Matthew 14:22-33, preached on 8/9/2020
Today’s gospel changed my life. One summer Sunday, 19 years ago, I sat in Trinity’s pews and heard this gospel reading while serving as a pastor in the Bronx. I was on sabbatical and had intended to go to a different church that Sunday but due to train issues I ended up here at Trinity. The pastor had recently left and an interim pastor preached what to me was a somewhat depressing sermon about depression- but maybe I just wasn’t listening well because my mind was distracted by the day’s gospel, as Jesus walks across the waves towards the disciples in their boat and invites Peter to step out onto the waters and approach him. Only I heard the story in a new, unsettling way: “Heidi, get out of your boat,” and I felt seasick in my pew.
Getting out of my boat could have meant many things, but for me it sounded like a call to leave the present setting and structure of my life– the church and community where I’d lived and worked for almost twenty years. Not to come here to Trinity, but to leave where I was to go I knew not where. Except that I didn’t want to leave, thus the seasick feeling.
A few months later, after hearing this startlingly clear order to get out of my boat, my bishop phoned and asked me to consider the possibility of a call to Trinity. Previously, I would have just said, thank you but no thank you, but now I felt the Spirit’s call to be open to new possibilities. It took a while, but two years later, I became Trinity’s pastor. God’s word changes lives. This story changed mine- in ways for which I will be forever grateful.
I understood my call to get out of the boat as a call to take a risk, to trust in Jesus and that’s how I’ve understood Peter’s call- be bold in faith, leave the structures that feel familiar and safe and step out into the unknown. Take a risk and trust in God to keep you afloat. Wise advice. But there are many ways to read a Biblical text, many ways to see God’s workings through God’s word, a living word that bears ever new meanings and I am drawn to a different meaning for these days.
Let’s go back to the beginning of today’s gospel. Jesus has sent his disciples ahead in a boat while he goes off alone, seeking some rare solitude to pray by himself after many days ministering among crowds of people. The disciples were fishermen, used to winds and waves, used to storms but as the wind and waves get bigger and stronger, THIS storm strikes fear into their hearts. Wherever Jesus is, he realizes this and starts walking over the rough seas to reach them. What the seasick disciples see through the dim morning light and the salt-spray of fear is a ghost and they are terrified. “It’s a ghost!” Immediately, Jesus speaks to them to calm their fears. Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid. We don’t know how the disciples in the boat responded. We do know that they stayed in the boat, likely doing their best to keep it afloat, waiting for Jesus to reach them. All of them that is except for Peter- who speaks up: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
This isn’t the first time someone has addressed Jesus like this.
“If you are the son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down for it is written that the angels will bear you up.”
It sounds a bit like Peter doesn’t it.
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
The similarity is not very flattering for Peter because the first voice is the voice of the devil during the temptation of Jesus. If you are the Son of God, do this, Do that. If it’s you Lord, prove it to me, never mind my scaredy-cat brothers back in the boat, do something special for me! Do something spectacular for me, just this one time and I will believe. I have an idea…How about if I defy science and get out of this leaky boat and walk on water?
An editorial I read this week spoke of our national failure in the face of this pandemic and it cited two main problems- lack of leadership at the top and a strong of individualism that resists state rule, or put another way, that resists anyone telling you what to do. Now that can have it’s positive sides in some situations, like when parents tell their children- don’t’ follow the crowd, do what you know is right. But it can also lead us to where we are now, pitting individual rights against community wellbeing. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk.
The editorial says that some have “sacralized selfishness, by insisting on the right to act selfishly even when it hurts others. What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness. And this cult is killing us.”
Martin Luther frequently cited the great African bishop Augustine who spoke of our selfish inclinations as homo incurvatus en se…humanity curved in on itself. This is a good definition of sin and it’s a good definition of what we’ve seen playing out.
It’s MY right NOT to wear a mask. I feel fine so I can’t be sick. I’ll just ignore what doctors and scientist say and do what I want to do. I’m not going to stop my life because I feel just fine. I’m not letting big brother tell me what to do, If I want to drink or party or gather in a big group or sing in church I’ll do it. In fact today, I might just try walking on water.
Jesus plays along with Peter but the storm is too much and Peter begins to sink, as vulnerable as those in the boat. Jesus reaches him and brings him back. Not to stand alone upon the shore of individuality, but to the boat where the others wait, together rowing against the wind, together waiting for Jesus to reach them. They weren’t seeking spiritual acrobatics. They weren’t trying to exempt themselves from the laws of nature. They weren’t tempting fate. They weren’t promoting exceptionalism for themselves, their group, their state. They were doing the what they knew how to do in the boat waiting for Jesus to join them as he already told them he would do.
And that’s when the real miracle happened. Not out on the waters where Peter and Jesus had their private drama, but back in the boat, where everyone was gathered together. When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him saying truely you are the Son of God.
The compelling thing about Jesus to me, the most amazing thing, is not that he walked on water. It’s that the one who could walk on water, chose and chooses to walk with the likes of us. Together in the boat with us as we are, flawed and vulnerable, selfish, foolish sometimes brave and sometimes afraid. Jesus got into the boat with Peter and the others and that’s where the miracle occurs. When they were together. That’s when the wind ceased. That’s when the storm stilled. As virulent storms will when we work and wait together.
Like us, this morning, together in a leaky boat weathering the frightening waves of a pandemic, together even when we are physically apart, bound together as we face varieties of struggles, Rowing against the wind, rowing against wave upon wave of delusion, rowing against the currents that would divide us and overcome us, giving us a sinking feeling about many things yet trusting that it really is Jesus in our midst, speaking the words that brought comfort and hope to the earliest Christians whose boat was battered in every way as ours can be: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”