IS IT YOU, LORD?
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 13, 2017; 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Psalm 85:8-13; Matthew 14:22-33
“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you,
command me to come to you on the water.’
He said, ‘Come.’”
I was going to go somewhere different with my message today, but events have intervened. There are a few things I need to say first. If I neglected to speak out about this, I would be failing in my duty as a minister of the Word and sacrament, and your pastor. Be assured, I will get to our scripture text about Jesus walking on the water. But first we need to talk about yesterday’s terrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
No doubt, you know the details. A sleepy college town, invaded by a small army of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Yes — as always happens when the Nazis and the Klan show up — there were counter-demonstrators, and a fringe element of that group was likewise spoiling for a fight. But there was something different that happened, beyond the predictable pushing and shoving.
There was a terrorist attack. It doesn’t matter that it was perpetrated by an American on other Americans, nor that the weapon of choice was not a bomb but an automobile: it was still a terrorist attack. A Nazi sympathizer — identified as James Alex Fields of Maumee, Ohio, age 20 — drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, approaching them from the back as they marched down the street. He killed one person — a 32-year old paralegal from Virginia named Heather Heyer — and sent at least 19 to the hospital. Some are in critical condition.
No doubt, someone will make the argument that this young man was deranged. But this did not happen on an ordinary day, randomly, out of the blue. It happened on a day when violent racists descended on a town in force with the intention of doing bodily harm to their enemies. Mr. Fields’ car was not a weapon wielded by him alone. It was the point of a spear. And many hands were on that handle.
There is no defense, no justification, no equivocating, no explanation that there are “two sides” to this disagreement and that there’s fault on both sides. This was cold-blooded, premeditated murder, motivated by racism.
Now, I know there are some of my fellow white Americans who get tired of hearing that word “racism”: who’d like to pretend that, now that slavery is abolished, Jim Crow laws have been declared unconstitutional, and we’ve recently had eight years of a mixed-race President who identifies as black, our nation’s racism problem has largely been solved.
Yesterday we learned that any such conclusion is a fantasy.
Scripture says, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: we are all one in Christ Jesus.” I’m quite sure that, were Paul writing those words in Virginia today — or even in New Jersey — he would add the words, “neither black nor white.”
It may appear, after yesterday, that finding a solution to this deep-seated problem is impossible. If you should happen to feel that way, I understand. But before you make up your mind that racial reconciliation is impossible, let me remind you of a little story about something else that seemed impossible.
“Early in the morning [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea.”
On the what? On the sea.
His disciples don’t believe it either! The only explanation that tumbles out of their jangled minds is that they have to be looking at a ghost. “And they cried out in fear.”
Jesus reassures them, as he does on so many other occasions: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
So, what’s Jesus up to, here? As biblical miracles go, this one seems needlessly flashy. It’s not all that clear what he’s trying to accomplish: other than drawing attention to himself. It’s such an arresting story — and a famous one — that almost anybody could tell you this is one of the miraculous things Jesus is supposed to have done (whether they believe it or not).
Very few people, by contrast, could tell you anything at all about the circumstances that led our Lord to choose such a remarkable mode of transportation.
The background’s right there in the scripture passage. Jesus has just finished feeding the 5,000. He’s tired. Tapped out. He wants to spend a little time on his own, in prayer. So he sends his disciples out ahead, in the boat.
A storm comes up: and not just any storm. The English translation doesn’t do the Greek justice. When it says “the boat [was] battered by the waves” and “the wind was against them,” the original language makes it clear this isn’t just a bit of dirty weather. They’re in danger of sinking.
What’s more — because the wind is against them — there’s not a chance they can get back, anytime soon, to the side of the lake where Jesus is.
So Jesus does what they cannot. He goes to them. And he doesn’t even need a boat to do it.
I love the understated way Matthew explains it. “Early in the morning he came walking to them on the sea” — as though this were no more unusual than strolling down to the corner store to buy a quart of milk.
The storm separates the disciples and their Master. They’re helpless to bridge the gap. But he bridges it for them. What’s impossible for them is not impossible for him!
As for Peter, he sees the figure of a man approaching them across the waves, and he just has to ask a question: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a very strange question: “Is it you, Lord?”
Who else could it possibly be? (As though anybody else Peter knows is in the habit of surfing, without so much as a boogie board beneath his feet!)
Jesus doesn’t answer the “Is it you, Lord?” question — at least not in the way you’d usually expect. He doesn’t say no. But he doesn’t say yes, either. What he says, instead, is a single word: “Come.”
I find that response so very true-to-life: so typical of our Lord, and the way he responds to our doubts and uncertainties.
Let’s be perfectly honest, here. There are certain doctrines of the Christian faith that are not easy to believe. Try as we might, I don’t think any of us is getting a wholly satisfying answer, any time soon, to the question of why bad things happen to good people. The same goes for the question of how Jesus can be both human and divine at the same time; or that he rose from the dead; or that he could perform miracles (like walking on the water!). You could spend an entire life looking for evidence to prove such assertions, and come up with nothing by way of ironclad proof. You may well accumulate a whole lot of circumstantial evidence, but at the end of the day, it would be like you were standing on a half-completed bridge, whose two sides don’t quite meet in the middle. There’s a gap that must be traversed if you’re going to make it to the other side.
That’s where faith comes in. You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the “leap of faith.” Faith is what enables people like you and me to jump that gap, to go as far out on that nearly-completed bridge as reason can take us, but then to step out just a little further.
You and I would dearly like to be able to look the Lord Jesus is the face and ask, “Is any of this true? What’s the evidence?”
The answer our Lord would give us, though, is just like the answer he gives to Peter. He doesn’t say no. But he doesn’t say yes, either. He just says, “Come.”
In matters of faith, there’s nothing truly worth knowing that can be discovered by means of reason alone. Were that the case, it wouldn’t be faith at all, would it? It would be fact. Sooner or later, we’ve all got to put ourselves in Peter’s sandals. We’ve got to decide whether we’ve got the courage to step out of the boat.
Peter, as it turns out, is not lacking in courage. He does step out over the gunwhale of the boat and starts walking on the waves — at least for a moment or two.
I’ve always pictured the scene as kind of like one of those old Road Runner cartoons. You know how it is in those cartoons, when Wile E. Coyote is chasing after the Road Runner. The bird goes charging out over the edge of a cliff, and remains suspended there, in mid-air (he is a bird after all — and, of course, this is a cartoon).
Old Mr. Coyote does the same thing — until he makes the mistake of looking down. “Beep beep!” goes the Road Runner, before zooming across to the next mesa. As for the Coyote, he gives a feeble wave before plunging down to the canyon floor.
Who knows, but maybe Peter looked down, saw the water splashing over his toes and asked himself what he thought he was doing? He starts to sink — until Jesus grabs ahold of him and pulls up again.
It’s a classic preacher’s gambit, in unfolding this biblical passage, to come down pretty hard on old Peter for his lack of faith. I’ve heard sermons, and maybe you have too, that blame him for just not measuring up in the faith department. But I don’t think we should be too hard on him. Water is not his natural element; nor is it ours. We need that helping hand. We need, sometimes, to simply acknowledge to the Lord that our own faith has taken us just about as far as we can go. We need to rely on him to take us the rest of the way.
You and I may find ourselves, then, uttering the prayer of the father who had brought his son to Jesus for healing: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24]
He’ll do it for you, you know: as he did for Peter!
Jesus brings poor Peter, then — dripping wet — back into the boat. “When they got into the boat,” Matthew tells us, “the wind ceased.”
It just so happens that a boat is one of the earliest Christian symbols for the church. Many of the ancient Church Fathers — including, most notably, Augustine — use the image of Noah’s ark as a symbol for the church. The church perpetually floats upon the ocean swells of faith and doubt. It can convey us across waters we could never cross on our own, unaided.
If ever you find yourself having a hard time keeping your faith strong and alive, the very best thing you can do is to come to church. Together we are a company of mariners who hazard the turbulent waves of life. There are times when one of us may be weak, but always there are others who are, in that moment, strong. It is in the boat, in the company of fellow disciples, that we belong.
When I was away on vacation last week, I went to see the movie, Dunkirk. It’s got all kinds of famous actors in it, one of whom is the Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh. In this role he plays a British naval officer, Commander Bolton, who’s supervising the evacuation of the defeated army from the beach.
It’s a massive and desperate task. There are hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers on that strip of sand — and there aren’t just enough rescue ships. Several of those precious ships, packed with evacuees, are hit by bombs or torpedoes and go down in minutes. The German army is frighteningly near. Death could come at any moment: either from the dive bombers screaming down out of the sky or from the artillery that keeps pounding away from just the other side of the dunes.
Commander Bolton is standing near the end of a long, wooden pier that’s their only hope for getting the soldiers onto the large transport ships. The pier has already been hit by several bombs A few more direct hits and it will be no more.
Early in the film, Captain Winnant, a British army officer, is standing beside Commander Bolton on the pier. “You can almost see it from here,” says the Commander, wistfully.
“What?” asks the Captain.
Later on, as things are getting really desperate, Commander Bolton raises his binoculars to look back across the English Channel. He sees a remarkable sight: hundreds of small boats approaching them — pleasure boats, fishing boats, whatever the Navy could requisition. This ragtag flotilla of decidedly un-military boats will succeed where the large ships have failed. There are too many for the Germans to attack all of them; and, even if the wooden pier falls into the sea, they can still get close enough to rescue soldiers who can swim out into the surf.
“What do you see?” asks the anxious army Captain once again.
Commander Bolton’s one-word answer is the same as it was before, but this time he says it with a new note of confidence. The answer is: “Home.”
There are certain things in life our Lord asks us to do that seem, frankly, impossible at the time. Solving the problem of entrenched racism is just one of them. There are plenty of other challenges, as I’m sure you know — some of them, perhaps, quite personal.
When you find yourself at an impasse, wondering if you can find a way out of that situation, I encourage you to make Peter’s question your own: “Lord, is it you?”
More than likely, the answer will come back: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Let us pray:
Lord, we bring before you today the agony of our nation,
the shock and grief and pain of what’s happened in Charlottesville:
but also the ordinary griefs and challenges of life,
such as we all feel from time to time.
Who are we to attempt a walk across the waves?
On our own, we cannot do it;
but with you, all things are possible. Amen.
Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.