The Rev. Bob Holum
Have you ever been on a small boat in a storm? I was on a Sunfish stuck between Green Island and Markham Point once back in the day when I still thought I could sail. 1982 or so. A dark rain squall came up. The wind was whistling on my bow, I was heeling way over, and every time I tried to tack the wind pushed me back toward the rocks and the rain stung on my bare skin, and I was chilled and tired from straining to keep the boat upright and to keep from jibing and getting my skull cracked open by the boom. Was I wearing a lifejacket? I’d rather not say. No cellphones in those days, but Ma Ritchie was at her lookout and sent brother Mike out in the ski boat and I got rescued. I’m still chilled thinking about it. But I’m here! Thanks, Ma, thanks Mike!
Watch the weather reports, you outdoor adventurers! Be prepared for bad weather!
Jesus, the radical preacher of the first century, was getting prepared for bad social and political weather in our gospel reading for today from Matthew. He was a student of the traditions of his people, familiar with his ancestor in the faith, Elijah. Elijah had had spoken truth to power by condemning a corrupt and abusive king named Ahab. Ahab’s police went after the Godly man, who ran for his life and hid in a cave, where he prayed, alone, seeking God’s guidance: “they have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, killed your prophets. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” God came to Elijah in the “sound of sheer silence”, the kind of silence you can really only hear when you are alone in a deserted place, and God gave Elijah direction and hope.
Jesus, too, was facing threat. His campaign to preach liberation to impoverished and marginalized people was kicking up sand. He knew that Satan - that narcissistic, “me first” tendency that lives in all of us, would be stirring up opposition. He knew that fear of change, fear of “the other,” once it is stirred up tends to grow. His message of salvation, the “kingdom” or “kindom” of God was beginning to reach beyond the ethnic walls that separated Jews and non-Jews, building bridges between people of different national and religious traditions. Very threatening to those who hold on to power by keeping people separated into enemy camps. And so, with storm clouds gathering, with opposition brewing, Jesus, Matthew tells us, “went up the mountain by himself to pray.” Jesus knew when storm crowds grew and when dangers threaten, you need to listen for the voice of God, your higher power, the highest good, who speaks within. Jesus knew to ask for help.
I tend to think this is true of us today, people of God, as we face a world that is under siege by virus, divided over how to respond. To mask or not to mask. To isolate or to socialize. To open schools or resume remote learning. To reach out and build bridges between communities that have been historically divided or to strengthen ties with people of our own kind. To deal with the 400 year old sin of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow and discriminatory justice or to retreat into our gated and isolated communities and live in fear and anger.
Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead to “cross over to the other side of the Lake”, which was the territory of the gentiles, the non-Jews, which meant Jesus was sending them into strange and hostile territory. I’m reminded that at one time, not so long ago, Jewish people were prohibited from living in many parts of our country, including this end of upper Saranac Lake. So it would be as if Jesus had sent a boatload of Jewish leaders from the Tupper Lake synagogue up to the Old Saranac Inn where the sign on the wall by the registration desk said they were not welcome to try and register as guests. Important history to remember. Important to celebrate how we’ve changed. Important to remember change is possible!
By the time Jesus came down from the mountain, the disciples, were, themselves, in big trouble. Gale force winds had come up, they had been fighting the waves and spray all night, and they were near exhaustion. Jesus appeared to them, we don’t know how, but it seemed to them that he was walking across the face of the water. They were terrified by the storm and now they are confused - is it Jesus or not? Is it a devil? Is it a ghost? Peter wants certainty.
“If it’s really you, Sir, tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” says Jesus.
Peter gets out of the boat, tries to walk on the water, panics, and sinks like a stone.
“Help!” he gurgles, choking on the water, “Lord, Saave me!”
A couple of mysteries: First of all, the disciples in the boat were already in danger of drowning. Why didn’t they ask for help from Jesus right away instead of waiting until Peter had put himself in greater danger? Second, why did Peter want Jesus to do a personal miracle just for him instead of asking Jesus to save them all.?
I tend to look at this passage from a male point of view. As a man, I am inclined to hate two things. 1) having to admit I’m wrong; 2) having to admit I need help. When I was a pastor for 7 years in an African American Lutheran congregation in West Philadelphia, I spent at least the first year pretending that I, as a relatively affluent white person from a farm background had a clear understanding of the life issues of urban, impoverished black people. (and also trying to hide the fact that my family owned a private camp on a lake in the Adirondacks - I also hate to feel privileged!) I feel for Peter, because, faced with a life-threatening circumstance, his first impulse is not to ask for help, but to ask for a demonstration of his own competence. “Lord, show me how to walk on the water so I can be masterful like you!” “Bob,” Binnie said to me, at least 1,000 times, why don’t you stop and ask that person for directions. “Not necessary. I know where I’m going.” My inner Peter.
How many times will a man drive around the block before he asks his wife for help finding the destination? Until he runs out of gas. Peter ran out of gas. “Save me!”
My brothers, I know I as a man am not alone in this! I checked with my authority figure, Uncle Google, and there are at least 10 pages of references to problems men have asking for help, including the health problems and societal costs caused by us men refusing medical help because we are in denial. “Heart pain? Oh, no, I just pulled as muscle in my chest. That funny looking mole on my head? My mom and dad both had those. It’s nothing.” Fess up, brothers, most of us hate to ask for help. And it’s not just the males of the species who have this problem, it turns out. Or sophisticated coastal liberals. Here’s Audrey Hoeppner, a 20-something youth minister at Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois:
“Asking for help is hard. My preferred route, in a time of struggle, is to bear down and pretend everything’s fine, isolate, throw myself a string of silent pity parties, and then finally fall apart to whoever is unfortunate enough to ask me how I’m doing. I’m certain I’m not alone in this unhealthy pattern. There’s an attractive, but false, sense of righteousness in isolationism: I’ll suffer silently so that I don’t bring anyone else down or bother God with my whining. But in doing this, we’re actually missing God’s design for our need. Looking at Scripture, it’s clear that God wants us to acknowledge our need, not hide from it. We are free to seek help, even encouraged and commanded to do so!
Amen, to Audrey Hoeppner!
There are two messages I want to take away from this morning’s gospel. Ask for help from God. Ask for help from other people. Fight against the silent message, the social conditioning, that says asking for help is weak. And also, if you see yourself as a person of privilege, instead of hiding it, or feeling guilty about it, try to use your privilege to gain access for people who lack it. That’s what I learned from my amazing wife Binnie, who went off to Temple and got a degree in dance so she could teach impoverished Black kids in Mantua how to use their bodies for praise and for dignity. Binnie knew how to ask for help, and her life made a huge difference to hundreds of people.
If you’re going out in a small boat, know what you’re doing. Wear a life preserver. Tell someone on shore where you’re going.
If you’re going out into the turbulent and often stormy waters of today’s world, know how to ask for help. Wear your faith. Have a spiritual practice If you hope to be a positive player in the struggle for a new future for a divided society and world, better have your hand in the hand of the carpenter from Galilee. For those who identify with the Christian faith, Jesus, called Christ, is the living representative of our highest ideal for living in this complicated world. Jesus is also “Emmanuel”, “God With Us”, so Jesus gives the motive power, the guidance and strength, to help us achieve our ideals. Whiteness won’t save us, neither will Blackness or being biracial. Being gay or being straight won’t put the world together in a way where there is safety and access for all. Being native born or multicultural are significant, but not sources of safety.
We are invited to see ourselves as the disciples in the boat, sailing through a storm. God’s destiny is sending us toward the shore of a pluralistic world where Black and White, gay and straight, First People and latest to arrive are able to appreciate each other’s cultures and their own, and to live on a preserved earth in harmony with nature and with each other, first with justice, then with peace. To get there we need faith in the God of our understanding, Jesus-class ideals to touch and to hold, and a community of faith to embrace us.
Masked and distanced, love each other. Wash your hands. Say your prayers. Check the weather. Wear a life jacket. Good sailing!