Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10: 5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33
I want to begin by saying I’m feeling a lot of emotions this morning. What happened in Charlottesville this weekend has shocked and appalled me, and it must be addressed in our sermon this morning. I had a different sermon written 48 hours ago, before I knew about alt-right marches, hate speech, swastikas, homophobic chants, and violence on the other side of our country in Charlottesville, VA. Before a car smashed into protestors, killing at least one person, before driving away.
Before Saturday morning, I wanted to talk about the first two verses of our Gospel reading, verses about Jesus going to a mountainside to pray. That’s why the sermon title in your bulletin is “Up on a Mountainside.” I wanted to draw attention to Jesus’ preparation before walking on water, before facing the wind and the waves. I wanted to remind you that we also must carve out a time for self-care, contemplation, and prayer if we are to do the work of the Gospel, if we are to confront the wind and the waves.
But then Charlottesville happened, and the wind and the waves took priority. It’s not that self-care, contemplation, and prayer are not important, they are, now more than ever. But in light of what’s happening in our country, it would be irresponsible to prioritize self-care and silence, when the Gospel of Jesus Christ also calls us to care for others, to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the voiceless, and even to sacrifice our own lives for the lives of others.
What’s happening in Virginia is not about free-speech. It’s not about letting every voice be heard. Yes, everyone has a right to free speech, but we, as Christians, cannot hide behind constitutional rights as if they take priority over our Christian duty. We have a responsibility to confront hate and violence in all its forms. We don’t try to control others’ voices, but we also don’t shy away from condemning all that is anti-Christ, which certainly includes racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and American exceptionalism, all of which were promoted by the alt-right hate groups in Charlottesville.
As citizens of America and citizens of the kingdom of heaven our priority lies first and foremost with the way of Jesus. As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, as followers of Jesus Christ, we do not live in a democracy but a theocracy. The kingdom of heaven is not ruled by majority vote but by the Prince of Peace, and Jesus, while loving all people, always takes sides. Jesus always sides with justice over injustice, the liberation over oppression, love over hate, peace over violence, resurrection over death.
When we enter the waters of baptism, when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord, we die to self that we might live for Christ, and living for Christ means being who Christ would be if he were in our shoes today.
And who was Christ in his day? Who did God choose to enter the world as? Because I think this tells us a great deal about who Jesus would be if he showed up today. He didn’t come as a Roman ruler, or a wealthy landowner, he didn’t even come as a credentialed member of the clergy. He had no Master of Divinity, no ordination certificate. He was a poor, racially profiled Jew from the most backwater town imaginable, Nazareth. From this we can come to the conclusion that if Jesus came to America today he would probably not be a white, middle class person with a graduate degree. He would probably show up today, as he did 2,000 years ago, as one who was racially marginalized, poor, and uncredentialed. In his day he depended on the financial support of others, so we can only assume he would depend on financial support today as well.
Paul may have said that he was all things to all people, but Jesus never said that. Jesus was not a Roman to the Romans. He was a Jew, the race the Romans could kill with impunity, slap in the face, force to walk a mile carrying their luggage, humiliate and degrade. He was not a wealthy to the wealthy. He was poor. The wealthy who followed Jesus ended up giving up their wealth, like Zacchaeus, and those who didn’t give up their wealth didn’t follow Jesus, like the rich young ruler. Jesus was not a priest to the priests. He was a upstart radical who threatened the stability of their religion. He was not a good, law abiding Jew to other good, law abiding Jews. He broke Sabbath, touched the unclean, and protested in the temple.
That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the Romans, the rich, the religious leaders, or good law abiding citizens, but a crucial part of loving them was calling them to repentance for the ways they implicitly and explicitly took advantage of the disadvantaged. He loved them, but transformation was needed if they were to become followers of his. And many of them did. Many Romans, wealthy people, religious leaders, and even good, law abiding citizens got onboard the ship called salvation.
This may be hard to hear, but Jesus did not meet everyone where they were. He met the poor and sick where they were, in streets, but he didn’t meet the Romans in their palaces or praetorium. Jesus doesn’t enter a praetorium until he’s been arrested. It’s in the praetorium that he stripped, mocked, and tortured with his crown of thornes. The place of Roman power is the place of Christ’s humiliation. The Romans who met Jesus had to find him in the streets. They left their places of power and security in order to find him among the racially marginalized Jews.
It’s clear in Scripture that being associated with Jesus was risky business for the respected and affluent. Those in places of power didn’t want to be associated with him unless they were driven to do so out of sheer need. That’s why Nicodemus the priest goes to Jesus at night, when no one will see him consorting with the rabble-rouser Jesus of Nazareth.
In our Scripture reading Jesus wasn’t in the boat, he was out in the waves. The same is true today. Jesus isn’t just in our churches. He is also in the streets of Charlottesville, VA, standing in opposition to the heresy that is white supremacy, the heresy that denies the goodness of God’s creation and the humanity of God’s beloved black and brown children. Jesus carried the good news of the Gospel not just to the synagogues and the Temple, but also to the most devastated and broken areas of Israel.
Being a Christian means following Jesus’ lead, embodying hope in the face of hopelessness. It means bringing peace into the midst of violence, confronting injustice with justice.
It means walking out onto the stormy seas and trusting that our feet will not sink, but we will walk on water.
But we’ll never know the great things Christ can do through us if we never leave the boat, if we are too scared by the wind and the waves.
In the first sermon I wrote, I wanted to read you a Wendell Berry poem about sneaking away into nature in the middle of the night to find peace, as Jesus went up to the mountainside, but the prophet Jeremiah warns us against crying out “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). So I’m going to read you an excerpt from a different poem by Wendell Berry – one that doesn’t speak of peace when there is no peace. This is from the poem “The Morning’s News”:
The morning’s news drives sleep out of the head
at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes
open to the dark. Weary, we lie awake
in the agony of the old giving birth to the new
without assurance that the new will be better.
I look at my son, whose eyes are like a young god’s,
they are so open to the world.
I look at my sloping fields now turning
green with the young grass of April. What must I do
to go free? I think I must put on a deathlier knowledge, and prepare to die
rather than enter into the design of man’s hate.
The picture of a car crashing into protestors holds my eyes open at night.
The picture of unarmed black men and women being shot holds my eyes open at night.
The picture of flags with swastikas fluttering in the breeze holds my eyes open at night.
What will the church do now? Last week we talked about the fact that sometimes we have concerns, but there aren’t opportunities to show that concern. I specifically talked about our frustration in our race and faith Sunday School class, where we wondered how we could move from simply “not being racist” to be “anti-racist,” how we could begin doing our part to name and dismantle the racism that has been a part of our countries fabric since its earliest days. Now is an opportunity to show our concern. Our country is in a scary place, with the external threat of North Korea and the internal threat of racism. It’s a scary time, but it’s also a time of great possibility. We have no idea how God can use us to bring hope and healing.
When Peter woke up the day of our Gospel reading, I doubt that he thought he’d see Jesus feed 5,000 people (that’s what happened right before our reading today), and that he’d end the day walking on water. We don’t know what God will do next, but we choose to believe God can do something remarkable. Though things look dire, we “choose joy” in the words of Helen, months ago. We choose to believe that hate will not have the final word, death will not be triumphant. We choose to believe in the promise of Revelations 7:9-10, when John says, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
This is a picture of a day when white supremacy and racism are finally put to death, and all people from every nation, tribe, people, and language will stand together before the risen Christ.
But we aren’t there yet. Right now we’re still in the boat with the disciples. We still live in a world that is contrary to the Gospel, contrary to Jesus’ radical inclusivity of all people, just as the wind was contrary to the sail. And we must choose, like Peter, if we will leave the boat or not. Most of us can withstand the storm for now. We don’t live in Charlottesville, VA. No one is singling us out, threatening violence, so we can hold on to the sides of the boat like all the other disciples did, or we can follow Peter, who recognized that Jesus was not in the boat. He was in the midst of the waves, in the midst of the violence, and Peter wanted to be where Jesus was.
Peter doesn’t know when he steps out onto the water what will happen. He doesn’t know if he will sink. He doesn’t know if Jesus will catch his hand in time. He’s willing to risk it all to follow Jesus.
We don’t know what’s next. We don’t know if what happened in Charlottesville will spark more violence like it across the country. But we can be sure that the United States of America is on the cusp. Things will never be the same again, and, like Wendell Berry, “we lie awake / in the agony of the old giving birth to the new / without assurance that the new will be better.”
We must, as individual and as a church, step out of the boat, the one that holds us safe, and risk the wind and the waves. We don’t know what lies ahead for our country, and we don’t know what lies ahead for our church, but we do know who stands outside the boat affirming the dignity of all people, proclaiming “black lives matter” in the face of Nazis and white supremacists, putting his own life on the line as he did 2,000 years ago: Jesus. Will we meet him there?
 Wendell Berry, “The Morning’s News,” New Collected Poems, 124.