On Baptism, Renouncing Evil and Getting our Feet Wet

(Before you read this, please imagine the happiest baby getting baptized just minutes before this sermon was preached; and if you’d like, take a look at the Baptismal Service on p 227 of the ELCA’s standard hymnal, the red book in most ELCA Churches’ pews)

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 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.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh Lord.

Each November, Lutheran Campus Ministry, for whom I serve as pastor, and the Muslim Student Association, share a meal together. And I remember this past year’s meal so clearly because it was just a few days after the election. I was sitting with a couple of pragmatic 18 year old guys – one in the Carlson School of Business, and one an engineer in the College of Science and Engineering. I asked about the election, and how they were doing, and they kind of looked at me with blank faces, and said “Okay.” When I pressed further, they said, “all of the white liberal people we know seem so surprised that a presidential candidate could run, and win, on a platform of bigotry and hatred, but it doesn’t surprise me. This is my life.”

As I was scrolling through social media yesterday, following the Neo Nazi rally in Charlottesville, I noticed a similar post from a black friend of mine. Welcome, everyone, to the world we’ve been living in. It’s out in the open now. But let’s be clear, not much has changed.

Except now the sheets are off, and the hatred is in the wide, wide open.

And so what are we to do, thousands of miles from Charlottesville, but still existing in these same systems which breed, and have bred, hate and bigotry and violence for centuries? How do we stand against it? What do we stand for?

And what does this text that we are given for today have to say about any of it?

Can we pivot for a minute and take a look at this disciple Peter? He is such a human being, isn’t he? Trying and failing. Trying and failing. Earnest and adventurous, this fisherman was one of the first people to say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call to follow him. Peter, the one with ‘little faith,’ the one who will betray Jesus three times when the going gets tough. He is a complicated character indeed.

And Peter, let me remind you, is the rock on which the church is built.

Sound like anyone you know? It’s liberating, isn’t it? Because if the church is built on Peter, then certainly that gives us some freedom to be human; to not have it all together or to be perfect: but still to keep trying, and to keep getting our feet wet…

When we baptize people, whether they’re six months old, or sixty years old;

We don’t baptize them into a call to perfect faith, or life, but instead we proclaim all of the messiness and mystery of life, God’s promise to be with us in that mix, and our commitment to the newly baptized to be bearers of God’s love as well. We renounce evil, and goodness knows there is evil in our country to be renounced today.

We proclaim that life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, and we claim that all of the practices of our faith are bound up in a call to something greater than ourselves, as individuals or as a church community.

It’s such a blessing to have a baptism on the same morning as this story that we hear today – because this story is so much like life, isn’t it. Both in what it teaches us about ourselves, and what it teaches us about God.

Let’s listen to the text again:

And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 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.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Fear is all over in this text. Peter doesn’t just flounder because he takes his eyes off of Jesus, but because he grows afraid. And, that fear is justified, right? It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat…

And so too, with our fear, right? Whether we fear the rise of the alt right, or the return of an illness, or a disappointing grade; or a disapproving loved one, or the future of our country; fear is no stranger to us. And it is certainly justified.

And so I wonder, what are you bringing with you into this sanctuary today? What is making you afraid?

Notice how Jesus responds to this very human emotion, which can engulf, overwhelm, make you feel like you can’t breathe…

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.

Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter. Jesus reaches out and catches you. Jesus must anticipate that with some adventurous and brave and whole hearted living there will come some lapses in trust, some storms that sweep us off our feet, some worthy risks that flatten us.

And it is there Christ meets us.

Oh you of little faith, come on. I’ve got you. It’s okay. Come on in the boat and dry off. We’ll try again tomorrow and I’ll be with you there too. If you can hear that phrase with compassion or even as a term of endearment, instead of rebuke, it becomes a welcome invitation into the waters of living and loving and following Jesus, which is quite the adventurous undertaking.

In baptism, all of our practices as a community point us towards this adventure. I like to call them the “so that’s,” a series of calls which are the vocation of Christian people everywhere:

so that we might learn to trust God,

To proclaim Christ in word and deed,

To care for others and the world God made,

And to work for justice and peace.

This life of faith is for something. Some days when you read the news, or look around your home, or scroll your Facebook feed, it will be obvious how it is you’re called to care, what it is you’re called to work for. Other days, the answers will feel much harder to come by. Maybe we don’t know exactly how it is we undo centuries of racism, or what it means to sit at the bedside of a loved one who is dying, but let us never forget that this life of faith is for something. And it’s hard, and it’s beautiful, and it is radically counter cultural.

This story is, perhaps tellingly, right on the heels of Jesus feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children. One of our greatest invitations as followers of Jesus is into an abundant life, which necessitates courage and risk.

Stepping outside of the boat to play and to splash, and to slip and to slide, and to try and to fail, as we follow Christ, and as we learn to love abundantly, to care for others and the world God made, to work for justice and peace – this can be an incredibly scary process. But brothers and sisters, hear this good news:

First of all, you are not God. I am not God. Thanks be to God. And you are not in it alone! God is with you. This community is with you.

This abundant life is fed by deep and abiding trust, but also playfulness, and joy. In the baptism that happened today, sweet Benjamin was grafted onto God’s time transcending family tree, with those that came before us, and those we will never meet, the wild and raucous communion of saints – Benjamin’s great great grandmother, and our complicated St. Peter, Julian of Norwich and Martin Luther King, Jr. And together, all of us, are invited to splash around in this baptismal call to love one another and this world, bravely and kindly and imperfectly. And when it goes wrong, as it often will, know that Christ meets you there, saying I’ve got you. It’s okay. Come on in the boat and dry off. We’ll try again tomorrow and I’ll be with you there too.

May it be so. Amen.

By Pastor Kate Reuer-Welton

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