8/10/14 – WALKING ON THE WATER by Lynn Naeckel

PROPER 14, A, 08/10/14

Matthew 14:22-33

Spoiler alert! This is largely the same sermon I preached in 2011, so it may sound familiar, but given the reading you just heard, do you remember it? I’m using it because I didn’t remember it at all! And I assume that if I wrote it three years ago but can’t remember it, maybe we all need to hear it again.

This story of Jesus walking on the water never made much sense to me, and I felt the same when I read it earlier this week. Feeding people makes sense; healing people makes sense; what’s the purpose of walking on the water?

There’s a trick I learned from someone, although I can’t remember who it was. When a story like this one doesn’t seem to make sense, try treating it like a parable. So let’s imagine this as a story told about a religious leader who sent his followers off in a boat so he could go up on the mountain to pray.

Just think, Jesus puts all 12 of his disciples, every one of them in a boat and sends them out into very rough water. Granted, some of them were fishermen and had experience, but still they were having great difficulty in the midst of wind and waves.

Might this be an early experiment – send the followers off by themselves to see how they do? What else do they need to learn before the master really leaves? Maybe the boat is an image for the early church? Or even the church today?

In the Jewish tradition the sea represent chaos, maybe even evil. Karl Barth said this about water in the creation story: “It is the principle which, in its abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation. . .representative of all the evil powers. . .” Think not only of the creation story but also that of Noah, the deliverance of Israel through the parting of the waters, and the entry into the land across the swollen Jordan River. In all of these the Lord triumphs over the waters. (Iwan Russell-Jones, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol.3, p.334)

“When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” In the original Greek, the word here translated as “battered” could also be rendered as “tortured.” (Irv Arnquist at text study)

Tortured is a word that suggests a human object, thus further supporting the suggestion that the boat represents the church. In Jesus’ time the waves might represent the evil of the Roman empire. Today, it would suggest the same sort of forces that subjugate people or deny them the basic necessities of life. In other words, those things that stand against the Kingdom of God.

So here is the church, surrounded by chaos, having trouble making headway against the wind and waves – hmmm, sound familiar? And if this relating of the boat to the church sounds far-fetched to you, consider that where you usually sit in the church is called the NAVE. Haven’t you seen churches that especially remind you of an upside down boat?

And in this story Jesus not only calms the storm, but also walks on the water. Is this not a startling image of who is in charge? Might this be a reminder to the early church and to us of the ongoing presence and power of Christ?

Still, it’s no wonder that the disciples are afraid when they see Jesus. Is this a ghost? Is it some sort of evil apparition? In response to their fear, Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In the Greek original, the phrase translated, “it is I,” is ego eimi. This is the same phrase, I AM, that was spoken to Moses out of the burning bush as the name of God. (Iwan Russell-Jones, FOW, A, 3, p. 334) So Jesus is implying, at least, that I AM is here, walking safely through the wind and waves.

The injunction not to fear is a familiar one, with echoes throughout the Bible. We are not to be afraid in the face of God’s mighty acts, but rather be called to action and worship. Isaiah says (43:1-3):

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

We are already redeemed and have no cause to fear, no matter how we are battered. But that is not the end of the story is it? Now we have Peter, in his usual brash manner, saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “come.” Peter jumps out and walks on the water —- until he is distracted by the strong wind that is still blowing, and becoming fearful, starts to sink into the water. Notice it is fear that causes the difficulty. Jesus links this to lack of faith, but it’s important to consider how Jesus speaks to Peter.

When Jesus reached out his hand to lift Peter up, he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” How do we know what his tone of voice was? We don’t, but I tend to think it was gently chiding rather than severely critical – sort of like we are apt to use the phrase to chide someone – Oh ye of little faith.

After all, Peter had the faith to believe he could follow Jesus onto the water and when he began to sink, he did have the faith to call out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And it was only Peter who had the gumption to respond to their experience by taking the risk to try it himself. And in the end, when Jesus entered the boat and calmed the sea, all the disciples worshiped him.

Would that have happened if Peter had not done what he did? Maybe it takes one person responding to the call, taking the risk to step out into the void, trusting in God, to convince the others. (DOCK HOLLINGSWORTH, ibid, p. 335)

Certainly, when I consider the history of our faith, there have always been Peters who lead the way, who provide examples for the rest of us to follow, who take the risk necessary to step out in faith. And I’m not just talking about saints and martyrs. There are folks like this in every congregation.

It seems to me that one point of this story is that even people who don’t have enough faith, who only have a small amount of faith, are capable of leading others to God.

I think about the novice priest who agreed to do confession with me, without ever having done it before, and provided for me a significant turning point in my own spiritual life. I think about the associate pastor who preaches the tough sermons about what the teaching of Jesus implies for our political life, because the Rector dare not preach them for fear of being fired.

I think about the woman I knew years ago who befriended a neighbor and gave her the money needed for her survival, even at risk of her own future. I think of the gray haired women fixing a meal at another church here in town ten years ago discussing homosexuality, wondering why the church was making such a fuss about it. “Aren’t we all God’s children?” someone asked. I think about all the people who staff the clothes closet, the food shelf, the Community Cafe, who fix food for the hungry or for the bereaved.

Clifton Kirkpatrick, in his commentary on this passage, says this: “The key to faith and fullness of life in Christ is to follow Peter’s example and be willing to step out of the comfort and security of the boat and head into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy, and justice of God that we find in Jesus Christ… If we get out of the boat we can count on the accompaniment of our Lord. . . . Getting out of the boat with Jesus is the most risky, most exciting and most fulfilling way to live life to the fullest.” (ibid, p. 336)

By all means, let’s come into the boat, into the nave, to worship God regularly, but then let’s get out of the boat and do some earthly good in the world around us. AMEN

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