On six Sundays this summer, I provided sabbatical coverage for a colleague; today was the sixth. At Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, August's "Monthly Ministry Partner" is LEVN, the young adult service corps I direct; since I was there to preach and preside, I incorporated into my sermon the usual "Temple Talk" that organizations give at the start of the service.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Here we are, again this week, reading a story about Jesus that we have probably heard a million times—maybe even more in our popular culture than in church! When we encounter someone who is really impressive and we think can do no wrong, we might say that that person “walks on water,” right? They’re just that good.
This phrase can even make its way into the pejorative, when someone receives high praise and we think it’s undeserved. “Well, she walks on water around there,” we might say. It can be hard to imagine a time before phrases like this were so embedded in the vernacular—let alone imagine being a witness to the event that coined the phrase.
The disciples, of course, our usual suspects, are terrified. They’re in their boat, far away from shore, “battered by the waves” the text says. The wind was against them. They’re fishermen, so they know their way around a boat, but weather is unpredictable. They’ve been out on the water overnight, and they’re probably exhausted. So when Jesus comes walking toward them, they’re unsurprisingly frightened. “It’s a ghost!” they shout. Jesus immediately realizes that his sudden appearance has not comforted them, but terrified them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
There are a lot of words in the Bible, and a lot of them are quotable, and I love none of them quite like I love these. “Do not be afraid.” We live in a big world, with a lot going on, and a lot that we can find ourselves afraid of. We are afraid of change, and we are afraid of instability, and we are afraid of loneliness, and we are afraid of any number of things.
Even in the middle of his fear of the storm going on around him, Peter stands up and challenges Jesus, saying “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is a fascinating challenge, because, it assumes that Jesus can control this environment so specifically that he can ensure that Peter, too, can walk on the sea. But! It also requires Peter to take that first step out of the boat! Not knowing if Jesus is who he says he is, Peter takes that step! [You’ve already read ahead to the part where he doubts and falls but we are not going to focus on that part right now.]
As I stand before you this morning, August 13, we are 13 days away from the official move-in date of the new cohort of volunteers for our year-long service corps program, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network. This year’s LEVNeers are coming to us live from across the nation—New York, Virginia, Indiana, Georgia, and of course the great state of California. These young adults have graduated from college—an inspiring feat in and of itself—and have made the choice to spend the next 11 months of their lives living in intentional Christian community and serving in non-profit organizations in a city they’ve never set foot in before. Talk about stepping out of the boat.
They’re coming to us for an opportunity to learn, and grow, and be transformed by their service and by their witness in the community. They’re able to do this in part because of support from people like you, who dedicate an entire month each year to turning your yearlong support into direct, financial support. You also support them with your prayers, and with your welcome when they worship here, and with your encouragement as they go about their service in the community. Thank you for helping to create the space for LEVN to thrive.
During the application and interview process this year, I noticed something a little different than I’d seen in past years. I always ask them why they’re considering a year of service, and they often say things like “I was raised to always give back,” or “I’m considering a career in social work and I want to see a little more about what that’s like” or “my campus pastor suggested I spend a year reflecting on the connections between my faith and my work in the world,” or “my sister did it and told me I should, too.” These are all excellent reasons, and it is wonderful for all of these folks to be in this together.
This year, though, I spoke to more than a few young adults who said that the state of the world—and our nation, in particular—had given them pause as they contemplated life after college. They were less interested in going out into the workforce to be another cog in a wheel that didn’t mean anything to them, and they want to do something meaningful that makes life better for the people they encounter. These young people are hearing the gospel and doing something about it. They don’t know what they’re getting into, but they’re getting into it.
As we embark on this new LEVN program year, I will remind them not to be afraid. It’s going to be a year full of unknowns, starting with the housemates they’re about to share it with. The service that they’ll do will introduce them to many of the poorest and least-resourced members of our society; facing those realities on a daily basis will not be easy, and they might be afraid sometimes.
Outside of that, they will still be participants in that messy wider world. Thank you for being part of our infrastructure to provide young adults with space to ask hard questions, and face tough truths; to rewire old habits and rethink old frameworks. We know this will not be a walk in the park. “Take heart, it is I,” Jesus will say. “Do not be afraid.”
I will admit to you, dear ones, that this week, I was afraid. On Tuesday, the President of the United States and the Chairman of North Korea hurled threats at one another, insinuating that they might hurl nuclear weapons next. I don’t think you need to be reminded that I am only 29 years old, and therefore have not experienced true nuclear anxiety in my lifetime. Perhaps you recall The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War, and have been recalling those days in these days. Perhaps you recall the duck and cover drills in school, or the underground bunker fever. Perhaps, because you recall these things, you were afraid this week, again, too.
In another callback to what we would like to believe is ancient history, white supremacists marched on the University of Virginia campus on Friday night, and throughout Charlottesville, Virginia in their “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday. I watched live online as men carried torches and chanted, not unlike footage of the Klan I’ve seen in documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement.
I also watched videos of the sanctuary at St. Paul’s Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, as clergy from around the country sang and prayed and prepared to protest that rally. They sang “Oh, Freedom!” and “Wade in the Water” and other old spirituals, ripe with eternal resonance, and blessed each other for the hard work of witness. Then, on Saturday, they, too, took to the streets. They linked arms and stood firmly in the way of armed militiamen. They proclaimed loudly that Black Lives Matter; that love trumps hate; that God is not a white supremacist; that bigotry and hatred do not have the final word.
I bet many of them shook in fear. But they clung to each other and to their faith in the risen Lord Jesus the Christ. And, again, they sang. I don’t know what they sang, but soon we are going to sing, “no storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging; since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
For some of us, it is dumbfounding that we are witnessing the violent extremism of white supremacist terrorism in 2017. We do not understand how the nation we believe stands for freedom and justice for all has been overrun by those who think freedom is just for some. We watch in horror as our fellow Americans are beaten and bloodied as they stand up for justice—we struggle to wrap our minds around the idea that our fellow Americans are doing the beating and bloodying. For most people of color in the United States, this is not new and it is not shocking. For centuries, they have witnessed violence against their neighbors by their neighbors, and we have ignored their cries.
Many of us wish that we could ignore this. Many of us wish that we could just turn off the news and the events would, simultaneously, vanish. Many of us wish we did not have to reckon with the reality that this has presented for our society. Many of us wish that someone else would just handle it. Many of us wish that we were not accountable to one another quite so literally.
That would be far less scary. But we do not have that privilege, dear friends. We are the body of Christ.
St. Theresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours / Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world / yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.”
Not every one of us is called to be there, on those front lines, arm in arm. Some of us are, and should go. Others of us are called to pray, or to lament, or to support, or to tend, or to weep, or to speak, or to sing—called to confront the ways in which the sin of white supremacy has infiltrated our communities in subtler ways than these torch-wielding mobs.
All of us, as the body of Christ in the world, are called to band together in solidarity with any and all who are marginalized and trampled upon. All of us, as the body of Christ, are called to denounce violence in all its forms, to disavow bigotry wherever it rears its head, and to listen to our God who says, ‘take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”