By Tony Coleman, associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis
This blog was presented as a sermon at First Congregational Church of Memphis on June 26, 2022
As a child, I wasn’t afraid of many things. I loved the dark; Halloween was one of my favorite holidays; scary shows and movies for kids were some of my favorites. There was one thing that terrified me, though, one thing that would make my pulse jump and my face feel flush with anxiety: the Presidential Fitness Test. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the Presidential Fitness Test was an annual event that took place in public schools across the country in which middle and high-school children would be forced to do pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, and more all under the eye of a gym teacher who would meticulously keep count of how many and how well the children did, in other words, torture. For a, as we graciously say in the South, big-bone-ded child like me, this whole measuring my fitness against what a “normal” child could do was terrible.
I stood in line and watched my classmates grabbed hold of the pull-up bar and easily do 4, 5, 10 reps. I watched them, seething with jealousy and dreading the moment that I would have to climb up and let everybody watch as I struggled to hang there and just barely bend my elbows, failing the test altogether.
Even worse than the pull-up bar, though, was the 10-minute mile test. Standing there on the starting line, next to kids whose little biceps were flexed and ready, having just completed 18 pull-ups with Terminator precision only minutes before, I could feel my heart beating, thumping with fear. The whistle blew. We ran, and I got lapped, again and again, as my classmates finished their 4 laps around the field before I was even halfway done with mine.
This went on for years.
Finally, in seventh grade, I decided that I would go up to Coach Williams, our gym teacher, to try and persuade him to let me sit out. To be honest, though, I was almost as nervous about talking to Coach Williams as I was about the Fitness Test. He was a tall man with thinning, grey hair who always wore a 90’s era track suit and a red whistle around his neck. He often seemed angry, for no reason, I thought. He would bark orders at us during warm-ups – “Get those hands up higher, Coleman, you call that a jumping jack?” Why yes, Coach Williams, yes I do, in fact – I wanted to say but didn’t.
When I told him that I wanted to skip the Presidential Fitness Test, that I was scared and embarrassed, that I’d be perfectly happy sanitizing basketballs or buffing out scuffs on the gym floor during that week, anything, he responded with, “You call that effort, Coleman? You think that’s good enough” Yes, yes, I do, Coach Williams – I wanted to say but didn’t.
“What you need to do, Coleman, is get angry. Get mad at that pull-up bar,” he told me. “Get aggressive. Get angry at that track out there – that’s how you’ll finish. I guarantee it.”
A part of me thought that maybe Coach Williams was on to something; maybe I did need to angry. Then, another part of me wondered what other kind of advice I could have gotten from a man I had once seen literally punch a basketball because it refused to go in the hoop. Getting angry was the way you get the job done, for Coach Williams. Feeling afraid? Feeling like you’ve failed? Get angry.
Of course, Coach Williams isn’t alone in holding that mindset, is he? Certainly, when it comes to fitness, we’re told that we can push our bodies further, we can tap into reservoirs of energy, we can exceed even our own expectations if we would only, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” Anger is the way to access unforeseen ability.
That’s true beyond the world of fitness and athletics, though, too. We see it in the way we describe so many tasks in our lives. We’re fighting COVID. We battle cancer. We fight for our rights. We battle our way through divorce. We fight our own desires for things we think we should not have. And so, in this way, the sum of our lives can be tallied up in all the little skirmishes we’ve won and lost.
Anger, then, is always in the background. In the fear we may feel when we get that diagnosis or start that journey towards weight loss or receive news of the latest devastating blow the Supreme Court has dealt, in the face of the fear we encounter, so often we’re told to get angry. Righteous outrage is the answer. Channel your fear into anger and your anger into energy so that you can keep on, push through, and claim victory in the end. Don’t give up; get angry!
It’s in that spirit that we might be tempted to read what happened with Peter and Jesus today. Jesus is there immersed in a miracle, standing on water. Peter sees this, is shocked and frightened, and says, if that’s really you, Jesus, tell me to come out there and join you. Jesus does, then Peter does. Peter actually walks on water. He sets aside his fear about the storm and his fear about seeing a man walking atop crashing waves, and he takes a step into a miracle.
Before long, though, he gets distracted by those crashing waves. He gets frightened all over again by the storm raging around him, and he begins to sink. Flailing around in the waves breaking beside, behind, and in front of him, he reaches out for Jesus’s hand, and Jesus catches him. “You of little faith,” Jesus then says to him, “why did you doubt?”
Now, at first glance, I’m inclined to hear Jesus saying a version of what an angry gym teacher might say to his chubby student: “You call that effort, Peter? You need to push your faith. You need to try harder. You need to get angry at doubt.” Maybe.
But, if we take a step back, if we really look at what’s happening here, if we let ourselves get absorbed into the miracle taking place, we see that this isn’t just about pushing through. This is about seeing differently. Jesus was inviting Peter into something bigger than sheer force of will, something bigger than even just walking on water. Jesus was inviting Peter into a whole other vision of the world, a world that shatters expectations and explodes logic, a world that is governed by something bigger than scary storms and angry effort, a world in which we reach our goals not by force alone but with faith in God.
Peter started sinking, then, because even though Jesus was showing him what the world could be, all Peter could focus on was what he thought the world was. Jesus was calling Peter into a reality that defied gravity and shamed his shallow expectations, but, before too long, Peter got lost in his own sense of what was possible, in his own sense that all he could do, when it came to raging storms, was sink.
Jesus was not saying face your fears in the midst of that storm and get angry. Jesus was saying, in the face of your fears, you can step into my vision for what’s possible, and you can discover in that miraculous potential.
Friends, there are some journeys whose ends we will never reach if all we have fueling us is anger. To be sure, anger has its uses. Anger can give us energy. Anger can make our voices strong when they may otherwise be weak. Anger can lead us to take action when we might otherwise be still. Anger can help us sprint. But, anger can’t get us through 6 months of chemo. Anger can’t help us figure out what’s best for our kids when a relationship falls apart. Anger can’t make a 200 pound 12-year-old run a mile in under 10 minutes. Anger can’t sustain a movement. Anger can’t help us travel from the boat into the miracle. Anger can help us sprint, but it can’t help us run a marathon.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Chances are, if you run in any kind of progressive circles, you’ve heard or read this quote. It’s on t-shirts. It’s said in political speeches. It serves as the little taglines for emails. It’s tweeted and instagramed and Facebooked. It’s almost everywhere nowadays, and, because of that, we may lose sense of what these words were actually doing when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said them.
You see, these were not words for a short run. This was not the sentiment of a person just trying to push through. These were the words of a man and a movement who knew the reality of setbacks and the seemingly impossible task before them. It’s a set of words that reach beyond policy that dig underneath ideology that take hold of a truth that is bigger than the latest failure.
MLK’s words said that while the forces of white supremacy and oppression may win this battle and the next one or even the one after that; while I may even lose my life in pursuit of the goal of justice, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I know that we are going with the flow of the universe, rather than against it. These words show that the people in this movement carried a confidence that the very shape of existence, the very fabric of reality, the plain ol truth of the way things are, was caught up in the very same thing that they were – justice, healing, and love. Their vision of the world was one that defied expectations and lent them a confidence that achieving their goal was, in a very real way, inevitable.
Dr. King was reiterating the same core point that Jesus was sharing with Peter – in order to make the distance, in order to walk rather than sink into fear or anger, in order to do the work of living with intention and dignity in the face of the incredible storms that rage all around us, in order to do that, we have to see that the world is so much bigger than fear might lead us to think. We have to see that while battles can be won or lost, faith operates according to an entirely different logic.
With faith that the world bends toward justice, with faith that God will reach out and grab us when we’re starting to sink, with faith that we can stand on top of the waves rather than get swallowed up in them, that is the only thing that will take us through. That kind of faith is bigger than a person. It’s bigger than a court. It’s bigger than a treatment plan or a solution, bigger than a politician or an idol. That kind of faith is about stepping into a world that loves us, that holds us, that carries us in our walk, no matter what stumbling blocks we may encounter along the way. That kind of faith says to a chubby pre-teen: there is a vision of the world that loves you even if it takes you 22 minutes to run a mile rather than just 10; there is a vision of the world in which sickness and death are not things you battle but realities you learn how to hold. There is a vision of the world, in which you don’t have to get angry and try to do it all on your own.
We’ve got a long journey ahead of us, friends. We’ve got problems, personal and global. Problems with our country, problems with our bodies, problems with our building. Problems that are so big and so deep, we may not know what to do or even where to begin. We may feel scared and yes, we may feel rage. But, the truth is, neither fear nor anger are going to sustain us for this journey. This journey’s too long; the road is too hilly; the storms are too fierce. What’s going to help us keep going, what’s going to help us get out of the boat and step into uncertainty, what’s going to help us travel the distance of the universe’s long moral arc, what’s going to help us in our fear and our grief and our anxiety, what’s going to help us make it—is a vision. What’s going to help us is a vision of the world, rooted in faith and repeated throughout history, that has enabled human beings to do incredible things. It’s a vision that defies expectations and makes room for miracles. It’s a vision that focuses on the path rather than the storm. It’s a vision that will help us to walk rather than sink.
Let us be together, friends, and let us envision with hope, courage, and faith.
Tony Coleman is an associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis (aka First Congo). He grew up in a bi-racial, working-class family that called several Memphis neighborhoods home. After high school, however, he moved to the Northeast for college and graduate school. Tony is passionate about writing, art, and creativity – and how all of these can facilitate and sustain social change. He has been published in the Christian Century and various online magazines including Conversation X. In addition to matters of faith and the spirit, Tony writes and thinks about food, particularly baking and eating it.