I tend not to be a Saturday night sermon writer. In fact my sermons are usually written by Thursday afternoon so I can enjoy my day off on Friday. Such was the case this week and at 5 a.m this morning a post went out from this blog of the sermon I had planned to preach this morning at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts. But the events unfolding this weekend in Charlottesville, VA led me to radically re-write that sermon early this morning. Below is my re-worked manuscript and the sermon I plan to preach in a couple of hours at Grace Church.
We are told that the setting for today’s gospel reading is that there is some weather: the waves are bashing the boat and the wind is kicking up. And when people are in a boat during a storm they get scared – even salty old fishermen.
I remember being in a plane just about a month after 9/11 and smoke was coming out of the bathroom. It turned out to be an electrical problem and not an act of terrorism, but at the time that wasn’t clear to anyone, including the flight crew. As the plane that had just taken off from Worcester airport bound for Atlanta made a quick up and down emergency landing in Hartford their faces said it all.
The Bible is more like poetry than prose and more like our real lives than a documentary. I can’t tell you that it happened exactly this way in today’s gospel but I know how stories work. We tell stories to make sense of our lives. We tell stories like this one to remind ourselves not to be afraid. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (as I have) of people telling the same story and remembering different details and even learning different lessons from it. Here is what Matthew wants to make sure we understand from today’s Gospel reading: whatever we face, and however fierce the wind is, and however much we are battered by waves, Jesus still says to us: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
In fact, maybe the whole gospel could be summarized with just those nine words: Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.
Maybe this doesn’t happen to you all, but I am prone to lose heart. When things don’t go my way or when my job feels impossible or when it feels like the nation is on the wrong path, I lose heart. I get discouraged. I am generally very much an optimist by nature, but when I feel like something is broken I have some old tapes that tend to make me think it’s my job to fix it. So when I hear those words, “take heart” I am encouraged. I pay attention.
It is I. Jesus is with us. On the land and on the sea and in the air. On mountaintops when we totally know that to be true and in the valley of the shadow of death when we may be prone to doubt it. In just three words, this is the mystery of the Incarnation – of Immanuel – of God-with-us through thick and through thin. Wherever we are in our journeys, we can count on Jesus being there calling us to move forward and not to be paralyzed, because we do not walk alone.
Do not be afraid. Those words may be the most frequently uttered words in the Bible. Bishop Fisher tells me they appear 365 times, once for every single day of the year. I haven’t counted but that makes good theological sense to me even if the math might be off by a couple. The angels sing it all the time; they are like one-hit wonders. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to live your life, the one to which you are uniquely called. Do not be afraid to show kindness and friendship to the stranger. Do not be afraid to open your heart to your neighbor. Do not be afraid to speak the truth you know and live the life that God calls you to live.
Thich Nat Han, a wise Buddhist monk, has taken today’s gospel to heart and come up with his own midrash when he writes, “the real miracle is not to walk on water but to walk on this green earth dwelling deeply in the present moment and being fully alive.” I don’t think that’s counter to what Matthew conveys to us today, I think it goes right to the heart of it. Good for Peter in trying to walk on the water toward Jesus. And poor Peter, who always screws it up, reminding us that Christian discipleship relies more on God’s mercy than our perfection.
But I’m neither Jesus nor Peter. I’m trying not to walk on water so much as to walk on this good earth, with God’s help. Trying to keep on living fully into this moment in time which will not come our way again. Nostalgia and anxiety work against us being fully present to this unique moment in time and it happens to individuals, to families, to congregations. Even sometimes to nations. We can get stuck.
As a nation, there are places where we’ve gotten stuck. Race relations is one of those places. Slavery is this nation’s Original Sin and it is not going to go away. We make some gains and we celebrate and then racism rears its ugly head again and tries to pull us back. This week we see it all playing out on television in Charlottesville and it pushes all those old buttons.
One of the clergy standing against the bigotry and racism of those waving Nazi flags is David Stoddart, who used to the rector of St. Luke’s in Worcester. He welcomed me to this diocese twenty years ago when I arrived at St. Francis, Holden and took me out to O’Connors for my birthday just six weeks after that.
When David left Worcester to accept a call to serve as rector of Church of our Savior in Charlottesville I lost track of him. But this past Wednesday on Facebook I came across a blog post of his that I want to share with you all. I share it not because it “says it all” but because David is a trustworthy witness and a faithful pastor writing to an Episcopal congregation in the midst of all this madness.
What does it mean for us to claim Jesus in this time and place? What does it mean to be people who have promised in Holy Baptism, and who reaffirm every time we gather to share the bread and the cup, we will “strive to work for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” What does it mean that we have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love neighbor as self? As David puts it, we don’t simply stand against any truncation of that vision but for this witness of the love of God that embraces all people, and the reign of God in which every single person can experience the abundant life God created everyone to enjoy – no exceptions.
When we stand for something like that we can be sure to meet with resistance. People died yesterday for standing up for this inclusive vision. I think Jesus says to us, to the Church, to the gathered community that we are still in the same boat and the waves may be strong and our fears may threaten to undo us, to keep on listening for the voice of the One who still says: Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.
Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ("For the Human Family," The Book of Common Prayer, page 815)