August 13, 2017

The 10th Sunday After Pentecost

1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            Thinking myself smart and productive, I wrote this morning’s sermon two weeks ago while on a flight to Colorado for vacation.  Appreciative, and a bit smug, that I had completed the sermon so early, I was ready to enjoy my vacation. 

            That sermon was in my mind yesterday as we flew back to Houston, but not for the same reason.  At the airport waiting for the airplane to take us back to Houston, I caught up on the news, and as I did, I noticed a sinking feeling in my heart.  And it wasn’t the usual sinking feeling when you come back from vacation and you know that there’s a mountain of mail to go through and much work to be done – I had that feeling – but it was compounded by what I read in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal and watched on CNN.  And that’s when I took the sermon I had written two weeks ago, and threw it into the recycling bin.  So what you all are getting today is fresh – as in written just a few hours ago, fresh. 

            News of North Korea’s intention to build nuclear weapons to reach further distances, including Guam, scares me.  The dialog I read between the leaders of our country and of North Korea scares me.

            Watching the protest unfold yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia was in my mind, yet another manifestation for us and for all the world to see that the issues of race in this country are from being settled.  It was deeply disturbing for me to see protestors carrying flags which bore the insignia of an inverted swastika, the same symbol used by Nazi Germany during World War II.  The hatred I witnessed yesterday in that clash sits with me now, and I stand in this pulpit today, with many other clergy to add my voice to the condemnation of the hatred witnessed yesterday in Charlottesville.  White supremacy is evil, there is no place for it in a country which upholds diversity of faith and ethnicity as a virtue.  No place for it.   Germany tried that once in World War II, and we all know the result.

            This is the world we are creating for our children to live in.  This is the future we are creating.  Is this world we really want?  That question drove to try to look at the world from God’s perspective, what does God think about what’s going on?  To try to answer that question, I opened my Bible to the very first book, Genesis, to the first chapter which tells the story about how God created the heavens and the earth.  Early on in the story there is a verse which describes God hovering, or brooding, over the waters. The way God is described in this verse is as if God is controlling the water.  And that is exactly what God is doing.  God moves the water, separating it to create land, earth.
            This act of God's ability to control water was of great importance to the ancient author of Genesis, and here is why.  In early Hebrew thinking, water was understood as a metaphor for chaos and even death.  This understanding of water as something scary, something uncontrollable, something chaotic - was probably based in part on experience.  Anyone who has witnessed a flooding, as we have in Houston, can speak of water's chaotic nature.   But this concept of water was also based on ancient Babylonian mythology which featured its own watery chaos monsters which symbolizes their dominion of the sea.

            I remember when one of my son's was learning to swim, and we were in the pool and my son stepped off a step in the pool and suddenly found himself in deep water he could not swim in.  I was right there, fortunately, but the image of seeing my son's frightened face and his open eyes underwater looking right to me is burned into my mind.   He could have drowned.
            This context, this understanding of water as something scary and unpredicatable, perhaps allows us to see Jesus' walking upon it in a new light.  His presence upon the water, like God in Genesis, indicates yes, that God can control the elements, but big deal.   What is more important is that Jesus upon the water is a clear indication that not only does Jesus walk over the chaos, he subdues it.  His walking upon the water is an act of defiance and resistance to the power of death, because the waters do not swallow him up.  He doesn't drown.
            Seeing such a remarkable sight, Peter steps out side the boat and follow's Jesus' call to come and join him. Notice that when Peter steps out of the boat, it's not a calm sea he is stepping onto.  The waves are rough, scary, and intimidating.  Into the tempestuous sea Peter steps and, while he is able to focus on Christ, he, like Jesus, stands triumphantly over the chaotic waters.

            But soon he, like my son, begins to sink into the water.  And Peter becomes scared.   He thinks he will die, and all this walking on water business wasn't worth stepping out of the boat.  But Jesus is there, and Jesus lifts Peter out of the water, and Peter lives.
            I admire Peter for his courage and tenacity.  Peter understood the most important thing - that if he wanted to meet Jesus in all that chaos and water, he needed to leave the safe confines of the boat.  He figured it was a risk worth taking - to step outside the boat and try his hand at waking on water.
            Perhaps Peter had the foresight to realize that his boat, though it kept him safe, was really a prison - because it was keeping him at a distance from Jesus.
            Many of us are fine in our boats – we are comfortable being around those who agree with us.  Our beliefs are validated by like minded friends on our social media feeds.  And that’s the problem.  Jesus isn’t calling us to stay in our boat, where it’s comfortable.  He’s calling us out into the water.  And here’s the paradox: it is in that water, removed from the safety of your boat where you will find the kingdom of God, and that’s where I end today, with a story about my encounter of God’s surprising kingdom, which occurred not in a place of power like Washington, DC, or a place of conflict, like Charlottesville.  It occurred in a forest, and this is what happened.

            I went to my son’s day camp at the YMCA to watch him receive his junior ranger badge.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I had no idea I was about to witness God’s kingdom in such a powerful way, but I did, and it was obvious to me that I was a spectator to God’s kingdom as I watched a group of 100 or so children and adult counselors gather for the presentation.
            I saw a four year old girl with blond hair who obviously had a physical or mental disability of some kind.  She was walking with her counselor, smiling.  Her counselor engaged her, and the love on the counselor's face for this young girl whom I never heard speak was palpable.
            Then I saw my twelve year old son, James, eagerly but patiently awaiting receiving his Jr. Ranger badge.  James was with his inclusion counselor, Nick, who I am convinced is an angel.
            For reasons I cannot explain, tears started falling from my eyes.  I have never been so grateful to be wearing sunglasses, as my tears were embarrassing to me.  My crying intensified when I saw another counselor push a nine year old girl with Down syndrome in a wheelchair to join with her group.

            I couldn't help it.  The young girl, my son with his brother, a resolute guardian standing proudly by him, the girl in the wheelchair.  Children of all abilities and ethnicities singing, dancing, laughing, together was a beauty I cannot describe.
            I realized the reason why what I was witnessing was so indescribably beautiful: it was the Kingdom of God.  I learned at that moment how you know you are witnessing the Kingdom:  when you experience something so beautiful, so transcendent, that the only response one can offer is not in the form of words or action, but something closer to the heart, something intimate and uncomfortable - tears.  Tears are a sign that the Kingdom of God is present.
            So cry - cry without fear or abandon because the tears you shed are the tears that bear witness to promise that God is with us in all things.  Step out of your boat and find the things in like that make you cry, because that is what makes you human. 

            To conclude, finally – pray.  Pray for the moral conscience of our nation and the world.  If your prayers compel you to act, do so with grace and dignity, because the world we occupy is not ours, it is God’s.  AMEN.