Regular Café Contributor Cara Modisett reflects on the event in Charlottesville in light of the Gospel story of Jesus’ walking on water and his invitation to Peter to join him there
The world wouldn’t leave Jesus alone.
He was grieving a friend lost to violence, John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod. He had retreated once, and the crowds followed him, and he healed them and he fed them – thousands of them – with five loaves and two fish.
And Jesus sent the crowds away, and put his disciples on a boat, and retreated again, into the mountains to pray and grieve.
And the world still wouldn’t leave Jesus alone. That night, he looked out into the darkness across the sea, and saw his friends in their boat, tossed by wind and waves. And so, before the sun rose, he went to them. He walked across the water, and he calmed the wind so his disciples could continue their journey.
Sometimes I come here at night. I did last night. There is a deep, sacred stillness in this sanctuary, especially when it is dark. You can feel the tall space above you, the lofty height of the roofline where it soars up and up. This past week, when I was reading in preparation for today’s sermon, I was reminded of something I had forgotten. The word for nave, another word for sanctuary, comes from the word naves, which in Latin means boat or ship. Looking up, we can see the inspiration – it is a little like looking up into the overturned hull of a wooden ship, solidly, tightly built to keep out the storms.
The disciples in the boat that night were terrified when they saw Jesus walking across the waves. But one – Peter – dared what the others did not. He asked Jesus to command him to walk on water. And he stepped out of the boat, and he did. For a few steps. Then he looked around, and realized how tall the waves are when you are in the middle of them, and how deep the water was, and how strong the wind was, and he sank. And Jesus pulled him to safety, scolding his lack of faith.
And then Jesus calmed the wind, and the disciples were able to continue sailing to their next harbor, Gennesaret, where, once again, the world would find them, and the sick would come for healing, and the vulnerable for miracles.
On Friday night, I was safe in Roanoke, gathered with some friends, singing music, and praying for places in our world – and in our commonwealth – where there is conflict. While we sang, an Episcopal church in one of those places had opened its doors to people of all faiths and colors. Its pews and its aisles were filled with people, and its space filled with light and song, as they prayed in response to the world outside. They were praying for what was planned in Charlottesville, Virginia, the next day – a rally organized by white nationalists – and they were praying for the voices of counter protestors, including hundreds of clergy. And that night, while we were safe in Roanoke, a deep sea of people in Charlottesville, mostly white men, gathered in a crowded circle, holding torches, around a small group of young people holding a banner that read, “UVA Students Act Against White Supremacy.” Look up the pictures online, and you can barely see the students – they are almost hidden by the shadows cast by those torches.
Up until a few days ago I had been reading this morning’s Gospel, thinking about the church as a boat, about our shared journey, about how we weather storms together, about taking risks and having faith and about how some of us get out of the boat and some of us stay in the boat but the most important thing is we’re in the boat, we’re in the church, we are church, together.
And all of those things are true, and important, and I think not theologically unsound.
But then – at the end of a week when reporters and politicians and theologians are talking about the specter of nuclear war, when it felt as if the world might be turning upside down – when it seemed it couldn’t get any scarier – Friday happened. And Saturday happened. People came into Charlottesville, Virginia, practically our next-door neighbor – carrying guns, wearing T-shirts with the words of Adolf Hitler on them, and carrying Confederate flags. Friday night happened – a scary procession of torches on the University of Virginia campus, and fistfights at the Rotunda. Yesterday happened. People with guns came into Charlottesville – home of the University of Virginia, the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, a teaching hospital that saves lives every day – and chanted “We will not be replaced.” A car drove along a street adjacent to the downtown mall, a place where I love to go and drink coffee and shop for used books, and the car sped up, plowed into a crowd of counter protestors, and killed at least one person.
I am heartbroken. I am angry.
The world won’t leave us alone.
So I’m thinking about the church as a boat, about our shared journey, about how we weather storms together, about taking risks and having faith and about how some of us get out of the boat and some of us stay in the boat, about us in the church and us as church. I’m thinking about Jesus wanting peace and quiet and time to recover from his own sorrow, and how the crowds wouldn’t let go of him, kept asking to be healed, to be fed, to be cared for. And he stopped, and he turned around, and he healed them, and he fed them, and he cared about them.
And I’m thinking about Peter. He leaves the boat. Maybe it’s because I have always been afraid of high waves, but I have always felt bad when Jesus asks him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I can’t blame Peter for being afraid. I admire him for leaving the boat in the first place. But what he learns is that confidence is not enough. Commandment is not enough. He must trust – he must have faith. It is not possible for him to walk on water by himself. It’s Jesus who makes that miracle happen.
We are on a shared journey – we share this ship, this church, and we are stronger when we hold fast to it and each other – but we are not meant to stay safe, to hide in this sacred, still space. The wind will blow against us – the waves will buffet us. The world won’t leave us alone, and we shouldn’t let it.
The story of Peter teaches us that confidence is not enough, commandment – call – is not enough – we are not enough. It is faith that turns the world upside down, or right-side up. It is Jesus who makes the miracles possible. We are the hands and feet and voices and hearts through which he works.
What happened this weekend in Charlottesville was the world stepping into our sacred space – torches, guns, a speeding car, fistfights, racism, murder, hate and fear. So what can we do?
We are called to step out of the boat, to come down from the mountain. We are called to take risks in our relationships, to reach out and stand with and be with and minister with people outside of our usual circles, to have compassion, to recognize and name injustice, to acknowledge and treasure our diversity. We are called to respond to the voices of our human family, to open our doors and hearts, to sing in the sacred space, to hold the banner against a sea of torches, to be voices of peace.
image: Ryan Kelly/Daily Progress