Editor’s note: This is adapted from a sermon preached by the Rev. Phil Woodson at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 13, 2017, the day after the Charlottesville Clergy Collective hosted a safe space at First UMC during the “Unite the Right” rally.
The full text and a recording of the sermon are available online.
As we continue to process the events of Aug. 12, there will be people who will talk about what happened in a way that demonstrates that they don’t yet understand who Jesus is. They will speak of yesterday’s horrors in a way that mislabels who Jesus is, where Jesus was, and what Jesus was doing.
Good people, Christians, even the disciples, can exhibit perplexing and disquieting fears that arise from mistakes and misapprehensions in their knowledge and understanding of who Christ is.
But as we see throughout Scripture, and as many can witness to from the 12th, our God is not only a God over the storm but a God in the storm.
When Jesus called Peter out onto the water, he essentially said, “Come. Come to me on the water. Come to me where the waves are high and the water is deep and cold. Come to me in the wind and rain. Come stand where I stand. Come do what I do. Come walk where I walk. And stand with me in the middle of this storm.”
To us, on Aug. 12, Jesus said, “Come. Come to me in the streets. Come to me where the gas stings your lungs. Come to me where people are bleeding. Come to me where the voices of white supremacy, Nazism and hate fill the air. Come to me where they carry torches. Come to me where your children are lining the streets with bats, shields and guns. Come to me where cars plow through crowds of pedestrians. Come stand where I stand. Come do what I do. Come walk where I walk. And stand with me in the middle of this storm, because wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I will also be there. And today, of all days -- in this city -- I need to be everywhere!”
Upon recognizing who and where Jesus was, Peter knew where he had to be, what he had to do and where he had to go. When your heart, mind and body truly long for the presence, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, you will go to him. That’s how it is for people of faith. A pulling on our hearts to step out of the boat and submit fully to the power and freedom of Jesus Christ. And when you get to where Jesus is, you hold on tight and never let go.
See here too Peter’s faith and resolution: “If you tell me to, I will do it.” Such is the faith of the saints. People who ask for God’s ultimate will to be done and then actually go out and do it. People who, in their own way, like Peter, leave the safety of the ship and throw themselves into the jaws of death. People who choose to despise the threatening waves and demonstrate a strong dependence upon the power and word of Christ.
What difficulty or danger could really stand before such a faith and such a zeal? I am blessed and humbled to continually find myself in the presence of many of these modern saints.
On Aug. 12, I saw people from our city walk on the water.
I watched as our church volunteers, the many medical volunteers, people of faith and a number of police officers -- all who made God’s house a triage center for the physical and emotional pain of our city -- walked on the water. And as I’m sure each of these saints will verify, at the end of the day, every foot was dry.
It is my hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, as we review and discuss the egregious amount of sin that permeated our streets, we can recognize in each other the different stages of our faith development. It is my prayer that we can build up and encourage one another in our spiritual gifts and callings, because this is a battle that is far from over.
But please hear me: Aug. 12 was not a day for everybody to be at church. Please understand me: Aug. 12 was not a day for everybody to be at church.
If you stayed home and prayed -- good. Well done. Your prayers were felt and very much needed. We can’t all get out of the boat at the same time. We are not all made for that kind of work. But we are all made to do some kind of work.
And prayer is the highest level of work, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ. But prayer can take on many forms, and the people who were here yesterday exemplified that. Prayerfully discerning their tasks and positions, they each responded to the Spirit in their own ways. In a constant posture of prayer, they each walked across the water to Jesus on their own seas.
But if you stayed at home and brooded about “feeding the fire,” and if you are trying to make a case that all of this was caused by statues, city councilors, counterprotests, the First Amendment or something other than the underlying sins of fear and racism, and if you still strongly believe that the church, this church, God’s house, should have been closed up -- then we need to chat.
Because what happened here on Aug. 12 was nothing short of miraculous, and the courage and faith of the saints of God is not something that I will ever make excuses for or apologize for. Remember: there were Nazis in our town that day -- they are still here today – and three people died while defending our city from their hatred.
So let me be very clear: what we saw on Saturday was the full and unbridled result of racism and the complacency of a people who have been ignoring its growth -- hiding behind political terms that are used to justify its continued existence.
And I can now say with extraordinary certainty that God has brought me to this church, at this time, to work with like-minded servants to eradicate this infection from our souls. In the face of such overwhelming evil and hatred, there can be no middle ground. In the presence of such an inordinate amount of sin, anger and fear, there is but one recourse. And to clarify further, there is no “both sides” to what happened yesterday -- there were only those who came to destroy, intimidate and kill.
There was and is only one path forward, and that is the path of overwhelming love. On Saturday, that love took the form of flipping over tables to literally protect this building and those who sought sanctuary inside it.
And I am thankful for the many nameless groups of men and women with masks and broom handles who found refuge and respite in our parking lot, serving multiple times as a barrier for us against trucks, guns and all kinds of evil.
I am also thankful for the support of the many law enforcement officers and emergency personnel who communicated openly and honestly with our church, respected and enforced our barriers, and also put their lives on the line. Although the Spirit manifested itself in them differently than it did in me, we were all united yesterday in an overwhelming and inexplicable love.
And as horrifying and scary as everything was yesterday, the thing that will ultimately stay with me for the rest of my life are the memories of so many, so very many good people, so very many good people coming together in love to ensure that the safety, security, and physical and mental well-being of the most vulnerable and the most courageous among us was protected and honored.
God is good. And on that day, the day when Nazis and white supremacists came to our town with their guns, cars, bats and pepper spray, the work of God’s people was also good, because so many people asked for God’s ultimate will to be done and then actually went out and sought to do it.
Hundreds of people, in their own way, like Peter, left the safety of the ship and threw themselves into the jaws of death. They chose to despise the threatening waves and demonstrated a strong dependence upon the power and word of Christ, and I am blessed and humbled to have served alongside so many amazing people who were literally responsible for the lives and well-being of countless victims.
Today, and in the days to come, we will continually pray for the families of Heather Heyer, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates. As they mourn and grieve, may the Holy Spirit tend to their hearts, minds and souls.
We will pray for those who are continuing to recover physically, emotionally and spiritually. We will also pray for our enemies and those who have so grievously trespassed against us.
Though we may now think of ourselves as safe, we are not -- and neither are the most vulnerable people and places within our city.
And in the weeks and months to come, this virus will continue to consume not only Charlottesville but other places as well. If the events of Aug. 12 really surprised you, then you haven’t been paying attention.
It is my hope and prayer that as we regroup from this storm, we will keep our eyes open, with the full knowledge that Jesus is God over the storm and God in the storm. That Jesus is sovereign over all creation, giving authority to all who put their faith in him, calling them to walk where he walks, to stand where he stands and to do what he does.