Walking On Water in the Face of Fear


A sermon based on Matthew 14:22-33

26But when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?

When we listen to stories in which someone’s life is threatened, often hear a description of odd details even more than the big picture.  For example, in today’s Gospel, Matthew tells how: Jesus was alone on the mountain praying; it was evening; the boat carrying the disciples was battered by the waves, far from land, and this continued until early morning, when at last Jesus showed up.

Mark adds to this same story: when Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars, he came to them. He intended to pass them by. But instead, he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

John says that the disciples wanted to take Jesus into the boat, but they reached land before they did so.

Which leaves me thinking … meh.

What I wish they had included in the story is:

Why did Jesus command them to get into the boat, but not get in with them?

Was this a garden-variety storm, only made scary because they were at sea, or was it more like a category 2 hurricane which is scary because of what it might become?

What was the purpose of Jesus bringing up the quantity of their faith before they had even stopped trembling?

How many others were in that same boat?

In a similar way, when we are afraid or highly stressed, we too focus on details and do not always grasp or explain the big picture. Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, hundreds of White Supremacists came together to protest a decision to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee.

And here I pause to offer an analogy to help those who wonder why the removal of these confederate statues has become such a big deal.  Imagine that there is a statue of a firefighter outside the office where your sister works. It represents a man who, no doubt, saved many people over his 30 years in the department. A man known for his bravery and public service. Now imagine that the man whose image is literally on a pedestal at a place sister passes by every day, also, raped your sister and many other women. They did not report the crime or press charges, because the man was so revered in the community, they knew they would lose and that their pain would be multiplied in the process of seeking justice. Can you see how the statue would create unnecessary ongoing trauma for your sister and any other women who were his victims? This is how it is for black people when they must look at the confederate statues erected years ago that are only now being removed. [To better understand this topic, I urge you to listen to New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who explained it well in his speech of May 17, 2017. You can listen here.

Clergy drove to Charlottesville from several states away to add a peaceful counter-protest and stand with the students and members of the community who felt threatened. The protest almost immediately became violent and the story dominated social media and news broadcasts. Eventually, a state of emergency was declared and the police dispersed the crowd. And as we watched from a distance, we heard reports of pepper spray being used; and a militia showing up, though it was not clear whose side they were on. We heard that the police declined to restore order until they were commanded to do so and that torches were used as weapons. We also heard that at times, the Nazi chants were drowned out by peaceful protestors singing hymns; and that as the conflict grew, people joined in on both sides of the conflict. And before it was over, Heather Heyer, age 32 would die and 19 would be injured.

And as these details came to us, we wondered aloud:

Why is this being allowed?

What will we do if and when it happens here?

What in God’s name is going on?

This was of course, just one of the many frightening stories we heard about this week. Threats of war were tossed back and forth between N. Korea and the United States. The president alluded to a possibility of military intervention in Venezuela. And in between these big concerns, we each coped with our own fears.

So, we can identify easily with Peter. We too are noticing the storm, crying out to Jesus, stepping into our fear as best we can, and in the end, knowing that the little faith we have, often feels insufficient, in the face of so many storms.

We want our faith to be the big story. And often, instead, the easier story to tell includes details of what we fear:

We fear as a nation: that careless words tweeted impulsively worldwide could trigger other impulsive decisions that would cost millions of lives.

We fear that misguided loyalties of those in power could compromise national security and continue to senselessly sacrifice innocent lives in this sweet land of liberty of which we have always been proud to sing.

We fear for our friends and family members who we can neither hold at night nor protect at dawn:  our children serving in the military, those living in Venezuela, those stationed in Guam, those teaching or studying in cities lit by the torches of angry evil protesters.

We fear for ourselves: that the disease we seek to eradicate might be growing; that the cure may well be worse than the disease; that we will not have enough time to do all we need to do before our time is no more.

We fear for our parents: that they will be called into service to counter the evil rising and be less available to us in the things we need them to help us with as we try to grow and learn and reach for adulthood ourselves.

We fear that even as we protest hate rising, our own hate is rising towards those who would work against the very freedom generations of sisters and brothers of all races fought against, many whose gravestones have barely two decades on either side of the dash.

We fear that the grief that continues to numb our minds, slow our steps, and cause us to startle at sound, and seek shelter in solitude, will take up permanent residence in our souls.

And, just exactly like Peter, we feel the boat rocking; the roar of the water drowns the silence of the stars; and we squint desperately looking toward the horizon, for the figure of the one who embodies love. The one who we hope is walking toward us, whispering with every step: Do Not Be Afraid.

And God how we want to take his hand.

We want to reach out and let the power that is in him permeate our skin, enter our bloodstream, and course through our bodies restoring our strength, renewing our calm, redoubling our faith.

Because we do have little faith, and it doesn’t seem like enough.

***

Peter, in fact, was not just a man with little faith. He was a man with his eyes wide open.

He faced the flimsiness of the structure that contained him.

He was a man of action who did not wait to be pitched from the boat, but instead clutched his little faith and stepped squarely into the sea that threatened to swallow him.

Unwilling to remain mute, Peter lifted his voice to call upon the Lord, singing across the storm, “If it is you, command me to COME.”

And Peter threw his leg over the side of the weak fortress of his boat,  choosing to focus more on the promise of hope than the threat of destruction.

***

And we too, are braver than perhaps we realize. I have heard your stories of how you each have used the little faith you had to step into the fray for the sake of love. You showed up to help settle the family who recently arrived from the Congo.

I know you’ve been taking classes to learn to stand with people who are being harassed. You’ve attended courses that equip you to be part of disaster response teams so that you are prepared when storms come near. You showed up to have hard conversations about Faith, Sexism, and Justice and together.

And this fall, our congregation will be reading America’s Original Sin because we white folks acknowledge we have a problem in our country called racism, and it is indeed our problem because we don’t fully understand it. We are only just now beginning to admit the hard truth that by our own willingness to be blind so that we could continue enjoying the benefits of being white, we have not seen that, what happened in Charlottesville has been coming for decades. It may be shocking to many people with lighter skin, but rest assured, every single person we call black in this country has felt the pressure and pain of racism every day of their lives. They sure saw it coming. It has been showing up on their doorstep every day of their life.

***

I’ve heard stories of how some of you have heard disappointing news from doctors and are carefully weighing your next steps. I know that for some of you, just showing up today is an act of brave faith because the weight of grief you are carrying continually pulls you toward solitude, which often reinforces the despair that wants to claim you completely.

And so today, I think it’s important to remind you that though you may think you have little faith, by God’s design, your little faith, when coupled with that of others, becomes a force to be reckoned with no matter the size of the storm.

A little faith drove people to travel all night to Charlottesville, to say to the KKK, not again. Never again. Hate has no home here.

Increasingly, a little faith drove both constituents and elected officials to show up at town hall meetings to debate issues of life and death; of education and ignorance; of justice and oppression — for the sake of all people.

A little faith daily gives those struggling with disease the courage to try new procedures, new medications, and new therapies, despite the long list of side effects, in the hopes of finding a cure for themselves, yes, but also for the many strangers who suffer with the same disease.

Faith rallies thousands through relief agencies to house unaccompanied minors who have fled countries at war; to clothe refugees with both fabric and dignity; to feed those who do not know what mealtime is because so many mealtimes have passed them buy when they did not have a place at the table.

***

In a world so weighed down by fear, those who are actively stepping into joy are also living out of faith. It is a particular act of bravery to face down death and say, instead, Jesus came that we might have life, abundantly. And therefore, despite our grief, we are going to celebrate life.

We are going to rejoice with those getting married.

We will celebrate with those beginning new careers.

We will encourage those returning to school,

listen to those composing music and poetry;

take in the beauty of sculptures and paintings;

contemplate meditations

and appreciate amazing foods made by others that nourish us body, mind, and soul.

The truth is we are with Peter; and we are with others who have navigated threatening storms before us; and we are with one another facing our fears today.

The truth is that we are right to feel afraid and that we do indeed have little faith.

And the truth is that together: Our. Faith. Is. Enough. To. Steady. Us.

For by God’s design, Jesus Christ stands in solidarity with us in every struggle this world can give. This Jesus was crucified, facing fear we cannot begin to imagine. This Jesus has gone down  to the grave and risen up to tell the story.

And it is a story of courage born of fear, and life that comes out of death.

It is a story in which we do not stand alone. The body of Christ here on earth includes some 2.3 billion Christians; nearly one-third of the world’s population and coupled with people of all faiths, nearly 80% of the entire world.

We each have a little faith. And when it is multiplied with that of our sisters and brothers the world over who are all holding onto good, it is enough.

Bishop Bill Gohl, from the Delaware- Maryland Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was one of the clergy who was at Charlottesville yesterday. He posted an account online of his experience. This morning, I read his last update, in which he helped us see where God raised up heroes in Charlottesville.

  • “In the students of UV who were articulate, organized and willing to take a risk for their community and values;
  • In the people of color, who called their white neighbors to take responsibility for the pervasive cancer that manifests itself under the guise of freedom; and a faithful LGBTQIA+ community that called the heterosexual community to account for a selective sense of who we stand up for;
  • In the faith community and their courageous leadership who, arm and arm, galvanized the larger community for inclusivity in the face of hate and used their denominational networks to call in support;
  • In the city leadership, who led and were led by their constituency;
  • In the first responders, local police, firefighters, rescue squads – professional and volunteers, sheriffs, state police, national guard…present, faithful, and everywhere at once;
  • In the citizenry, who welcomed solidarity, offered hospitality, and consistently gave witness that the white supremacists did not reflect their values.”

He went on to say that although he (along with several hundred others) responded to the invitation from the local Interfaith alliance, they played supporting roles to the heroes listed above, who were always in front, always leading, always grateful for the larger communities whose people showed up to offer presence and support.

In closing, he urged all of us who preach today, to tell the truth and be clear about naming the real heroes. And to tell the truth about the individual and collective sin we need to face up to. Because this is a necessary step for us to do the hard work of justice and reconciliation, and then do it again, and again.

So as we begin, yet again, to do this work of repentance, confession, education, forgiveness, reparation, and at last, reconciliation, I pray:

That we will have the Grace to risk something big for something good. 
The Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but Love.             

And the Blessing of God Almighty be with us now and remain with us this day and for all time.  


[Delta Rae’s Spirit-filled anthem, All Good People inspired this writing.  You can listen to it here]