Sermon; 10 Pentecost/Proper 14A; Matthew 14:22-33
Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. And while that was a good and proper thing to do (or, as the people in the BCP study learned, it was “very meet and right so to do”), it took us out of our normal cycle of gospel readings. So I'll take a minute here and get us back up to speed.
Two weeks ago we heard the last set of kingdom parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a lot of different stuff – the discovery of buried treasure, finding one thing you do well, a tree full of beautiful, messy birds. That is followed by two stories not told in the lectionary, one being Jesus' difficulty in his home town, and the other being the beheading of John the Baptist.
Today's gospel follows immediately after the feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children, which we would have heard last week had it not been for the Feast of the Transfiguration. After hearing the news of John's execution, Jesus goes off alone only to be tracked down by the crowds. Once gathered, he spends the rest of the day healing those who were sick. As the day is coming to a close we are given the story of the mass feeding. And this is where we pick up the story today.
Immediately after the leftover food is collected, Jesus makes the disciples get into a boat to cross over to the other side while he dismissed the crowd and goes up the mountain to pray. There he spends the night alone. The disciples, meanwhile, have spent all night on the water battling a storm.
In the morning Jesus comes to them walking on the water, terrifying the disciples. Peter demands Jesus bid him to come out of the boat. He does, Peter walks on water, begins to sink, is saved, gets put back in the boat, and the storm ceases.
As usual I could talk about all kinds of things in this story – Was it a theophany? Is it a misplaced post-resurrection story? Is it a testing of God? And on and on. But wrapped up in all of these interpretations or understandings or explanations is the ultimate question for us today and for all Christians in all times: What does this story have to say to me today? So I'm going to skip talking about the miraculous aspect of this story and focus on three things that have value for us today.
First should be the obvious fact that following Christ is not always easy. As disciples, we may be asked to do any number of things for which we feel we aren't prepared, qualified, or even remotely ready. We also may be asked to do something for which we believe we are well-qualified, but once we undertake the mission we discover we weren't as ready as we thought we were.
Jesus sent the disciples out on ahead of him. Some were experienced sailors. Most were probably not. As the boat heads out onto the water a storm erupts; and the disciples, fighting a losing battle, are taken further away from shore. Doing what Jesus asks us to do can be hard, and it can feel like we're fighting a losing battle. Have you been asked to participate in the life of the church only to feel like you're being battered by a storm, not able to do what you were asked to do? Or maybe you've been asked to participate in the life of the parish only to decline because you are afraid of the unknown? Discipleship is hard, but Jesus is commanding us to get into the boat.
The next point comes from Peter. “Lord,” he said, “if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” This touches on the idea of discernment.
As disciples we are all called to use our time, talent, and treasure for the good of the kingdom. Sometimes that's relatively easy – it doesn't take much effort, for instance, to contribute from our surplus to the life of the church. Sometimes it's self-evident, such as a gifted musician sharing their talents with the music ministry. Other times it can be difficult – creating an intentional line item on your personal budget as a pledge or taking a risk and participating in something in which you've never participated before. And other times we need to be called by Jesus.
That calling can be as terrifying as asking Peter to get out of the boat in the middle of a storm. We need to pay attention to these calls, though. We need to make sure that it is indeed Jesus who is calling us to step out of our comfort zone. If we don't, we may simply be confirming our own desires, such as the Mormon missionary in “Book of Mormon” who was absolutely convinced that he was called to serve the people of Orlando, or anyone else, for that matter, who makes God to be a perfect replica of their own desires and hatreds. But there's another reason there, and that is that if we don't discern a calling from Jesus, we're likely to sink without ever walking on water or being rescued. In other words, we need to spend time determining if this is really what Jesus is asking us to do, or are we trying to make our wishes come true? “Lord, if it is you . . .”
The final point is to notice the chaos of the storm and when it ceased. Please note that this does not mean that as soon as you welcome Jesus to be in your midst that life gets easy. That is not the point and that is certainly not true. Here are two biblical examples and two real world examples for you.
Jonah boarded a ship to escape God. The problem with that is that God is everywhere. A storm arose nearly sinking it. When the crew finally agreed to heed God by tossing Jonah overboard, the storm ceased. Today's story is a reverse Jonah where the storm ceases after the man in the water and God, in the person of Jesus Christ, board the boat. There's something about the calm of God's presence.
The first real world example is from my own life. Once upon a time a priest took me to lunch and said, “You need to go to seminary.” I won't give all the details here, but immediately my life got very chaotic, like I was in the middle of a storm. That storm quieted down after I agreed to heed this call.
The second real world example comes from just down the road, right here, right now.
The gospel story features the disciples in a boat. Traditional church buildings are built as upside down boats. This building is a boat full of disciples. The disciples in the gospel faced a fierce storm, the storm of chaos, that threatened to overtake them and drown them. In our world right now, a storm of chaos rages around us. In our world, that storm is threatening to destroy the goodness that overcame the raging waters of chaos in the first place.
Not far from here on the campus of the University of Virginia a group of right wing, anti-Semitic, white supremacists gathered to spew their chaotic storm of hatred. That storm has been brewing for hundreds of years and it has once again been whipped to life by the winds of hate and exclusion.
Jesus may have walked n the stormy waters of Galilee and calmed that storm; but Jesus is also God incarnate, the great I AM who is and was and will ever be. And right here, right now, Jesus is walking through the chaotic storm raging around us and this boat.
Jesus has boarded this boat. This boat will not be capsized by the storm of hate. This boat will not be sunk by the sin of white supremacy and exclusion or any other sin that tries to destroy the goodness of all God's creation. Jesus has boarded this boat and it will sail in peace.
But we still have far to go. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish and still had to fulfill his mission. The disciples still had to cross over to the other side of the water. I still had to go through the process leading to ordination. And we, as followers of Christ, as people who follow the God of love, as people who vow to respect the dignity of every human being still have much work to do in making that vision and mission a reality.
We are being called by Christ in the midst of a storm to offer our selves, our souls, and bodies for the good of the kingdom. Some of that will be done through our time, talent, and treasure. Some of that will be done by being called to new ministries. And some of that will be done by standing up to and naming chaotic storms that threaten to overcome and sink the people of God by saying, “Not in this boat.”
Because in this boat the peace of God through Christ is more powerful than the forces of any hate-driven storm. In this boat, Christ reigns. In this boat, love wins.
As with Peter, Jesus is calling to us over the noise of the storm and the raging waters of chaos. How will we respond?