I am struggling. I am afraid.
As I’ve watched events unfold this week, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. I’ve struggled to find a way from our world and our lives into the gospel. It’s not that the gospel doesn’t speak to our situation. It most certainly does. it’s that the situation keeps changing and each day brings new horrors, new fears, new challenges. In this week when we observed the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we seem to be on the brink of nuclear war—closer to that catastrophe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All week, I kept thinking back to what it was like for me as a student in West Germany in 1979-1980; where scars from World War II were still present, and all around were reminders of the threat of catastrophic, nuclear war.
By the end of the week, the president was threatening to go to war with Venezuela.
We learned this week that 2016 was the hottest year in the recorded history of our planet.
This weekend we have witnessed in Charlottesville the hatred and violence unleashed by white supremacists, emboldened by a national culture that seems unwilling to name and reject hate and white supremacy. We have seen a young woman murdered by one of the white supremacist protesters. Views that might have been unthinkable a decade ago have become mainstream, and people who hold those views are embedded at the heart of our political and civic culture. While I was heartened to see the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of Virginia and other priests, among whom several I know personally, standing witness against that violence and hatred, the reality is that many, too many, white Christians equate Christianity with whiteness, white supremacy, and with American nationalism. These are sins we need to call out and name as evil. While it is easy to point fingers at others, it is important that we examine ourselves, to see where those views are embedded in our selves.
Of course, we don’t have to look across the country or the world to see frightening things. Madison is in the midst of a summer of violence in which our community and its leaders are divided and struggling to respond, and leaders are openly critical of one another. On Friday afternoon, I met with a prominent African-American leader of non-profit agency. It was a meeting we had been trying to arrange for almost a year, and our schedules finally came together. Initially, I wanted to explore ways that we at Grace might connect with and support his group’s efforts, but much of our conversation focused on recent events in the city. He had been at a gathering of African-American leaders the day before where he had come under public criticism for his involvement and approach and I think he was still feeling some of the pain from that encounter.
As I drove home from that meeting and reflected on it, I was struck by something else. We had met on S. Park Street, not far from the beltline, and it occurred to me as I drove that I hadn’t been on that stretch of the street, south of St. Mary’s hospital, in many months. That’s a symbol of how divided our city is, and how narrowly my experience of the other side of that divide is. I was struck as I drove that that section of S. Park St. looks remarkably similar to streets in other cities I’ve lived, worked, or visited—Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, Greenville—where the downtowns are touted as “among the best places to live” and the segregated neighborhoods receive press only when violence breaks out.
The fear seems palpable in our nation and our city. I know that many of us come to church in search of reassurance and hope, to hear words of inspiration and comfort in these troubled times. Today’s gospel lesson speaks directly to fear. It’s the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water. And no doubt, those of you have attended church all your lives, going all the way back to Sunday school as kids, could tell me about this story—that it’s about Peter’s impulsiveness, his lack of faith, and of Jesus saving him in spite of himself; a lesson that we can transfer to ourselves. And so it is, but it is also, or could be, about so much else.
First, a note about context. This story is set immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. But there’s another event that may offer additional perspective. Chapter 14 begins with the account of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist. After receiving word of this from John’s disciples, Matthew reports that he “withdrew to a deserted place.” But time and space for grief and reflection were not to be. The crowds followed him, Jesus had compassion on them, and healed their sick. It was that evening that Jesus took five loaves and two fishes, and from them fed the crowd.
Our story picks up immediately after that event. Again, Jesus withdraws after sending the disciples ahead. He needs time to grieve, to recharge and reflect on what John’s death might mean for his own ministry. The disciples begin their journey across the Sea of Galilee. They were sailors, at least four of them were, and the Sea of Galilee was their home. They apparently spent the night on the lake, their boat was battered by wind and waves—the Greek is literally, “tortured” so we’re meant to imagine the disciples had to struggle mightily against the great danger they faced. What I find surprising in this brief account is that Matthew doesn’t say anything about the disciples’ emotions until the moment they catch sight of Jesus walking on the water. They may have struggled in the storm throughout the night, but Matthew tells us that they became afraid only when they saw Jesus, thinking he was a ghost.
Similarly, when Peter takes out after Jesus, he is fine until he notices the wind. Then he becomes frightened begins to sink, and calls out to Jesus, “Save me.”
There are other dimensions to this story. One of the most significant is the sea itself. Throughout biblical literature, the sea is a symbol of chaos. It is the primordial stuff, present at the beginning of creation, out of which God creates order. For Jesus to walk on water is another proof of his power over evil and chaos, demonstrated as well by the fact that the storm ended when he entered the boat. And the disciples responded appropriately, worshipping him and confessing him to be the Son of God.
In so many ways the world in which we live is chaos. We may feel like we are the disciples in the boat struggling against a mighty storm. We may feel like Peter, sinking as we notice ourselves suspended amid chaotic forces. We are afraid. I am afraid. I am afraid for our planet, for the human race, for this nation, our city. I fear for American Christianity that has been complacent and complicit in the sins of white supremacy, racism, and the violence of war.
But if, like the disciples, we truly confess Jesus to be the Son of God, then our allegiance to him supersedes all other allegiances, including that of our nation. If we confess Jesus to be the Son of God, we need to name and fight the sins and evils that surround us. We need to call out and confront all those who conflate flag and cross; we need to confess our sins and complicity in the racism of our land—what Jim Wallis calls “America’s original sin.” We need to call out and condemn the hatred and evil that was on display in Charlottesville yesterday, that we’ve seen in too many other places across America over the last couple of years.
As followers of Jesus, as his disciples, we are at a moment of decision. We can confess him to be the Son of God, we can take up our crosses and follow him into the chaos that surrounds us. We can share his message of love, proclaim the justice of God’s coming reign, or we can turn away, look away, in disbelief and silence, and allow those forces of chaos to overwhelm us a church, a city, and a nation.
Jesus is reaching out his hand to us. Do we have the strength, the courage, the faith, the moral clarity to grasp it? For in that hand lies our salvation.