I’m only a competent swimmer.
Two summers ago, we were living in southeast Florida,
where I was serving as an intern hospital chaplain.
The days were almost always hard,
but I would come home,
we’d make our dinner and eat it, and then go down to the beach.
I’m only a competent swimmer,
but the gulf is easy, and we would take turns paddling around with Henry
while Eliza slept on the beach.
One night, I just wanted to stretch out into the water.
I put my head down and kicked, and just went.
Then I turned, and surprised myself at how far out I had gone. And how tired I was.
I started back in, but the inhaling breath of each wave was against me,
my toes couldn’t find the bottom.
I saw them on the beach, entirely alone in the deepening grey.
Saw the empty houses along the beach.
And I felt the possibility of sinking open like this wild eye inside me.
I made it to the beach, obviously. The coast guard—for the record—
was never involved.
I don’t actually know how close I was.
But I may never go out like that again.
And even as I tell you this I can feel the whole depth of water beneath me.
Jesus came walking like a ghost, or like the living God, towards them on the sea. Peter asked for the command to come to him. And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and starting walking across the water to him. But then he looked at the wind, pushing up the waves they had been fighting all night. He saw where he was, and he became frightened, and began to go down into the sea.
So this is a story about real, mortal, risk.
And there’s a way of looking at this story as one of failure—
that Peter begins to sink because he looks at the wind instead of Jesus.
As if, with stronger faith,
he could have walked on the sea as freely as the Son of God,
which isn’t really a life we recognize, I think.
But what if afterward, Jesus asks him “why did you doubt?” the way
I ask my little girl “why did you touch that?”
Then, Peter has been only faithful and courageous, and
touched the limit of human-ness,
and what we have is a story about longing, and weakness—
what it means to be asked to climb onto the sea with our Lord,
and the real risk and the real beauty of doing it.
You have almost surely seen the pictures of shouting, torch-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. The flags of Nazism. The wounded. The car smashing through counter-protestors.
They were marching right at the broken heart of our history—near the University of the Virginia, the great University established by Thomas Jefferson, who is as close to the author of our Republic as anyone might be named. A man who embodied in himself the astonishing paradox of American freedom and the forced labor of black Americans. A man who was somehow convinced of the essential and irreducible dignity of humankind even as he instructed his overseers to use violence when necessary to drive the boys in the Monticello nail factory that made his money.
Violent white supremacists were drawn to Charlottesville to defend the statue of the commanding general of a Confederate army that fought what its leaders saw as a second revolutionary war to preserve a way of life and an economy that was unimaginable without slavery.
The monument itself was placed there decades after the end of that war as a way of celebrating the victory of segregationist government in Virginia, and as part of a broader effort to place monuments as symbols that defined the city as white.*
And in our own day, right now,
white supremacists have become emboldened in denying that we are one family,
made and knit together by God without distinction.
That bitterness, that anger, draws its oxygen from the racism that
we—we who are white–
have largely made peace with as a regrettable fact,
or that we can scarcely imagine how to dismantle.
But that, beloved, is the absolutely unambiguous call of the Gospel on our lives in this time.
That is the sea, and it is everywhere.
And that is where Jesus is now, walking.
Jesus is not only the one who could walk on water.
He is the Son of God who waded through nightmares of empire and
through temptations to power and safety. He touched the repulsively sick,
and looked with compassion on the hungry and poor;
held out grace to those who misunderstood him, loved those who feared him;
walked to his death because his kingdom and his justice
could not be established by violence.
If we want to walk where Jesus goes, that is what it means.
But we’re just us,
and we will look at the wind and it will be frightening.
And so, remember that Jesus caught Peter. He caught him with his hand. He didn’t send forth his power to buoy him up. Jesus caught him, as he stumbled down through the water. And that’s salvation.
* A recent essay by three UVA PhD. candidates sketches the way monuments to the Confederacy were strategically placed to assert white dominance of the city. Please see: Sophie Abramowitz, Eva Latterner, and Gillet Rosenblith, “Tools of Displacement” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2017/06/how_charlottesville_s_confederate_statues_helped_decimate_the_city_s_historically.html