Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday August 7, 2011 Proper 14A
Text: Matthew 14: 22-33 Jesus Coming to the Disciples on the Water
Theme of Sermon: Wavy Faith
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
There is a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition about a monk who thought he could make more progress in his path of enlightenment by seeking it on his own. So he bid farewell to his brothers at the monastery, crossed over the river by ferry and went to live in the solitude of a cave high in the hills. Alone, he meditated non-stop for 25 years. One day he emerged from the cave, looked around, stretched his body out, feasted his eyes on the world and made his way toward the river.
Without even pausing to test the water, he stepped out onto the water and walked across it toward the monastery he had not visited in 25 years. Two brothers who were working at laundry that morning saw the monk coming across the river.
“Who is that?” one of them asked. The other replied, “That is the old hermit who has spent 25 years meditating in the solitude of a mountain cave. Now look at him! He can walk on water!”
“What a pity,” the first monk said. “The ferry only costs a quarter.”
Like this story the Christian tradition has its own stories about walking on water. Today we encounter one of the most famous of them as Peter risks joining Jesus on the waters of the Galilee.
The story of Jesus walking on the water is a numinous one for me. It is full of struggle, danger, independence, fear, risk-taking, failure, salvation and hope. For those of a more skeptical bent there have been attempts to provide more rational explanations for this miracle on water. Some have proposed that what happened was nothing more than an optical illusion. In the dim light of the early morning hours the person of Jesus, ghost-like and ethereal was seen walking on the water through the shallows of the northern end of the lake. Perhaps this is a credible explanation but it is improbable that such an experience would have been transformed into the story we are given. A story based on the disciple’s mistaken vision would not, I venture to say, have been preserved for posterity. Others have tried to understand this wave-walking story as a displaced resurrection encounter, and while it is a very intriguing approach, it too is ultimately no more than conjecture. I think the best way forward is to set aside the question of the historicity of the event in question and instead to focus on what the narrative is meant to teach us theologically. What does this mysterious story offer us in our life of faith?
In the flow of things Jesus and his disciples have just dismissed the crowds after considerable teaching and a miracle of feeding. Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake. Jesus seems to be pushing the disciples a bit toward independence, making them do something on their own and giving them time to wonder about the feeding of so many. He on the other hand seeks out his own reflective time on a hike into the hills. There is of course something here for us in this simple detail. The value of both individual and group reflection is apparent. We all need time to consider where God is at work in our lives, to see the wonder of what God has just done if we can slow down enough to notice the nonchalance of miracle itself all around us.
Jesus himself is a model for the spiritual life as what is necessary for Jesus is necessary for us as well. Jesus needs to find a rhythm of engagement and detachment in his life. His ministry and work is not possible without his solitude and spiritual renewal. We too cannot serve our families or reach out in ministry to our youth or community without finding a place and rhythm of spiritual nurture. Our own frustration, resentment, and at times anger can be the indicators that we are not taking our own need for renewal seriously enough. Jesus was intentional about creating this space for retreat and reflection and we are called to do so as well.
In the early morning light, fog drifting over the surface of the water the disciples are struggling: battered by the waves.. far from land.. the wind against them. These images describe our lives so well at times. We all know what it means to be battered or knocked about by our troubles. We know what it means to have the wind against us. Where is the wind against you now? What kinds of waves have been crashing into your plans?
Into the struggle of the disciples, Jesus, like miracle itself, comes walking toward them on the water. I wonder if this has ever happened to you? In the midst of your troubles, a storm in your life: stress, illness, conflict, crisis, loss, or surprising change whatever the struggle, have you seen the face of Christ coming toward you in a friend, a partner, a stranger, a neighbor? This is the good news of this passage for us this day. In the time of trouble, God has a way of coming toward us in the most unexpected of ways. “Take heart it is I, do not be afraid.” I wish we had time to hear one another tell our own stories of when help arrived just as we needed it, so that we too might feel the message of this passage deep in our hearts.
If you are like me, you love Peter’s response to this whole ordeal. Peter wants to be with Jesus. He wants to do everything Jesus does and so he asks this proof-demanding question. “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” What a wonderful question full of the struggle between faith and doubt. Peter is surely us in this story, our desire to believe but our thirst for real proof, our willingness to step out in faith but our terrible fear of true risk. If I were painting this scene it is this moment that I would want to capture, this beautiful and terrible moment of risk as Peter, balancing precariously on the edge of the boat’s bow, rocking in the wind tossed waves, steps, steps out toward Christ onto faith’s dangerous waters, away from the disciples cowering in fear and toward the adventure that awaits in Jesus’ invitation, “Come.”
Peter walks toward Jesus and that I believe that this is what is asked of each of us. Do we dare to walk toward Jesus? Peter fresh from Christ’s provision in the wilderness is able to risk getting out of the boat. Can we trusting in God’s goodness walk toward Jesus in the mist of whatever risk we face: the work of a relationship, the healing of a deep wound, the adventure of a new opportunity, the challenge of working for justice? In the end, Peter gets a C- minus in walking on water but he is also the first to experience the saving help of his friend and rabbi Jesus. Christ’s grace is sufficient for our needs, for God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (II Cor. 12:9). And this is the freedom that comes from the risk of faith, it allows us to trust not in our own abilities or our own success but to trust that we are truly in God’s hands even when it looks like we might fail or sink into the waves.
Faith is always about risk-taking. It is our daring to say “Yes” to God in tender and vulnerable ways that allow God to show us that we are not alone. As followers of Jesus we are urged to learn to live with uncertainties and the possibility of failure. Jesus is the one who recklessly commands us to leave the safety of the boat, to step into the sea, and test the waters with him in front of us. That’s Jesus, an inveterate risk-taker. He is always calling us to take a chance in the deep water instead of merely splashing around in the shallows. If we want to be close to Jesus, as this story challenges, we need to be willing to venture forth out onto the sea. We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zone and into a place where our need of God is greater than our need for success. This doesn’t mean that there is no discernment of what risk we are being called to or what yes we are feeling rise within our hearts but it does mean that faith is essentially an action.
It is helpful to realize that in the gospel writing of John believing or faith is always a verb and never a noun. Faith is not a possession it is an activity. As one theologian said, “It is like a song that disappears when you stop singing.”
This story is numinous because it is so true to life. We are all of us a mixture of fear and faith of doubt and belief. We alternate between cowering in the boat and leaping onto the waves with Jesus. If I am truthful it is my own doubts that keep me wondering and pursuing the life of faith. My doubts move me along and remind me that the world is not as it should be, the world, including me needs God, it needs the vision of the kingdom of God to break in. But like the epileptic’s father in Mark’s gospel, I am willing to pray, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Put simply I cannot walk on water. I might be more likely to pay the 25 cents for the ferry. But this God-bearing story calls us into a life that accepts the risk of faith that God places in front of each of us without fail. Only you can know where Christ is calling you into deep trust in God? There are times when what we most need is to leave the safety of the boat and the easy fellowship of our companions and venture out into the unknown waters knowing that it is there in that nexus of faith and fear that we will find Jesus striding toward us ready not only to reach out a hand to help but to pull us deeper into God’s saving embrace where we will come to know more fully who we are and more importantly to whom we belong.