Sermon for St Mark’s, 13th August 2017
A Fascinating Library
Sermons recently have been intense, or serious in topic, sermons about our transfiguration, about unconditional love, conditional forgiveness, and assurance that when we die and make our journey home, Someone knows we are coming. This morning we might lighten up a bit, pull back from intense scrutiny and wonder together about a familiar story from Matthew.
Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him after a dramatic feeding of 5000 people on the shore of the Galilean Lake. He had a desire to pray, and as he preferred prayer in solitude, he sought privacy. The disciples, no surprise, got into the boat Jesus had been teaching from before the feeding miracle, and set off for another shore. The Galilean Lake, also called Sea of Galilee, is an inland, freshwater body 13 miles long and 8 wide, and is shallow enough that it is famous for intense storms which arise quickly. Jesus spent most of his ministry on its shores, and the disciples, as commercial fishermen, knew well its rules and temperament.
Sailing along the shore towards Genessaret, then, a storm did come up, and the boat was in trouble. This story is similar to another (Matthew 8.23f) in which Jesus is in the boat with the disciples when such a storm came up, and in that danger, Jesus calmed the storm. In our story, Jesus is recognized and offers encouragement, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter, who is willing more than the others to trust Jesus, tests what he is seeing, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Not a bad response to what might be mistaken in a threatening, storm-tossed night around three in the morning. Peter recognized Jesus, and at his bidding stepped out of the boat. You know the conclusion – he became frightened, and Jesus reached out and helped him back in the boat. Not surprising, the disciples were amazed, and worshiped Jesus.
So as we wonder about what we have heard, you might ask, “Is there any explanation which might make the story more compatible with our 21st century minds?” Two thoughts from the scholars might interest you. One is that the boat is closer to the shore than the dramatic painters depict, and that Jesus is walking in storm-tossed surf. Peter sees him just visible, and Jesus says “Come”. Peter does fine at first, but then in the undertow begins to sink. Matthew’s point is that Peter trusted Jesus enough to venture out, and that stands solid regardless of whether the boat is near shore or farther out.
A second observation is that this story may be a misplaced resurrection appearance. You remember that after the disciples heard the story from the women that they had seen Jesus on the third day after crucifixion, Peter, overwhelmed with this wonderful, barely believable news, decided to go fishing, perhaps to sort it all out. While out on the lake, they saw Jesus on the shore, and Peter rushed to him. The poignant moment in the story is that on the shore with the risen Jesus, Peter was forgiven for three times denying Jesus. Today’s story might fit the post-resurrection narrative.
What if we compare the two storm stories?
The popular interpretation for contemporary spiritual life is that spiritual persons should be confident to “step out of the boat”. We are encouraged to “think out of the box”, “go the extra mile”, and that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, so some of this wisdom had translated itself into the secular consciousness. Be bold, dream big, take risks – hence the title of a book by John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got to Get Out Of The Boat.
The opposite seems true in the other storm story. I remember John Dominic Crossan teaching about the story of Jesus asleep in the boat with the same disciples, same lake, and a similar storm. When they were at the end of their ropes with fear, they woke Jesus, and he calmed the storm. Again, the message is “Be not afraid”, but trust in Jesus. “Be not afraid” is the most commonly repeated one-liner in the Bible. The implication, though, in this first story is “You better get in the boat”. Dr Crossan believes it is a message to Christians in Matthew’s day who were going astray to remain with Jesus, with the young Church, and not be distracted by persecutions and diversions of their times.
Here is a spiritual observation which might not readily occur to western-thinking Christians: one does not always have to think in an “either/or” frame. Often the Spirit moves in the world of “both/and”. Sometimes the best answer is not singular. Perhaps there is learning from more than one possibility. Once I had a conversation with an apprentice native American shaman, and asked if God is a notion contained only in our heads and hearts, or is there a reality outside our imagination and distinct from it, which we name God. His answer was “Yes”. The Spirit of God is larger than any frame which says there is only one right answer. In the practice of medicine, the search must be for the one source of a problem (either/or). In the unraveling of history, the story is more complicated, depending on getting all the facts, and whether the accounts are written by the victors, or by the victims. In the world of Spirit, the answers may often be “both/and”. God certainly dwells in our hearts and minds, but God is also larger than our hearts (I John 3.20) and exists outside and beyond our best imagination.
Are there not times when we as Christians should step out, risk our energy for the Gospel, for the helpless and oppressed? Are there not times when conscience demands we swim upstream and challenge the way things seem to be going? And are there not times for us to come together, to bless and heal and strengthen the church, to protect its wholeness, even circle the wagons, and hear again the message of hope and confidence in Jesus? Times to get out of the boat. Times to get into the boat. Both/And.
My hope is you will read your Bible, and enjoy. Read for color. Be surprised when it does not say what you have always thought it said. (Where does it say God helps those who help themselves? That is Ben Franklin, not Jesus.) Look for surprises: did you notice that when Peter stepped out into the water to come to Jesus, that he did not bring Peter to shore? They both got back into the boat, the place of safety for that moment. Your Bible is a fascinating library, often uncomfortably candid. So read, and think, and wonder. Perhaps the Spirit of God will find you there. AMEN.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.