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It starts with Peter. It always seems to start with Peter. Of all the disciples, Peter seems to be the one who epitomizes the humanity of Jesus’ followers. He’s not particularly great. He’s not wise, nor brave but neither is he stupid nor completely fearful. He’s an average person trying to figure out this faith thing. Sometimes he gets it. Sometimes he fails miserably.
Perhaps that’s why he’s named as the head of the church universal. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we fail. But we are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.
The Gospel story comes to us from Matthew. Jesus and his disciples have just participated in a miracle together – feeding the multitudes. And, instead of basking in a job well done, Jesus sends the disciples away: “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…”
Immediately, Jesus sends them out into the unsafe sea where they are at the mercy of the winds and waves. The sea is the symbol for chaos, where we are deeply uncomfortable, where we are in fear for our lives because the sea is not something we can control. It’s unstable and, more than the earth, responds to forces beyond our control – wind, moon, air temperatures creating currents and riptides underneath the surface. The sea is uncontrollable.
Meanwhile, Jesus sends the crowds away and goes to pray. Later, he comes to find the disciples some distance from safety, being tossed about by the wind and the waves and in clear distress. In the middle of the night, in the middle of chaos, the disciples are scared out of their wits.
They are so scared they don’t even recognize Jesus at first. They don’t recognize the presence of God who is with them. And Jesus responds with “Take heart! Do not be afraid.”
And that’s when Peter shows us why he’s the head of the church universal. He gets it right and he gets it wrong at the same time. His love, his devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.
And one might think that Jesus should tell Peter to get over himself – to stop thinking he has the power to do such a thing, to reign in his ego. But he doesn’t. Jesus looks at Peter and says, “come.” In the midst of the raging sea, Jesus sees Peter’s Love and says, “come.”
Of course, Peter gets scared and nervous when he’s shaken from his devotional trance and starts to slip into the drink. But the point is that a part of Peter knew. The indestructible part of Peter knew that he could survive the chaos and join Jesus in the midst of it. Peter’s unbounded, eternal Soul led him to follow Jesus, follow our Emmanuel, in the face of death.
I opened a book on my vacation a few weeks ago and the first line of the intro said, “We live in turbulent times.” Indeed.
We’ve been through quite a bit this summer as a congregation because people have decided to leave the community of St. John’s. As hard as that has been on me, I’m very mindful that it’s been just as hard if not harder on you. It’s incredibly difficult when people decide to leave, regardless of the reason. We feel rejected. Sad. Disappointed. And we might question if we’re doing what we should be doing.
I’m deeply grateful for Sue’s excellent sermon last week. She helped us to all remember our sense of purpose and common voice, the Spirit that has been guiding St. John’s for nearly 200 years. This is something that theologian Walter Wink calls, the “angel” of a congregation, the communal consciousness who reminds us that we are here to serve God’s mission, not our own. And God’s mission was here before us and will remain after we are gone.
So, our parish life has felt some turbulence recently.
And then, there’s the turbulence felt in the larger culture around us through the detestable saber-rattling between our government and North Korea, both militaries having the ability to launch nuclear strikes. And the pastor from Texas who has announced that “God has given him the authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” This, by the way, is blasphemy.
All of this on top of the everyday fears and challenges of our lives… as we age, have health concerns, hurt by friends or family, as we try to see to the demands of everyday life, and some days we just need to rest.
So much turbulence. It can be hard to find a sense of hope when all we can see is the raging sea.
On Friday evening, I started hearing reports about what was happening in Charlottesville – white supremacists marching with torches, surrounding a church where clergy and others were praying. The white supremacists chanted “blood and soil” a racist ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on purity of blood and territory. It’s a phrase that was used by the Nazis.
And then… even more devastating reports on Saturday. The same white supremacist protestors armed with semi-automatic weapons, more hate-filled chanting, riots. And death and traumatic injury as a car purposefully plowed into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.
Some people are shocked at these events, that the white supremacist movement still exists. Others are not shocked, but scared that it was so boldly expressed. But for those of us who are white, we must acknowledge that people of color have been telling us this for a long, long time. If we haven’t paid attention yet, it’s time to start.
Because the sin of racism targets our brothers and sisters. We are all made of the same flesh, from the same earth. The human race began as brown skinned and olive skinned and black skinned people in the Middle-East and Africa. We are, in no way, disconnected from this violence born of hatred, fear, bigotry, and ignorance. Our blood and flesh are bound to it.
So, where is hope to be found?
It starts with Peter, the head of the church… teaching us about faith.
His devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water. Demonstrating who the church can be and what the church can do in the midst of raging chaos: We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.
There is Jesus, standing in the chaos of the world, where he always is. And Jesus encourages us to be faithful and to know that “faith” means we are to step out into the chaos of the wind and the waves and join him there – in the chaos. And he reminds us that he is going to be there with us when we falter and lose our faith, when we forget that we are as strong and as good as we are.
Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that means “God is with us.” Jesus didn’t come to prove that he alone is the most powerful healer. That, too, is blasphemy. Jesus came to help us understand that God is always with us, the ground of our being, the spark that is our indestructible Soul.
The point of the story is not that Jesus saves Peter. The point of the story is that Peter offers us a beautiful example of faith in the midst of chaos.
In our fear, we cry out and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”
In our devotion, we look for Jesus and he calls to us, “Come.”
What are we called to do as the church in response to the evil of white supremacy? How is the church complicit in this evil? And what can we do to transform it?
These are hard questions. But Jesus is standing in the raging sea, patiently waiting for us. Saying, “Don’t be afraid. Come.”
Because hope is not outside of us. Hope is found within us and works through us.
There is no savior coming to save us. Our Savior already came and he gave us very clear instructions. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. That we believe this and we live it – that is what it means when we say that Jesus saves.
Jesus tells us that Love of God and Love of neighbor is what all this is about… all the law and the prophets. Everything that Moses was talking about. All the justice that the prophets proclaimed. Everything that’s in the Bible is all about love of God and love of neighbor. Love in action. And that Love will give us the power to walk the raging sea and reconcile us to one another again, to reconcile the world to God.
Because if it’s not about Love, it is not about God.
Peter walks out onto that water out of utter love and devotion to God. He’s not particularly great. He’s an average person, like you and me, trying to figure out this faith thing. Sometimes he gets it. Sometimes he fails.
But what is remarkable in this story is that, for a moment, he forgets his smaller, fearful self. For a moment, he forgets the possibility that the others in the boat might mock him or pressure him to stay inside the boat. He forgets, even, that the world is a raging sea around him.
Because he remembers the most important thing. He loves God. And when we love God, when we put that first in our lives, we become the hope that we seek because we can indeed perform miracles.
- Hope is the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, many of whom were clergy, willing to stand arm in arm in prayer in the face of the white supremacists who came in riot gear armed with semi-automatic weapons.
- Hope is the people who ministered at the scene and in the hospital when that car plowed into the crowd.
- Hope is every person who is now taking a deliberate oath to boldly stand up to white supremacy and the sin of racism wherever it rears its head.
- Hope is the action that we take, in the place that we choose to stand in the middle of the raging sea.
- Hope is the change of heart that comes.
- Hope is this Table of Reconciliation.
The hope, you see, is us – you and me.
And I look at the people in this room and I know. I know that we are willing to respond to Jesus’ call to love in action. I know that we are capable of continuing to deepen our faith in the God of all life. I know that we have the compassion and sense of justice to tend to the unbreakable connection we all have to one another, regardless of skin or shape or gender or orientation or ability or age or nationality or religion.
Our hope is in us, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves and our fears and opinions. Our hope is in our devotion to God, in our commitment to love God and neighbor, and in our faith in the ability of that Love to carry us across the raging sea and reconcile us to one another once again.
We are the church. We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.