s ideas in Fear and Trembling, as he talks about how, to get to the infinite and divine from our finite and mortal selves, we must make a leap of faith by virtue of the absurd. I was going to talk about the problem of faith in our Romans text today as well, about the difference between believing with your mind about the resurrection of Christ and believing with your heart. I was going to talk about the existential aspect of faith, how sometimes belief is different than what we know or think rationally. As you see on the front of our worship bulletin this morning, I had planned to use my favorite book, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, as the main character talks about choosing to believe the better story.
Yet in the past two days, my attention has been captured all that is happening down in Charlottesville, Virginia. For those of you who may not be aware, there was planned yesterday a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a public park, and it was being promoted by several well-known racist, white supremacist public figures. And as my eyes have been glued to the news, I have seen quite a few things happen before my eyes.
I saw pictures of men who looked just like me, white men in their early to mid-twenties, chanting racist slogans and carrying lit torches at another rally on the campus of the University of Virginia on Friday night. I read the tweets of well-known racists who were celebrating what was taking place. I watched as the KKK marched through the streets, their uniforms of white robes and masks replaced by white polos and revealed faces. I saw the video of a white man younger than me driving through a crowd of counter-protestors at about 40 miles per hour, killing one and injuring another nineteen. I saw the reality of people of color, especially my black friends and siblings in Christ, which is one that I tend not to want to think about too much.
But I also saw of a clergy gathering on Friday night for a prayer service in the same city at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church. I heard the prayer of Winnie Varghese, a priest downtown at Trinity Wall Street, who prayed that the clergy gathered in that room might “take Love to the streets” in the midst of so much hate. I read the reports of the Rev. Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ, who tweeted that some of those carrying torches had surrounded that church, and the polices would not let the clergy out for fear of what might happen. And I saw the video of how these same clergy sang together: Wade in the water // Wade in the water, children // Wade in the water // God’s gonna trouble the water.
And I heard the words of Jesus Christ, calling Peter, calling you, calling me out into the storms, into the chaos, and into the water: “Come.”
I heard the liturgy of the United Methodist Church that we use when we baptize people into that same water:
“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?…Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?…Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”
Come, Christ calls us. Come out into the storm.
My friends, a storm has been brewing for the past four centuries on this land on which we now live. It is nothing new, and it has not shown any sign of dissipating anytime soon. And it certainly does not only manifest itself in violent marches like we witnessed yesterday. It shows up in our schools and in our housing. It finds a home in our law enforcement, our prisons, and our government. It rears its head in those conversations we have around the Thanksgiving table. And it is deeply entrenched within Christian churches around the nation, for I am convinced that who many marched with torches on Friday and chanted racist and fascist slogans Saturday will receive no rejection of their hatred this Sunday morning.
This morning, in the wake of this storm, we have two options in front of us. We can choose to stay in the boat, out of the storm. We can avoid the danger of losing friends, of alienating or offending our families, or of causing a stir. We can be silent in the face of what is happening, and we can stay underneath the cabin of the boat to avoid even getting wet. And in there, we can simply wait for the storm to settle down so that we can dry off and get back to our lives.
But that is not our call this morning.
Our call is instead to take that first baby step off the boat and onto the water. We can brave the winds and set out into those stormy waters. We can speak the truth of what is happening and the fact that there is a storm. We can have those conversations that we always try to avoid around the table. We can march. We can write. We can protest. We can tweet. We can show as much love as we can in the ways that we know how to show God’s love.
And sometimes it seems like we can’t. Sometimes we fall into fear. We doubt that we can face the storm. We don’t think that we can actually make a difference; what’s one person going to do in the midst of this whole legacy? When we look at what is opposing us — and let us be clear: the storm has already caught many of us in this room, it has caught many of our friends and family, and it has been there for so many centuries — but when we see this storm, and when it seems that it’s more than we can bear, Christ is there on the water with us. Christ is reaching down to pull us up. And yes, Christ may judge us a bit. But at the very same time, even in the face of condemnation, Christ is never going to leave us. Every time we fall or find ourselves falling into this water, Christ is going to pull us up yet again. He’s going to take us to safety, even if only for just a little while. And when we find that in just a few minutes, Christ is going to be back out there, calling us back into the storm yet again.
It is a stormy world. It’s chaotic. It’s a sea of demonic forces it seems that is swirling around us. We’ve seen it this weekend; we see it every weekend, and we see it every day. And yet still there is the call of Christ, reaching out — walking towards us, but at the very same time saying, “Come.” Walk with me in the storm.
 From Baptismal Covenant I in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.