Below is my sermon from August 13th, 2017. While it is based on the Gospel text for the day (Matthew 14), it also focuses on the white supremacist march and riot in Charlottesville, which happened the day before. The theologian Karl Barth once said, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other…but always interpret the newspaper through the Bible.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Two weeks ago, Tim and I spent the week at Bear Creek Camp, as their resident chaplains. One of the cool things about being chaplains is that we had the opportunity to spend time with all of the different age groups. Each night we would rotate around the camp, leading devotions for one group or another.
Friday, our last night there, we were with the seniors—those who had just finished tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade. That night, the counselor had already planned devotions, so we were able to just participate. She had four paper lanterns that we were going to light and release into the night.
But first, we took time as a group to name and write down some of our fears. For a lot of the campers, it was fear of the unknown: they were heading off to college for the first time, there was fear of what it would be like, would they fit in, would they be successful. My fears that night were my standard, Type-A Perfectionist ones: some variation of whether or not I’m good enough, successful enough, or accomplishing enough.
And so, we took these fears, rolled them up into tiny scrolls and tied them to the lanterns. Then watched, as they were carried off high away into the distance, until all we could see was a tiny speck of fire, and then even that went out. We named our fears and then we let go of them. It was liberating and cathartic.
We all have fears, worries, anxieties, that plague our lives. Maybe it’s a fear of an illness returning or getting worse. Fear of loneliness. Fear of a lack of acceptance—of who we are, or what we have to offer. Maybe, like those graduating seniors, a fear about whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives.
This past week, though, I wish I had a hundred lanterns. We all have seen the stories and images coming out of Charlottesville. Where the KKK and white supremacists gathered to celebrate fear and hatred for their fellow human beings. A storm was descending upon that small college town.
And watching it through my newsfeed, I was afraid. Maybe you were, too. I was afraid of the amount of hatred. I was afraid for the future of our country. And on a more personal level, I was afraid for friends of mine, pastors in Virginia who purposefully went into the storm. Who left safe houses and neighborhoods to show up in Charlottesville and confess that racism is not Christian. Racism is not from God. Who went into the storm to call white supremacy what it is: evil and sinful.
I saw images and posts telling me that the church they were worshipping in, sharing love and peace in, was surrounded by the KKK and they were unable to leave. And I was afraid.
These friends of mine, and many, many others, not just clergy but college students, people of all faiths and no faith, people who had come together to proclaim love—they went into the storm.
Our reading from Matthew this morning couldn’t be more timely. Jesus sends his disciples out on their own, and they find themselves caught in the midst of a terrible storm. But just when the waves were at their worst, just when the disciples were terrified, there is Jesus. When Peter desires to follow Jesus even further into the whirlwind, he begins to sink. But then there is Jesus, to lift him up again.
When fear in the midst of the storm causes us to sink, Jesus will grab hold of us, just as he did with Peter. Jesus doesn’t give up on us, even when we are overwhelmed by fears and anxieties and doubts. Even when we are not sure that Jesus is even there. Jesus is there, with us in the storm to restore us to the community, to the shelter of the boat.
It would be really, really nice if I could stand up here and say that Jesus brings an end to our fears. No more fear; God takes away all our worries and anxieties. God takes away the evil in the world for us. That would be awesome, and it would mean pretty good things for my own life.
But you’d know as well as I do that it just isn’t true. Life, and the life of faith especially, involves fear. It involves confronting evil and hatred with the love of God. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been threatening enough that people felt they had to kill Jesus. It wouldn’t still be threatening enough that people of faith are silenced and vilified when they speak out about oppression and injustice. It wouldn’t be threatening enough that white supremacists had to surround and intimidate Christians worshipping in a church.
But those are the things we are called to. Roman Ciarlello will be baptized in just a few minutes. He, and all of us, in our baptisms are called to trust God God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.
Such a calling, by its very nature, means that there will be moments of fear. There will be times of uncertainty and confusion, when the right choice is the hard choice, when living a Christ-like existence—loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, serving the poor—means walking into the storm and braving the winds.
But Roman doesn’t just receive that calling this morning. He also receives a whole boatful of people to share it with him. One of my favorite parts of the baptismal service is when it is the congregation’s chance to join in and say: We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share; join us in giving thanks and praise to God.
The call to step out into choppy waters, into unknown areas for the sake of God comes alongside the promise that we are never alone. Through baptism, Roman enters this community that we are all a part of. The community of disciples that is there to console one another, uplift one another, and support one another through difficult times.
More than that, though, God is there, too. God is there in the midst of our fears, showing up when the storm is at its worst. God is there in the midst of our anxieties and uncertainties, walking with us through the stormy waters of life. God is there to lift us up when we fall down, to walk with us until we are once again safe and calm.
May God’s arm hold us fast, and God’s presence be our guide, now and always. And may the love of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.