August 13, 2017: Nathaniel Darville – “Setting Our Sails On Christ”

Let Us Pray: Bring us your peaceful words and place them in our mouths and in our hearts so we may bring your peace to all peoples and all places, O God, F, S, and HS. Amen. (Based on Psalm 85)

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14.26-27.]

‘Setting Our Sails Toward Christ’ or ‘Are Birkenstocks Water Proof?’ or ‘We Sail the Ocean Blue and our Saucy Ship’s A Beauty; We’re Sober Men and True and Attentive to Our Duty’

I guess you could say I am part of the music video generation. When I was about 5, the MTV channel came on the air and my teenage brother, Chris, would have it on all the time. We would watch music video after music video after music video. I remember I was about 7 when the video for ‘Magic’ by the band the Cars debuted. The premise of the video is pretty simple: it begins with dozens of people running to a big outdoor pool behind a mansion, where the lead singer of the band, Ric Ocasek, sings ‘Uh-oh it’s magic, when I’m with you’ to a bikini-clad blonde while walking on top of the pool water, as a crowd stood back in amazement on the grass. In my 7 year-old mind my first thought was, ‘Is this what it looked like when Jesus walked on water?’
But the context of today’s Gospel is far removed from 1980s New Wave rock music. At this point in Matthew, we find Jesus at a very dark point in his ministry. After a series of profound parables and teachings about God’s Kingdom, Jesus ends up in his hometown, Nazareth, only to find people will not take him seriously because they didn’t think any wisdom could come from a working class family, at least not the family of Joseph and Mary. What’s more, Jesus then gets word John the Baptist has been executed. His reaction is a very human one, he wanted to be alone. Perhaps he wanted to mourn his friend. Perhaps he had doubts about the direction of his ministry. Perhaps he desired to pray to God for discernment or comfort. The text does not say, but it is probably any combination of those things. All we know is he wanted to get away from the people that were following him. But he could not escape the crowd, which apparently had accumulated to around 5000. Again, his reaction was very natural. Jesus channels his grief into compassion for the large group of people. He knew they needed to eat so he provides bread and fish for them all. But after the crowd ate their fill, Jesus again withdraws, this time up to a mountain to pray while the rest of the disciples wait in a boat. While Jesus is praying, a storm ensues, and the disciples experience one of ancient world’s greatest fears: being blown out into dangerous waters, far from land. The disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the tempestuous lake and they do not recognize him. They are terrified, except for Peter, who walks out to Jesus as soon as Jesus identifies himself. But, poor Peter, always the comic relief, sinks into the water when he takes his focus off Jesus and focuses on his fear. Jesus pulls Peter up, and the moment they enter the boat, the storm ceases.
The narrative of Jesus and Peter walking on water is usually preached as a lesson on faith. That is, the disciples are in the story as an example of how not to act; a faithful person should not doubt. But I think this interpretation completely misunderstands the message of today’s Gospel. The 19th Century German anthropologist, Ludwig Feuerbach, proposed the bible is written with a completely human-centered perspective. In other words, our view of God [and Jesus] is really just a reflection of ourselves. While I disagree, I think Feuerbach is right when it comes to biblical interpretation. When we look at scripture, we look for ourselves in the text, and not the God revealed. In this text, just like any Gospel text, we should begin with what Jesus is doing. The way in which the disciples fearfully reacted in the story is completely appropriate. I am certain I would have responded the same way. It is a normal part of faith to have doubts, especially in times of trial. I think the point to take away here is not the disciples’ faithlessness, but Jesus’s faithfulness.
But this truth does not take away from realities of being Christian today. To live in this world as a follower of Jesus is to live in the midst of a storm. Storms have been a powerful metaphor for the dangers of this life as long as humans have thought critically about their environment. In Scripture, the world was destroyed by storms, all except Noah’s family and animals in the Ark. Storms were part of the plagues on Egypt. Jesus, too, encountered storms two different times while he and the disciples were out sailing. In the Odyssey, Odysseus encounters storm after storm as he tries to return home. And storms also play a major role in King Lear, Lord of the Flies, Les Miserables–virtually any movie starring John Cusack–and we could go on and on.
Despite the advances of technology, inclement weather still poses a real, existential threat in our everyday life. The last few years of climate change have only increased our anxieties. I grew up off the banks of the Delaware River in New York. When I was a child, flooding almost never happened, but over the past ten years, my hometown has sustained significant water damage three times, so that every time there is a storm in the forecast, my friends and family worry their homes will be ruined. I am sure anyone who lives near a significant body of water, like the people afflicted yet again in New Orleans, has the same fear. So when we read this Gospel narrative where the disciples are at the mercy of dangerous weather, we can easily identify with their sense of helplessness.
But the storms we are currently facing in this life are much more than weather. I don’t need to tell you there is a political whirlwind raging in this country. Social media has almost abandoned its original purpose of connecting friends from all over the world into a forum for abusive statements from all sides of hot button issues. Various newspapers and cable stations have long quit anything close to objectivity, and no longer exist to report, but only to validate already codified feelings and opinions. And perhaps what is most alarming, our public sphere is no longer a safe space for open, peaceful discourse. As we have seen this weekend, it is a place where violence is becoming more the rule than the exception, where arguments can often lead to verbal abuse or physical assault.
And we are confronted with an economic storm, too. Gentrification is forcing marginalized peoples out of their homes to make way for upper middle class consumer culture. We are beginning to see its effects in Birmingham. The ever-rising cost of housing is sentencing people into perpetual servitude to their landlords as they spend all their income on rent with no savings to purchase their own homes. The demonization and elimination of trade unions have put wages so low [that adjusted for inflation] the current average household makes only one-third what the average household made in 1965. This leaves us all feeling we are blown out at sea at the mercy of crashing waves, with no land in sight.
And we should never forget that without God revealed in Christ we are sunk as surely as Peter in today’s Gospel. But despite this being one of the most famous bible stories, we seem to have a difficult time keeping our eyes on Jesus. Our problem lies in our tendency to embrace one of two approaches. One thing we tend to do when faced with one of life’s challenges is we problem-solve. This can be called the scientific method. We take a look at the effect, try to locate the cause, and we then search for a solution. With this approach, we tend to believe the final answer lies in an unwavering trust in technology, which is ultimately only trust in ourselves to solve our own problems. What we fail to realize is what we identify as the cause is either not the cause or is a symptom of greater injustice. For example, one could say the reason people are not as well off economically as they were in previous generations is because taxes are too high, so the solution is there should be less taxes. Or one could say household income has dropped is because the minimum wage is low, so the government should raise it to a more adequate amount.
Another way we tend to address our problems is by turning to our religious beliefs or cultural norms. Again, we try to locate the cause, and search for a solution, but instead of using scientific testing to find causality, we site our traditions and texts to identify the reason for the problem. Another example: one could say the reason there is so much gang violence in schools is because we are not addressing the problems of class and race in public education, so the solution would be to confront these issues of justice with dialogue involving students, parents, and staff. Or, one could say the reason there is a gang epidemic in schools is because prayer needs to be brought back in the school curriculum.
But both of these approaches, while not completely wrong, fix our gaze not upon Jesus, but on ourselves. Whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, when we look to science only or religion only to deal with the dangerous winds and waves of this life, we believe we alone are capable of solving these problems. And this is nothing short of idolatry.
However, if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, we will stand firm through all of the storms of this life. Our task is not found in technological advances, nor is it found the minutiae of religious traditions. It is found in our intimate relationship with the Triune God from within our interaction in the Church community and from interaction with all of creation. God loves you. God loves all people. God loves each part of creation. Our task is to love all people, all creatures, all places consistently, equally, and unconditionally. The direct cause of our challenges in this world is our failure to realize this truth, and our denial to ask God for the help to live out this truth. No matter how loud the chauvinists rattle their sabers, no matter how vicious the hatemongers call for us to shut our minds and hearts, no matter how much the supremacists long to slap us back to the ‘good ol’ days,’ Jesus is, and always will be standing right with us, loving us, and calling us to love.
Our Christian ancestors in the first few centuries of the Church were fond of nautical imagery. The first symbol for Christians in the catacombs were not crosses, but fish. Early Church buildings were covered with mosaics and paintings depicting boats and water to remind the faithful not only of the numerous stories of about water, sailing, and fishing in the bible, but also to remind them of their sacramental entrance into the Church community through the waters of baptism, and their baptismal call to travel the turbulent seas of the earth to spread God’s love.
While we have maintained much of this symbolism, our 21st Century selves have forgotten their meaning. Do you remember what this part of the church is called? The part with all of the pews? It’s the nave. But where did the name come from? The nave is the main body of a ship. My dearest friends, we are in this ship together, being tossed back and forth between these awesome winds and waves of this world. But we are not here for sanctuary. We are here in this nave to fix our eyes on Jesus, and follow him, so we can go out those doors and walk on those rolling waters, bringing God’s love as we pull up all we encounter. No, this isn’t magic, this is grace.
Nathaniel K. M. Darville Proper 14, 2017

-It’s time for my family and I to go. So now, I’m going to do something incredibly inappropriate; I’m going to gush.

-Please remember this is whole thing-me leaving to be a priest-is all your fault. I blame all of you, personally. This is a fact: if we had not stepped into these church doors all those years ago, I would not be answering this call. Each of you, and I mean each one, have brought my family and I here to this point, and I will never forget this discernment is all of ours that we are taking together.

-And thank you for teaching me how to live deliberately, act deliberately, and love deliberately. In my process, I have had to give my narrative more times than I can count. By now, I am quite sick of talking about myself and my spiritual journey. However, my story would inevitably lead to how I ended up here, and I was always thankful to talk about this wonderful church and extraordinary congregation. Grace may not be big, but it clearly has a big heart. There is no doubt God is at work here. There is no doubt God is speaking here. There is no doubt God’s love abounds here. In a world full of bad news, in a world full of fake news, you are a people of Good News. Thank you for helping me truly understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

-But my heart is broken. I have thought of this moment for some time now, and it is quite clear to me how completely useless my words are in explaining how much I will miss your presence in our lives. As much as I am excited about what God’s plan is for me and my family as I transition into ordained ministry, I am filled with sadness knowing we won’t get to pray with you every Sunday. But I take comfort knowing I feel this way because of the special bond I have with this parish, which is something I have never experienced before.

-Before I go I want to mention specifically my work with the Woodlawn community at the Food Pantry. It took me awhile to figure out why I found so much delight in helping distribute groceries. Around the time my formal discernment to ordination began, it came to me: I thought maybe, just maybe, some of the people who got food from us would leave thinking, ‘I know God loves me, because the people at Grace Church love me.’ I, personally, testify this is true, because when I leave this last time, just as every time I have left this tremendous place, I know God loves me because you have all shared your love with me and my family. I will not forget that. I will not forget you. Ever.

-Finally, to sum it all up, I am going to commit yet another of many homiletical sins; I am going to quote from scripture that is not from today’s lectionary. I am going to share Psalm 20, which always reminds me of this community, and it is and always will be my prayer for you. This is from one of my favorite versions, the New Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic translation which restores God’s personal name in place of ‘Lord.’ It reads, in part:
May Yahweh answer you in the time of trouble, may the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
May Yahweh fulfill all your petitions.
Now I know Yahweh will help his anointed; he will answer from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.
Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of Yahweh our God.
They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright and firm.