Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 for Pentecost +9 A, August 10, 2014
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. 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. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
“A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi fish in a lake. The preacher has to go back and fetch his pole, so he walks across the water, gets the pole, and walks back. Then the rabbi has to go for some beverages, so he walks across the water, gets the cooler, and walks back. “The Catholic sees this and invents a reason to go back for something left behind too, but when he gets out he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat, and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again. “The Baptist leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stepping stones are?”
When you think about it, going completely underwater is quite a unique experience. Suddenly it is quiet; the sounds of the world are gone. There is no air to breathe. And if it’s not a pristine swimming pool, and if it’s not daytime, it is hard to see anything.
I remember when my father taught me to put my head all the way under the water: it was scary.
In the ancient world, the sea was considered by some to be a god; probably you know the name Poseidon, for example. There were mythologies of great sea monsters inhabiting the deep: Leviathan, Rahab, the Chaos monster all live in the poetry of our ancient ancestors and even show up in the bible’s poetry.
Humans have lived by the sea since the dawn of civilization. We learned how to fish with nets from boats thousands of years ago. We have known for a long time what it means to be at the mercy of the sea, when storms come up before shore can be reached. We have known what it means lose people to the sea. We have known the sea to cross its expected boundary at the shoreline and flood fields and homes and towns.
So for these kinds of reasons, the sea is often chosen as an image of risk. The sea is a place of dangerous disorientation. To “be at sea” about a decision is to lack direction – no landmarks to guide us because we are not on land.
We talk about having “a sinking feeling” and “the water coming up to our necks.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet muses about taking “arms against a sea of troubles.” We speak of “drowning” in all kinds of things from debt to pity. To be “in deep waters,” to be “in over our heads,” is to be vulnerable. It is dangerous. It is risky.
This is exactly what people of faith are called to do: to take the essential risk, and to keep taking that same risk again and again, even as the odds of success diminish.
That is what this gospel story is about: leaving the safety of a shoreline, getting out into a little boat on the big sea, at night, with storm clouds coming; taking an essential risk. And then, being willing to go still further; to leave even the modicum of safety the little boat provided and to join Jesus out where there is no safety net, no stepping stones to rely on.
To be a person of faith, is to take the essential risk, and to keep taking the risk, that it might be true. There might actually be a God. That there might be a God who is there, and who cares.
The Commanded Risk
For Jesus, it was essential that his followers, the ones we call disciples, were willing to take that risk. Where are we in Matthew’s Jesus story? Matthew has just told us the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 12 leftover baskets of bread. It is a story about abundance. About risking the small amount we have for the sake of the many in need.
But that story demanded nothing of the disciples. They served the bread and took up the leftovers. No sweat. In fact it ends with cushy comfort: bread in the basket is like money in the bank. Security, at least for the time being.
Jesus is aware, however, that life is not really like that. Life is not sitting on the grass eating bread with friends. And so, Matthew tells the story with these words:
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.”
Barely have they swallowed the last bite of bread, and Jesus orders them into the boat to cross to the other side. He made them. It was important to him that they take a risk.
Meantime, Jesus does his characteristic withdrawal to go be alone, and, again like Moses, to pray on a mountain. Jesus’ life of faith was continually renewed and energized by his practice of prayer. There is no such thing as a vital spiritual life apart from the steady practice of prayer; even for Jesus himself.
No Special Help, All Night
It is important for Jesus that the disciples in that boat receive no special Jesus-help to face the coming storm. They will live most of their lives without him physically present, and so they must begin to learn what it is going to mean. In this way I hope we can see that Jesus has put them in the story in the same situation that we find ourselves in.
“the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”
I have been to Israel where in a museum on the sea of Galilee there is an ancient boat, from approximately the time of Jesus, that they preserved. The guide, of course, calls it the “Jesus boat” – which is what the tourists, like me, want to imagine. But, upon seeing it, everybody in our group had the same thought: it’s so small! We would be tempted to call it a canoe, though it’s a bit larger than that. Still, to be battered that way by the waves, far from land, with the wind against you, in that little thing would be terrifying.
To make it worse, the battering and wind lasts all night. The next bit of action happens when it is nearly morning. So they are, soaked and exhausted, as well as terrified.
Life is Like That
Well, Matthew has done a good job of describing what life is like for a lot of people. It is like that. Can you imagine the life of a Christian in Iraq, right now, fleeing for their lives from the I.S. terrorists? Or the lives of parents in Central America who are so hopeless and devoid of all rational, reasonable options, that they put their kids on freight trains bound for our borders? Can you imagine the experience of a Palestinian who just wants to have a simple life, but who lives at the mercy of the maniacs of Hamas who keep firing rockets into Israel and inviting massive force retaliation?
There is a world of poor people, oppressed people, displaced people, and abused people, whose whole lives are lived as if in little boats, at the mercy of the waves, with the wind against them, far from shore.
But even for us, who live such lives of privilege, access, and stability, we also know what this experience means. If you saw the film “Good Will Hunting” several years ago, you remember the painting of the man rowing a little boat on a stormy sea that the psychologist, played by Robin Williams, had on his wall. When the client, Matt Damon’s character, noticed it, he made fun of it, to hurt him – and it got to him. Why? Because being at sea, tossed about in a little boat was what he had painted to depict how he felt when his wife, the love of his life, was dying of cancer.
We have been in that boat in that storm too. Sometimes our marriage and our family issues put us in that boat. Sometimes it is loss and grief. Sometimes it is illness and the fear of the future. Sometimes it is because of things we brought on ourselves. There are all kinds of reasons, and to top them off, we all know that no matter how good life is, it does not last forever. The future is unknown.
So this is why the life of faith is a risk. People of faith are called to get out of that boat on that storm, believing that there is a God, and that God cares. We will risk being wrong about that – maybe it is like paying the silent universe a compliment it does not deserve. We have plenty of doubts – who would not, under these precarious conditions?
But people of faith take that risk, and keep taking that risk, and go even further, like Peter (whose name means rock, right?) of leaving the small safety of the boat to step out with new risks, trusting that there will be a strong hand there for us when we need it, when we start to sink like a stone.
So, we risk wasting our time in prayer and silence – without proof that it does any good, because we want to nurture our faith and direct our compassion towards people in need.
And we risk all kinds of effort at being a force for good in the world on behalf of people in need. We risk our money to fight hunger and poverty. We risk our reputations to be on the side of justice for the despised and the marginalized. We risk our convenience for the sake of this fragile planet we live on. We risk our time on behalf of children and the elderly.
We are called to take the essential risk of living in a world as if it includes a God who cares, and then we keep risking and risking ourselves daily, on the possibility that God has put us here precisely to be a part of God’s mission of rescue to the world.
And what do we find, when we take these risks? We find what Peter found. That God is indeed there for us when we need him. The storms do not magically go quiet, but the hand is there for us, reaching out, grasping our hand, and, in the end, saving us. Saving us from a self-absorbed life; saving us from a life of indulgence and apathy, saving us from despair and hopelessness, and saving us from the fear that we were alone.
God is here for you. Take the risk of believing that. And take that risk every day. Even with little faith, and plenty of doubts, just like the men in that boat, and watch what happens.