Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33 (Lectionary 19, year A)
22[Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee], while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN
Jesus and the disciples had just learned that John the Baptist was dead, and then they spent a whole day healing people, and then they had to serve an enormous dinner and collect all the leftovers – do something with them (no Tupperware back then!), and then there’s this nasty storm on top of all of it.
Have you been there? It’s not a very fun moment to be in. And Jesus is off on his little prayer retreat. God is absent as the disciples spend the night in a boat, on a huge lake, in a storm. And Jesus had thought it was going to be relaxing.
In July when I was last here with you we heard Jesus telling us “Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” And now Jesus is finally modeling it: at the end of an outrageously full day, putting the disciples in a boat and then going to the mountains for a prayer retreat.
Self-care is important.
Thomas Merton says this:
“The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Have you been there?
God experiences this in Jesus. Jesus is exhausted. Maybe he even experienced what we call “compassion fatigue” at this point. Do you know what that is? Psychologists are calling that feeling we’re having when we are overwhelmed by the 24/7 news cycle and the seemingly uninterrupted series of catastrophes – natural and human caused – that we take on emotionally if not physically or financially. Certainly the disciples were feeling it.
Something has to give. But we neglect self-care so easily. It’s our reflexive, defensive crouch in our over-busy society. American’s don’t take all their vacation. Clergy don’t take their sabbath. Parents of infants think they can actually be “on” 24/7 without help from friends and extended family. It’s rugged individualism on steroids. And if you’re watching the news and engaged in our common life in society, well, how can you turn it off and miss the next thing to be upset about?
bell hooks says it succinctly in her book Sisters of the Yam. Writing about the ways in which the emotional health of black women has been and continues to be impacted by sexism and racism. She says:
“self-care is a political act of resistance for black women.”
Self-care might be a political act of resistance for anyone overwhelmed by challenges caused by the superman or superwoman syndrome and/or by the perennial onslaught of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, disability, or other forms of oppression (and being the oppressor is destructive as well).
But self-care is not, cannot be with an end goal only of rest and a life of leisure.
As followers of Jesus we are called to love and serve the Other in all that we do. We engage in self-care so that we can respond to God’s love in service to God’s beloved world.
Jesus KNOWS what it is to be exhausted by that call. Love your neighbor as yourself. Self-care is one sign of how we love ourselves.
But maybe this is not a story about how or why to have a balanced life.
And I don’t think it’s about what we usually hear sermons about: having enough faith to get out of the boat, or keeping our eyes on Jesus to keep walking on the water. It’s also not about having the strength and endurance in order to row against the wind and bring the boat to land and go looking for Jesus when he is absent in the middle of a crisis.
Jesus comes to them – to us – in the midst of the storm.
But not until morning.
So how did they make it through the night? How do we make it through this night?
Given what we know about 1st century Jewish practice, the disciples probably prayed and sang psalms together.
Psalm 69 comes to mind:
69:1Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
3 I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
How do you make it through those nights? Those days when all you have left to give is a cry out to God?
As the sky begins to lighten they see someone coming across the water toward them. It’s Jesus. He can tell they’re frightened so Jesus calls out – to calm their fear. Why doesn’t he just calm the storm? I don’t know. But they can hear him, recognize his voice. And Peter – true to his character (impetuous, acting and speaking before thinking it through) Peter wants to be such a good follower of Jesus that “if you command it, I’ll come to YOU” ad he jumps out of the boat! Peter is my overachieving spirit animal.
Don’t shame Peter – or yourself, beloved – for stepping out in faith.
Look again at the movement in the story.
Peter steps out – steps toward Jesus – and in his passion quickly flounders. And Jesus immediately stretches out his hand and brings him up and back into the boat. Back to the other disciples. Back into community.
Jesus is always bringing people back into community.
And when Jesus is back in the boat with the disciples (with us) then — THEN — Jesus calms the storm.
Is it possible that this is not a faith shaming story –
… “if you hadn’t taken your eyes off the Lord”
or a faith challenging story
…“have the faith to get out of the boat”
…but a story about the push and pull of stepping out and staying connected. A story about the dance of relationships? Coming close and being busy, pulling apart and taking a break. Going away, coming back.
Maybe it’s really a story about Jesus’ faithfulness in coming to us in the midst of the storm and not waiting until a more convenient time? Or just letting the disciples find him on the other side of the lake whenever they get there.
After this time of self-care, it seems like Jesus is charged up from head to foot; even the fringe of his garment is full of healing power as we read in the next verses (14:34-36). When Jesus reaches land he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting; the people empower themselves and are healed by merely touching the hem of his cloak, something that hadn’t happened since the early part of his ministry (Matthew 9:20-21).
Another “so what” question needs to be asked this week, too.
Are we empowered to bring this healing power to others? If we make the faith claim to be followers of Jesus and trust in God’s baptismal promise and are therefore as Paul says the Body of Christ, aren’t we then called and compelled to walk toward the storm to calm it?
How can the body of Christ ignore the cries of those who live in fear? How can we – as the body of Christ – support policies or beliefs that divide people into worthy/unworthy knowing as we do that we are all in the same boat? And when the storms rage on about how we will order our common life together, how can the body of Christ absent itself from that storm?
Recognizing that God’s promises are not just about me and mine, how can I stand by idly while some use Jesus as an excuse to oppress and terrorize others?
When I go off on this work alone, then I’m like Peter. Passionate and idealist perhaps but also forgetting that this is not just about me and Jesus. It is about me and Jesus AND it is about all of us together. We are all in the same boat in the middle of the storm.
As we watch the news – and follow our twitter and Facebook feeds — it is easy to be overwhelmed. We must take time to fast and pray so that we can — together as the body of Christ — speak calm to the storm of fear, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hate.
As I sat vigil yesterday morning for the clergy gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, I came to realize that one could think that what happened in Charlottesville Virginia this weekend is new or only happening in Charlottesville. The truth is that fear and anxiety are all over this country. It is here in Ohio. In Columbus. Here in Athens. The people who marched with torches, shouting Nazi slogans, attempting to exclude entire groups of God’s beloved children from our society, attempting to deny some their humanity, those white supremacists and nationalists are our siblings, and parents, and spouses. They are our colleagues at work and our neighbors across the street.
And we have let them get to this point without challenge. We have been too afraid of hard conversations to challenge the jokes, the comments, the hatred.
They are at the mercy of the storm of fear in their hearts and are being encouraged to bring that anger and violence out into the open. We must pray for them. And Jesus also commands us to stay in relationship with them. We are all in this boat together — even if we don’t all understand that.
Confronting white supremacy is hard and scary if it’s just me alone having these conversations. If I’m in relationship as part of the body of Christ I trust the Holy Spirit can put in a word of peace, a word of God’s grace-filled love, of understanding — not acquiescence to these hate-filled ideas. The Holy Spirit helps us believe in God’s promises, and it will have to be the Holy Spirit that will heal the hearts of those driven mad by their fear and hate. We white people must — do our part by opening our mouths, and we will need to use our bodies as a protective shield around those who are being targeted by white supremacists.
We CANNOT simply stand back and say “not all Christians”. WE must speak and engage those relationships in meaningful, prophetic, and hard conversations and ACTIONS to DISMANTLE the systems of white supremacy, racism, and oppression.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are not free unless ALL are free.
Each week, we confess our sin to God and to one another.
We know that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We are captive to the sin of white supremacy, which values some lives more than others, which believes some skin tones are more perfect than others, which commits violence against those who are different.
We confess our complicity in this sin.
We humbly repent and we ask for the strength to face our sin, to dismantle it, and to be made anew. We trust in God’s compassion and rely on God’s mercy, praying that God will give us wisdom and guide us in the way of peace, renewing us as God renews all of creation.
Each week we come to this table and receive in our hand God’s forgiveness and promise. We take it into our body to refresh and energize us for the work set out before us.
There are so many who are wondering where Jesus is… waiting for the body of Christ to show up and speak a word to silence the storm that rages around us.
We eat this bread and drink this wine — this body and blood of Jesus and are filled with the peace of God that is beyond the peace the world can give — trusting that when our human efforts fail and we succumb – again – to sin that God will over and over again, reach out and pull us out of the waves and bring us back to the boat, back into relationship with the beloved community; back into relationship with God’s own self. God promises this and God will accomplish it. Amen