Sermon; 10 Pentecost/Proper 14A; Matt. 14:22-33
Today's gospel passage immediately follows last week's passage. As a refresher, Jesus had just heard about John being executed by Herod, so he went to spend some time alone; but as always happens, the crowds tracked him down. After spending time healing people, Jesus and the disciples fed 5000 men, plus women and children, and the story closed out by telling us there were twelve baskets of leftovers.
After that exhibition of compassionate generosity and living into a theology of abundance, Jesus sends the disciples to the other side of the lake and dismisses the crows. Now, finally, he gets to spend some much needed time alone following all of these events. We are told that Jesus was alone as evening settled in, and the disciples are in a boat being battered by a storm. That storm lasts all night, driving the boat further and further from land. As the light of dawn began to banish the darkness, the storm still raged around them. And it was in those early morning hours that Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water.
This is such a great story because there are so many interpretations and explanations, and how it has worked its way into popular culture. Here are a few things to think about concerning this passage. Maybe Peter should have stayed in the boat in the first place and worked with his fellow disciples. Was Jesus really walking on water, or was it an optical illusion as Jesus walked along a sandbar? Maybe this is a misplaced post-resurrection story – it happens early in the morning and Jesus uses specifically God-language (It is I). And we reference people either positively or negatively by how they do or don't walk on water. There is also a reference to the creation story, Gideon, and a reverse Jonah. So there is no shortage of material.
All of these topics are well-worth examining, and if you would like to explore them further, I commend Dcn. Sue's Zoom study of Matthew on Tuesday nights at 7:30. But for now, what might this story be telling us today? How do we hear God speaking to us in the 21st Century through ancient text? As I read through this particular story, it occurs to me that, out of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one that most reflects our life today.
First of all, we, like the disciples in the boat, don't actually have Jesus with us. Yes, we are his disciples. Yes, we believe he is the Son of God (and two chapters later, Peter will make his famous confession about Jesus). Yes, we believe he is really present with us in the Body and Blood of Communion. But he is not physically present with us at this moment, just like he wasn't physically present with the disciples on that boat.
Nevertheless, both we and the disciples have been sent out. It's unclear as to why Jesus sent them, other than maybe he really needed some quiet time. Maybe he sent them to make preparations for his visit across the lake. Maybe they were sent to proclaim the good news, as they were sent earlier. And if that's the case, then we are in the same boat, so to speak. We too have been sent on ahead to prepare his way and announce that the kingdom of God has come near.
But just because we have been selected by Jesus to go on ahead to the other side doesn't mean that it will be easy. It's hard enough in good times to proclaim the message of the good news. But here we are, like the disciples, being sent out ahead to make that very proclamation. And here we are, like the disciples, being battered about by a raging storm. We are being battered by the COVID19 virus that keeps us separated, wary of others, and is the cause of around 161,000 deaths in this country alone. We are being battered by the storm of mental and physical health issues resulting from the pandemic and isolation. We are being battered by the storms of systemic racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. We are being battered by the loss of jobs, income, medical insurance, and the fear that those all generate. At least one commentator says that the boat is being tortured by the waves. We can certainly feel tortured by all that is raging around us.
And with all that is raging around us, it is very tempting to want to find an easy answer to all of this. It is very tempting to want to find some miracle cure, or to snap our fingers and wish racism didn't exist or that all lives really did matter. It is very tempting to want to get out of the boat and try to walk alone with Jesus in the midst of the raging storm.
Hear then the parable of the sower. What was sown among the thorns is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world choke the word and it yields nothing. We hear that parable and Jesus' explanation of it and I think we tend to automatically focus on “the lure of wealth” part. How much is too much, we ask. Jeff Bezos is worth more than a billion dollars. A BILLION. Why isn't he, and those like him, funneling that money into healthcare or education or affordable housing or any number of things that could benefit society? But this isn't about Jeff Bezos or the level of greed our society seems to accept. This is about the cares of the world choking the word.
And Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he began to sink.
That particular part of the parable I referenced, and this part of today's gospel, point to times when external forces are stronger than our internal faith. The cares of the world aren't just frivolous spending habits or trying to keep up with the Jones's. The cares of the world are also those storms that batter us, that cause us to stress and worry, that blow us off course, and that eventually cause us to sink.
We are being battered and tortured by storms we haven't seen the likes of in a very long time. Sometimes we might feel like getting away from it all or going off on our own is our best or only option. But those external forces may be just too much to handle on our own, they may be stronger than our internal faith, and they may cause us to sink. This is something Peter learned firsthand.
Something else that Peter learned firsthand, and that we can learn from Peter, is that it is safer in the boat. In this boat we face those storms together. In this boat we support those who are struggling. In this boat we recognize that failure happens, but so does forgiveness and new beginnings. In this boat we recognize we are stronger together than we are apart. In this boat we know that we are not immune to storms but that Christ will eventually provide calmness and clarity.
I don't know when these storms will end. What I do know is that storms are a part of discipleship and that facing them together is better than facing them separately. I know that being in this boat together, whether in-person or virtually, is better than trying to walk on stormy waters alone. I know that our unity is our strength. And I know that for a body to function it must have all parts together, not walking apart.
As we continue to face a multitude of storms, as the message of the gospel continues to be challenged and choked off by the cares of the world, I encourage you to remain in the boat. I encourage you to continue to be willing to be sent out to proclaim the good news. I encourage you to remain connected to the body. And I encourage you to sail together rather than walk apart.
For it just may be that the only sense of safety and calm to be found are to be found here in this boat.