Sermon for Sunday 7 am Beach Service, 9 am at Walton Rodgers Hall, August 13, 2017 || Proper14, Year A || Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33|| The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
This morning I want to capitalize on the fact that by mid-August I can be hopeful that many of us have enjoyed a summer vacation or may have vacations underway, so that it will not be jolting when I invite you to engage your imaginations on this warm lovely Sunday morning. I want us to place ourselves in this morning’s gospel story, in the midst of the action of a story that is so familiar, and so full of mystery that we might otherwise miss the opportunity to consider it and discover something new or deeply resonant or relevant for our lives today.
Chronologically, this morning’s gospel, a version of which appears in Matthew, Mark and John’s texts, takes place the same day as the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Jesus and the apostles taught and fed 5,000 hungry people, after which Jesus sent the disciples back to the sea and to a modest boat to head to the opposite shore. Jesus, then took himself up a mountain to pray.
He and the disciples must have been exhausted from a long, full and surprising day. Perhaps they began to discuss what they had seen and experienced, comparing notes about the different parts of the crowds they each found themselves in. The disciples had a lot to discuss as they loaded into the boat and began to row across the sea. As they are rowing, Jesus is on a mountainside relishing the first peace and solitude that he has had for days. He too may be reviewing the events of the day, perhaps praying for some of the individuals he met and fed. He is recharging his spiritual batteries by prayerfully connecting to God.
I love the notion that Jesus prayed. We hear it several times in this part of the gospel. As God, Jesus’ thoughts and actions were well grounded as divine, but after large public displays of ministry and miracles, we are told that he needed solitude and sought the opportunity for respite and recharging.
While he is praying overnight, a storm is brewing and making boat travel for the disciples treacherous. Why would Jesus either put his followers in danger, or create an atmosphere of fear? I wonder whether the purpose of the treacherous waves was to cut down on the conversation or small talk in the boat and the speculation about what they had seen and heard all day. Perhaps, God wanted the disciples to keep to themselves and keep their own thoughts, even as they were trying to figure out what they had seen and done. In a noisy, windblown boat, there would be very little opportunity for conversation and conjecture. They would need to be focused on their destination.
Then sometime around 3 or 4 in the morning the gospels say that Jesus saw the boat a few miles from shore being tossed and turned and he walked out, on the water toward the boat. Can you imagine what that looked like either from shore or from the boat? We know that the vision of Jesus walking on water frightened the disciples. They speculated that he was a ghost.
I will confess that as a parochial high school student, prior to the invention of the internet which would have offered thousands of YouTube videos and animated illustrations about this miracle, I spent hours thinking through how Jesus might have walked on water. Since it appears in three of four gospels, and echoes ancient myths circulating at the time, I was always taught that there was something tangible and real in this story. I will admit to having spent hours trying to turn Jesus’ walking on water into the equivalent of a David Copperfield parlor trick — this was only a couple of years before he disappeared the Statue of Liberty on prime time, network TV. Were there giant boulders just below the surface that Jesus knew about? Was the sea actually shallow, with sandbars checkering a walkable path? The disciples were experienced sailors and knew this body of water well, so it seems unlikely that Jesus took advantage of a subacquataneous walking map of the sea to create the appearance of a miracle.
As a Priest-in-training, I have moved on from the folly of deciphering the mechanics of an illusion, to wonder why Jesus did this. Why would he choose to approach the boat on water? What was he teaching the disciples and what is he teaching us? Feeding the 5,000 was a miracle that resulted in alleviating discomfort and enhancing the gathered crowd’s ability to learn and inwardly digest the teachings that Jesus was offering.
Walking across the water did not result in healing, or curing or alleviating suffering. Why would he walk a distance of a few miles on water? His miraculous water-walk demonstrated two specific and critically important aspects of his divinity for the disciples. He reaffirmed what they had just seen on shore, that Jesus is God. This miracle of walking on water also demonstrated that Jesus is everywhere. He could even be with the disciples on a storm tossed sea. Bad weather and difficult sailing conditions could not separate them from Jesus.
Put yourself inside that boat. You aren’t talking to anyone but are riding or perhaps rowing, frustrated at not making much progress because of wind and waves. You have been at this for hours. And in the midst of this turmoil, you see a figure walking toward the boat, on top of the water. The image doesn’t compute. It is unlike anything you have ever seen from a boat, and when you realize the form coming toward you is a person, you think it must be a ghost, apparition, harbinger of death or something definitely otherworldly.
Then you hear Jesus’ words, comforting you and your fellow travelers by telling you not to be afraid. At the sound of his voice, which you simultaneously hear and feel in the inner recesses of your heart, you know that all will be well. You’ve seen him feed thousands of people using a few loaves of bread and a few fish. So, he can walk on water too.
In the astonishment and profound gratitude that follows, your companion Peter, asks Jesus to let him walk on water. Imagine hearing that request and watching as Peter puts one leg and then the other over the side of the vigorously rocking and pitching boat. Peter begins to walk toward Jesus on that wind swept sea.
Perhaps you can imagine yourself as Peter. You love Jesus so much and are so relieved and grateful to see him, that you are the one who asks to be made to walk on water, and you clamber out of the boat and begin to walk toward our Lord.
The next part of the narrative frequently becomes the focus of this miracle story. Peter walks on the water until he is distracted and frightened by the strong wind and waves and he begins to sink and cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus responds by reaching out his hand and scooping him up and says “you of little faith, why do you doubt”?
This morning, I’d like us to consider Jesus’ response as not criticizing Peter’s devotion, but as affirming his remarkable faith. Jesus calls Peter a person of faith and we know that this is true, as he has just demonstrated it by stepping out of a rocking boat, onto a choppy sea to get closer to Jesus. “You of remarkable faith, doubted not”.
What would it have taken you to push yourself over the side of a boat to experience a miracle, demonstrate faith and move closer to Jesus? Can you imagine being so focused on the love and light of Jesus that you suspend your fears, your understanding and experience of physics and respond as Peter did? Jesus is always beckoning us to “come”, and he is always waiting. Like Peter, we can do anything if we focus on God and remove distractions and vanquish our fears.
Consider the week just ending. What might have distracted you or made you fearful and farther from the direct experience of God? Perhaps you were overwhelmed at some point this week, inundated with the waves of news coverage, terrorism threats and acts both domestic and international.
Visiting DC this past week, it was impossible not to be distracted and sometimes distressed by the global military shifts being threatened and the political maneuvering and sabre rattling echoed and amplified via every known media platform. Clergy gathering in Charlottesville to counter-demonstrate a white pride march, death, injury and destruction that followed. Political leaders using threats and scary syntax to position their countries against one another. What kept you from hearing Jesus beckoning you to himself? It was hard to imagine any of the high profile leaders in the news acting with the complete love of God as their motivators.
And what of the upcoming week? What is on your agenda that may be intended for productivity, crossing off listed “to dos”, and preparing for a return to work, school or family and guest-free living? Is it possible, as we sit here together on Sunday, to decide to find time for quiet contemplation, rest and divine connection? Jesus had to pray in order to restore himself. A perfect example to follow, even if this morning it may seem impractical given your calendar, expectations and the responsibilities on your plate.
We could take the lead from one of my mentors who is very much about balancing the requirements of a faith-filled ordained life with the practical realities of an oversubscribed schedule. He advocates for at least praying through your calendar, even if that means simply looking at your iPhone and asking to be made aware of God’s presence during the upcoming meetings and phone calls. It is a prayerful exercise that doesn’t take long, and the mere expectation of having God’s presence at each stop of your day enhances the likelihood that you will be aware of it.
The example of Peter this morning is that if we can ignore or set aside distractions and focus wholly and intently on God, our fears and some familiar experiences will be quelled. The second message from Peter’s experience is equally important. If we get distracted by waves or scary things like hate marches or bickering countries, competing responsibilities and massive to do lists, if we lose our focus on God, Jesus is there with a hand to catch us, to calm the rough seas and to affirm our faith and devotion.