God in Unexpected Places: On the Sea

Matthew 14:22-33

A lot is happening for Jesus.

For one thing, Jesus is getting famous. Word has gotten around about this charismatic rabbi reformer, about his preaching prowess and his healing skills. Every new town he arrives in, the crowds keep getting bigger. There are those who need healing.  There are spiritual pilgrims.  There are thrill seekers, and celebrity sighters, and folks who just want a little entertainment.

Jesus is getting famous. But some other things are not going so well for Jesus. Recently he travelled back home to Nazareth. Maybe he was hoping for some comfort, or some rest, or some affirmation. Instead, he is questioned and mocked. Those who knew him when are offended by who he has become.

Jesus moves on from Nazareth, but things do not improve. Soon he finds out that Herod, the local arm of Roman rule, has executed his mentor, John the Baptist.  This is a big loss for Jesus. And even bigger, because at least one of the reasons that John is killed is because Jesus has been  making trouble for the colonial government.

Jesus has a growing list of personal problems, and thanks to his newfound popularity, he is facing a whole lot of practical problems as well.  Crowds are great, but Jesus and his disciples are still trying to figure out what to do with everyone. How many people can Jesus heal in one day? Where can Jesus preach so that this many people can hear him? What about food for all these pilgrims? What do we do with so many people?

A lot is happening for Jesus: personally, professionally. He’s wiser than most of us, so he knows that he needs a break. His first attempt is to get into a boat, and go to a deserted place. Unfortunately, the crowd catches on. By the time his boat is approaching the shore, the crowds have tracked him down on foot.  Jesus has compassion on them. They are so desperate. He cures those who are sick.  Then he feeds everyone, making a meal for thousands out of five loaves, and two fish.

Then, finally,  Jesus says, “enough.” He compels his disciples to get into a boat and leave him. He dismisses the crowd. And he goes up the mountain by himself to pray.

Hours pass. Night falls. Rough waves rise up and batter the boat of the disciples, who are sailing on the water below. Then, at daybreak, Jesus comes to rejoin them.  When he comes walking across the water, he is so changed from his time with God that they do not even recognize him.

Immediately, Jesus is drawn into work again. But God’s spirit has filled him up, and he is ready to share that spirit: calming the disciples’ fears; helping Peter through a moment of passionate lunacy; and calming the waves on the sea. By the end of the story, Jesus is back with all the disciples in the boat, and they are in awe, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This has been another eventful week in our nation. Congress is in recess, but there have been plenty of other things to consider.  We’re facing the specter of nuclear war, approaching the possibility of international conflict with both North Korea and Venezuela. And in the past two days, white supremacists gathered publicly in Virginia, rallying around a hero of the confederacy, and recruiting new people to their cause.

How does this ancient scripture speak to the events of this week? What does it have to offer?

Both Jesus and Peter in this text struggle with an important question: What is it our job to do? Jesus is struggling to carry out his calling while still finding ways to set boundaries on his compassion. Peter, full of love for Jesus, still needs to learn that he is not Jesus.  Both of them are challenged with the work of discerning when and how to act, to be faithful.

All of us face this same vocational question, “What is it our job to do?” And that question feels even more urgent when terrible things are going on around us. What is it our job to do? For each of us, the answer to that question is different. We each have different gifts, callings, and limitations. However, the first step in answering that question is the same for all of us, just as it is for Jesus and for Peter. The first step is turning to God.

Loving God with all that we are is the first and most important call of every person of faith. If we put God in the center, everything else flows from that.  It is God who can grant us wisdom, clarity, and strength.  It God who makes it possible for Jesus to walk on water, and continue with his preaching and healing, and ultimately to die and rise again. It is God, in the form of Jesus, who helps Peter to gradually understand that loving Jesus does not mean he is meant to be Jesus. He is called to be Peter: the deeply flawed and highly energetic rock on which the church is built.

Loving God with all that we are is our first and most important call. So it is good to be together this morning, loving God through the act of worship. Perhaps we can imagine that we are like the disciples: huddled together in a boat, and caught on rough seas.

If we begin by loving God, we will not be conquered by fear or deluded by evil. Centered in a love beyond measure, we will be able to observe what is going on around us with wisdom and clarity.

We will see not only threats of international violence and how they may impact us.  We will also see our failure to love our enemy and our national temptation to put our trust in weapons, in violence, in dominance.

We will see not only the events that took place yesterday in Charlottesville. We will also see how they fit into our American history and our own personal identities. We will remember our national history of white supremacy, beginning with native genocide, and the enslavement of African peoples, and continuing through segregation and internment, unequal imprisonment and lending and housing and education and employment. We will have the strength to acknowledge that the fantasy of white superiority and the sin of racism are as old as America, and that they are nowhere near over, even in the hearts in and minds of those of us who like to think that we know better. We will have the courage to acknowledge that those of us who are white benefit from white supremacy, even if we denounce it, and that we are the ones responsible for dismantling it.

When we witness leaders calling for unity, we will know that unity without honestly, repentance, or justice is really just further oppression.

A storm is raging, and it is not a new storm. It may be more visible than usual, out in the open: naked aggression; unembarrassed hate.

Thank the living God, we are not alone here in this boat.  We have one another for company, for courage. And, walking out across the water is our friend Jesus.  The one who says: “peace be with you.”  The one who says “Take heart.”  The one who says, “Do not be afraid.” The one who says, “love your enemies.”  The one who eats with the despised and feeds the hungry.  The one who heals the wounded and speaks out for the oppressed. The one who does not stop preaching love no matter what.

Jesus is in the boat with us, and don’t get me wrong, Jesus has been in Charlottesville, as well. Wherever two or three are gathered. Because while over 1,000 folks gathered in Charlottesville in the name of white supremacy, five or six times as many gathered there in the name of love and justice. Clergyfolks. Black Lives Matter movement members. Students from UVA. They gathered to pray, and sing, and stand, and witness. They wanted everyone to know: this evil exists, and yet, this evil is not all there is, and this evil will not win.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a national leader in the UCC, was there yesterday morning. In early morning worship she said: “In the face of fear, the only weapon that wins is love. It is not the body that wins the battle. It is the heart… we must pray together and decide what love would do.”

Friends, let us pray together and decide what  love would do; what love will do; in us and in our communities and in our nation and in our world. With God first in our hearts, with Jesus alongside us in our boat, evil cannot win. Thanks be to God.