Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 10th Sunday after Pentecost + August 13, 2017
Reading: Matt. 14:22-33
I was not thinking about my sermon yesterday. It was already written, printed out and tucked safely inside my worship folder, ready to go for this morning. I was out on Center Hill lake, spending time with one of my best friends before she moves to Texas and enjoying the tranquility of being out on the water.
Then I got back to land. I checked my Facebook while I was waiting in line for food. The first thing I saw was a post by my friend Brandy, who has just started a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia and recently moved to Charlottesville. Her post said: “Thanks for all the checking in y’all. I’m safe (phone had just died).” and she went on to describe first-hand the scene you’ve all probably heard of by now: the clash between supremacist protesters and counter-protesters at a park in Charlottesville, which eventually involved the national guard. How someone purposefully drove their car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring many more. (And by the way, this driving-into-a-crowd-of-protesters thing has been happening for a while; and it has personal impact for me: my friend Peter was hit by a car in Nashville in January while serving as a safety officer for a protest.)
Later I learned more about what’s been happening in Charlottesville: While the “Unite the Right” protest on Saturday had pre-approval from the city, another hate group action, on Friday night, did not.
“At that action, hundreds of White men and women carrying lit tiki-torches [and remember how fire has been used historically by groups such as the KKK)]marched on the campus of the University of Virginia, yelling ‘You will not replace us!’ ‘Jew will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and Soil,’ a slogan of Nazi Germany. The White supremacists surrounded the campus’ St. Paul’s Memorial Church as an opposing multifaith, multiracial prayer service let out and then violently clashed with a small group of student counter-protesters at the university’s rotunda.” [from Colorlines]
So forgive me if this sermon comes out rather disorganized, but I figured that we need to talk about this.
And just to give this sermon some added context: I have been at St. Andrew for just shy of three years. This is the second time since I have been here that one of our pastors has felt the need to re-write a sermon at the last minute because of race-based violence. That’s in addition to all the Sundays we’ve had time to prepare thoughts beforehand on shootings or statements that have taken over the media. That’s too much for a nation that often thinks it’s beyond all this racism stuff.
Here’s a brief summary of what I was originally going to say about today’s gospel story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water. Peter slides over the edge of that boat and onto the surface of the water, boldly and faithfully walking towards Jesus. But then his fear lurches up inside of him, and his commitment wavers. He starts to back away — or in this case, down, into the waves.
Peter is always doing that — taking a bold stand and then backing away in fear. He boldly and faithfully tells Jesus he would rather die than abandon him (Matt. 26:33-35), and then later that very day he denies even knowing Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). Boldly and faithfully, he is the first to baptize non-Jewish people and welcome them into the community of the church — he takes a lot of heat for this — but he stands firm (Acts 11). Then later, St. Paul publicly criticizes him for refusing to eat with non-Jewish people because some of the Christians who don’t like that kind of thing are in town (Gal. 2:11-12). Peter backs away a lot.
But what does Jesus do in the story of walking on water? He does the same thing he always does: he reaches out. He reaches out to pull Peter up out of the waves when his faith wavers. Just like Jesus spent his whole life reaching out to people, despite what the people around him think: he reaches out to Zaccheus, the rich tax collector, and the man’s heart is completely changed (Luke 19:1-10). He reaches out to sick people, to lepers whom no one else would touch (ex. Matt. 8:1-4). Even on the cross he reaches out to the criminals next to him and to the very people who are crucifying him (Luke 23:32-43).
Peter is so easy to relate to. We, too, often feel afraid and back down from our convictions. But as disciples we need to practice being more like our teacher: our teacher, who reaches out despite the risk, despite the fear of the doubt or the whatever going on inside of us. We need to reach out to other people, making God’s love and welcome our own, making ourselves living signs of the gospel.
At this time, in this political climate, reaching out is one of the most important things we can do: one of the best things we can do for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our country.
Dr. Wes Bellamy, the vice-mayor of Charlottesville, said this in an interview:
“And honestly speaking, if this doesn’t bring us together – people from different nationalities, people from different ethnicities, different races, different ages, different denominations in church and racial beliefs and socioeconomic status – if this doesn’t bring all of those groups together to stand up and stand united against hate, I honestly do not know what will. Someone has lost their life. Thirteen people were ran over and hit.
“These individuals have literally come here and said that they wanted to invoke terror over all of us. And while, again, I’m disappointed and heartbroken that someone has lost their life, I firmly do believe that this will be the opportunity that we need for us to stand up and stand together. […] So if you want to help us, if you want to help us, pray for us or send positive energy, or make a difference and decide to stand up with us and stand together.”
We’re not in Charlottesville, but how can we stand with them — and with all the others facing hate and discrimination — right where we are? In what ways can you reach out — boldly and faithfully?
Maybe you already have relationships that allow you to reach out: to ask a person of color about their experiences, to try and understand another’s point of view. Or to show kindness and understanding to someone with an opposite political view. Or maybe you know who someone who needs help out their fear or their hate, someone with whom you can share the gospel message of love and welcome. Maybe you can try to form those relationships — to put yourselves in groups, activities, situations where you will have opportunity to meet different people, to stand together with others.
And if that’s not possible, maybe you can do your own research, maybe you can reach outside of your own culture and experiences by what you watch or read or listen to: Watch a documentary on black history or the black experience; we watched a great one called White Like Me at last year’s Southeastern Synod Leadership Convocation, and PBS and Netflix have put out some good ones recently. Read books by people of color. Listen to an informative podcast; I’ve been listening to the “On Being White” series from Scene on Radio. Read news articles from across the political spectrum, or from sources run by people of other cultures; the ELCA’s director for racial justice ministries often recommends an online newsource called Colorlines.
Do what you can to understand people who are different from you. You don’t have to agree with everything– but it’ll help you reach out in person when the opportunity arises.
Reach out by speaking out against fear, hatred, racism, violence, and the tolerance of violence — even when it appears in smaller, quieter, calmer forms than it did in Charlottesville this weekend. Take that bold risk, even when it’s scary.
We are the body of Christ; we need try our best to do what Jesus would do in every situation: to speak out and to reach out.
Let us pray.
Just and merciful God, we lift before you the city of Charlottesville, especially victims of violence and those gathered in support of peace and equality. By your might, break the bondage that bigotry, hatred and violence impose on their victims and their perpetrators. Help us to always reach out with your fierce love and welcome. May your kingdom come on earth as in heaven; through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Amen.
[Prayer adapted from the Virginia Synod ELCA’s statement on the Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville]