Amid the Storms of Racism

Lessons for Proper 14, Year A: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

You have probably been told, “You go on ahead: I’ll catch up with you later.”

This is precisely what the disciples were told. But even as they did as Jesus said, there must have been questions: How was Jesus going to catch up? It was, after all getting late and they were taking the boat. How was Jesus to disperse the massive crowd that he just fed? But even as they had questions, they went on ahead of Jesus. They had taken the boat across the sea. They knew the sea but it was nonetheless probably a strange experience for those disciples that night: crowded together in a small fishing boat in the dark. The adverse wind defied all their straining efforts. It was a kind of pointless human effort, of chaos, with the combination of water and wind at its most infuriating.

Like Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus had gone up the mountain by himself to meet his God. He was by himself, praying to His heavenly Father all through the night even into early hours of the morning. John the Baptist had just been gruesomely killed by Herod. Jesus had tried to withdraw with his disciples to a deserted place, perhaps to mourn; but, it was to no avail as thousands sought him out for healing. The crowds needed to be fed. Now, after the crowd has been satisfied, could Jesus get away? So, Jesus was left alone on the mountain in prayer.

Far below, it was a dark and stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. And then something remarkable happened. As the disciples’ boat is buffeted by the wind, in the early hours of the morning (between 3am and 6am) the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the water. “He came towards them walking on the sea.”

Human beings can perform many extraordinary feats in, on, and under water. You may be an excellent swimmer or you may revel in water-skiing or you might even have the skill to catch a wave and surf it. You may plunge into the water from great heights or you may dive deep under with scuba gear on your back. But one thing that you cannot do it walk on water. Try as you may, walking on water is beyond our human capabilities. The disciples, experienced fishermen that they were, knew this so it is little wonder that they were terrified at what they saw and cried out in fear.

It is not helpful at this point to try to figure out how Jesus walked on water nor is it useful to dismiss this incident as a fabrication or illusion on the part of the disciples. What the evangelist Matthew is inviting us to do is to ask a question: Who is it that walks on water?

The Psalmist writes:

“When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you,
they were afraid; the very deep trembled.

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.”

Psalm 77:16, 19

Indeed, it is God who commands the sea and stills the storm. It is God who can walk on water.

So, on this storm-tossed night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals himself uniquely as the one endowed with the power of the creator God, the one to whom he has prayed all night, and in whose strength he now walks on water. This is none other than the divine power of God who overcomes the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters and is totally unafraid of the raging of the sea. The disciples find themselves in the divine presence, encountering the divine power in all its strength and protection.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” become the words of a leader and rabbi taking command. They are also words that invoke the divine name of God, the great “I am” who created heaven and earth. It is little wonder that the disciples respond to Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, like so many before them – like Moses on Sinai, like the Isaiah in the heavenly court, like the wise men Bethlehem – by worshipping him. Indeed, exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they make their profession of faith, the first in Matthew’s gospel: “You are the Son of God.”

Vital as it is to have a profound spiritual awakening to discover who walks on water and have unveiled who Jesus really is, the evangelist Matthew presses on and introduces something new. Peter asks if he can walk on water too, and Jesus encourages him to try. Peter thus leaves the relative safety of the boat, venturing out onto the amid the waves. He makes progress but then he loses heart. He plunges into the deep and cries out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him.

We shouldn’t relegate Peter’s action to that of an reckless student or impetuous friend; but, rather, we might see Peter’s actions as demonstrating that the divine power revealed in Jesus is not just to be confined to God. It is, instead, to be shared by God with those who follow Jesus, who are members of this Jesus Movement.

In his inaugural sermon Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat.

“We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ.

“The present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.”

Archbishop Welby is in no doubt that what Christians need most today is courage.

We are surely aware of the events of the past few days in Charlottesville, Virginia. The most violent public assembly in decades of white supremacist hate groups has taken place. Make no mistake, the death and injuries are the direct result of the white nationalist ideology at the core of the gathering. Some of those espousing these views see their movement as a holy crusade, and even invoke a Christian God to support their efforts.  Yet, nothing could be further from the love of Christ in His Cross than the politics of racial purity. Indeed, the kingdom of our Lord is a “kingdom and priests serving our God,” gathered as “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (see, Revelation 5: 9-10). Any suggestion that God desires the triumph of any race over others is a slander against the Holy Spirit, and must be rejected by Christians of every denomination and of every party.

There is certainly rhetoric and sin that flows from everywhere but to this issue there are not “many sides.” This was a demonstration of bigotry and a gathering of hate for which the Gospel makes no room. It was discrimination and bigotry and hatred of a brutal and ugly kind. And yet, it was yet another display. Yet another act displaying an attempt at domestic terror. Yet another example of our collective failure as a nation to expend the moral and political capital needed to stop our spiral into racial and violent madness.

Now more than ever, we need to speak clearly against the disturbing tide of white supremacist rhetoric that wants to divide and prevent us from coming together. Too often in our nation’s history, people of goodwill have chosen to remain silent in the face of bigotry, refusing to risk having unpleasant conversations that might disturb colleagues, friends, and even the ones we love.

All too often, we prefer maintaining that tenuous “peace” with bigots rather than doing the harder work of telling the truth and committing to a justice that leads to reconciliation. We cannot make peace with hatred. We cannot let injustice go unchallenged…anywhere, anytime.

So here it is: From this pulpit, through every ministry of this church, with every voice that proclaims and every life that lives the Gospel in this place, we condemn bigotry and discrimination. And we decry racial supremacy and will repent of our participation in its evils.

With faith and confidence in God, it is time for us to step out of the boat into the stormy sea of the world amidst the gusting winds of racism, into the surging sea of discrimination, staring into the face of the demons of hatred and despair. Though we might feel weak, broken and vulnerable, and face very real dangers, the divine power of God revealed in Jesus is there for us to draw on. If we flounder, help is at hand to lift us above the water.

As Jesus stretches out his hand to rescue Peter, we are reminded by the psalmist:

“God reached down from on high and took me;
God drew me out of mighty waters.
God delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.
They confronted me in the day of my calamity;
but the Lord was my support.
God brought me out into a broad place;
God delivered me, because he delighted in me.”

Psalm 18:16-19

So, but though there is danger, we are invited step out of the boat. And, just as Jesus did on another occasion on the stormy sea, to rebuke the wind and the seas and the storms and to say to it, “Peace! Be still!” With faith and confidence in God, may we face the winds of racism and the seas of bigotry and the storms of discrimination and rebuke them and say, “Peace! Be still.” And because the Lord is on our side, because our eyes are fixed on Jesus, they will obey.

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