I don’t remember learning how to swim. Sure, I remember taking swim lessons to work on technique–different strokes, treading water, that sort of thing–but I don’t remember actually learning to swim. My parents introduced me to the water as an infant and so swimming has always felt quite natural to me.
And then the Girl Scouts took my SCUBA diving. Again, I was a good swimmer. I passed the swim test without any problems and did my practice dives in the swimming pool just fine as well. Once you get plopped into an unfamiliar setting, though, out of the safe and predictable confines of a swimming pool, something happens. It’s as if you lose your ability to think and reason. Panic sets in.
I had jumped off the boat for my dive, as I had done before, and began to deflate my BCD–(the vest you wear that keeps you afloat)–and sink to the ocean floor. All of a sudden my mask began to leak and I was wearing contacts at the time. Instead of thinking to inflate my BCD and float back to the surface of the water and try again, I resigned to thrashing around, trying to swim to the top while wearing a deflated vest and a weight belt. In the end, reason did kick in and I made back on the boat, but I did miss out on that one dive. All this goes to show that sometimes you can be quite a good swimmer and still live in fear of a force as powerful as water. Think rip tides, Hurricane Katrina, or a tsunami.
A lot of times, you’ll hear people talk about today’s Gospel story of Jesus and Peter walking on water in a way that says, “You’ve got to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, or else.” It’s a sink or swim mentality based 100% on how much focused you are on Jesus and on how much faith you have. You’ll get out there on the water and then it’s up to you and your faith as to whether you’ll walk on the water or drop below the surface, sink or swim, succeed or fail. The problem with this thinking is that some of the things we encounter in this life are stronger than the strongest of wills for faith. Sometimes, we can’t help but be afraid.
You could say that the type of thrashing around that I did, the kind I imagine that Peter also did as he began to sink that day on the water, is a result of losing focus, of not thinking clearly in the moment. You could say that it’s a result of a lack of faith, or trust, but I’m sorry, Peter had every reason to panic. He was doing something that was far beyond anything he had done before and anything that’s considered “ordinary.” Though he may have known how to swim, walking on water was a different story. It felt unsteady, somewhere between swimming and walking on solid ground. And that new, unusual, and uncomfortable experience made him panic. This–unsteady footing, large waves, strong winds–was not what he had in mind.
Sometimes life has a way of coming at you fast–so fast, in fact, that you don’t have time to think rationally, or to remind yourself of the faith you’ve been nurturing your whole life. Sometimes, you just panic. But just because you panic does not mean you’re not a strong swimmer or that you don’t have enough faith. Fear is a natural, and even beneficial emotion. It’s okay to be afraid.
It’s easy to apply this story to individual fears, which was my initial reaction to it this week. Peter was, after all, walking by himself on the water to Jesus. And it’s true. Things happen in our lives that we can’t control–we lose loved ones, we receive poor diagnoses, we face crises. Those are the types of fears I was initially thinking of this week. And certainly this story speaks to those fears–validates them and responds to them.
And then the protests happened yesterday in Charlottesville. A gathering of white nationalists were protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, while a group of counterprotesters gathered in response. It turned violent, recalling other race-related events–the shooting less than a year ago of Keith Lamott Scott here in Charlotte and the tragic shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston two years ago. All of this reveals that we are deeply afraid of one another in this country. The roots of fear run very deep.
On one hand, yes, it is okay to be afraid. When experiences are new, when cultures clash, when the status quo is challenged, fear and discomfort can be a natural response. It is never okay, however, to turn that fear into hatred or violence. That is not what happens with Peter on the water.
Instead, what happens is that when Peter starts to sink, Jesus’ hand is right there. He doesn’t encourage him to try again. He doesn’t punish him for his lack of faith. He simply guides him back to the safety of the boat–back to some sort of shelter, back to the support of people who care for him.
It’s no coincidence that this space where we gather every Sunday is called a nave. The root of that word is the same as that from which we get the words navy and naval. It means ship or boat. For centuries the church has understood itself as a boat that carries Jesus’ followers across tumultuous, and scary, waters. (As an aside, Ron informed me that the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments– “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”–is also called the Navy Hymn, and was sung at the end of every Navy Chapel service due to its plea for help for “those in peril on the sea.”) The church, though, is much larger than this specific nave.
Several years ago, the AME Zion Church, a historically African-American Church and our church–the ELCA, a historically caucasian, northern European church drafted what’s titled a “Statement of Mission.” This statement reads:
We…are called to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. This calling is shared in trust by all Christians who profess an abiding faith in our Risen Lord. The calling of these churches, and indeed of all Christians, is to be restorative agents of God’s redeeming work in the world. We are called to be about the reconciling efforts of Christ’s command to draw all people unto himself so that we might be transformed by His word and the efforts of His ministry of grace, in us.
In other words, it says that, despite the fear rooted in history and the differences in our worship and culture, Jesus has brought us into the same boat. We have one mission and that boat–that one mission–is a source of safety and comfort, maybe even excitement–for us.
Last Monday night, Pete Hubicki, Michael Jones, and I gathered with the good people of Little Rock AME Zion Church uptown to talk about ways in which we might collaborate with one another in that mission. It was an exciting conversation and one in which we realized that, though we may do things differently, there are endless possibilities for collaboration. We’re not quite sure where it will lead, but I beg you to stay tuned. When you realize that you really are in the same boat, fear has a way of dissipating. That seems like the real miracle of this story–not that Peter or Jesus walked on water, but that Jesus addressed Peter’s fear and comforted him with the safety of the boat.
Every Sunday we gather, we face the hard truth of the forceful nature of both water and fear. That bowl of water back there is so much more than the gallon or so of still water that sits there. It is the water that sinks us and drowns us. But not only us. It is also the water that drowns our fears, our hatred, our violence. For it is in that water where we reach for Jesus’ saving hand, where that hand guides us back to the boat and where we find comfort and collaboration in the one mission that we share.