Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, August 13, 2017 by the Rev. Maggie Cunningham.
I am embarrassed to tell you that when I was a child, I used to have quasi-romantic fantasies featuring Jesus and Peter. I had what you might call crushes on them both, but Peter was more fun. I could relate to him because he was more like me — mostly in ways that got me into trouble. Like me, Peter often was carried away by enthusiasm, spoke or acted without thinking, refused to acknowledge unpleasant realities, and sometimes made promises he was unable to keep. Always with the very best of intentions. And both of us wept when faced with the unintended and unanticipated consequences of our thoughtlessness.
Over time, we both grew up — he to the point where I could no longer recognize him. The church held up the solemn Saint Peter, first Bishop of Rome, and the impulsive, charming, enthusiastic hero of my youth almost disappeared.
After 2000 years of conditioning by the institutional church, many of us look back at the disciples and think rather smugly how thick-headed they are, how slow to “get it,” as if we recognize Jesus immediately anywhere, and head straight for him without sinking or stumbling.
We do not expect to find humor in the Bible, so you may be shocked to hear me say that I find part of this morning’s gospel very funny. When Peter jumps eagerly into the sea, and a short time later starts to sink, I can hardly keep from laughing out loud. It is like watching a person slip on a banana peel — not that we want anyone to get hurt, just that we enjoy seeing someone stripped of self-importance. And even dear Peter had a little bit of that going on.
Of course, the terrified disciples were not laughing. And Peter was afraid, too. He was, in fact, petrified — stonelike, heavy, and rigid. In the grip of fear, we all lose our buoyancy, imagination, reason, and humor. To Peter and to us, Jesus says, “Fear not. Only trust. Learn from me. God is your father, too.”
I hear him. I trust him. And yet, for the last nine months, I have been afraid. The fear that began to creep over me as I watched the election returns has not diminished. In fact, it has steadily increased despite my best efforts not to overreact to the consequences of the election. It did seem odd for the President to insist week after week that his inauguration crowds were bigger than any in history, when the photographic evidence to the contrary was right there for all of us, including him, to see — but what harm is there in a little exaggeration? I asked myself. For a foreign government to interfere with our election in order to effect a particular result didn’t seem quite right — but the United States has been doing the same thing for decades, so it must be OK. Putting the children in charge of the Trump business to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest seemed ethically questionable, but that didn’t threaten me, did it? Neglecting to reiterate our pledge of support for NATO was a gratuitous insult to our closest allies, but maybe his eyes just skipped over that sentence — and after all he did confirm the pledge later. His volume of venomous stream of consciousness tweets does suggest that he is not fully in control of his impulses, and may be temperamentally unqualified for the job he holds. In fact, he may actually be mentally ill. But the people around him won’t let him do anything crazy, will they?
His admiration for Vladimir Putin is definitely strange, but didn’t we all laugh when Mitt Romney said that Russia was our most serious enemy? Thanking Putin for expelling 755 American diplomatic personnel was bizarre, to say the least, even if he did so in jest, but was that really a danger signal? How worrisome is it really that twice a day he requires two 25 page folders of flattering comments?
This week we learned that the FBI had conducted a pre-dawn raid on the home of his erstwhile campaign manager. That was alarming until the president said that he barely knew Paul Manafort. Also, this week brought us threats of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea doesn’t get its act together.” I was transported back to the days of air raid drills and bomb shelters, and thought my fear might finally get the best of me. Then I remembered what Hermann Goering said: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. All you have to do is tell . them that they are in danger of being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” So, if we don’t buy into the president’s fear-mongering, we don’t have anything to worry about. Right?
What has me not only afraid but absolutely terrified this morning is what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday. A month ago, the city council voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from its prominent position in the center of a park. There was some resistance to this decision on the part of a few white supremacists, and the police said that they had learned from that encounter. It turned out that the white supremacists had learned more.
Friday night a large group calling themselves “Unite the Right,” comprising neo Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and other paramilitary groups arrived in Charlottesville. They carried torches and chanted, “Blood and Soil,” the slogan of the agricultural department of the Third Reich. There were counter-protestors, the situation escalated, and three people died. This was not a grassroots objection to the removal of a historical landmark, nor even a spontaneous expression of distasteful views; it was premeditated, planned, and carried out in cold blood.
Donald Trump issued the obligatory condemnation of the violence, but it was not the white supremacists he denounced; it was the violence “on many sides, on many sides.” We should have seen this coming. Everything that he has said and done since the campaign and before has tacitly or overtly encouraged the so-called “alt-right.” His insistence that Obama was not born in the United States, his efforts at voter suppression, his attacks on Latinos and the LGBT community were bound to lead to Charlottesville. He tweets from a bully pulpit indeed, and there are many who take his words to heart. Under his administration, the Department of Homeland Security continues its commitment to combat terrorism by Muslims, but has dropped its interest in racist-inspired domestic terrorism. I am indeed afraid.
Water, Jesus, and boats have long been closely associated. The nave of the church resembles the bottom of a boat (the word nave is from the same root as navy), most of the disciples were fishermen, and much of the activity in the Gospels takes place around the Sea of Galilee.
In Jungian psychology, water symbolizes the unconscious, where the holy resides, along with both the personal and the collective shadow, qualities we cannot face in ourselves or our institutions; Jesus is the image of God within us, the realization of human potential, the one who saves us from and reconciles us to ourselves; and the boat represents the church, the vessel that carries us as close to the fearsome unknown as we can safely go, and keeps us from drowning in the waters of the unconscious.
We no longer invent dragons to carry our shadow selves; we project onto others — other individuals, other cultures, other faiths, other nations — what we cannot bear to acknowledge in ourselves. The General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer is not merely a recital of personal transgressions, but a prayer of community self-examination. For all of our institutions, both religious and secular, there is not only a place but an urgent need for corporate reflection, and for what James Carroll calls “self-criticism in the presence of others.”
As Americans, we love to speak of our “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of goodness, nobility, freedom, and equality. Even before Ronald Reagan added the adjective “shining,” we took great pride in this image from the Sermon on the Mount offered by John Winthrop in 1630. Because we seldom read beyond the first clause, we have been oblivious to the warning in Winthrop’s words. “Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill,” he wrote, “the eies of all people are uppon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world … we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us…”1
“Be careful,” he says. “God is watching. The world is watching.” They were watching then and they are watching now. Especially now. But we have not been watching, not paying attention, and now our ship of state is foundering.
It is said that people get the government they deserve. The Jungian analyst James Hollis tells us that the pathology of the nation is the sum of the unaddressed shadows of its citizens. “What has been denied in the individual will create monsters in the tribe … ,” he writes. (14-5)
We have taken our democracy for granted. We have failed to face our national shadow. A charlatan has tapped into all that is most shameful in us, and activated our most vile tendencies. We have put him at the helm. We have created a monster.
The rock on whom Jesus founded the church is not only or even mostly the saintly Peter of his later years; it is the rash, boastful, and thoughtless young man, the dazzled disciple who confessed Jesus as the son of the living God, the passionate follower of Jesus who struck out in anger, the apostle who pledged his faithfulness. and subsequently denied him; the first male to see the risen Christ, the brave and eloquent leader of the early church, who lived and died for the one he finally understood and internalized.
Jung writes, “The withdrawal of the personal shadow is major social, religious, political, and moral work.” We cannot heal the world without first healing ourselves by facing within that which we find most deplorable in others. Jesus guided Peter on his journey, may he also bring us and our country to self-awareness. Coming to consciousness is our personal and national life task. It is painful, humiliating, and never-ending, and it is the only hope for humanity. Amen.
1 Qtd. in Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (NY:
Random House, 2006) 46-7.