The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 9, 2020
When Bishop N.T. Wright was asked what last words he’d say to his children from his deathbed, he replied, “Look at Jesus…for the [Person] who walks out of [the Bible] to meet us is central and irreplaceable… If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has Him as the central character.”
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus has just fed 5,000 people on 5 loaves and 2 fish. After sending the disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus remains with the crowd to do at last what the disciples urged Him to do before the miracle feast: send everyone home. When the last one leaves, Jesus climbs a mountain to be alone with God His Father. He lingers there until a few hours before dawn, at which time He recognizes it’s the moment to rescue His beloved disciples from the raging storm that has them stranded at sea and scared to death.
Jesus takes the direct route to them. The sight of Him walking on water so startles them that they take Him for a ghost. He calms them by calling out over the roaring storm to say, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter, caught midway between fearful doubt and the wild hope of being “part of the drama that has Him as the central character”, asks Jesus to command him to come to Him. Once Jesus does, Peter steps bravely out of the boat. But the wind steals his attention, his gaze slips off Jesus and he starts to sink. To save him, Jesus grabs hold of him.
We can be like Peter. We allow the noise of a storm to catch our ear more than the voice of Jesus, and the sight of danger to catch our eye more than the sight of His presence. And, like Peter, when we lose our focus on Jesus, we lose our faith and our nerve to obey His commands. Though today He may not be telling us to walk on water, He is now telling us to step out of the boat of our status quo and to stride over the tumultuous waters of evil to do justice, show compassion and bear witness to His grace. In the storms of these days, we can only find the faith to obey Him if we keep looking at Him, whose loving face calls forth faithfulness in us. As Corrie Ten Boom put it, “If I look at myself, I am depressed; if I look at my circumstances, I am distressed; but if I look at my Jesus, I am at rest” – and inspired to do His will!
To keep looking at Jesus, we have to block out the distractions that pull our attention off Him and cause us to lose our nerve. Sometimes the distractions come from innocent diversions; and sometimes, from evil itself.
The 2016 movie Race dramatizes African-American athlete Jesse Owens’ winning of four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany.
In one scene, track coach Larry Snyder is addressing America’s runners in the locker room of a practice facility at a Midwest university. He exhorts them to stay focused in their training. As he charges them to be dialed in, the university’s all-White football team barges in; and, seeing the Black athletes, spits out racial slurs and demands the locker room be cleared out for them. Snyder ignores them and keeps on talking to his team. “You can’t get distracted!” he exclaims.
Just then the football team’s coach enters, and he tells Snyder, “All right, Larry. Finish up now. I got boys who need to shower.” Snyder puts him off, “One second, coach. I’m not done yet.” The football coach raises his voice and repeats, “Larry, hustle these [n-word] out of here! You hear me, Larry?” Snyder pretends he doesn’t and proceeds. He tells his runners, “If you get your head turned by a few gorillas in pads here at home, how are you going to hold up in [Germany]?” The footballers take offense and bellow: “Who you calling gorillas?” But Snyder does not so much as look at them. He locks his eyes on his team, who can’t help but glance over at the angry giants. “Hey, look at me!” he insists. “Lots of people are going to be watching us. Not all of them are going to be on our side.” As the racists yell even louder, the runners’ eyes dart nervously between them and Snyder. Snyder continues as if oblivious to the clamor: “You got to block it all out! It’s just noise! That’s all it is, noise! You hear me? Some will love you; some will hate you. It doesn’t matter, because either way, [it’s you who runs the race].” His eyes then hold Owens’, and he speaks to him directly, saying, “Jesse! Do you hear me?”
The camera pans in close on to Owens’ face, as you first hear the vile insults intensify around him…but then hear the sound of them slowly fade away into silence. Studying Owens’ face, you can get into his head and almost watch him zero in on Snyder and his words. Finally, Owens breaks the silence, and with a knowing smile speaks out loud, saying, “Yeah, Coach. I hear you.” Snyder nods with his own smile, and then says to the whole team, “All right, men, let’s leave. You heard the coach. His boys need the room.”
Hebrews 12:1-2 charges those who love Jesus: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” That He may perfect in us the faith that enables us to run our race faithfully, we must lock our eyes on Jesus and keep our ears tuned in to His voice.
Let us fix our focus on Jesus by keeping our daily devotional appointments with Him, by worshiping each week with the rest of the faith family, and by obeying His every command to join Him in the storm of the fight for righteousness, both in ourselves and in our beloved country.