Sermon: Aug. 10, 2014
Proper 14, Year A: 10 August 2014
Last week’s gospel brought us the story ilderness, in which of the feeding of the multitude in the w the writer shows the people an alternate reality where they needn't fear scarcity. Telling of how Jesus took that small amount of food and blessed it and shared it with thousands of people opened the early church up to a new possibility, one where, through mutual sharing, their needs were fulfilled. The crowds gathered there that day represent participants in a new paradigm, a new story, supplanting the narrative of scarcity that dominated the 1st Century world as the disciples knew it.
On the heels of this story of compassion and new creation comes today’s story, in which Jesus sends the disciples out ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in order to finally get the alone time he so badly needs. As is his habit—and just having come off a week of retreat I understand this; I think Jesus must have been a true Myers-Briggs introvert— he goes off to pray by himself, and then sets out to meet the disciples. It is the middle of the night, but their boat has been unable to reach the shore because the wind is against them and they are being battered by the waves.
I want us this morning to engage with this story as something far more significant than a magical miracle tale about Jesus walking on water just to prove to everyone that he could do supernatural things. I want to suggest to you that what the evangelist is conveying here is something that—like the feeding of the multitudes that precedes it— is startlingly transformative and that has profound implications for how you and I live our lives in this world, something, in fact, that is shouting at us to hear its message because everything depends on it. Jesus, as he demonstrated with the crowds in the wilderness, is operating out of a different way of seeing the world than the people around him. He lives in a reality that he calls the Reign of God, and it is this reality he is trying to convey to the people, it is this reality into which he is inviting them—and us—to step. In the feeding of the multitudes Jesus does nothing less than redefine reality for the people. He brings the people with him into this new way of seeing and living, this new world, this Reign of God that is based upon abundance, upon compassion, upon mutuality. What Jesus is up to is nothing less than re-writing the script that guides human interactions.
And then comes this walking on water scene, which I believe is also meant to convey the radical essence of what Jesus is doing in his ministry: re-writing the rules.
Jesus is defining his own reality, one that is not subject to the "rules" that have kept the people in bondage for so long about how things are supposed to be.
That is why I believe we must heed this story. We are caught, you see, in a particular script, a narrative, that is tearing our world apart. It is a script that has us playing out its plot line of destruction of the environment, its values of materialism and consumerism, its modus operandi of violence and domination. At this very moment this narrative, this paradigm, these "rules" for how the world has to operate, are plummeting us further and further into a plot line of mutual devastation. Forget compassion. Forget new creation. It is a narrative that insists that violence be met with violence, that insists upon the use of power to dominate others, that insists that we grab all the resources we can get with no concern for what will happen to the Earth and to the generations that follow.
It is as though we find ourselves on a little boat out in the middle of a violent sea, at the mercy of the wind and the waves that seem so powerful and over which we have so little control. Our rendering of the text says the boat was "battered by the waves." But the Greek puts it much more emphatically. It conveys the sense that the boat was being tortured by the waves.
Does that resonate with anyone else here? Do any of you feel, as I have felt, that I, we, humankind, the world, is being tortured by the waves of the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves? That we can't make it to safe ground because the wind is so strong and it is against us? That we are helplessly caught in this story that is destining us for catastrophe?
I ask you to hear today’s story from that perspective. The point of this story, you see, is not about Jesus walking on water. It is about Jesus Walking on Water, redefining the rules, breaking out of the trajectory of the dominant narrative and pointing to a new and different way.
I have felt a strong sense of late that humankind needs to wake up from the narrative we are so blindly following. Those of us who are concerned about the course of the human story have to take back our imaginations, to move from being passive participants in someone else's narrative and become authors of the story. We have to disengage from the plot line of destruction and refuse to follow the script we've been handed. Rather than give ourselves over to helplessness in the face of the wind we have to do something totally unexpected. We have to step out of the boat, out of the script, and walk out on the water. For a brief moment, the Gospel has Peter doing just that. He sees Jesus living into this new norm, defining this new reality, and he wants to trust it but he also—being only too human—has to test it. And so he asks Jesus to command him to act. Peter has been here before, after all. The first time Jesus said: “Follow me.” Now he says: “Come.”
Have you ever noticed that many Bibles have subheadings, short descriptions of what's happening where. Headings like "Jesus and Nicodemus" or "The Canaanite Woman's Faith." When this story has a subheading it is usually called something like "Jesus Walks on the Water." Well, if you'll forgive the pun, I think the editors missed the boat. It seems to me that the real point of this story is that Peter walks on water. Jesus is always doing amazing things in the gospel stories, but now we see one of the disciples doing an amazing thing. For a moment Peter is able to live into this new reality that Jesus embodies. He steps out into the storm to meet his Lord on the water. Until something happens...
I expect that most of you remember the old Roadrunner cartoons? A typical scene in one of those cartoons would go like this: Wile E. Coyote, having been tricked again in his pursuit of the Roadrunner, goes racing off the edge of a canyon. He keeps running momentarily on thin air until he looks down and it dawns on him what he is doing. He then throws a look of distress at the viewers a nd plummets through the bottom of the tv screen. Somehow I always had the sense that if only Wile E. hadn't looked down he could have reached the other side of the canyon.
Peter's mistake is that he looks down. He takes his eyes off Jesus and lets the seeming impossibility of what he is attempting get the best of him. He starts to believe more in the waves than in the new reality into which Jesus is calling him. He becomes convinced that the storm is what is real and he begins to doubt that he can do this, step into this new story. He believes it is impossible, and so it becomes for him impossible. Jesus has faith in Peter. The problem is that Peter doesn’t have faith in Peter. And you know the rest of the story.
Jesus has to rescue Peter and when the two of them return to the boat, the disciples worship Jesus. I believe the Christian tradition has never recovered from Peter's faltering. Through the centuries we have taken to worshipping Jesus, just as all those disciples did in that boat on that stormy night, because it is so much easier to worship him than it is to step out with him into this new way of living into which he calls us.
What Jesus did, in his life and ministry, was take back the human story from the narrative of destruction. He offers us a way out of the box in which we are trapped, he invites us to step out of the boat, out of the script, to refuse to let the wind and waves dictate our destiny. He was, if you will, a proactive player, engaged with the world on his own terms, not passively playing out the rules of the prevailing powers. And by his radical freedom to be in this world in his own way, he forced the prevailing powers to respond to his script. Indeed, they are still being forced to respond to his script, although they are fighting like heck to maintain control of the situation. The Story for humankind that was envisioned by God in the beginning and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth was once for all set loose in the world, and the world can never be the same. We are—individually and as the Church, the household of God that is Gethsemane— we are the inheritors of that Story, the stewards of that Vision. It is time for us to understand and claim its power, to live into its narrative and engage with our times out of a radically free imagination that refuses to let the rules for "the way things are" dictate what is normal or possible. It is time for us to undertake what Peter couldn't quite manage, to step out into the storm and not look back. It is time for us to participate in a new Story, step into a new Vision, write a new script, because everything depends on it.