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I’m not sure that I have had as many conversations with colleagues on a Saturday as we all struggled to re-write our sermons, to find the words to say on a morning like this. Surely by now you have seen some of the images coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia and, if you are like me, you have been unsure about whether to cry first or scream, to be angry or in deep, deep despair.
It is my hope, even my prayer, that there will not be a Christian in church in the United States today who will not hear some version of this from their pastor – I denounce this with every fiber of my being. White supremacy is evil, straight from hell and there are not “many, many sides” to this. When neo-nazis are marching, there are only two sides – right and wrong. And this is wrong. Period.
But I know this is not a message that all Christians will hear. In fact, I would imagine that many of those marching with swastikas consider themselves Christian, and they have been radicalized to the point of terrorism, so they will not hear this from their pulpit, just as we won’t call them terrorists, though that is what they are. And I also think that I am only preaching to the choir this morning. I don’t think I will find dissenters here.
So what word is there to say? As I began to wrestle with what I would preach yesterday, and to pray pretty forcefully for the Holy Spirit to pay a visit, I began to imagine what it would be like if I were preaching to another audience? What if these pews were filled with those 500 white supremacists this morning? What if on one side of the sanctuary I had the President and all his cabinet and on the other I had Kim Jong Un and his advisors? What would I preach then?
The story of Jesus walking on the water doesn’t just come out of the blue, you know? It comes immediately after Jesus has fed thousands of people with a few loves and a couple of fish, a miracle of abundance in the face of apparent lack. A miracle of hope when the disciples were silent to the suffering in front of them. It’s such a critical story to the life of Jesus that it is one of few miracles that appears in all 4 gospels. And from this monumental event, Jesus sends his disciples away, immediately the text says, to the “other side”, which is Gospel code for “out of their comfort zone.” Jesus specializes in this, you know, sending his disciples off without a protective staff, or a warm cloak, making them follow him to where the Gentiles are – yikes – and inviting them to sit down with him at the table with the “unclean” people. It’s another boundary crossing for them, immediately after this jaw-dropping act where he confronts their assertions that “nothing can be done about these people” with an act of sharing that changes the whole situation.
As he climbs up to the mountain to recharge his batteries, they sail away to spend an evening far away from shore, battered by the waves because, the text says, the “wind was against them.” It’s important for you to know that in the first century Judean mindset, the water was both life-giving and a place of chaos and death. You cannot survive long in the desert without it, but common flash floods and the reality that few people could swim (not much reason to learn in the desert) made water, especially being surrounded by it, pretty terrifying. Weather, in general, was far more damaging and scary then because they were subject to it much more than we are…or much more than we think we are. Last week certainly reminded us that despite our technology, our radar and our early warning systems, we are not in charge of the storm. We are subject to it.
We subject to all kinds of storms in life. And they are raging right now. We face again the winds of racism and bigotry as we also face again the winds of war – this time with the very real threat of nuclear conflict, as we witness diplomacy give way to something that seems more like two dudes squaring off at a pick-up basketball game. It is terrifying.
When the disciples are feeling similarly terrified and trapped, it is Jesus who comes to them, bridging the supposedly unbridgeable distance that the water places between them. Jesus is most commonly translated as having said to the disciples, even more scared as they think it’s a ghost walking towards them, “ Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But the Greek is more direct, and more significant. In Greek he says, “Have courage, I AM, do not fear”, pronouncing the same divine name that inspired Moses at the burning bush, giving them the same directive to set aside their fear that he will give to the women at the tomb, calling on them to do more than be in awe, more than sing some praise, but to see their identity in him, and to step out of the boat.
It’s not the first time in the gospels that Jesus has calmed the storm and the fears of the disciples…it’s not even the first time in Matthew’s gospel. And I think that it is no mistake that this storm rises just after the miraculous meal that sees thousands fed, when the disciples just wanted to send them home. It is part of a larger narrative, a Gospel, a collection of good news where Jesus teaches us of a dream that is bigger than our divisions, a love that is stronger than our fear and a life that is bigger than death. It is part of a lesson that stands against our culture today, one that denies “might makes right” and rejects “the ends justify the means.” A way of life that claims no one as unclean and asks us to forgive instead of get even.
If I had either of those two groups in here – the supremacists or the leaders of two nations feuding against one another I’d probably say this. You are my enemies. White supremacy is my enemy. People who endorse or support it are my enemy. Totalitarian regimes who exploit their own people and rattle sabers are also my enemy, as is a leader who seems to endorse all of the above. But Jesus also taught us something about our enemies. And if you’re not willing to do that, or try to do that, or admit that you are failing to do that, that’s fine…just don’t call yourself a Christian because you are not following Jesus.
The Jesus school isn’t for the faint of heart. It is the confront evil with good class, the turn the other cheek lesson, the forgive seven times seventy instruction. Jesus does not ever tell his disciples that they will be safe. Instead, he asks them to go out into a hostile world with no staff to defend themselves, no cloak to cover up with on the cold nights, preaching the power of love in a time of the love of power. He does not tell them that everything will be OK. In fact, he warns them – follow me and you will be persecuted, you may have to deny your family, leave your home…in fact, if you want to save your life, you will have to lose it. Jesus never once tells his disciples to “man up”, but rather to prepare themselves to face the kind of retribution they will face if they begin to love everyone without exceptions, to say that all are welcome at the table, and to turn the other cheek and to forgive even when, perhaps especially when, they lost face doing it. That stuff will get you killed.
But, Jesus says from the side of the boat, have courage because God IS. Not God will be, or God is coming, but GOD IS!!! Do not fear! Reach for a bigger vision, a bolder dream! This is the cross before the cross, the power that is above all power, the claim that Jesus will trust in so fully that we, in another act of trust, claim that it raised him from the dead. For in the middle of all of this, he promises us that we will know the love of God that surpasses all boundaries. The love that created the universe and you and me and all of us. And so he calls to us – step out of the boat. And when the storm gets scary, as storms often do, don’t walk away from your trust…walk towards it…lift it up. For we will need our faith if we are to confront the issues that face us – if we are to take the next steps in maturing our culture, making it more inclusive, more loving, less fearful. We will need to step out of the boats of our carefully contained existence, reaching across boundaries, encountering those who disagree, who are “impure” in our minds, who harbor the same fears and insecurities that we have only reduced with education and experience.
A few days ago I went to Omaha, Nebraska with my friend and cohort, Aliye Shimi and her husband, Fuad. We were there to visit the Tri-Faith Initiative, an effort between Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith communities to build a common campus together and to make positive impact on the many challenges we face as the human race by claiming our faiths, in their diversity and similarity. It is an effort to build bridges of trust and respect amidst the fear and mistrust all around us. It has form and substance, on 37 acres of land sit already the American Muslim Institute’s Mosque, the congregation of Temple Israel and a cleared lot where the congregation of Countryside Community UCC will soon worship. A walking path connects the building, soon to have literal bridges spanning the creek, and a community center, where all three houses of worship AND the community at large might meet to develop compassion, to create understanding and to build a better world…the kind of development that can only occur when we are brave enough to open our hearts and lives to an actual encounter.
The Tri-Faith Initiative is, of course, not without challenges. It is not without struggles. It is not without fear that lives in the hearts of the people who know that a gunman’s bullet could pass easily through the beautiful windows that look out on their neighbors at worship. But it is. It is. And it is because all three institutions have re-dedicated themselves to the values they have always held, they have refused to give into the fear but now let those values take them in this new direction…for the winds are against them and they are far from land.
Now is the time for this kind of courage. We must step out of our boats, my friends, for we believe that hate has no weapon that love will not conquer. Don’t we believe this? But love needs you. And it needs you on more than just the days of drama. It needs more than your anger or outrage. It needs your resistance…not just to the convenient scapegoats on which we love to blame everything, but resistance of what lies in our own hearts, sewn by our upbringing, our culture, our media and our society. Love needs us to show up when our neighbors of color call for our help, or when the Mosque or Synagogue are threatened, for we know they show up for us, right? It needs us to know that the struggle for gay rights, for blacklivesmatter, for trans people, public education, the fight against poverty, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, environmental injustice, these are all the same fight. Love needs us to resist by coming to church every Sunday, standing together to hear the Word, to say a prayer, to re-dedicate our selves to the values we hold, as the winds push against our own sails. Peter can walk on the water when he keeps Jesus in sight, it is when his fear diverts his attention, pulls him towards doing things his own way that he begins to sink. We have to trust that the way of compassion and hope, building bridges not walls, loving our neighbors and, yes, even our enemies, is more than just a way…it is the way, no matter our religion.
Friends, I don’t have a rally cry for a protest march for you this morning. What I have is a prayerful reminder that while we may be angry, our anger, as the Book of James teaches us, does not produce God’s righteousness. Our anger should produce our participation, our dedication…it should help us to show up to do the listening, the organizing, the building of relationships, the time-consuming, unglamorous work of seeing ourselves in others and slowly ridding our hearts of the prejudice and division that the world will try to foster in us. For that is what really produces God’s righteousness. Let us not be mistaken, the same evil that marched through the streets of Charlottesville lives here…right here among us. I know that those people reside next to us at work, on the road, in the supermarket. I know that this evil is part of our history as a city, a state and a nation. I know that racism lives in my own heart.
But I also trust…I trust in this – that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. So, this morning, I pray the God who is neither male nor white, who cries at our violence and longs for our compassion, who sets fear and hate aside with Her hands and who revels in the joyful dance of community will come to us once more, letting confession, reparation and repentance free us from the heavy chains in which we have placed ourselves. Do not, Holy One, let our spirits be consumed by the colonizing forces of oppression and hatred, but transform our hearts so fully that we might step from our boats onto the turbulent seas and walk to you.
May it be so. Amen.