Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Holding Us the Entire Time

Image credit: Christopher Mathias, Twitter

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

When I was growing up in small-town North Carolina, I remember a time when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in the square in front of the county courthouse. And I remember people’s reaction was more embarrassment than anything; embarrassment that this was still a thing. It’s a handful of sad sacks marching around in bedsheets—relics of a lost time; a time that has long gone and will never return. Almost 30 years had passed since the height of the Civil Rights Movement. North Carolina schools had been fully integrated for over 20 years. 

But my father took it seriously nonetheless, and as we were driving around one day, he said, “Son, don’t you ever think you’re better than someone because of the color of your skin. You treat everyone with the respect and dignity that they deserve.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation this weekend in light of all the news from Charlottesville. I’ve thought about what it must have been like for my father to say that to me—remembering now that he grew up in a time of segregation. 

I’ve thought about how naive we were to think this was something we could just file away into history. 

I’ve thought about that conversation as Jessica and I stood in the kitchen yesterday and had that same talk with my own son in words that he (as a three year old) could understand: “Your skin is a white peachy color and its beautiful. And other people’s skin may be a dark brown color and its also beautiful. And we should not be mean to people because their skin is different from our own. God loves us all the same.” 

And you know something? It breaks my heart to have to say that to him. It breaks my heart because from my dad to me to him—three generations—not much has changed and has maybe gotten worse. 

That heartbreak is just a fraction of the heartbreak that parents of children-of-color feel when they know that their own three year old will be treated differently, will be judged differently, will be more likely to end up in prison or be killed solely because of the color of their skin.

I was shocked with what has happened. But many of them weren’t because this is just a confirmation of the world they already experience.

But that is not a world I want those children to grow up in, that is not a world I want my own child to grow up in. Terrorized in a church surrounded by torch-wielding Nazis? Worried about people who would rather plow cars into crowds than be confronted over their hatred? Seduced by the absurd idea that a lack of melanin in your skin makes you better than anyone else?

I know that the conversations with my son will only become harder. Gradually, over time he will learn that there is evil in the world. There is violence. There is death. 

But I don’t want him to know that . . . 

Turning to our gospel lesson, I want us to do something we don’t normally do: Let’s imagine ourselves in Jesus’ place. You call Peter out of the boat. It’s a bit like watching your baby take their first step: carefully, gingerly, clumsily. Those first steps are joyful but bittersweet, not only because your child is growing up, but because those steps will lead to other steps, and those steps to others, and on and on. Eventually those steps will lead that child further and further away from the safety of the boat.

Yet, Jesus calls Peter off of that boat in part because Jesus knows that he can’t be there to hold his hand forever. Peter has got to learn how to walk on the waves, how to calm the storm on his own, or at the very least how to weather it. And Jesus calls him out of that boat knowing that Peter, his friend, his disciple, his child, will one day taste evil and violence and death. There is a cross in Peter’s future too, after all.

And so he sighs to Peter: ”You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

I’ve never sensed heartache in this story until today. But the truth is, teachers have to let their students succeed or fail on their own. Parents have to let their children walk and stumble on their own. My dad had that talk with me, I had that talk with my son. I’m sure it broke his heart as much as it did mine. But, the world is out there in all its joys and miseries, its beauty and tragedy…and we all have to venture out and figure out how to live in it.

Of course, we also face horrors like what happened yesterday in Charlottesville. Unrelenting evil. Let’s be clear about this: White supremacy and white nationalism—to call them sins and heresies is being too easy. They are evil and the work of the devil. I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t use that language lightly. In the face of that, it’s easy to want to just stay on the boat and ride out the storm. Or like Elijah in our first reading, to want to just curl up in a cave somewhere and forget about everything.

But sooner or later that voice will come and find us. Whether it’s in the earthquake or in the silence: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

“What are you doing here, Cuttino?” 

“What are you doing here church?”

“Go out. Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

“Come, Peter. Come, you of little faith, come.”

God calls us. God calls us out of the cave, out of the boat, and into the whirlwind. Because it is through us that God mends this fallen world. It is through us that words of healing and love are spoken. It is through us that the devil and the forces that defy God are named and resisted.

I knew a number of people who were in Charlottesville this weekend to face down the Nazis and the KKK, a number of my fellow pastors. They were in St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church on Friday night when it was surrounded by an angry mob, they were in the streets on Saturday linked arm-in-arm, with only stoles and crosses, facing extremists in fatigues and automatic weapons. They witnessed how things turned violent and chaotic, and yet they faced the storm. 

A Lutheran seminarian named Korla Masters shares her experience:

“Many of us went out [Saturday] not knowing if we’d make it home. But we stepped out of the boat anyway. And honestly? We are really aware right now of things we could have done differently . . . Some moments when a little more faith and a little less fear could have kept us from starting to sink. [And yet] we were held by God the entire time.”

We were held by God the entire time. 

That’s the key. That’s the point. God calls us out of the boat, to venture out into the darkness, to have these scary, heartbreaking conversations, to face violence and aggression, to proclaim the good news in the middle of the raging storm. And God has our back, God is holding us, lifting us up again when we stumble.

We cry out in fear, but Jesus speaks to us: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

If (and, unfortunately, most likely when) the hatred that we saw this weekend in Charlottesville appears out on the streets of Ocean Springs, I hope you will join me in resisting it, to speak peace and love in the middle of the storm. Some of us may even be called to put our safety and even our bodies on the line for the sake of our brothers and sisters. All of us are called to treat others with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

In the meantime, let us continue to have those tough talks, let’s look at the ways we may be unwitting accomplices in the sins of prejudice and racism, let’s figure out a way to be bolder in our love, stronger in our compassion, and how to get out of the boat and declare that Jesus is Lord. Because how beautiful are the feet that preach the gospel of peace.

And you know, some days we’ll sink like a rock. Some days we’ll swim. And somedays we’ll walk on those waves. But through it all, God will be there holding us the entire time.