Responding Homiletically to Charlottesville:
Don’t Rush Off The Boat
Matthew 14: 22-33
When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he probably wasn’t thinking about the boat Jesus commanded his disciples to cross over in as being a metaphor for the Church. Matthew probably wrote this story with the same meaning in mind most preachers who preach this text derive from it: keep your eyes on Jesus; don’t look down; don’t look back; keep looking into Jesus’ loving, lovely eyes.
By the Middle Ages though, church theologians and the architects of gothic cathedrals certainly did see boat, and ark, as fitting poetic metaphor for Church. As God saved Noah’s family from the flood by the seaworthy, safe (albeit stinky) confides of Noah’s ark, so God saves all humanity through the ark of the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ, the one who lived, died, rose, lives, and lives forevermore, to show us love, to make whole and holy our humanity.
And so perhaps, just perhaps (forgive me for borrowing one of Robert Stack’s most compelling lines from the old Unsolved Mysteries show) a message from this passage from Matthew can be that Peter should have stayed in the boat. Jesus didn’t invite him out there on the waters. Jesus knew that Peter wasn’t ready to walk on the water. Peter insisted; Jesus relented. Jesus reached out, and saved Peter when Peter, in his oh so ordinary humanity, was going to drown. Peter wasn’t ready to leave the boat.
I’m not ready to leave the boat yet, either. Nor perhaps, are you.
I can’t leave the boat—the Church—because I still need what the church teaches: the love God has for us all, the sacredness of all human beings; the self-giving, perfect love of Jesus which makes possible the hope of peace, and all acts of righteousness done in the name of human rights, and human dignity.
One of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite human beings of all time was Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, and a writer who dedicated his life to being the voice, the written and spoken word of the collective memory of the Jewish people, so that the memory of those people would not be lost forever with the six million souls the Nazis brutally murdered.
In a talk he gave about Judaism and Christianity, Wiesel lamented the fact that his family’s murderers proclaimed to be Christian. Now, we can argue that no one with the love of Jesus in their hearts could ever whisper, much less commit, hate against another human being. I believe that is true. We cannot run from Wiesel’s point, however. He said, and I paraphrase:
These men, they attended worship when they were children. These men, they went to Sunday School as youth. Did they not learn something in Sunday School; did they not at least overhear something in a sermon or in liturgy, that would plant itself in their souls, to instruct them later on in life that it is wrong to hate? That it is wrong to take human life? That Nazism, white supremacy, was an absolute wrong?
So we can ask today, with the smoke of the white-supremacist, white nationalist raid still lingering over Charlottesville, and over all America: Where are the churches of these people? What were the words they learned in Sunday School, in worship, in school?
Were they really on the boat, the same boat as you and I? Were they really a part of the boat called Church: through Sacrament, and through Spirit, the very Body, the very life, the very essence of Jesus?
Perhaps, just perhaps, I need to turn and look in the mirror, just as I am looking at the hate-filled white supremacist faces in Charlottesville. What is my witness? What is my voice? What are my words which echo in the boat, and out of the boat, upon the distant shore where so many broken hearts reside, living in tears shed in forgotten corners no one else can see?
Is this boat still seaworthy?
Does the crew of this boat—and there are no passengers on this vessel; we are all crew—still have our eyes, our hearts, and our souls, on Jesus?
Jesus welcomes us all upon this boat, this boat of teaching, this boat of transformation, this boat of service. On this boat, Jesus reigns. On this boat, love defeats hate. On this boat, the human race is one, and all-in-one, one-in-all belong to Christ.
Some days, we have no words.
But we must ask ourselves, “What words did we say; what words could we have said to prevent hatred and violence to sprout up so very close to home?”
In truth, the only word we have, the only word we need, the Word, says it all.
Let us cling to him, and stay on the boat.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.