The past several weeks, for me, have been filled with adventure—some planned and some less so. The biggest part of the adventure was my first-ever cruise, a 7-day journey traveling from England to Norway and back. It was wonderful, gliding into the Norwegian fjords at sunrise, standing out on my balcony sailing past snow-covered mountains —that was spectacular. I don’t know that I have ever been anyplace so beautiful in my life.
Now as some of you know, my mom invited herself on this trip, with the argument—persuasive enough, I guess—that she and her husband Jerry had been on several cruises before while Jeffrey and I hadn’t. So, she told us, she would be a good guide. And, in the main, she probably was. But, she also had this tendency, from time to time, to mention the unmentionable, which if you are on a cruise ship would be what? The Titanic. Which, as it happens, launched from the same port that we did. Not a happy coincidence if you ask me! Even at dinner, with other people at the table—since you often have to share, she brought up the Titanic. When the water starts getting choppy, things start swaying a bit... it’s probably not the best topic of conversation.
I understand that once, on a cruise to Alaska with friends, as water was crashing over the sides of the ship and it was kind of lop-sided, so much so that they had to drain the pool because it was spilling water everywhere, she actually said, “I wonder if this is what it was like on the Titanic.” Her friend Morrie, who was more than a little on edge to start with, just about had a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, for us, in July, there were no icebergs between England and the Norwegian fjords. Though, it did get rough as we entered the North Sea on approach to Scandinavia, with white caps on the waves and darkening skies. One night I wondered if the swaying was from the ship or my having drunk too many Manhattans. The feeling was much the same.
It was, perhaps, a lot like the waves and storms experienced by Jesus’ disciples out on the sea in today’s evocative gospel reading. Only they were on a small little boat, easily tossed, while we were more safe on a large ocean-liner. And what’s interesting to notice in this story is how Jesus actually sent the disciples out on the boat by themselves. A better translation might even be that Jesus forced or compelled them to get into the boat. Which kind of makes me wonder if maybe, for a time, he just a needed a little space to himself—a mutual “time out.” In the gospel, this follows directly on the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and two fish. After that chaos, maybe Jesus was just done with people for a while, with the crowds, and with even his own friends. So, he sends them far away, out on a boat, while he climbs a mountain to pray. Water and mountains, it’s a lot like the Norwegian fjords, as it happens.
I remember about 11 years ago, teaching confirmation class at another parish, and the young boys, especially, were inquisitive about this story and whether it was all really possible—Jesus walking on water, even Peter walking on water for a time. After all, there’s nothing that excites young boys like the possibility or hope of having super powers. One boy, in particular, said that if he were Jesus he’d be using his superpowers all the time and not for boring things, either, like multiplying bread and fish. I had to explain, unfortunately, that the point of Jesus’ miracles is not so much to do cool things (though that might be a side benefit). Rather, they are there to tell us something about God, about ourselves, and about God’s love and care for us.
So, then, what does this story tell us? Well, first, one rather obvious thing to notice is that the miracle happens on the water, during a storm. In the Bible, in both the Old Testament and here in the New, the sea is a place of mystery, of chaos and danger, even the home of monsters, which God alone has the power to control. In the biblical mindset only God would have the ability to walk on the waves, going ahead of God’s people to bring them to safety—whether those people are the 12 tribes of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, or here today, the 12 disciples rocked by waves.
Second, it’s interesting that Jesus says to the disciples as he walks to them, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.” We often read in the Bible, when something extraordinary happens or is about to happen, that a divine messenger will say “do not be afraid.” As many as 70 times angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, David and Solomon. Also to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, to the disciples on the Transfiguration mountaintop which we heard about last week, and finally to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb, the greeting is always the same: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.
Then, perhaps even more significantly Jesus also says, “It is I.” But in the original Greek it is closer to: “Take heart: I AM; have no fear,” using the same words God used in the burning bush to reveal the divine name to Moses so long before, calling himself “I AM.” As on the Transfiguration mountaintop, here too on the stormy sea Jesus reveals himself to be one with God—one in power, one in identity, one in meaning and purpose—an extension of God in human life. It is the revelation and the reminder that God is not locked up in the heavens above, far away, but alive, among us and even in us. We can reach out our hands to touch him, and he can pull us up when we stumble or sink.
Which, of course, leads us to Peter’s attempt to walk on water himself. There seems to have been something special, if rather impulsive, about our friend Peter. He had these fantastic moments, glimpses of faith, which impress even Jesus. But, alas, they invariably fade and he ends up saying or doing really stupid things, and then sinking into the deep. Of course, Peter’s a lot like us. Like him, sometimes, our faith is clear and strong. But then, there are those other times…. And like Peter, when we doubt, often we too say and do stupid things. We engage in wars, we believe that there’s not enough land, or love, or even enough God to go around. We try to horde everything we can to ourselves, and like Peter, weighed down, we, too, start to sink into the seas and deeps of our own lives.
This weekend’s appalling, racist, white supremacist march in Virginia is, I am convinced, a stark and powerful manifestation and revelation of this very belief, wrong as it is, that there isn’t enough—there isn’t enough wealth, there isn’t enough prosperity, and there isn’t even enough life to go around. And so, as a result, many, many lives are little or no consequence—especially the lives of people who are African American or Mexican American, or Jewish or Muslim American, gay American, or anything that does not fit into a narrow and exclusive definition of “White America,” which they seek to “take back.”
So, what do they do? They take out their torches, their Confederate and Nazi flags, and try to hoard what they can for themselves, chanting “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us.” They took one life and injured many more, driving a car into the crowd and engaging in fist fights. Sadly, the driver of the vehicle was just 22. Already at that age he was infected with hate. If that isn’t a manifestation of sinking in the muck and mire of human greed, hatred, sin, I don’t know what is. It is painfully clear that our nation and its people are being rocked by waves and storms, much like the disciples out in their boat—all the while looking, desperately, for a savior.
For some, unfortunately, that savior is exclusion, repression, violence, racism, and hatred. That savior carries a torch and wears a swastika, or romantically recalls the “good old days” of “honor and glory,” when some Americans kept others in chains.
Thankfully, for others, the savior we seek is love and understanding. And for those of us here this morning, and in churches across the nation and world, the Savior we seek is love and understanding embodied in Jesus Christ.
As a Christian, as a disciple and follower and friend of Jesus, I simply can’t imagine anything further from his life and teaching than the displays of racism and hatred that have so infected and infested our nation and world. As our Bishop Alan Gates, said: “the hatred behind Saturday's gathering in Charlottesville of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other purveyors of bigotry… is equally un-American and un-Christian.” Waves and storms, sometimes even hurricanes and icebergs, threaten to sink us.
But, when we have faith—when we reach out and grasp Jesus’ hand, when we grasp God’s hand and when we let go of all that weighs us down, especially jealousies and fears, racism, hatreds, and the vain hope for power and prestige and privilege, especially when they come at the expense of others—well, then, we inevitably find that once again we are able to walk, toward Christ and toward abundant life. We find that we are full of the mighty power of God—not a superpower, like Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman—but a real power, a life-giving, world-transforming power rooted and nourished in love.
Amidst all of the politicians I heard yesterday, speaking against racism and hatred, I thought two stood out. One was Utah’s Republican senator Orrin Hatch, who said: "Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, and have no place in civil society. We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." The other was former President Obama, who powerfully shared the words of Nelson Mandela. Mandela knew and experienced the full power of racism, but he—better than almost anyone--also knew that we are not powerless to overcome it. He said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
As it happens, that’s exactly what Jesus, the human embodiment of love and compassion, the human embodiment of God—the great I AM—teaches us as well. He teaches us that in God there is neither Jew nor Greek, as Paul reminds us in our epistle reading this morning. He teaches us that there is no room for hate or exclusion in God’s kingdom. He teaches us that left to our own devices, desires, and narrow interests, we will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves of the world. But with him, through him, in him, we can and will rise.
So, now, today, in the midst of this chaotic, storm-tossed, and ever challenging life, I invite you, in fact I urge you, to reach out and grasp the hand that is seeking to draw you up. Grasp the hand that will keep you afloat, and will fill you, and us all, with the ability to love, and heal, and transform life—whoever we are, where ever we are, whatever our race or background. The events of the past days tell us that our nation and the world need us. They need us to be filled with the transformational, life-giving power of God, now more than ever.
Do not be afraid. Reach out. Rise. Walk. Live.
Do not be afraid. Reach out. Rise. Walk. Live.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD