In 2009 our family headed to the East Coast for a tour of different ballparks. The itinerary was set by our newly graduated son, James. It was his family “senior trip.” One side venture was a pilgrimage to my old haunts in Camp Springs, Maryland. My dad was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base when I was in elementary and Jr. High School. We found my house and then, from my distant memory, retraced my steps to my elementary school where I had proudly served as a crossing guard. Finding the Jr. High School proved to be a bit more challenging. I remembered that it was Roger B. Taney Jr. High. We tried to pull it up on our phones but it wasn’t there. Finally, in an on-line article, we learned that the school had been renamed years earlier: Thurgood Marshall Middle School.
This prompted some research on our part. What would lead to a name change, we wondered? The name attached to my childhood school belonged to a Maryland native who served as Chief Justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1836-1864. He was the author of the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that upheld slavery. This then dictated that blacks couldn’t hold U.S. citizenship or vote. Proud of their native son, the school had been named after him in the 1960s.
The Washington Post published an article on March 5, 1993 about the name change. The neighborhood surrounding the school at that time was 83% black. Sheila Jackson, the PTA President for one of the Elementary Schools that fed into the Jr. High, celebrated the name change. She said that she and her husband had determined that they could not, in good conscience, send their four children to a school named after a man who so devalued their race. Tia Joseph, a 13-year old student at the school clearly articulated the power in a name: “I believe almost everyone would want to have a school named in honor of a man who showed himself worthy of such a proud title.”
So the school named for one Maryland Chief Justice was replaced with another: Thurgood Marshall Middle School. Another son of the state, Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a civil rights activist and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educaitonal Fund. 14-year old Anganette announced to the press that she was looking forward to throwing out her Roger B. Taney school swag to replace it with a name that better represented her. After the school board voted unanimously in favor of the change, they received a 30-second standing ovation then recessed so the audience could celebrate with cookies and punch!
The story from Matthew 14 is featured in three of the four gospels. It follows immediately on the heels of the miraculous feeding of the 5000. Having witnessed Jesus’ supernatural powers, the disciples’ faith is put to the test when a violent storm sweeps in while the 12 of them are alone on the Sea of Galilee. We learn about His power over nature in this story about boating-gone-awry. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus in the storm. He calls out to them, “It is I.” Good Jews that they were, they would have heard the name “Yahweh”, the Hebrew name for God that translated as “I am who I am.” God incarnate was on the seas that day just as God had been present in the burning bush before another man of faith generations earlier.
Peter was a disciple of Jesus who followed the lead of his master completely! When he realizes that it’s Jesus out on the water he makes a very strange request. In the windswept blur of a terrifying storm, Peter asks for proof that it’s Jesus in a way I certainly would not suggest! He calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Somehow I imagine the other disciples saying, “What?? Are you out of your mind?! Peter, no!” But Peter doesn’t just jump into the water on his own power. He’s smart enough to know that he will have to rely completely on Christ if he’s going to do something so impossible. If Jesus calls him, he is willing. If Jesus calls him, Jesus will equip him. Jesus’ response to Peter’s proposal is both simple and terrifying: “Come.”
I admit that my warning antennas go up when I read this story about Peter. As a parent I can hear the challenge to my kid: “If Peter jumped out of a boat, would you?” Peter was that adventurous, impulsive, passionate friend your folks warned you about. “Don’t hang with Petie. He doesn’t have a lick of sense! He doesn’t think before he acts!”
Folks have followed the directives of Jesus and done some illogical things. Perhaps you remember the story about John Chau, a 26 year old American who tried to spread the Gospel to natives on the island of North Sentinel? The island residents are members of a tribe that has lived there for 30,000 years. They have a long history of vigorously repelling outsiders from their shores. Young John knew this but felt called by Jesus, in November of 2018, to bring Christianity to them. One of the arrows shot at him on the first day of his visit pierced his Bible. The second day the arrows pierced him and he died.
What does Jesus expect of us? Are we listening? Are we feeling the nudges? Are the stories in the news connecting with us such that we hear Jesus calling out to us, “Come”? Or are we staying in the shallows where we can ensure our own safety? When we were in San Antonio last November we took a boat ride through the scenic canals of that city. Our tour guide had a good sense of humor. He told us about a tourist years ago who had fallen into the water during one of his tours. The man thrashed around in the water and cried out for help. The guide calmly called out to him, “Stand up.” Finally, the panicked man listened to him and…stood up! He was in 2 feet of water that barely covered past his knees. Do we stay in the shallows when Jesus calls to us or are we, like Peter, ready to go deep knowing that it is Christ who will keep us upright?
Senator John Lewis, whose death we grieved as a nation last month, leaves behind a compelling legacy of following Jesus. He was arrested 24 times, protesting peacefully for equal rights for African Americans. He was jailed, beaten with chains, lead pipes, stones and bats. He led the march from Selma to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with 600 marchers. An ordained pastor, he knelt to pray and was beaten on the head by state troopers who left him for dead. He bore those scars on his skull for the rest of his life. If Jesus called you, would you follow? Would you go where you know you’re not welcome? Would you step into harm’s way to shield another from attack? As a young adult Lewis expressed the need to become involved in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to achieve change. He followed that conviction throughout his long life, memorably marching alongside of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a horse-drawn carriage, his body was carried across the same bridge where he was beaten 55 years earlier, an honored statesman. Bold voices are now suggesting that the Edmund Pettus Bridge be renamed in Lewis’ honor. Pettus was a soldier in the Confederate Army and served as an Alabama Senator from 1897-1907. After the Civil War he was politically active in the KKK. Do the citizens of Alabama hang on to that history? Or do they listen to the voices of their people and choose a name that inspires us to follow Lewis’ commitment to good and necessary trouble?
Marion Wright Edelman is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has been an advocate for the well-being of underserved children for decades. She adopted the Breton Fisherman’s prayer for her organization: “Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” In her newsletter, Edelman wrote about a theologian friend who sat in a Jiffy Lube waiting room while her car was being serviced. Looking for some reading material, she found a magazine on boating. She read about traffic rules that must be followed in open waters when boats encounter each other. It described two kinds of boats: burdened and privileged. She writes, “The craft with power that can accelerate and push its way through the waves, change direction, and stop on demand is the burdened one. The craft dependent on the forces of nature, wind, tide, and human effort to keep going is the privileged craft. Since powerful boats can forge their way forward under their own power, they are burdened with responsibility to give the right of way to the powerless or privileged vessels dependent on the vagaries of the tide, wind, and weather. “Who wrote this thing?” my friend asked. “Mother Teresa? What’s going on in our land when the New Jersey State Department of Transportation knows that the powerful must give way if the powerless are to make safe harbor and the government of the United States and the church of Jesus Christ and other people of God are having trouble with the concept?”
Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
The 12 disciples, hanging on for dear life as their boat pitched in the wind and waves, carried on their frightened shoulders the identity of the early Church and the precarious existence of future believers. When they cried out for rescue they learned that Jesus was there all along. Peter goes down in history as an example of what to do and what not to do. In this terrifying moment, his devotion to Jesus grabs our attention. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Seriously?! And Jesus doesn’t talk him out of it. Jesus doesn’t tell him it’s really shallow and he’ll be alright after all. Jesus doesn’t tell him to suck it up and be a man. Jesus doesn’t baby him and give him the easy way out. It’s a one-word invitation that is somehow heard over the crash of waves in the dark of night: “Come.” And Peter got out of the boat, sights set on his Savior, and walked across the water. Of course, he got freaked out when he saw what Jesus was enabling him to do and he sank. But, for a moment, he grabbed onto the power that comes from following Jesus.
The Church sets sail in choppy waters all the time. The storm was stilled only after Peter stood in there for all of us. He asked Jesus to help him do a hard thing and then he did it. He didn’t hide in the hull of the boat, pretending that the storm wasn’t there. He didn’t give in to despair and decide that the ship was going down. He relied on Jesus and stepped out of the boat and into complete reliance upon his Savior.
Will Willimon reminds us of the high calling that comes to us as disciples: “So if in the dead of night, or maybe near dawn, you should hear a voice, calling your name, a strange voice calling you to rise up, to sail forth, to risk the storm, to defy the waves, there is a good chance that voice could belong to none other than your very Lord and Savior. Who would dare to call an ordinary, not very spectacularly faithful one like you to such high adventure, to such risk and struggle? I think you know who.” ‘(Pulpit Resource, Vol 33, No. 3. Year A. July, August, September, 2005, p.28.)