Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
August 9, 2020
Psalm 69:1-3, 14-28, 30-34 1 Peter 5:6-11 Matthew 14.22-33
Seeing is not always believing, especially when you look out into the teeth of a storm. Seeing is not always believing, especially when your heart is full of bitterness, anger, rage, and that sinking feeling of absolute helplessness. The disciples of Jesus had been with him many months, perhaps a couple of years. They knew his face like the back of their hands, and yet when they saw him coming to them through the spray of the boiling waves, the whole boatload of them convulsed into a fit of horror. They were severely traumatized, and they thought he was a ghost, the grim reaper, come to take them to their watery graves.
Seeing is not always believing, especially when inside the frame of your mind you do not expect to see what is actually coming at you. I have been on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, and it is a large body of water, surrounded by hills down which swoop fierce windstorms. In their little boat out on the great, big lake, putting up a losing battle against the sudden squall, the last thing the disciples of Jesus expected to see was Jesus coming toward them. They thought he was safe and sound, praying on the hillside, absent, far-away, unknowing of their plight. No one who matters cares about whether we live or die in this lurching boat, soaked to the skin. We are stuck, we are damned, we will die, and we will vanish without a trace of us being left.
You would have to be completely devoid of sympathy not to identify in some way with their feelings. For we, too, are being subjected to trauma every waking hour. The pandemic is traumatizing because it upends and subverts the very structures of how we live. The virus is an invisible monster hitching a ride on our need to be together in order to survive. The virus has made us all potentially toxic to each other. This destroys the presumption of the mutual trust which must live the heart of healthy community. I have to trust that you will wear your mask, watch your distance and wash your hands often. When you go “Karen” on me, you become my enemy.
When you listen to the pain of those unemployed or who are endanger of bankruptcy or to the pain of the bereaved or deathly sick or the pain of those suffering abuse as children or spouses, you cannot help but share their pain. Our hearts break for those who brave the disease and go to work as essential workers. When elected public officials display gross ineptness, malfeasance, self-dealing and demagoguery, you have reason enough to be scared. It takes a united front to conquer this disease, but unity is shattered when armed demonstrators against stay at home rules are really a show of force for messages of white supremacy, sexism, or racism.
The armed conflict being waged on public spaces of cities from Weatherford to Portland only drives the knife deeper into the muscle that keeps this country together. When legitimate advocacy for Black Lives Matter and police reform is hijacked by anti-fa agitators and the sounds of civil night life are replaced by firecrackers, leaf blowers and crown dispersal blasts, we reel under a double trauma.
The voice of dread sounds forth in the Psalm for today:
“Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.” The force of dread is palpable today. We cannot predict what will happen. Dread feeds on the unknown. Social distancing implies we are living in an unsafe existence amongst ordinary people. My individual freedoms are being taken away for the common good. My protesting of evil is being taken over by evil people for their own ends. All of this produces trauma.
It only takes another a small step and you are stuck so deep in this dread and trauma that it becomes the organizing factor of your life, bringing harmful and dangerous consequences. Dread saps our strength and neutralizes the structures which give meaning to our lives. Maybe you begin to troll the pages of QAnon. Look at our gospel lesson again for proof of those dangerous consequences: dread convinced the disciples that Jesus did not care for them; so, when they saw Jesus in plain sight, they only felt horror.
If you get this one thing out of this sermon, I’ll be satisfied. The only reason Jesus is worth our obeying him is because he chooses to walk on the waves of the turbulence of our lives. Therefore, put it in the frame of your minds to expect him to be with you in the soup when your loan goes under-water. He is with you as you dog paddle as fast as you can but know it is not going to be enough. He is in the chaos of the emergency room. He walks through the swirl of tear gas, pyrotechnics, pepper spray, and crowd-blasters. If you do not expect the power of Jesus to be present in the storm, then when he does come to you, when he does his lordly thing, his presence will only make the terror you are living in even worse. Because you do not expect him, his offer of help will be a threat to you. Any light that he might shine into your darkness will only blind you.
Trauma and dread messed up the eyes in the disciples’ heads, so the Jesus they saw looked like a ghost. What they needed was to use the eyes of their hearts, but those eyes had gone dark because their hearts were filled with bitterness, anger, rage, and that sinking feeling of absolute helplessness. Jesus is where the waves are. His lordly thing is to clear away the dark and help us see with the eyes of our hearts. By the sound of his voice, he sweeps away all our bitterness and anger. “It is I. Do not be afraid. Take heart.”
And quickly then, when we recognize that it is actually him, he commands us to walk the waves with him. His electrifying command shocks us into a new world of possibility, “Come to me and walk with me here.” Dare we try it? Dare we leave what little safety there is in that lurching, plunging boat, the boat that’s about to sink? Dare we step out onto the chaos itself? “Come,” Jesus says. “Look at me; look only at me, and you can do it.” I care for you. I care for your future. I care for the future of everyone who depends on you. Trust me and take that step.
“I dare you,” says Jesus. Peter took up the dare, and he did walk on the waves. He was doing it; he was experiencing an uplifting solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces. But he broke his concentration. The eyes of his head were feeding more information to him than the eyes of his heart, more and more of the terror and threat, more and more of the sucking sounds of death. And he began to sink. Go down like a rock.
It was not enough, you see, for Jesus to call to Peter. It was not enough for Peter to concentrate on Jesus. That was not sufficient for Peter to stay on the waves. Finally, Jesus has to do something else in order for us to stay on top of the waves. It takes a strong hand-up. It takes his grip. Some of you can remember how Joan Baize sang so well:
Put your hand in the hand of the man Who stilled the water;
Put your hand in the hand of the man Who calmed the sea.
But how do you feel the grip of Jesus in this no-hands time of pandemic, requiring masks, soap, and social distancing? What is it that we always say? “Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today.”1 But, we cannot touch; we cannot shake hands; we cannot hug; we cannot be together. However, we can see and we can speak; we can do and we can write. Through the disciplines of seeing, speaking, doing and writing, we extend the hand in the name of Christ to bring uplifting solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces. Through giving someone eye contact, voice recognition, concrete action, and just being able to hold in your hands a message on a piece of paper, you become the hands of Jesus that keep someone from sinking.
Someday the wind and the waves will be no more. Someday this pandemic will be in our rear view mirror, but we don’t know just when. Yet even now in the midst of the storm, we know glimpses of that wonderful peace. A quiet moment with our child in our arms. Pillow talk with our mate. A congregation who hangs together even as we must isolate. A friend with whom our soul resonates. The return of someone we love after we had spent long stretches of the night in prayer. A sack of groceries. A drug prescription filled. A group of compassionate friends. The return of decency, trust, humility, honesty, and competency in our common life.
With Jesus we have a peace that passes understanding. We have a solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces that can uplift any situation we are in. You can have this advantage if you dare to take that step towards him.
1 Annie Johnson Flint, 1866-1932.