Texts: 1 Kgs 19.9-18; Rom 10.5-15; Matt 14.22-33
It is our problem because our white Church voted for this. Even if all of us condemn what happened yesterday, the fact is that we are part of one of the denominations that helped bring this hate to power and give it voice. And it’s not just about how Lutherans voted; I have colleagues in this Church who are struggling in deep turmoil this morning with having to tell this truth—not because it’s hard to condemn Nazis (that is literally one of the easiest things to do in America post-WWII), but because they are afraid of being attacked as “too liberal” or “too political” by the congregations they serve who don’t see the problem. However, we must not forget that we are the Church who raised Dylann Roof. Friends, we are all in the same boat.
In a quiet little town like this, it's easy to get the impression that we are safely tucked away from the storm, but the wind howls all around us. There was no white supremacist rally here this weekend; we are fortunate enough to live in a part of the country that is far less tolerant of such chicanery. However, that does not mean that racism is not rearing its ugly head right here among us. It doesn’t announce itself with confederate flags and swastikas, but with silence, with condescension, and with judgment.
When we are silent as others automatically justify out of context the killings of people of color by state authorities, we are complicit. When our neighborhoods are unofficially segregated by color, we are complicit. When poverty in our area has an unmistakably brown tone, we are complicit. Make no mistake, beloved, the storm rages all around us. We are all in this boat together. We are all being pounded by the waves of bigotry and hatred. When one child of God suffers, we all suffer.
That became literally true on Friday night as a group of citizens gathered for prayer the night before the counter-rally against the terrorists. As Christians of many different denominations gathered in St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, a stream of hatred bearing torches surrounded the church. The people inside were unable to leave, fearful of what would happen next. Nobody was hurt, but for a short while, the disciples of Jesus, gathered there to prepare themselves for doing the work of justice and peace, knew what it meant to be stranded in a sea of chaos, tossed by waves of death.
In the gospel story, when Peter steps out of the boat it is not because Jesus bids him come. The idea is all Peter’s. The words on his lips—“If you really are Jesus…”—are the same words used by Satan when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness: “If you really are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread… throw yourself down.” (Mt 4:3, 6) It is an evil force that draws Peter from the boat, and it is once he is alone and separated from his companions that the fury of the wind and the waves truly unnerve him and he begins to sink; but it is also then when Jesus reaches out a hand to save him, and brings him back into the boat, among his friends, where it is safe.
What are we to do in the midst of such racism and hatred? I don’t have a good answer to that; the solution is far too complicated to reduce to a simple moralism or sound byte. What I do know is that we have been called into this boat together, and we are safest and strongest when we are together. Our place is beside those who are bearing the brunt of hatred and suffering injustice, working the oars and bailing water because our lives are just as much at stake as theirs(*).
The good news of this story is that even far from shore and wracked by wind and waves, the followers of Christ are never separated from him. In the very worst of the storm, in the darkest part of the night, he comes walking over the waters to join us in the boat. The sea is violent and the storm is powerful, but the words with which Jesus greets his disciples are a reminder of who is really in control. First, he comes to them walking across the water. In scripture, God is depicted as “trampling the waves of the sea,” (Job 9.8) and making “a path through the mighty waters” (Ps 77.19); Jesus then, comes to them as only God can. Then he says, “it is I.” In Greek, “It is I” is actually only two words: I AM. Jesus announces himself with the name of God, a reminder that the one walking across the waves isn’t just like God, isn’t just from God, doesn’t just have the power of God, he is God. Then he says, “do not be afraid,” which is the same thing the angels say every time they appear to terrified mortals to impart the word of the LORD.
The evil that grips us seems so strong, so powerful, so tangible, but the God whom we serve is bigger. The One we follow is one who has faced death and won—not by overwhelming force, but through the abundance of love and life that can come only from God. To quote again from Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The terrorists came with torches and pepper spray, with brass knuckles and clubs, with automobiles plunged into crowds, but the power of the living God that stood against that evil in the people gathered to pray, in the linked arms of clergy who stood between the armed militia and the counter-protesters, in all who offered medical aid or a helping hand or even just solidarity.
As those frightened disciples gathered in the church, fearful of what the torch-lit faces outside might do next, it was the love of Christ present in that community that held them together. As we cower together in this boat, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, unsure what to do next, it is that same love of Christ that now finds us, that comes to us through the midst of the storm, trampling down the waves of death itself to bring us life and justice and peace.
What Elijah heard from God on the mountain was that he was not alone. God sent him back into the storm, but he went knowing that God was with him, and that he had co-workers who would continue the journey with him and after him. As we look down the road ahead and wonder what it will bring, God also says to us, “Eat, or else the journey will be too much for you.” Strengthened with this holy meal, our Lord sends us back out to brave the storm, but we sail together in this boat, and we continue to offer what gifts we have to the service of God’s kingdom, knowing that the great I AM is here with us, in the same boat. With the Son of God at our side, though winds may blow and waves may crash, even were the boat itself to be lost, we never will be. We are all in this boat together—liberals and conservatives, Northerners and Southerners, White and non-White, privileged and persecuted—we are in this boat together with Christ.