Gray’s Sermon on August 13, 2017

The Reverend Gray Lesesne, D.Min.
Sermon preached at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church
Proper 14, Year A, August 13, 2017
Matthew 14:22-33

The waves and the wind are battering our boat this morning, and they are indeed frightening. The waves are those of hate and violence and fear and threats of war, cloaked in voices that seemingly cry for safety and individual rights and personal freedoms and preserving and honoring the past.  The wind is the wind of anxiety, howling at us in one of the most vulnerable moments in our nation’s modern history. The images coming across our screen of the evil that happened in Charlottesville yesterday are only the latest manifestation of those waves of hate and fear. Let me pause and condemn them wholly and completely here, as racist and sinful. The church universal, the Episcopal Church, Good Samaritan Episcopal Church will have no complicity with any group carrying torches and seeking to villify the “other”, as this is not from God.

But other waves crashing our boat easily come to mind: the attack on a mosque in Minneapolis last week, the heated rhetoric coming from all sides regarding North Korea, the crushing dictatorship continuing to dominate in Venezuela, or even here at home the continued record-breaking murder rate in the City of Indianapolis.

I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom here, but the storm battering our boat is real. We are stuck between the experiences of a haunted past and our desire, regardless of our political stripes, for a more hopeful, integrated future for our country and world. And yet, like the followers of Jesus in this boat, we are frozen with fear at the unknown, and we are not sure what exactly to do next. No wonder when they see Jesus coming toward them on the water, they all have the same jumpy reaction: “It is a ghost!”

So I understand why Peter says to Jesus this morning: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” When Peter sees the amorphous figure of Jesus walking on water towards him and the other disciples in this early morning storm, he is, no doubt, just as afraid as the rest of them. But something happens to Peter in this midst of this fear. Rather than sitting with the discomfort of the situation, or, rather than just trusting that Jesus will help them, Peter impulsively decides to do something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Maybe he wants to show off. Maybe he wants to imitate Jesus’ own walking on water. But more likely: he’s just plain scared and wants out of that boat before it sinks. Whatever the reason, notice that Peter asks Jesus to let him escape and walk on water. It is not the other way around. This is all Peter’s idea. Jesus, God, out of God’s deep love for us, is always willing to give Peter and us an autonomy to do stupid things if we wish. Jesus says, “Okay.”

This so-called miracle of Peter’s works out for a few steps, but then…no. Matthew tells us that when he “noticed the strong wind,” Peter began to sink. Jesus rescues him, but he also has some hard words for Peter at this point in the story. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I’m sure Peter was devastated to hear these words. After all, Peter is the most eager of disciples. He is the first to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. He deeply wants to follow Jesus into Jerusalem to be the right-hand-man to the king. Surely energized from the feeding of the 5,000, which occurs just before this passage in the Gospel in Matthew, he tries in this moment to do something spectacular, his own miracle, but, as Matthew notes, he becomes aware of the wind and is overwhelmed.

How could Peter not be aware of the wind? How could any of us not be aware of the wind of anxiety that has been blowing through our country, through our world, not only in the recent political season, but more likely since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and probably well before that? Even in the face of a brave act, this wind is too powerful, too overwhelming, even for the Peters among us. When Jesus asks Peter “why did you doubt?”, I don’t really think he is talking about Peter doubting his ability to walk on water.

Instead, I wonder if what Jesus is really asking Peter (not that Peter will hear it in this moment) is: Peter, why did you doubt in me when I was coming to you in the middle of the storm? Why did you, in a moment of discomfort, run for the first thing that would soothe you and relieve your anxiety (in this case, jumping off the boat) rather than staying on the boat, with the discomfort? Why didn’t you trust that being present in the moment, being present in the storm, is simply enough, is what I am asking of you, and that I will be with you?

This storm that we are in right now is pretty intense. And, just to be fair to my friends on the Republican side of the aisle, I don’t think it would be that much better had the Democratic side won last year’s election. We are in what sociologists and historians call an upheaval moment in our culture, our country, our world right now. Everything is changing and chaotic and uncertain, upended and uneasy. And let me say this: it stinks. It isn’t fair. We drew the short straw in terms of living in an era of peace and tranquility.

We are like Peter. We just want the storm to end, we just want safety and comfort of dry land, we just want to live under the illusion that everything is okay and that we are in control. And so, like Peter, many of us are prepared to take matters into our own hands just to get away from our own discomfort.  The temptation right now is to check-out and ignore the storm by numbing ourselves with substances or trivial matters, or, conversely, to convince ourselves that, like Peter, we are ready and able to jump into the water and to face it all alone. Both of these so-called solutions are putting our own spiritual (or literal) lives at risk of drowning.

This morning, in the midst of the storm, as Jesus poses this question to Peter, he poses it to us: “why do you doubt?” Why do you doubt that I will be with you? Why do you feel like you must escape? Why do you doubt that the boat will hold you? Why did you doubt the others in the boat?

As a Peter, I can tell you, these questions are shaming and disappointing. I so want to go it alone and to prove myself to Jesus and God. I so want to be in charge of everything. I am the one who needs to prove to God how strong I am and how I can fix all of this. This drive to want to be in charge feels like it is faith to me (as I am sure it did to Peter), and it is hard for me to hear instead that Jesus calls this doubt.  It is faith–faith in myself. However, it is not faith in God. It is not faith in the boat.

If you look at Christian art throughout the ages, the boat is the symbol for the church, the community of the beloved, the safe haven for the faithful. Even our church architecture reflects this notion. There’s a reason that we call holy spaces in churches the nave. It’s the same root word as naval, navy. Take a look upwards at the roof in almost any church—heck, this even works at Harris Academy. It is very similar to an upside down boat.

What would it have been like for Peter to have stayed in the boat, in the church, in the community, with his fellow disciples? What would it have been like for Peter to say to himself in this moment: “I am okay. I will be okay. Even if this all goes badly, and we all die, worst case scenario, I am a beloved child of God and no one can take that away from me”? Yes, staying in the midst of the storm would have been profoundly uncomfortable. Peter would have had to deal with all of his fellow disciples’ screaming and crying and hysteria. Peter would have had to confront the independent streak that whispers to all of us “you have to get out of here” when the going gets tough. Peter would have have had to admit to himself: “I’m really in this with them…even these knuckleheads who drive me crazy.” Peter would have even had to come face to face with his own mortality and admit to himself: “Even I will die, and this might be my moment.” All of this is hard spiritual work.

But we are not alone in this spiritual work. We at Good Samaritan and in the Episcopal Church and in the broader faith communities of the world are building this one giant boat that will hold all of us together in and through the crazy storms that our world is facing. For us, not a literal boat, for we are a church without walls. But instead, a figurative boat. This is truly what a church is: a community, a container that holds all of us all together. Even when we drive each other crazy. Even when the Peters among us jump out, trying to make it on their own, and we have to throw them a life raft and drag them back in. And the boat we are building is not just for us, but for all of the people around us who need a safe refuge, an anchor to hold onto in the midst of the raging storms around us. If we are brave enough to remain in the boat with each other, to cling to each other, God, Jesus, will come to us, even in the midst of the storm. And God will help us together, as a community, take this boat out. For this boat, the church, is not designed to hide in a port, but rather to go out into uncertain and uncharted, to face new storms, to sail to new places, even if we are uncertain where they may be.

Notice what happens at the end of the Gospel story today. When Peter and Jesus get into the boat, the storm around them ceases. Well, that’s how Matthew tells the story. I doubt that’s what really happens. Maybe what happens is that when they get into the boat, they aren’t affected by the storm around them as much as they were before. Something about the storm of disquietude within themselves calms. And when they are together with Jesus in the boat, they are able to say to Jesus: “Truly you are the Son of God.” And I imagine they are able to say to each other: “Truly, you are the Son of God. Truly, you are the Daughter of God.”

Yesterday in Charlottesville, amidst the protests and demonstrations of white supremacists with torches in hand, something very interesting happened. A group of Christ-followers, led first by clergy dressed in robes, and then by laity, sailed their boat into a park across the street. In contrast to the tiki torches sending flames of fear, they lit single candles, and began to sing “This little light of mine….I’m gonna let it shine.” There were no Peters among them, rather, they sang with one voice, with one light of hope, just as that one light of hope flickered on a dark Easter morning when all was considered loss and shame and devastation. This is the power of being in the boat together! This is the power of the body of Christ being a witness, a light in the darkness, a sign of God’s Resurrection power even in the midst of great evil.

I suspect that if we were really honest with each other, all of us would admit we’re part-Peter. We cherish this illusion that we are in charge and in control, and when we are uncomfortable or challenged, we want to do something to fix it all. But the Gospel story today is challenging us to be something instead. To be present, with and for each other. To be in the boat together, with and for each other. To be together in the discomfort and storms of this world. To be held together in the loving embrace of God, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. To be present with and to our families, our neighbors, to Brownsburg, to Hendricks County, to this world.

As we build Good Samaritan, this boat we’re creating as we sail it, may God give us the wisdom and courage to sail to the places together where we can be and serve and advocate for people most in need, even in the midst of stormy seas. And may God give us the patience and wisdom to see that Jesus, even now, is walking on the water to be with us, just as he walked out of the dark grave on a cold, Easter morning to bring us new life.