Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Our gospel for this morning is a powerful story, one that I think is full of relevance for this moment in our lives. One afternoon as Jesus taught beside Lake Gennesaret (which is part of the Sea of Galilee), he realized that he couldn’t manage the surging crowd that had come out to see him. Noticing a group of local fishermen nearby, he conscripted one of them, Simon Peter, to be his assistant. Getting in Peter’s boat, Jesus asked him to push off a little way from the shore, far enough so that the crowd wouldn’t overwhelm him, but close enough so that they could hear his voice. Then, like all the great Rabbis, Jesus sat down and taught them.
Afterwards, Jesus noticed that Simon Peter’s boat was empty. It had been a bad day fishing. Jesus instructed Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets. Peter probably thought Jesus had no idea what he was talking about. Jesus was a preacher, not a professional fisherman. Jesus’ command to let down the nets was in direct contradiction to Peter’s experience; yet Peter placed his trust in him. He respected Jesus and he knew there was power in this man and in his message. Miraculously, Peter, James, and John caught so many fish they almost swamped their little fishing boats trying to gather in their haul.
What happens next echoes our first reading for this morning. Like Isaiah’s encounter, Peter realized that he was in the presence of the Holy. Peter realized he had witnessed a miracle, that God had touched him. Peter was awe-struck and terrified at the same time. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he said to Jesus. How similar that is to Isaiah’s response after his vision of the heavenly host, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Both of these men knew the divine had touched them and both knew they were unworthy of such an experience. And yet, in both instances they were being called to a higher purpose. God called Isaiah to be a great prophet; Jesus called Peter to venture into deeper waters and become his disciple. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said, “from now on you will be catching people.” Two men called by God to do God’s work in the world.
My friends, I believe all of us are being called by God at this moment in our common life to a higher purpose, to venture out into deeper waters. We are being called to move our collective boats away from the shallows to a place where we cannot see the bottom, where the waves are rougher and the current stronger, to undertake God’s work. Specifically, I believe we are being called to venture out into the deep waters in how we confront and deal with the issue of race in our nation.
Now, please hear me out. I know there are some among you who are so full of the stories that have surfaced this past week that your natural inclination is to turn me off. You are saturated, you’ve heard enough through all the endless news cycles, and you are saying to yourself – this is not the reason I came to church this morning. Please believe me when I say I understand. I know that I am moving into deep waters with this topic, but my intent this morning is not to hammer on the political events of our day, but to lift up what I think Jesus is calling us to as Christians during this difficult time in which we live. What would Jesus have us do? How does the Gospel challenge us to treat one another as individuals and as a society? If you look at Jesus’ teachings and his ministry, if you look carefully at those to whom he reached out and to those he called friends – you will see that caring for the inherent and sacred dignity of every human being was central to his work. Therefore, if we are going to be his disciples, the sacred dignity of every human being must be as much our passion as it was his. And to really deal with these issues, specifically as they apply to race, I think we have to venture into deeper waters than we have been willing to go so far.
This past week has been a crazy one. The Governor of Virginia, in the revelations from his medical school year book and the way he dealt with them, dug a hole for himself and then jumped in it. Shortly thereafter, two other major leaders in the Commonwealth, one a Democrat, and one a Republican, had to confront similar revelations and a fourth faces a different kind of allegation that requires a whole separate sermon! I won’t rehash the stories because you know them, but the first three reveal the deep fracture of race in this country and the pain and struggle facing so many people of color. White people wearing blackface is, was, and always will be incredibly offensive, hurtful and wrong, no matter the intent. For people of color it is a powerful symbol of mockery and degradation. Morevoer, the way some folks are reacting to these events, coupled with the fact that two of these incidents took place in the 1980’s and not the 1880’s, tells me that we who are white continue to underestimate the level of racism that is alive and well in our country. It tells me that as a nation, when it comes to racial reconciliation and racial justice, we are still moored in the shallow waters. We are still afraid to go deep. We still have a hard time understanding something that is so clear to those who are not white – that racial justice involves a whole lot more than where people can sit on the bus, where they can eat, and the fact that they have a right to vote. It involves those of us who are white really coming to terms with the privilege our skin color affords us, and consciously working to reject that privilege. That is the work of the deep water, and that is where I think Jesus is calling us.
The events of recent days seem eerily similar to the events that followed the tragedy in Charlottesville. In both cases the surfacing of racism in our country prompted swift reaction. We began to take down statues and windows, and to repudiate leaders for their behavior – both justifiable reactions. But just getting rid of statues or pointing out the failings of individuals does not solve the problem – it only deals with symptoms of the problem. It is more than monuments and year books. The real problem is deeper than that. It is not just about individuals – it is a collective issue – it involves all of us. It is more than tit for tat recriminations and scapegoating, shaming the sins of others so that we don’t have to deal with the deeper, systemic reality that lives at the heart of this nation. We cannot settle for pulling the speck out of our neighbor’s eye as a way to avoid dealing with the logs in our own eyes. That is shallow water stuff. In the deep water, where Jesus beckons us, we have to look inward at ourselves and at our entire culture, we have to open our eyes to the privilege that our white skin affords us and know that God is calling us, like Peter and Isaiah, to a higher purpose.
So, what are we supposed to do? Well, when we venture into the deep water, we can be honest about the way things are, and then look to our Lord for a new way of being. Recent surveys show that something like two thirds of white people in this country have no one of color within their intimate circle of friends. Jesus, on the other hand, included amongst his closest followers people of remarkable diversity – tax collectors, zealots and women of questionable repute. We can listen to our brothers and sisters of color, listen to their experience and honor that experience as real. We can pay better attention to the privilege that our skin color affords us and consciously strive to address the economic, educational, and social barriers that still exist in our society today. To echo the words or Isaiah, I am indeed a man of unclean lips and we are a people of unclean lips, but this isn’t about white guilt or simply punishing the most visible offenders, this is about repentance, telling the truth about our country and ourselves, and consciously doing something different. It isn’t about tearing down, it’s about building up, building what Dr. King called the Beloved Community – a community where people of different backgrounds, races, religions, and sexual orientations fully recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. This is what we are being called to. This is the work of the deep water. Amen.