Proper 14A, 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017
Deacon Sue Nebel
Genesis 37:1-4,12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Matthew 14:22-33
This has been an unsettling week. . .and that feels like an understatement. Belligerent, threatening rhetoric from the leaders of North Korea and our own country. The very real fear of possible armed conflict with catastrophic results. Then Friday night and yesterday, the news of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. A painful reminder of the continuing reality of racism in our country. Unsettling indeed. Everything seems shaky and uncertain. Then what do we get for our Gospel lesson this morning? Heavy winds on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples in a boat on the tumultuous water, gripped by fear. It seems appropriate.
This morning’s passage from Matthew picks up at the end of last’s week’s reading: the Feeding of the FiveThousand. The crowds are dispersing. Jesus has gone up on the nearby mountain by himself for a time of prayer. He has sent the disciples off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But things don’t go according to plan. Strong winds come up during the night, making the water rough and battering the disciples’ boat. Early in the morning, Jesus starts out, walking on the water toward the disciples. Seeing him, the disciples are terrified. They think he is a ghost. Jesus calls out to reassure them. Peter responds to his words, saying: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replies: “Come.” Peter then gets out of the boat and begins walking on the water toward Jesus. It is all going so well, but then Peter notices the wind and is afraid, uncertain. He begins to sink. Jesus reaches out and pulls him to safety, admonishing him for not having enough faith.
It is tempting, when looking at this story, to focus on the most striking, attention-grabbing part: Jesus walking on water. Putting our rational minds to work, we try to come up with an explanation of how Jesus manages to do this. Or we can simply dismiss it as some kind of illusion caused by the emotional state of the disciples. Quite honestly, I don’t have an explanation for how Jesus does this, but I am willing to accept the reality of the experiences of the disciples. This is what they saw and they told others about it. The story was carried forward in the oral tradition until it was finally written down.
What is important in this story, in my mind, is the part about Peter. Peter is the most visible of Jesus’ disciples. He is the one who always speaks up. He asks questions. He blurts out what he is thinking and feeling. Peter puts himself out there; he takes risks. And like most risk-takers, he sometimes fails. But through it all, Peter always wants to be faithful. He wants to please Jesus. He wants to meet Jesus’ expectations of a good disciple. This is what is happening in the Gospel story. Peter does not look around at the other disciples and say, “Watch this. I’m going to walk on water.” No. Peter focuses his eyes and attention on Jesus. He does indeed walk on water—until he is distracted by the wind and falters. After Jesus pulls Peter to safety, he chides him (gently I hope) for his lack of faith.
The good news here is that Jesus doesn’t give up on Peter. He doesn’t tell him that he is a failure as a disciple. He doesn’t dismiss him. He simply tells him that, in this moment, he didn’t have enough faith. He continues to value him and to love him. In turn, Peter doesn’t give up on Jesus. He never quits. Peter hangs in there. He keeps on trying to be faithful. Sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes, he fails. But he keeps at it. We can take heart from Peter’s example. We are all Peter. We too want to be faithful. We too want to measure up to the demands of discipleship. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. But we keep on trying. That is what it means to be faithful.
In my moments of feeling fearful and anxious about events in the world this past week, I admit I have wished for a heroic figure to appear on the scene. Someone to calm things down and make it all better. That has not happened, of course. So I have done what I often do in times like this. I turn to a trusted person of wisdom and faith. Steven Charleston is one of those people. He is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Alaska and a Native American. He posts reflections regularly on the Internet. This is what he offered on Wednesday morning.
I went to sleep with the sound of sabers rattling all around me and I awoke to find the world still anxious about the threat of war. These are the rare moments in history when we all hold our breath. The historical limit to human leadership seems so clear when the push of a button can end that history. I have been praying hard that people keep talking before they decide to act impulsively. I know you have too.
May the Spirit do what alone we cannot do: restore a sense of calm, open up new paths of dialogue, give peace time enough to serve the cause of justice.
Charleston states the obvious: As Christians we should pray, individually and collectively. I am somewhat relieved that what he hopes for, i.e. that people keep talking before acting impulsively, seems to be happening.
But what else? How do we move forward? How do we keep being faithful in the midst of all this. What has emerged for me as I pondered that question in the middle of the night, is the word “fierceness.” I know that it is the Holy Spirit’s doing, giving me that word. I also know where it originated. On my early morning walk a few days ago, when my mood was probably the darkest, a wonderful thing happened. A blocks from my house, I saw some men with heavy machinery, digging a large hole in front of a house a couple of doors ahead of me. Just then, I heard a child’s voice and looked to my right. There was a little boy, probably about three years old, sitting on the front step. He was fascinated by the men and their equipment. A thoughtful parent or caregiver had set his breakfast next to him. There he was, happily eating his breakfast and talking to himself, as he watched the men at work.
In that moment I had an overpowering rush of emotion, an intense affirmation of what I hold near and dear. I love life. I love this world that God created and that we try to maintain. I love God’s children. I don’t want life to be cut short by some nuclear disaster. I do not want this world destroyed. I want peace and justice in the world. I want that little boy sitting on his front step to grow up and become what he wants to be: someone who uses machines to dig big holes in yards, or whatever else. I want it not only for him, a white child with all the privileges that provides. I want it for all children. Whatever their skin color, their ethnic background, the country where they live now, or where they have lived in the past. That was for me a moment of fierceness. I carry the image of that little boy in my heartHe reminds me to live fiercely. To care deeply.
The events in Charlottesville were shocking. Whatever veil of unknowing or ignoring we had drawn across the reality of racism in this country was ripped to shreds. The violence, the hatred, the use of Nazi signs and slogans. All of it goes against everything Jesus teaches. To love one another. To respect the dignity of every human being. We have work to do. We have to recognize and name racism. In ourselves and in the world around us. To join in efforts to eliminate it. To keep on being faithful, as best we can.
Fierceness. Fierceness—and all that it means to me—is the word that is working for me right now. I offer it to you, in hope that you can take it and make it your own. If fierceness doesn’t work, I invite you to find a word that is better. Remembering Peter, the word faithfulness comes to mind. Or perhaps, the image of Peter himself might do. And there is always the image of Jesus, urging us to continue the work he started. Whatever you choose, embrace it. Carry it within you, to push you to live fully, boldly. To live, not live trapped in fear and anxiety, but to be fully involved in the work of faithful discipleship. To make this world a better place for everyone. Everyone.