August 10, 2014 - The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sharon L. Rodgers
Matthew 14:22-33

I suspect nearly everyone here has heard some version of the old story that for our purposes this morning I’ll say was about two priests and a young seminarian who were out on a lake in a rowboat fishing. Partway through the morning one of the priests announces he’s out of bait, so he hops out of the boat, walks across the water to shore, gets some more worms from the bait shop and walks on back. A bit later the other priest says he’s really kind of thirsty so he hops out of the boat, walks across the water to shore, saunters up to the snack bar, buys a soda and like the other priest returns to the boat. Toward noon the seminarian, feeling a bit daunted but not wanting to be outdone, announces that he’s going to go get all them a burger, hops out of the boat and sinks like a stone. At which point one priest says to the other, “Maybe we should tell him where the rocks are.”

I tell this rather silly and somewhat irreverent story to illustrate that to both the churched and the unchurched, the religious and not so religious, the stories about Jesus walking on water are extremely well known. Now this could present a problem to someone who spent her entire professional life teaching the physical sciences. Those pesky details about buoyancy, density and the like could pose a stumbling block for someone like me where today’s Gospel reading is concerned. Ah, but not for this former science teacher, because I am an Episcopalian! I proudly and gratefully belong to a Church which bases its faith on the three legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. Because we treasure our God given gift of reason, we take the Bible seriously, but not literally. We understand that there is great wisdom to be found in stories that fall completely outside the bounds of ordinary physics. So, with that in mind, let us approach today’s reading in the spirit of the native American story tellers, who I have heard always begin by saying, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.”

Today’s reading begins at the end of another long day. Jesus has spent his time preaching to the crowds, most likely laying hands on more than one sick soul, and he’s tired. So he suggests the disciples head on over to the other side of the lake while he dismisses the crowds. Once he’s alone, finally, deliciously alone, he heads up the mountain to think, to pray, to watch the sun go down and ready himself for another arduous day tomorrow. 

The disciples, meanwhile, head out in their boat for the opposite shore. I don’t know if you ever think about it, but I often wonder exactly what went through the disciples’ minds as they accompanied Jesus during the three years of his earthly ministry. Most likely they would have been kept too busy during the day assisting Jesus with crowd control, finding food and the like to spend much time pondering their situation. But when the sun went down and the busyness stopped, I suspect they may have spent more than a little time wondering just what in the world they’d gotten themselves into. They had walked away from their livelihoods, their families, to wander around with an itinerate preacher whom they knew was special - after all they had followed him just because he asked them to - but however unusual he may have seemed, in the early days I don’t sense they understood him to be the messiah. So I can imagine there had to have been many moments of doubt on their parts in those early years of their ministries.

Now I grew up on the east coast, and so have been through several extremely powerful hurricanes, but I can assure you that those storms pale in comparison to the storms that arise in my head when I’m worried about something. Moreover, situations that may seem challenging but well within my ability to cope during the day, can leave me in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. So, if like mine, the windmills of the disciples minds spun way faster in the dead of night than when the sun was shining, then being out on a lake, in the dark, in a small boat, without their leader, and having the wind come up, the water become choppy, and the boat start to rock would have been, I can imagine, a recipe for unadulterated panic. If ever there was a time when his followers needed Jesus to be with them, this was it.

Should we be at all surprised then, that Jesus came? I think not. However, since they weren’t expecting him, these terrified men in a wildly rocking boat thought they were seeing a ghost. Mercy, could it get any worse? Wind, waves, and now a ghost! So, in the face of their utter panic, Jesus, calls out hey, it’s me. Take it easy. Don’t be afraid. At that point, Peter, our favorite everyman, shouts back, okay, if it’s really you, tell us what to do…. tell me to come to you, and Jesus responds, come. So Peter, without a moment’s hesitation, hops out of the boat and heads across the water toward Jesus. Now every parent in this church, and many of us who aren’t parents, know exactly what Jesus was experiencing at that moment. It’s what you experience when a beloved toddler learns to walk. You work with them over and over again. Come on, you can do it. Plop. Come on, just come to me. Plop. Come on, you’ll make it this time. Plop. And so it goes until on the umpteenth try, it happens: one foot steps out, and then the other, and the first again, and they’re walking, they’re walking! Their lives, and yours, are never the same again. The disciples all knew how to walk literally, but Jesus had to teach them to walk spiritually. They needed to learn to function in ways they never had before. Good ol’ Peter was willing to give it a shot.

What happens next is known to every current and former athlete on earth: Peter choked. He’d done it, done exactly what Jesus wanted him to do, exactly what he wanted to do, and if he had just kept his eyes on Jesus, if he’d been able to trust himself and believe in Jesus, he wouldn’t have had a problem. But for a fraction of a second, just as he got to Jesus he let himself become aware of what he was doing. He took his eyes off Jesus and looked down. Whoa, this is water!! And down he went. BUT still, he didn’t drown. Jesus was right there to pull him back up and help him back into the boat. Ah, Peter, you almost made it. You’ll do even better next time. 

Of all the stories in the Gospels, this is the one that, for me, most clearly portrays Christian discipleship. First, we have to be willing to get into the boat, that is, to choose to become followers of Jesus Christ. For many of us our parents carried us into the boat by having us baptized as infants. If that was the case, then we got to decide whether or not to stay at confirmation. Those people who were old enough at baptism to speak for themselves, made their own choice about becoming followers of Jesus in the first place. Once in the boat, however it happened, we hopefully become increasingly active in living out our Christian faith. As time passes and our faith matures, there comes a point when Jesus calls us to do more than simply go along with his other followers. One way or another, Jesus calls us to get out of the boat, to undertake something we’ve never done before. Maybe it’s a call to ordained ministry, or to become a teacher, or to serve with the Northwest Medical team, or to become a eucharistic minister. Maybe it’s like the voice that prompted Holly Cabell to volunteer St. Mary’s to host homeless families for two weeks, twenty-four years ago. I wasn’t there, but I have to imagine Holly must have been at least a little bit concerned at what she’d gotten herself, and this church into. What if nobody volunteered to help? What if she and Norton and a few of their closest friends ended up here around the clock trying to do it all themselves? But we all know that’s not what happened. Year after year members of this congregation collectively spend hundreds of hours offering hospitality on behalf of this church, to people in need of shelter.

In my own experience, while I still have trouble controlling my breathing, not to mention my pacing, every time I get up here to preach, I’d have to say the most difficult ministry I’ve ever had land at my feet was serving as President of the Standing Committee during the time when our diocese was without a diocesan bishop. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I agreed to serve as vice president through 2009 and 2010, and then in 2011, with a newly elected bishop in place, I was supposed to become president for the final year of my term on the committee. But nooooo. I can still tell you where I was standing when I took the phone call in May of 2009 from Father Shannon Leach telling me that he was going to have to resign from the Standing Committee, which meant I was going to have to take over as President. Every fiber of my being was screaming no as my mouth said, “Shannon, I’ll do my best.” The next few months were, quite frankly, a nightmare, but as painful as many of my memories of that time are, what still warms my heart is how well we members of the Standing Committee supported each other. We functioned so well as we worked with our assisting bishop, the Board of Trustees, Diocesan Council, and the Search and Transition Committees, moving our diocese forward to the election and consecration of Bishop Michael. In the language of today’s Gospel, there were a whole lot of us running around on the water, doing things we had never done before, never imagined we could do. We were able to do those things because we were so aware of the Christ in each other, reaching out a hand to pull each other up and along, empowering each other to do the work God had given us to do. We weren’t always physically present with each other, but we were always there for each other. That spirit to spirit to Holy Spirit connection was so strong that I realize now, looking back, we couldn’t have failed. Jesus simply wouldn’t have allowed it, anymore than he would have allowed Peter to drown. 

Not everything we undertake in life turns out perfectly, but virtually every experience we have teaches us something, if we’re willing to learn. Truth be told, I suspect we learn far more when things don’t go wonderfully well, than when they do. Either way, each time we dare to step into the unknown, every time we dare to say yes to God, we give ourselves the chance to grow in wisdom and grace, to become more and more fully the people God is calling us to be. 

“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 to Jesus. I don’t know if it happened that way, but I know this story is true.