Have you ever seen a ghost? The disciples of Jesus thought they did. What else could it be? Their spiritual beliefs told them that the sea was a deep, dark mysterious place inhabited by scary spirit creatures. Their logic told them that people don’t walk on water. Therefore, the shadowy figure approaching them in storm on the sea must have been a ghost. Boo!
At the edge of the Sea of Galilee today, you can see tourists with cameras taking photos of one another as they attempt to recreate Jesus and Peter walking on the water. It’s mostly in jest, and it results in a lot of wet feet. It’s easy to understand why this story from the gospels captures the imagination. The laws of science are completely discarded. Being able to walk on water would be a bit like being able to fly by flapping one’s arms. It’s so off base and bizarre that we want it to somehow be true for Jesus and Peter and maybe even for us.
What is remembered less about this particular story is the violent storm that engulfed the small boat holding the disciples. The waves were battering the boat, and the wind was pushing against them, preventing any progress across the lake.
When my children were very small, we had a cottage on the shore of Lake Ontario, next door to my parents’ home. One evening, we spent hours watching a powerful storm slowly move across the lake from Canada. Lightning flashed continuously and waves crashed over the break wall as we watched for water spouts. Night had fallen by the time the storm reached our shore. The full fury of the wind and rain and deafening thunder was released on our little cottage. After a particularly close clap of lightning lit up the sky and shook our walls, I scooped up my kids and ran next door where there was a basement we could hide in if needed. We stood in the rain, ringing the bell and pounding on the door for a long time before my parents, looking sleepy and baffled, finally opened it. They were sleeping while we feared for our lives! When the storm finally abated, we discovered that several trees had come down between the house and the cottage. I haven’t experienced a storm of that intensity since.
In our story, when Peter attempted to walk to Jesus on the water, he became frightened by the strong wind kicking up the waves as the light flashed around him. The text says that he began to sink. This is the same Peter of whom Jesus said “On this rock I will build my church” and now he’s sinking like a rock to the bottom of the sea. Jesus reached out a grabbed his hand as Peter shouted in to the wind, “Save me!”
So Peter was afraid because he saw a ghost, and then he was afraid because of a storm. And I would guess that he was also afraid that the water was not a solid surface for taking a hike on a lake. All three were very good reasons to be afraid. Jesus is recorded here as saying to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That’s a little harsh, don’t you think? A little fear from time to time is healthy and probably keeps all of us out of trouble.
Fear can also get us into trouble. It’s a powerful force that is not always rational and can cause us to react in ways that are destructive to ourselves and to others. Yesterday morning I was thinking, “Should I make reference to North Korea or to Charlottesville in my Sunday sermon?” and I concluded that the answer had to be “yes, of course.” I hope that churches all around our country are reflecting biblically and theologically today on both of these critical situations.
It was seventy-two years ago this week that a line was draw across Korea at the 38th parallel. During a visit to South Korea nineteen years ago, I was allowed to enter the demilitarized zone between north and south and to see the table with a line drawn down the middle separating the two countries. The table is intended to be a place where peace talks can occur, with the goal of reunification, but it has been mostly empty and gathering dust for many years. The World Council of Churches issued a prayer for this week with these words: “Let us hope for unification with passionate hearts and work together so fervently that we shed the sweat of hope. For every August we encounter, help us sincerely repent with our hearts, and fill us with a strong will for unification.” Not only are the two Koreas at odds with one another, but now we, too, are locked in a war of words and escalating threats.
Fred Craddock was a preacher from Georgia who taught divinity students at Emory how to craft sermons for many years before his death two years ago. He tells this story in his book titled As One Without Authority:
“Years ago I received a letter from Washington asking if I would join hundreds of other ministers in holding prayer breakfasts around the world. Wherever there were American citizens or soldiers, there were going to be President’s Prayer Breakfasts. I wrote back and said I would be honored to do it. I waited a while, and then I got a letter saying that my station for the prayer breakfast would be in Seoul, Korea. I said, ‘Wonderful, I’ll just stop by there on the way to the office and have a prayer breakfast!’
“I went to Seoul, where I was the guest of General Richard Stilwell, who commanded 40,000-to-50,000 American soldiers in South Korea. The officers and troops had gathered in great numbers. Before I spoke, a private who’d been brought over from Formosa played ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipes. It was moving and beautiful. General Stilwell said, ‘I love that song.’
When the breakfast was over and everybody was leaving, General Stilwell turned to me and said, ‘I want you to pray for us.’ I said, “I will.” He said, “I don’t mean for power. We have the power. In one afternoon we could wipe out North Korea. We have the power. What we need you to pray for is that we have the restraint.’
‘That we have the restraint?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ the general said, ‘the restraint. The mark of a civilized society is not power. It is restraint.’”
I suspect that it is the quest to gain or to display power that has put us in a delicate and dangerous place. It is not unreasonable to be fearful in the face of nuclear weapons, especially when they are controlled by people we may consider unstable. I wish I had the power of Jesus in Matthew 14 to say “Take heart; do not be afraid” and to calm the storm as evidence that everything will be fine. I do believe that there is always a way for peace to prevail. The Psalm Andy read says “God will speak peace to the people…. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” I am praying with you that what is right and what will bring peace will come together in the days ahead.
In 1992 I was sent by a Methodist bishop to a small city on the coast of Maine. The church was barely keeping its doors open and the lights on, and the plan was to sell the building and start over in another part of town. One day shortly after my arrival, I visited with a ninety-nine year old woman at her home. Her husband had been a sea captain, and she told me stories from her childhood which had been largely spent at the Methodist Church. Then she became emotional and dropped a bombshell. She told me that it had been a great church once upon a time, but that everything changed when the Ku Klux Klan took over. She recalled a Sunday when hooded members of the church and community marched into a worship service and presented the pastor with a check for a new furnace. That got my attention! I started researching the Klan in Maine and learned that the 1920s were a hotbed of Klan activity throughout the nation. The pastor of the church I served had been the Grand Klaliff – second in command – for the state. The Klavern, the Klan clubhouse, was just down the street. When looking through records, I discovered that the church had invested its funds in something called the AKIA society, which is an acronym for “A Klansman I Am.” When that iteration of the Klan when down in disgrace in 1927, the church lost its money and its reputation and it never really recovered. They had invested themselves in the ideology of fear and hate and paid the consequence. The pastor’s sermon titles published during that era in the local newspaper were largely anti-Catholic in their promotion of Protestant supremacy and anti-immigration, in reference to the Irish in particular. The church, in cooperation with the Klan, preyed on the fear of losing jobs and influence and what foreign men would do to their women. I was shocked to learn that all of this had happened in our own country as recently as the 1920s.
I guess I was shocked this weekend, too, to see the unmasked faces of hatred and intolerance in Charlottesville. It’s not that I don’t know that this exists in our country, but I did not anticipate hatred released so openly and on that scale. On Friday night, Rev. Traci Blackmon, an African American woman who leads our UCC Justice and Witness ministries, was trapped inside a church with others while white supremacists surrounded the church, holding torches in the air and shouting the words “One people, one nation, end immigration.” We saw what happened the next day, and our hearts are disturbed and broken and angry and maybe even afraid.
Our voice is needed more than ever. We cannot stop telling the world that justice is for everyone and not just for some. We cannot count on our national leadership to give a clear and unambiguous message that white supremacy is evil. It’s up to us. We cannot let fear immobilize us or push us to take on the destructive tactics of others.
Peter and the disciples were all in one boat on that stormy, dangerous night. They were afraid of things they understood, like lightning, and things they didn’t understand, like ghosts. We are all in the same boat, too, in regard to what is happening in our world and in our own nation. We don’t know where the boat is heading right now, but we are not entirely at the whim of waves and water. We might feel like our maker is ghosting us and is not controlling the storm as we would like, but even when God seems AWOL, we know that the divine rests in each of us. We will keep rowing and trusting and using our voices and our restraint and our power until the storm calms and justice and peace prevail. Amen.