The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 13, 2017
It’s been one of those days. One of those weeks. You wake up at 3 A.M., you’re tossing, you’re turning. 3 A.M., it’s the hour when all your worst anxieties, your worst fears come creeping in. 3 A.M., it’s when your mind starts racing, and you start making the worst case scenario into reality. 3 A.M. Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who wakes up then with their mind racing.
In “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” Ray Bradbury talks about 3 A.M. He says, “midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon.” He says that at 3 A.M. you summon all the fool things you’ve done in life. You’re too tired to get out of bed and put your worries to rest, but you’re too worried to go back to sleep. 3 A.M.
In the time of Jesus, 3 A.M. was the beginning of the fourth watch of the night. Or, as the gospel lesson from today is translated, “early in the morning.” And it’s at 3 A.M. that the disciples see Jesus walking on the water.
The disciples are rowing their boat, straining hard against the wind. They are far from land. Waves are battering the boat. They are tossing and turning, worried about their journey when they look up, and they see a ghost.
At 3 A.M. things look strange, worries become reality. They don’t see their Lord, they see a ghost. At 3 A.M. you have a hard time separating truth from fiction.
It’s 3 A.M. indeed. We are far from the land, the wind is against us, and the waves are battering the boat. Global powers are rattling the saber. Violent racism is very much alive. In our own lives, we are battered with worries about money, about our relationships, about our kids, about our parents. It’s 3 A.M., so we toss and we turn and we stew and we worry. We’re too tired to get up and do anything about it, and we’re too worried to rest.
At 3 A.M., you say, “I wish I could go back to sleep.” And I bet those disciples, battered by the wind and waves said, “I wish we were closer to shore.” Like it says in Psalm 4, we cry out, “O, that we might see better times!” We wish the threat of war would abate. We wish that people wouldn’t hate each other for the color of their skin. We wish that we were close to shore – safe, sound asleep, with no worries to trouble our heads. As a Church, too, we wish that we were closer to the shore, that we would have smooth sailing. We wish that ministry just wasn’t so hard, we wish that more people would just come to us. We see plenty of ghosts – we see ghosts of how the church did in the past, we see ghosts of other churches closing down. It’s 3 A.M. and our restless minds have transformed worries into realities.
But then we see that it is no ghost walking on the water, it is Jesus. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Take heart. Your mind is spinning out of control. Your worry and your anxiety, it all lives up here. Live, here. In your heart. Live with courage. When the waves are battering and the wind is blowing, live courageously because the one calling to you is none other than Jesus Christ. As they are straining against the wind and waves, the disciples heard the voice of Jesus, the voice of hope.
But, you know Peter, he’s got to open his big mouth. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter is still trying to figure out if this is a ghost or not. The Lord calls to him, and Peter takes that first, hesitant step out of the boat, onto the waves.
Pay attention to what happens next. Peter is doing fine until he notices the wind. Then he becomes afraid. And then he starts to sink. This is an interesting order of things. See, it would seem that he should start to sink and then become afraid. But it’s the other way around. Peter becomes afraid, and then he begins to sink. The fear is what is sinking him. Fear is what is sinking us. Fear is what is sinking the world.
And here is the key to whole story. See, I think what happens most of the time is that when we start sinking in fear, we do one of two things. First, is we just keep sinking. We keep tossing and turning, we let the fears fester and drag us down. And as we’re sinking below the waves, we start lashing out in fury. Fear is what makes us rattle the saber of war. Fear is what creates violent nationalism and racism. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples to not be afraid – because fear leads to sin.
When we’re sinking in fear, the other thing we try to do is to get back in the boat. When you’re afraid, seek safety. We try to jump back into the boat. Think of Peter, he was a fisherman, he was comfortable in boats. He could have tried to jump back in. He felt safe there. But if the wind and waves are really whipping, the boat is just an illusion of safety.
And how often do we cling to the illusion of safety? How often do we settle for safety instead of salvation? Because there is a difference. We settle for safety when we hide behind our weapons, our money, our status. But all that worldly power is an illusion. Boats can sink, weapons are unpredictable, money is fiction, status is fake. No really, think about it. Weapons are no guarantee of anything, and swords always have two edges. Money, money is an illusion. Remember the stock market crash of 2007? Money actually, simply disappeared. And status, status has no meaning. God didn’t make some to be great and some to be not so great. When we’re sinking in fear, the boats we try to climb back into are bound to sink.
When you’re out on the water, when you’re afraid, when it seems as if the whole world is sinking the only thing to do is to cry out, “Lord, save me!”
“Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out his hand to catch Peter, to pull him up, to save him. “Lord, save me.” Because what we need today is not safety, but salvation. Salvation from the threat of war, salvation from racism, salvation from the fears that have sent us spiraling downward. Salvation from ourselves.
“Lord, save me.” That might be one of the shortest prayer in the holy scriptures. But also one of the most heartfelt. And perhaps that’s the lesson we need to remember at 3 A.M. Pray. Pray. Rather than letting your mind run a hundred miles an hour, listen to Jesus. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Don’t pray that you were closer to shore, don’t pray that the wind would stop blowing or that the waves would stop crashing.
We will always have worries – because no arsenal of weapons, no stack of money, no status will ever be enough to protect us. So quit trying to be safe, and ask Jesus for salvation instead. And the Church, the Church will always be far from the shore because that’s precisely where we meet Jesus. Out there, away from land, in the midst of the storm. Don’t pray for things to be easier. Pray that God gives us the courage to live these days in holiness.
Next time you wake up at 3 A.M., maybe it’ll be tonight, take heart. Do not allow your fears to drown you. When you are feeling the waves tug you toward hatred, toward terror, toward pride of race and nation, call out to Jesus. And Jesus will save you. Take heart, it is not a ghost, it is Jesus. Do not be afraid.