Sunday, August 13, 2017

Drowning In Fear

Matthew 14:22-33
August 13, 2017

There is a framed poster on my dining room wall. Brent gave it to me for my birthday last year. It is a print from a photograph we saw when we toured the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last year. The title of the photo is “Courage: Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” The picture is of five young Black women and men with their backs to the camera, pushed up against a brick wall. They are pinned there, not by hands or chains, but by water. Off camera someone is holding a high-powered hose, and a terrible onslaught of water is aimed directly at them. Their arms and hands are flung over their faces and heads, trying to protect them from the painful bite of the water. The young women and men are not holding guns. They aren’t dressed as gang members. But the hoses were turned on them anyway. At the bottom of the print, the definition for courage is added.
“Courage. Noun. 1 mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear and difficulty”
I see this print all the time. My house isn’t very big, and the dining room is the first room you walk into. It’s the room where I work when I am working at home, and even when my back is to the picture, I am viscerally aware of its presence. I often wonder if I were to find myself in a moment or in a time when I have to choose, when I have to make a stand, will I have that kind of courage? Will I be able to do what those women and men did? Will I be willing to endure the pain of that water? Will I be willing to put my life on the line to stand up for what I believe to be true and right and just?
The etymology of the word “courage” comes partially from the Latin word for heart. Today, we may understand courage as being more about bravery, but the word courage has the connotation of living from the heart.
When Jesus walked on the sea toward the disciples, making them think they were seeing a ghost or a phantom, he told them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
            In other words, he told them, “Have courage, I am who I am; do not be afraid.”
            Then Peter, brash, impulsive Peter, told Jesus, maybe even challenged Jesus,
            “Okay, Jesus, if it’s really you, command me to get out of this boat and walk on the sea to you.”
            So Jesus said,
            Maybe somebody else would have faltered because Jesus called his bluff. But Peter did it. He stepped out of the boat. He started walking on the sea toward Jesus. But Jesus had not calmed the wild waves. Jesus had not calmed the storm. When Peter noticed the wind, he became frightened and started to sink beneath the waves. Drowning, he cried out to Jesus,
            “Lord, save me!”
            Jesus immediately reached out his hand to Peter and saved him. When they both reached the boat, he looked at his disciple and said,
            “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            The question is whether Jesus was rebuking Peter. Was he mad at Peter? Was he sad for Peter? Whether or not Jesus was mad or sad, I think there is a connection here between courage, heart and faith. Peter lost his courage; he forgot to follow his heart. As one commentator put it, Peter knew in his heart who Jesus was, what Jesus was. But his courage failed him. The easy way out in this very familiar passage would be to say if Peter had just kept his eyes on Jesus, he would have kept right on walking, but let’s face it the storms are real. The winds are vicious. Peter became afraid. It was fear that almost made him drown.
            Fear is paralyzing. Fear changes you. Fear makes you do things, say things. Fear and hatred too often walk hand in hand. Originally this was going to be a nice, safe sermon about our fears as a congregation as to the next steps that we are taking. We are buying a building, taking risks, acting like Peter and putting our foot in the water, hoping, trusting that we’ll be okay. But then Charlottesville happened. Yesterday, in the midst of the bittersweet emotions of moving Phoebe into her college dorm, I kept watching what was happening there. I belong to several clergy groups on social media, and there were many, many clergy folks participating in the peaceful counter protest to the KKK and Nazi rally at the University of Virginia. So I read tweets and comments about the violence happening, and a church being surrounded by protesters with torches. I saw video of clergy people and other protesters standing, holding hands, singing, in the face of men who were armed – and they were not the National Guard or the police. And then a car drove into the crowd of counter protesters, and a young woman was killed and many others were injured. And I heard Jesus tell me, not something that happens very often, I will admit,
            “Amy, you need to get out of the boat.”
            So, here I am, out of the boat, trying not to let my fear make me sink. Because I know that many of you, maybe most of you, don’t want to hear me preach another sermon or give another talk about racism. I know where many of us stand politically. You certainly know where I stand. But this goes beyond political party. It goes beyond conservative or liberal. This goes to the very heart of our faith. Because you see, you did not call me to be shy. And even if you did, God did not call me to be quiet.
            The truth is I am tired. I am tired and weary and exhausted to the depths of my soul with the hatred that has been emboldened in our country. It has been simmering underneath the surface for a long, long time. But in this last year, it has been given permission to run rampant; it has been given credibility and social status. I am disgusted, appalled and heartsick over what has happened in Charlottesville. But I am not surprised.
            Yet, what I find most offensive is that the people who carried those torches, the people who waved those Nazi flags and raised their arms in Seig Heil salutes, and wore those despicable hoods, well I would bet good money that they would claim Christianity as their faith. They not only would consider themselves good Americans, they consider themselves good Christians. That makes me literally sick to my stomach. How dare they hijack my faith in the name of their repulsive extremism, hatred and violence? I wonder how often our Muslim brothers and sisters say the very same thing?
            That’s what they have done. They have hijacked our faith. They have twisted the gospel. The God we worship became incarnate in a Middle Eastern Jew who I guarantee you did not have blue eyes and blonde hair. He was brutally executed by the occupying Roman government in a most hideous form of capital punishment. But not before he preached to the powers and principalities that the Law of God was based on active Love for God and for neighbor. He told the people that they would be judged for how they cared for the least of these. He showed preferential treatment for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the weak, and the excluded.
            So I’m tired of these alt right groups – what a sanitized description that is – using my faith as justification for their hatred and their racism. But I’m even more tired of the racism that has been a cancer in our country since its foundation. I’m even more tired that we won’t talk about it, that we won’t acknowledge it, that we won’t own it. Our country was built on the backs of slaves. Human beings were sold as chattel. I have black friends who have been told by strangers to “go back to Africa,” as if their ancestors came here by choice. We have to talk about it.
            Even after the Civil War and the end of slavery, with Jim Crow, there was no real emancipation. Between the end of the Civil War and well into the 1900’s it is estimated that at least 3,000 black people – men, women and children – were lynched. Think about that. The legacy of racism is a constant stain on this country. It is systemic, and if affects each and every one of us, even if we do everything we can not to be prejudiced. We have to talk about it.
            During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. They lost everything – their homes, their businesses. You know what internment camps are by definition? Concentration camps; just no gas chambers. Asian Americans talk about how they and their family have lived in this country for generations, but when they meet someone for the first time, they are often asked, “Where are you from?”, as in what country are you here from. We have to talk about it.
            And my beloved home state of Tennessee is also the home state of Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the one who finally sent Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. So many tribes are here in Oklahoma because of what he did, because of his racist and flawed policies.
            I know. You’re tired of this. You don’t want to hear anymore about racism. I don’t want to preach about it anymore either. I shouldn’t have to. In 2017, I shouldn’t have to preach that groups of people carrying torches and shouting, “blood and soil,” and waving flags with swastikas are the antithesis of the gospel, but here we are. To remain silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice. And white Christians, the other white Christians, have to start speaking up and out. Because you see, none of us are safe. None of us are immune from the violence that happened in Charlottesville. We can stay in the boat and we can mind our own business, but the boat is sinking and we will drown in our fear. So, I’m going to get out of the boat and I’m going walk toward Jesus, knowing that the storm is real, knowing that my fears are real, but trusting that the good news is more real than anything else. That good news is this, that God is God, and that I am called, we are called, to be faithful, to have courage, and to trust to the depths of our hearts that we are not alone. We are not alone, God is with us, and God is faithful, God is sure.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.

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