When I was a young teen in the mid-late 1980s, I was walking home one late afternoon, a few blocks from my mom’s house in Berkeley. I noticed that on the narrow road that branched off and up the hill to my left, a car with a single driver was trying to get into a parking space. Because the road was narrow the effort was blocking the road—not that it was heavily trafficked. As I observed, walking along, another car – some kind of Jeep, I believe – came roaring up. Its white male driver and passengers, whom I judged to be in their late teens or in their early twenties, were loud and raucous. As the first car struggled and failed to squeeze itself into what turned out to be too narrow a space, the men in the Jeep started yelling out their windows at the other driver, an African American man. When they called him a word a will not say aloud, I about fell over. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My heart was pounding. I had no idea what was going to happen. After a moment, the first man backed out of that street altogether, the Jeep roared around him and up the hill, and he parallel parked in another space just in front of where I was walking. When his car turned off, everything felt eerily quiet. I stopped and waited. When he opened the door and got out I said to him something like “Are you okay? I can’t believe what they just said to you. I’m so sorry that just happened.” I don’t recall what exactly he said in response. It wasn’t an extended conversation. I think he basically acknowledged what I had said, and then each of us continued on our ways. If ever I had thought that virulent, openly wielded racism was of another time and/or another place—if ever I thought progressive Berkeley was immune from its evil influence—I knew then that was dead wrong. I was deeply shaken. I can only begin to imagine how the man felt, and I wondered how many times something like this had happened to him. How can people treat fellow human being with such violence—verbally, emotionally, and/or physically? Racism is profoundly violent and dehumanizing. It violates the most basic gift of our creation.
When I think about that moment, when I think about news events of the last few days which reminded me of that moment, and when I look at this morning’s assigned readings, I am struck by the tempestuous and cyclical character of fear. I am aware of how fear can distort the vision that one group of human beings can have of another group-- especially a group that fears the erosion of its its privilege. I am reminded of how such distortions—particularly that of racism, founded on white supremacy – can harden into hatred, and how hatred can be spread through the further stoking of fear and loathing, fueling the most heinous actions. When I think of how to end that cycle of fear, I think of what Jesus calls us to do as disciples, as people urged to examine our fear, to dismantle the structures of oppression that so often flow from fear, and to join in God's mission of transforming this world.
In our story from Genesis (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=369661768), latest in our ongoing series of stories from this book, we observe the horrendous betrayal of Joseph by his brothers. This betrayal is founded on a very basic, gut level fear. It seems clear, first of all, that Joseph’s brothers were fundamentally jealous of him. Yes, Joseph had “brought a bad report of them” to their father—he had in some sense “told on them” – but as our story specifies, Joseph was the baby, the one on whom Jacob doted, the child of his old age. He had bought Joseph a special article of clothing, a “long coat with sleeves” which used to be translated “a coat of many colors” (37:3). It was something decadent and unusual. In its context it may even have been gender transgressive in some sense, as some scholars have speculated, perhaps dress-like. Joseph was, as his brothers went on to call him, a “dreamer.” He was not like them. “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him,” the brothers’ position is summarized (37:4). When they see him coming to meet them in the field, they plot from a distance to do him harm. “Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (37:19-20). It’s horrendous to think they could dream up doing such a thing to anyone, let alone their brother. Only at the last moment does Reuben modify the plan, getting the group to throw him in a ditch, take the offending coat, retrieve him and sell Joseph to Midianite traders heading to Egypt (37:21-28). This whole series of activities—the next installments of which we will hear in the coming weeks – strikes me as rooted in a basic fear. Yes, jealousy and hatred, but beneath that, fueled by a fear of not being loved enough, of being supplanted in the privilege and stature they might otherwise have received from their father. Indeed, of having already been supplanted. Fear that there wasn’t enough love, enough inheritance, enough security. In reaction to that fear, they decided to annihilate the one who had become the sign of it. And then, in a slightly more merciful move, instead they removed that fearful sign from their vision. Either way, they caused unbearable pain not only to their brother but also to their father whose love they coveted. Their unchecked fear, hardened into hate, caused them to commit a despicable act.
In our gospel passage fear works differently but no less powerfully. Jesus has sent the disciples away on a boat across the sea from the remote place they had traveled to. The place where a crowd of five thousand had followed them and received a miraculous bounty of loaves and fish (14: 13-21)– a story we would normally have heard last week had the Feast of the Transfiguration (17:1-9 ) not fallen on a Sunday (not that I regret that it did!). Now, after dismissing the crowds on his own and having sat down on the mountain to pray, Jesus goes to them on the water. The disciples were being tossed by the roiling waves and become terrified—understandably. They had been in this position before. As you may recall, the eighth chapter of Matthew recounts Jesus falling asleep in the stern of a boat while a storm tossed it. “Do you not care that we are perishing?!” the disciples asked him before he calmed it with the words “peace, be still!” (8:21-28). In today’s story his actions are more dramatic. When the disciples see him walking on the water they become terrified and cry out “it is a ghost!” Jesus’ reply, “take heart; it is I” inspires Peter, in a detail unique to Matthew’s telling of this tale, to ask if he too can join Jesus on the water (14: 25-28). When Jesus welcomes him out onto the open sea, Peter actually manages to walk for a time. But then when Peter “noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, cried out ‘Lord, save me!’ (14:30)” Something happens to Peter when he pays attention to the storm, to the wind, the text says, interestingly, not the waves or the water itself. You would think that the issue would be the illogic of the whole situation, the impossibility of walking on water, that might have overcome a suspension of disbelief here. And perhaps some version of that may be afoot. But really, most fundamentally, it is the thing that is whipping up the water, the source of the storm, that gets him.
And more fundamentally than that, if we read the storm here through an emotional lens, the issue would appear to be fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what was being stirred up by this movement of people who would follow Jesus to a remote place and demand to be fed, fear that they actually could be fed. Fear of the upending of their lives, of how they understood the world. Fear is a powerful thing. It is a real emotion, important to acknowledge for its red-flag signaling purpose. But fear can also go into overdrive. If ever any of you have had a panic or anxiety attack, you know on a personal level the power of fear run amok. How much more scary it is when fear runs rampant within a group, stoking and building itself individually and collectively. How often Jesus says, “be not afraid!” How often other biblical figures enjoin the same. Fear is powerful. It can shut us down, cause us to sink into its spiral. Over time it can cause defensive reactions that close people off from one another. Encrusted reactions against fear lay at the root of so much evil in this world. Oppressive systems feed off of fear, become mechanisms of distortion, dehumanization, objectification, walling people off from one another. It is no wonder that Jesus calls us again and again into openness of heart, into a place of trust and connection. Doubt in this story strikes me as much more connected to fear than to reason or logic.
This week has given us much to be afraid of. Fear of nuclear war has come back to us with an intensity reminiscent of the cold war. Our president has – totally irresponsibly to my mind – used language akin to Matthew’s eschatological fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth in response to incendiary rhetoric of North Korean’s leader Kim Jong-un. It is not clear where all of this is headed. And this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacists have marched, spurred by the possibility that a Confederate symbol, a statue of Robert E. Lee, might be removed from a park. Torch bearing white supremacists surrounded a church on Friday night, chanting racist slogans. Yesterday they continued, adding anti-LGBT slogans into the mix. A man mowed people down in a car (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html?_r=0). And our President, whose rise to power was in significant ways fueled by the so-called Alt-right – another term, as far as I can tell, for contemporary racists, white supremacists— failed to name their activity as the racism it is. Yesterday he decried violence on “many sides” creating a false equivalency between those who are marching from a white supremacist stance with those who are countering that stance out of a desire to resist and dismantle racism—as if any violence that may have come from either side is somehow equivalent (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/12/543096579/trump-saw-many-sides-while-some-republicans-saw-white-supremacy-domestic-terrori). It is not. I see both in the original racist move to march itself and in the President’s false equivalency labeling a deep and entrenched fear. There is in this moment a fear driven in large part by white men who are afraid that their historic privilege is eroding, that their concerns which have stood at the center of power in this country for so long, might no longer be at the center. The fear of this loss has encrusted into a pattern of violent othering of those who seem to threaten that privilege. This pattern has been with us for many, many years. It is resurging now, openly cresting with a renewed sense of license from a leader whose election has benefited from this racist wave. I see so much fear afoot in this whole pattern. And so the question that comes to us this morning, as it has for some time now, is how to respond to that fear.
For we are right to be afraid of the consequences of this pattern of fear-driven politics, should it continue to spin unchecked. We continue to be called to resist it. But while our own fear, our concern for the consequences of this wider pattern, should certainly continue to motivate this response in important ways, there is also more for us to consider, more for us to pray about. Those of us who are white must each ask ourselves how we are connected to this pattern of racism I have pointed to. For it is not the case, as my own experience in Berkeley indicates, that our own region is separate from what is happening in Charlottesville. And indeed when my family traveled to Lake Tahoe the week of fourth of July we saw a truck of young white men waving a huge confederate flag. Those of us who are white have to ask ourselves how we benefit from white privilege and in what ways we may resist, even unknowingly, the dismantling of that privilege. I am very glad that we are already engaging that conversation here at St. Aidan’s, and it is so important that we continue to do that. But most important of all, we need to remember that this horrific pattern, whatever our connection to it may be, is always able to be transformed. We engage this process of resistance, of introspection, and of conversation with each other across our experiences in a spirit of inviting God to intervene, to transform us, to transform our wider world, knowing, believing that God can in fact do this. Remember, Jesus joins them amid the storm. He joins them in the boat. When he steps into the boat the winds cease. And then all of them continue together to the other side. And so this morning my prayer is that we would hold fast to this bedrock truth of our faith, that God, working with us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or even imagine. May we truly know that fear is not the end of this story, that the cycles of racism and white supremacy, of empire itself, can indeed be transformed. God is already at work in and with us, standing with us in our fear, urging us on, calling us into the ministry of transformation, reminding us that all of us are in fact in this together.
 Peterson Toscano has explored the gender transgressive qualities of Joseph’s coat in his play Transfigurations. See his overview article on Queer Theology at http://www.movement.org.uk/queer-theology—-brief-overview . For another reading, see Michael Carden, "Genesis/Bereshit" in The Queer Bible Commentary (SCM Press, 2006), 52-53