Monday, August 11, 2008
In the Boat: A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33
“In the Boat”
August 10, 2008
Think with me of a time when you were afraid.
There are many kinds of fear, many things we might be afraid of. Here are some times I’ve been afraid. I was afraid on the morning of September 11, 2001, like so many Americans… I was a seminary student, just about 9 miles north of the World Trade Center, and I’d heard the fire trucks roaring down Broadway all morning as I’d watched the unimaginable images on television. I wondered whether I was foolhardy, leaving my children home in Binghamton with their dad, while I went off to engage in what now seemed a selfish enterprise, getting my master’s of divinity so that I could be ordained. I was afraid on an airplane, taking my first flight after 9/11 changed air travel forever, not just for citizens of the US, but for the whole world. I wondered if the airways were really safe, wondered if this flight would reach its destination. I was afraid just before I had surgery, an emergency operation I had about ten years ago. Actually, I was more afraid the day before, during that period of time when I knew there was something very wrong, and two visits to the doctor hadn’t diagnosed it. I wondered what was wrong with me, how serious it really was.
These fears all have to do with physical safety and well-being, but I’ve been afraid in other ways, too. I was afraid when I knew my marriage was ending. I wondered if I would ever find happiness again, without that particular person by my side. I was afraid when I was between pastoral calls, when no suitable opening in a church came along for seven long months after I had finished an interim position. I wondered if I would ever be able to do this work that I love so much again, and I started to look at the want ads in the local paper. And just recently, I was afraid… just a little afraid… when not one but both of my children made plans to spend large portions of their summer living their own lives, growing and learning in ways that necessarily precluded the involvement of their mother. I wondered, what would life be like without them for three or four long weeks? I wondered, who am I, when I am not their mom?
Fear causes us to wonder, to ask questions, projected out into an unknown future, even more frightening than the scary present. Today’s gospel passage is about fear, and about responses to fear—ours and God’s. We pick up the story exactly where we left off last week… that long day on which Jesus learned about the death of John, his cousin, and tried to find time apart to pray and be alone, but was thwarted by the large and needy crowds. Remember how he healed them, he took compassion on them, and he fed them, along with his disciples. On that day of fear and anxiety, Jesus found it in himself to feed God’s hurting and hungry people.
Immediately, Matthew tells us, Jesus told his disciples to get in a boat. Actually, he “made” them get in a boat, an odd detail…but it lets us know that Jesus is in charge, the disciples are his followers, and he takes command. Go, he tells them, and they obey. And Jesus finally finds the hours he needs to be alone, to pray and grieve and process the horrifying and beautiful events of the day. Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, so many of the most important events of Jesus’ life are portrayed as taking place on a mountain. Like Moses on Sinai, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray and commune with God. Jesus is on the mountain. The disciples are in the boat. And time passes.
The Sea of Galilee is known for its capricious weather. Like Lake Superior, it has these massive storms that blow up all of a sudden at the end of relatively mild and cloudless days. And so the disciples are caught off-guard by just such a storm, in their boat, battered by the waves, far from land. And it goes on all night long. Long night…no rescue in sight… no captain to shout words of reassurance. I wonder what they were wondering. Were they wondering, is this it? Is this the end for us?
Every gospel, every passage of scripture emerges from a particular historical situation, and Matthew has just described for us the situation of the early church. Jesus, whom Matthew has called “Emmanuel”—Hebrew for “God is With Us”—Jesus is suddenly, distressingly, absent. The church is likened to a boat, in the middle of a journey, far from land, and battered by the waves—actually, the Greek word is “tortured.” The church is being tortured by the storm all around it. Matthew is telling us how the church is suffering in the early years, that time when Jesus’ followers are going forth alone to spread the good news. They are “in the boat/ church, with only their fragile craft preserving them from its threat, buffeted by the stormy winds of conflict and persecution…” Long night… no rescue in sight… no captain to shout words of reassurance.
Except, in the latest, darkest part of the night, literally, the “fourth watch” (which would be between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), there he is. There comes Jesus, walking on the water. One of the hardest things we can try to do is to shift our minds into the mindset of the early church, to understand how they heard this story. This week I heard someone talking about those characters we encounter in scripture: “These are people who never placed a phone call, or complained about a table,” he said. “They never waited for the results of a C/T scan.” That world is pretty hard to grasp for us, we who have the world and all its scientific discoveries at right our fingertips. We who know about gravity, and why precisely Jesus should not be able to walk on water.
But when the early church, those telephone-less people, heard this story, they heard it quite differently. “Ah,” they said. “He walks on it: that means he conquers it. And what he walks on… the stormy sea, chaos. He is the conqueror of chaos. He is the conqueror of fear. Even when he is not present, he is somehow present. And when he is present, God is present, God, who conquers chaos once and for all.” 
Fear grips the disciples, again, anew. They wonder… is it a ghost? Which is a revealing fear. In other words, on this day on which they’ve heard of the death of a prophet, the disciples very reasonably fear that Jesus, too, is dead. But Jesus hears their terrified cries, and says “Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”
This alone might have been… must have been… powerfully comforting, encouraging for the disciples, battered as they were by the storm. But Peter reacts differently. Peter, Rocky, the one who is both leader and representative of all Jesus’ followers, seeing Jesus walking on the water, becomes agitated, I would say. He seems to want and need something more. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Lord, if it is you. Oh Peter. He needs more.
My colleagues, other ministers who are preaching on this text this week, are utterly divided on Peter getting out of the boat. One writes most poetically about Peter’s courage:
When I read this passage, Peter is my hero. He's the grizzly young seminarian who, because he doesn't know any better, starts a ministry with street kids in the inner city. He's the social activist who sees poor people without medical or legal resources, then tries against all odds to help. He's the community organizer who rallies a neighborhood to save a city park, or at least gives it his best effort. He's the minister or elder, sister or brother, who may fall on his face, even screw up, but who's out there doing liturgy with his feet and soul, maybe in big ways, more often in tiny ones. 
Others say that Peter’s insistence on getting out of the boat is a mistake, a personality defect, ego. One writes,
Christ tells the disciples, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter then challenged Jesus and says "If it is you, command me to come." Peter needs proof and in a sense puts himself right out there. Make me do something special. Set me apart, then I will believe. Peter is putting the burden of proof on Jesus. It is sort of like the desert story, "If you are the son of God command these stones to become bread." And then as Peter begins to sink he cries, "Lord save me." No question who Jesus was at that point. 
In other words, Peter is us… no matter how you look at him. Faithful and faithless, ego-driven and humble, doubting and believing all rolled into one. In fact, that word Jesus uses, when he says “Why did you doubt?” really means “divided in two,” “ambivalent.” Why were you of two minds? Peter is us. Doubting and believing and trying and fearing all at the same time. And yet, at the heart of his plea… isn’t he somehow saying, Draw me Lord? Draw me to you?
This summer all hands were on deck for the 218th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in San Jose, CA. Among the more than 400 items of business it dealt with, the Assembly made some changes to our book of order; there is an insert in your bulletin describing some of them, and we’ll send a full report to you in the September Tower newsletter. One of the changes has to do with how we discern who is appropriately called to ordination to the offices of deacon, elder and minister of Word and Sacrament, particularly in the area of human sexuality. Even as it made these changes—some of which still have to be ratified by votes of the Presbyteries—the Assembly knew that they were likely to be met with joyous welcome in some quarters and dismay in others. The stated clerk of our denomination, Gradye Parsons, preached to the Assembly, and looked to the gospel text. Yes, the church is like a boat, and we are all in this boat together. In times of stress and trial, it is tempting to want to jump out of the boat, to put Jesus to the test. But, Mr. Parsons urged the Assembly to take heart. He said, Get in the boat. Row across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.
When we are afraid and we are wondering what the future holds, our greatest hope is to be in the boat: part of the community of believers, where Jesus’ presence makes itself known. When we are afraid, it is the presence of the Other, the face of God shining through the faces of our friends and loved ones, that makes the fear bearable. Even when we are wondering: Is this it? Will this be the end for us? The gospel message insists: it is not the end. Get in the boat…stay connected to the body of believers. Row across the lake…put your heart and soul and mind and strength into your service of God and God’s people. There will be a storm… there’s always a storm. Immanuel is with us. Keep your eyes on him, instead of focusing on the storm. You will not die… in fact, you will experience new life, better life, fuller life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Eugene Boring, “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 327.
2. Ibid., 328.
3. Bill LeMosy, Member of Midrash Lectionary Discussion Group.
4. Judy Whitmore, Member of Midrash Lectionary Discussion Group.