This Sermon was preached the Rev. Nancy Vogele on August 13, 2017, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading was Matthew 14:22-33.
A minister who was at the events in Charlottesville this weekend posted on her facebook page last night the following message – in all CAPS: “I SURE DO PRAY THAT THE SERMON YOU WROTE EARLIER THIS WEEK IS NOT THE SERMON YOU ARE PREACHING TOMORROW.”
This is not the sermon I wrote earlier this week – it was written late last night and early this morning. So please forgive me if it’s not completely polished.
I originally planned to begin my sermon with a joke which was to be followed by a news story from 1999 that would have made for a perfect news items on the “Bluff the Listener” segment of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”
But in light of this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, I think I’ll pass. I don’t feel like joking or laughing right now.
I feel like trying to get really clear about “What Would Jesus Do” by looking at what he did and how we respond to it. How we view the role of faith in our life – both personally and collectively.
And I will give the punch line first: Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. And deep down, I want to believe that everyone one of us here today aches to get out of the boat.
But we are afraid we’ll drown.
What do I mean? Well first I feel the need to talk a little about Scripture.
Many of us, on hearing this morning’s Gospel story, immediately try to explain away Jesus – and Peter’s – ability to walk on water. We can’t see it, we think, but Jesus and then Peter must have been walking on rocks.
It is tempting to spend all our energy trying to “explain” this and other miracles. One commentary said that the Greek word for ‘on’ – as in walking ‘on’ water – could just as equally be translated as ‘toward’. So it could be that Jesus is walking ‘toward’ the water – not necessarily ‘on the water’. The Sea of Galilee is relatively shallow, and the wind could whip it into a frenzy rather easily. Maybe the boat had been driven back toward the shore by the raging winds, and in their terror what the disciples actually saw was Jesus on the shore walking toward the water. But thinking they were still in the idle of the Sea of Galilee, they were sure they were seeing a ghost walking on the water.
Some ancient commentators have even suggested that the reference to Jesus walking on the water was simply a bad dream that Peter had had and that he had woken up screaming, “It’s a ghost!”
Then again, maybe as some other scholars have suggested, this story has been misplaced and should really be considered one of the Jesus’ resurrection appearances – which doesn’t explain anything but at least puts it with a whole bunch of other miracle stories we don’t quite understand. Better to have them all clumped together, at least.
But we miss the whole point of scripture if we are only looking at the surface of it – at its literal meaning. For scripture not only tells us about something, it uses that something to point beyond it to something deeper. As one commentator wrote, “Scripture is a window into imaginative faith, and not an encyclopedia of fact.”
So let’s just leave the mystery surrounding this story intact. Let’s resist dissecting it or explaining it away or dismissing it as mere fantasy because it couldn’t have happened because the real question – for me, at least – is not “How did this happen?” but “What does it mean?” “What’s the significance of it?” – to the disciples in the boat that night and to us who hear the story today?
Especially in light of the past few days’ events.
After the disciples see Jesus and think he’s a ghost, they become terrified. And after Jesus speaks to them to reassure them that they don’t have to be afraid because it is he, Peter – always the first to react – says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were Peter and wanted to make sure it really was Jesus, I doubt very much that I would have said that. I would have said something that would have put the burden of proof on Jesus NOT on my walking on water to him.
Remembering how Jesus had calmed the storm on a previous occasion, I would have probably said something like, “Lord, if it is you, make this strong wind stop.” Or – because I love the Northern Lights – I might have asked him to make the sky dance with the Aurora Borealis. But I wouldn’t have asked him what Peter asked him.
Peter was basically saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to risk my life, to tempt death, to walk out across 6,000 fathoms of dark, swirling, threatening sea.”
You know, it’s a strange thing to say, what Peter said. And I’ve been puzzling over it for several days now. And before rewriting this sermon, I had one answer (which to be completely honest I wasn’t very satisfied with). But the events in Charlottesville helped me more fully understand why Peter said what he did and not something else.
Here’s what I think. I think Peter needed to ask Jesus to do something that would allow Peter to not just recognize him by what he looked like but by how he acted and by the power of his actions. For isn’t this how we recognize when Jesus shows up today?
Peter wants to follow Jesus. Peter wants to live a life empowered by Jesus but like the best of us he’s afraid – afraid it’s all a sick joke; that it’s pie in the sky wishful thinking to think that the Kingdom of God could actually break in NOW and not just in some mythical place called heaven. And that we could be a part of it and not just bystanders to it.
And so, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Command me to do what you do.
And Jesus said, “Come.” Leave behind whatever safety and comfort you have in your wind tossed boat and to take a risk.
Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. Just as Peter had experience before with Jesus, Peter was now again experiencing what it felt like to live in the Kingdom of God. And so he knew, beyond a doubt, “This IS Jesus.”
And then he noticed the strong wind…and he became frightened…and he began to sink.
Peter took his focus off of Jesus and looked, instead, at all the problems around him and he lost heart.
We look at all the problems around us and lose heart, too.
We look at the video from Friday night and yesterday, we listen to the news, we obsessively clink on links to more videos or news stories and think, “This is crazy! Is this really 2017?”
But then think to ourselves, “But what can I do about it?” It’s a classic way to write off any personal responsibility by convincing yourself there’s nothing you can do. You are a virtual bystander to it all.
One of my Facebook friends – a young relative – posted: “I’m embarrassed to be white. Who has time for racism??? I don’t even have time to find matching socks…”
I replied: “Time to make time to stand against it in any way you can (as I know you will).”
My Facebook friend replied: “How do you propose I do that??? Stand in front of a statue in anti-protest???”
You can hear his sarcasm, can’t you? I think his sarcasm is a way of protecting himself. After all, this is a very difficult topic and so I am not surprised that many people can’t take it in.
He also added a meme that read, “Want to make the world a better place?? 1. Start with Yourself. 2. Then focus on your family. 3. Finish by impacting the 20 mile radius around you.”
To which I replied, “No, [you don’t have to stand in front of a statue in anti-protest]. But you can respond by your character and how you already treat people and by making sure to make your businesses safe places for all people. And if anyone does dare to make a racist comment (or sexist, etc.), you call it out. You have such integrity that I know you will do this. As a white person, it’s easy to not see how bad it has been but today it was blatant and it’s slap in the face to wake us up.”
It’s not enough to say – generically – that you condemn the violence “on many sides” or that you stand with truth. Or even that you will “start with yourself” or “impact the 20 mile radius around you.” What about the problems and challenges 21 miles from you or across the world? No you have to get specific and make a plan and maybe even write it down. In light of what’s going on in this world, how – specifically – will I work on myself? What books do I need to read? What training do I need to attend to show up as a Christian for racial justice. What lifestyle changes do I need to make to witness to the Kingdom of God in this reality of white supremacist resurgence? What specific actions do I need to take?
Will I take the time and ask God, “What would Jesus do in this situation? And what is he therefore calling me to do?” Will we talk together to figure out what we as a community will do?
Can I show up this afternoon at 1pm on the Green for a vigil? Can I show up any Monday night from 5:30-6pm and stand in vigil with “Black Lives Matter” signs on the Green across from the Hanover Inn? Will I join the local chapter of SURJ – Showing Up for Racial Justice – or Upper Valley Resist? Will I speak up when I hear a racist (or sexist or homophobic or anit-semitic or Islamophobic) comment or joke? Will I say – or post on my facebook page – anything about my condemnation about what white supremacists and neo-nazis did over the weekend in Charottesville? If I see that a facebook friend posts something I disagree with, will I respond in a way that Jesus would respond?
Will you step out of the boat? Will you risk failure for the gospel’s sake? For the Kingdom’s sake? For our fellow human beings’ sake?
An op ed in the New York Times yesterday ended with this statement:
“Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge [of racism]. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.” (Michael Eric Dyson, NYTimes, 8/12/17)
And our faith.
The bottom line is you cannot experience the Kingdom of God if you don’t get out of the boat. You can only experience the Kingdom of God if you allow God to move you beyond where you are right now to a place that is closer to him. And that requires risk, it requires faith, it requires keeping our focus – our eyes – on the One who calls us to come.
There are all sorts of ways Jesus is inviting us to get out of the boat. Standing up to racism and bigotry is the pressing issue for today. But we all know there are other things Jesus is asking us to get out of the boat for.
And I know many of you have been faithfully stepping out of the boat for a long time.
Just Friday, I came across a front page article in the Valley News from August 7, 2005. It was in my sermon folder for the lessons appointed for today. I don’t think I used it as an example, but I should have. And you are not going to believe this. So I’ll just read the first part of the story verbatim:
“Norwich Woman Recalls Service in Middle East. Norwich – Sally Britton’s first reality brush with Middle East terror came late one night while she was reading in her small apartment in Hebron, the ancient biblical city on Israel’s West Bank.
“She was working as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization committed to nonviolence that seeks to reduce tension in many of the world’s trouble spots.
“’It was about midnight and I had just arrived in Hebron, my fourth night there. I had never been to the Middle East before,’ she recalled. ‘I thought I heard footsteps on the roof of the building next door. Then someone in our house screamed. A masked gunman carrying a pistol somehow had managed to get in. There were others in the house and he ran when he heard us coming. There were many scary moments during my stay in Hebron but that was one of the scariest.’
“A gentle, soft-spoken women, Britton recounted her experiences during an interview in the living room of her Norwich home, which commands an uninterrupted view of the soft green Connecticut River valley off to the east.
“What inspired [someone] in her early 50s to leave a place like this, give up her job as an accountant… and voluntarily spend two months…in one of the world’s most violent destinations? She and her colleagues escorted Palestinian children to school or accompanied Palestinian shepherds herding sheep past angry Israeli settlers and armed guards.
“Britton pondered the question for a few moments, then confided, ‘I actually heard a voice inside me saying, “This is what you need to do.” And I decided I had to do it.’”