[Editor’s Note: Today’s post, written by myself, was originally delivered as a sermon to the Lyall Memorial Federated Church in Millbrook, NY on August 10, 2014. The reading from which the sermon draws can be found here. -gm]
First of all, I want to thank you all for having me here today to talk about the work of Rural & Migrant Ministry. It’s work I’m passionate about, and considering this congregation’s history with Rural & Migrant Ministry, it’s work you all have helped to accomplish. Though many of you may be familiar with what we do, I thought I’d give a brief overview for those who may not be so familiar. Broadly speaking, Rural & Migrant Ministry is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of the disenfranchised in our state, especially farmworkers and rural workers. While our work with farmworkers and the Justice for Farmworkers campaign is a primary thrust of RMM, our efforts encompass many other populations. To name a few: We seek to empower rural women through yearly conferences that support them in their educational or entrepreneurial aspirations; we work to connect children and young adults of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds through summer camps and youth groups where they can speak openly about their lives and the challenges they face; and we help to educate and train people of all backgrounds to become better allies to the marginalized persons who live in their communities. But as I said, working to empower farmworkers in their struggle for equality is a primary aim for us, and it’s what I’ve come to talk with you about today.
Currently under the laws of our state, farmworkers are excluded from many of the basic protections afforded to other workers. Farmworkers are excluded from overtime pay. Farmworkers are not allowed to collectively bargain with their employers. Farmworkers are not guaranteed a day of rest. These exclusions have been in place since the 1930s, and, to our minds at RMM, they are a relic of a bygone era. But in attempting to ally with our farmworking neighbors, we face an uphill battle.
Now, whenever I’ve been asked to speak at a church, I’ve always tried to address the day’s Gospel or scriptural reading, trying to connect it with the work and mission of RMM. Part of this is of course a deference to the usual shape of a worship service, but more importantly, it’s helped me to examine the work we’re involved in within the context of what it is we proclaim as Christians. So, in preparing to speak with you all, I spoke—or I guess emailed with—Pastor Donna, who shared with me the week’s prescribed readings. And when I looked over them, I was stumped, especially by the Gospel. It’s not that today’s Gospel lesson is not a familiar one, or for that matter, a particularly difficult one to understand. The whole walking on water bit is hard to forget, and, if you grew up in the Christian faith, you learn that one pretty early on. And it was that familiarity I struggled with initially. Maybe it’s the know-it-all side of me that reacted this way, but my initial reaction was, “What can be said about the parable of Jesus walking on water that’s not been said a thousand times before?” And furthermore, “What can I possibly say about the work of Rural & Migrant Ministry that at all relates to this parable?”
After rereading the passage so many times that I could probably recite it for you now, I decided to place myself in the position of Peter, and to truly envision what it was Christ was asking him to do.
Picture this: you’re on a boat with a bunch of other guys (one of whom is Jesus), and you drop Jesus off on land. He tells you to go on and wait for him elsewhere on this body of water and to stay in the boat. The modern equivalent of this, I guess, would be Jesus telling you to just keep the car running. Just run around the block and come back. Eventually, after speaking to the gathered crowd, Jesus wants to meet back up with Peter and the rest of the disciples, but the boat, due to high winds, has pushed itself far out into the water. This is when Jesus walks on the water, out to the boat and to the disciples.
It’s at this point that the disciples promptly start freaking out. And wouldn’t you? There’s a guy walking toward you on water—this is not a regular boating experience. They think that it’s a ghost that’s approaching them. They yell, and they scream.
Jesus calls out to them and calms them, and they quiet themselves. But Peter, seemingly not content to believe that this person walking on water is in fact the Son of God, calls out to Jesus and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
What a strange request. And really, what a strange reaction from Peter. He’s literally just seen the impossible become possible, and in an instant, he’s ready to try it out for himself. And so he does try it out for himself, as Jesus says to him, “Come.” At this point, Peter steps foot on the water and begins to walk toward Jesus. For all the text shares with us, Peter does this with ease, that is until a strong gust comes through and puts fear in his heart, puts doubt at his core. At this point, Peter begins to sink and cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus catches Peter and raises him up, asking him why he doubted. They then return to the boat, where all the disciples remain amazed and dumbfounded, saying, truly, this is the Son of God.
The work of RMM is difficult. It can at times even feel impossible. In trying to stand with farmworkers, there are a multitude of hurdles to face. There is the length of time for which these laws have been in effect. There is the political climate of our state and our country at present, in which bipartisanship smothers any possibility of civil discourse. There is the language barrier, the socioeconomic divide between worker and ally, the power of lobbyists, the struggling economy, the near invisibility of the farmworking population—all of which is enough to convince you that it isn’t possible to create equality under the eyes of the law for farmworkers.
And this is why I’ve come to sympathize with Peter in today’s Gospel reading. It’s a seemingly impossible thing that Jesus calls him to do. It seems, frankly, crazy, to walk on water. And it would be crazy, and impossible, if it weren’t for the fact that it was Jesus calling Peter to do it. But because he is called, Peter is able to do what should not be possible, to accomplish what should not be accomplishable.
A cynic might say that trying to create equality for farmworkers in New York State is a fool’s errand. Indeed, it can be tempting to believe the naysayers as the list of reasons pile up. It can be tempting to listen to the doubts, the fears. It can be tempting to succumb.
But today’s lesson teaches us that, if Christ calls us to do something, calls us to achieve something seemingly impossible, we cannot let our fears get the better of us. Indeed, for a moment, as Peter begins to walk toward Jesus, he notices the strong winds beating against him, and fear sets into his heart. As soon as he recognizes the winds, he begins to sink into the water. But he calls out to Jesus in humility, who causes him to rise once again.
Amidst the work of RMM, when I begin to doubt the possibility of what we set ourselves on doing, when I listen to the naysayers, I am, like Peter, allowing for my fear to overcome my faith. When I am unsure of my footing, when I believe myself to be sinking down, I have forgotten the nature of the calling, the nature of the work being done. I have forgotten that it was not my own doing, but the efforts of the Spirit that brought me to this work—and if there is one thing I cannot afford to forget, it is this. It is a simple teaching of the Gospel—to trust in faith over fear—but it is easily forgotten in the midst of life, in the midst of work.
In standing with farmworkers in their struggles, there will be fear that the work cannot be accomplished. There will be fear that your efforts could prove fruitless. There will be fear that, in promising to workers that you’ll fight alongside them, you’ve promised too much and delivered too little. But for all the hundreds and thousands of possible fears, there is but one great hope. There is one great faith. In trusting in this, the work will be done and the workers raised up. One must only remember who it was that called them in the first place.
In closing, I ask, as I always do, that you consider deepening your relation with Rural & Migrant Ministry. There are many ways to become involved, so I encourage you to talk with me after the service to see what it is you could bring to the table. In our community in the Hudson Valley, farmworkers are our literal neighbors. If you have any desire to become better acquainted with them, we, at RMM, can help you with that.
Thank you for your time, and thank you once more for having me here today.