CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES/NEW YORK TIMES
A glimpse of the fighting at a gathering of white supremacists, counter-protestors, and others in Charlottesville, VA, on Saturday.
I’ve always wanted to start a sermon like this: It was a dark and stormy night.
No seriously, it was.
Some of you might have experienced a few storms last night.
They are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and the darkness makes them scarier.
The disciples find themselves out on the water alone at night, stuck, perhaps, in a summer thunderstorm not unlike the ones that moved through the Northeast last night. Jesus, who’s been trying to get some peace and quiet for a few chapters now, has sent the disciples ahead of him while he goes up alone to pray. We don’t know how much praying he got done before the storm began, but what results is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. The story of Jesus walking on water is included in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. And here’s the thing. It isn’t a serene scene in any of these accounts. Every Gospel writer is quite clear about the setting for this story, and it isn’t calm.
It was a dark and stormy night.
The tempest is raging. And, unlike most of us when we experience a summer thunderstorm, the disciples are not safe in their living rooms or in their beds. They’re out in a boat on the raging sea. Very few of us, besides those who have been on ships in the military, know exactly what it’s like to weather a storm at sea.
The disciples are in a boat, away from shore, and Matthew tells us that the wind is against them, and that a storm has started. They are far from the land, and the waves are beating against the boat. Jesus has sent them on ahead of him, and so they are alone. The last time they were caught in the waves like this, Jesus calmed the storm. But he’s not here now. No doubt, they must be afraid, wishing he was there to calm the storm like last time.
But there’s more to the disciples’ storm than the literal waves that were beating against the feeble boat. John the Baptist was killed by Herod mere days before this. Israel is occupied by Rome. Their very lives are in danger, from Rome or from Herod himself, if they make too much of a fuss. And Jesus, never one to make a fuss, has just fed about 5,000 people, as we heard about last week, from basically nothing. Huge crowds are following him everywhere. The religious authorities are getting nervous that he is disturbing their fragile peace with Rome.
So much for not making a fuss.
And now, teetering on the edge of disaster in an occupied land, the disciples are alone, away from shore, and caught in a thunderstorm.
We know that this story ends well, but the disciples don’t know that. For all they know, they’re about to drown here in the dark or, if they do make it to the other side, they may face arrest and persecution on the other shore. To call them frazzled would likely be an understatement.
The tempest is raging.
And then they see Jesus walking towards them on the water.
God has shown up right when they needed him most: they’re in a high stress situation in more ways than one. The bad news for the disciples is that God has shown up, but they don’t recognize him.
Jesus, helpfully, calls out to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would still have some more questions for Jesus at this point. I would have a lot more questions. And Peter did, too – except he didn’t want questions, he wanted proof. “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you on the water.”
Oh, Peter. Always eager. Always wanting to put himself out there. Usually failing, but failing spectacularly.
It looks like a leap of faith, daring to walk out on the water, and I’ve often heard it preached that way — that Peter’s only flaw was taking his eyes off of Jesus.
I want to offer a different perspective. Because really, Peter, now is not the time to see the Son of God doing something and yell “Hey, I bet I can do that!
And Jesus’ response, I imagine, is less a “Come to me, my child,” and more of an, “Um, okay.”
I think that all the disciples, including Peter, failed to see their rescue coming and simply wait for it. Peter is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a bit of a showboat.
The tempest is raging, but the One who calms storms is here. They’ve seen him in action. Jesus shows up in the middle of the storm – he wasn’t with them when the storm started, but he shows up here, and in the most unexpected of ways – defying the very laws of physics to get to them. But the disciples — God bless the disciples — they don’t even recognize him. Even after he identifies himself, Peter gives him a qualifier: “Lord, if it’s you…” And of course, as expected, Peter walks out on the water but Jesus ends up having to pull him out. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus caught him “immediately.” He saved him — immediately.
Peter didn’t even get water up his nose.
Then he responds in the most Jesus of ways: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I don’t think that Jesus is only referring to Peter’s doubts about Jesus’ ability and the laws of physics. I think Jesus is referring to the whole scene, and talking about the disciples as a whole.
Why did you doubt in the first place? Didn’t you know I would come to you?
Can you imagine a scenario in which Jesus lets the disciples drown?
Then, predictably, he gets into the boat and the wind ceases. Jesus calms the storm. Again.
Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?
It is Jesus that calms the storm. Though Peter wanted a role in it, wanted to be proactive, wanted to go out and get it, it’s Jesus that catches Peter, in all his doubts, and pulls him back up. A couple of chapters later, Jesus will call Peter the rock on which he’ll build his church. Here, he’s the rock that almost sank because he couldn’t just stay in the boat.
Then Jesus calms the storm. It’s Jesus’ presence which makes all the difference. God showed up in the most unexpected and slightly startling way possible and saved the day. He startled the wits out of everyone, but he showed up. He showed up because that is who he is.
I think about us today. You may have heard of the deadly incident in Virginia yesterday where white supremacists and others from the alt-right violently clashed with counter-protestors, resulting in the death of at least one person.
The tempest is raging harder than a summer thunderstorm.
Make no mistake: white supremacy is out there — not just in the South but in our own backyard. Ideology that proclaims the superiority of whites over other groups is contrary to the Gospel, and plowing down your fellow citizens for ideological reasons is nothing short of domestic terrorism.
But before we on the left feel too self-righteous or victimized, don’t forget the man who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice after asking the fateful question: “Are those Democrats or Republicans?”
“Republicans” was the answer, and the man opened fire.
Again, domestic terror.*
In order to avoid hard conversations, people often say the Gospel isn’t political.
Yes it is.
What we call “politics” is nothing more than how we relate to one another and organize and run our society. That may make some conversations hard, but if the Gospel doesn’t inform how we live, see the world, and organize our society, then we’re simply using it as a security blanket for our own personal comfort.
The Gospel is indeed political, but it is not partisan.
All are welcome here: Democrat and Republican, Trump supporter and Bernie Bro, independent and immigrant.
And that can create quite a storm.
But the tempest is already raging.
In the midst of all of an increasingly violent political world in addition to our own personal storms, we have so many questions, ranging from “Why is this happening?” to “How did we get here?” to my favorite question, “Now what?”
Sometimes, like Peter, we go stumbling out of the boat before we’ve even fully assessed the situation, begging God to prove that God is indeed present and with us and that we are God’s favorite and that we are the most powerful, most skilled, best disciples.
And, quite frankly, we sometimes think that God needs standing up for.
We try to prove ourselves to the world and to God, and we sink every time. Sometimes, unlike Peter, we drag others down with us.
“Oh you of little faith.”
Why do we doubt?
The Gospel is not a story about us. The Gospel is a story about God.
God is with us in the chaos. God will defy the very laws of physics to get to us because neither life nor death nor anything will separate us from the love of God. God will and can move heaven and earth to get to you. You don’t have to go splashing out of the storm-battered boat.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to stay in the boat and let God run the show. To let God get to us. To let God’s grace work in us and through us. And to dare to trust that yes, God really will reach us.
And what’s more, we are not alone.
The disciples were not in individual canoes.
We’re in this battered little boat together.
“The best of all is that God is with us.”(1) And God often shows up in startling and unexpected ways, walking towards us on the water, performing a miracle while also scaring the bejeezus out of us in ways that only Jesus can. And so, as we look to the future in our changing nation and community and wonder how we might be of service in the midst of the raging storms of chaos and change, I want to challenge us — not to quickly figure out how to walk on water ourselves, but to instead look for the ways in which God will show up and witness to that.
Witness to how all are loved, all are welcome, and no one should have to suffer violence. Witness to what God has already done.
Sometimes, God shows up walking on the water, and the rumbling waves in the middle of a storm, doing the impossible. Other times, God appears in the most mundane and unremarkable things, such as bread and wine, and still performs a miracle. But God always shows up.
How will God show up at Our Savior’s as the summer starts to end?
And how will we respond? How will we witness to God’s presence in this politically diverse community in the midst of the storms of violence raging outside?
How will God show up in the midst of the tempest of your own life?
How will you respond?
Three things are for sure.
One: we’re in a battered little boat in the middle of a storm.
Two: that boat is God’s boat, and we are Jesus’s imperfect and almost comically bumbling disciples.
Three: Jesus will not let us drown. God will show up.
Our job is to wait, to be patient, to stay in the boat, and to believe that help is on the way. We don’t need to go crashing and tripping across the waves to get to God. Nothing will stop God from getting to us, even if the laws of physics need a little bending. God will get to us this morning, in bread and wine and in each other.
God will get to us. God will get to you. Heaven and earth won’t keep God’s love from you. So stay in the boat: stay in this boat with all of us. Rest in the love that will defy the laws of physics to get to you. Jesus is on his way. Amen.
* In light of the events in Charlottesville, I rewrote this sermon quickly after my vacation, and in the preaching of it, failed to use the word “terrorism.” Too often, we use this word to describe only acts committed by those who claim to be Muslim when the word actually means “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The acts here described certainly qualify.
This was pointed out to me by a parishioner after the service and has thus been corrected. Thanks be to God for church folks.
A note on the sermon: A version of this sermon was first given at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Atlanta, the last time this text appeared in the lectionary. The “stay in the boat” idea was first articulated to me by my friend and mentor, the Rev. Nancy Christensen, senior pastor at my home congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta.
1. These are remembered as the dying words of Methodist founder John Wesley.