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Monday, August 8, 2011

Sermon from August 7, 2011 + Ordinary Time, Sunday 19, year A

“In the Boat with Jesus”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Matthew 14:22-33; 1 Kings 19:9-18

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This is the one I like. If we are permitted to have a favorite miracle of Jesus, this is it for me – Jesus walking on water. Ever since I was a child, this miracle has captured my imagination. I can still remember the Arch book of this story, and call the pictures to mind. If I could travel back in time, this would be one of the first things I’d want to see for myself.

This is not the one many biblical scholars like. Some find it cheap, magical – too legendary for their taste. This one gets the metaphoric label pretty quickly, that the evangelists are trying to show Jesus’ divine power, and make this story of his power over water, thus tying him to the Biblical witness that the God of Israel was the one who had power over water, the symbol of chaos to the ancient Hebrews.

I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with that. I think Jesus himself was tying his ministry to the God of Israel, whom he called “Father,” and quite literally did walk on water. Thus showing that indeed he did have power over water, just as they expected from the one true God.

Given that in the sorting out of the Gospels, a lot of the more magical sounding stories didn’t make the canonical cut over the first centuries, I suspect the early Church remembered this as witnessed event, not metaphorical imagery. This is no less magical a story than the apocryphal story that was not included in Scripture but surely was a popular one in the first century where it was heard, that when Joseph cut a board too short one day the child Jesus simply lengthened it. No, we can assume the evangelists and the early Church knew what they were doing, and this story, this one was consistently remembered from believing community to believing community as one which actually happened. And I know I’ve said this in a forum here before, but think about it: if our problem with this story is its implausibility – how can someone walk on water – then we’ve got far greater issues with our proclamation. After all, we proclaim that this Jesus is the very Son of God, who rose from the dead, who was present at the creation of the universe and participating in that creation, among other things. Compared to those actions, walking on the water is pretty small potatoes.

But I wonder if my time machine solution is also problematic. Well, of course I don’t wonder if I could actually find a working time machine. I’m hopeful, but it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and then people would also be tempted to misuse it. No, what I’m wondering is whether or not seeing it in person would actually make a huge difference in my faith. From my childhood until now I’ve assumed it would. But if you look at what happens here, all Jesus’ walking on water does is frighten the disciples. It doesn’t inspire faith – it does the opposite. Which means perhaps Jesus has a different agenda as our Lord and Savior than impressing us with overtly divine actions. Perhaps Jesus understands that in the end, they don’t create the faith he is seeking from us. And if that’s the case, perhaps we need to rethink this whole thing.

It’s funny if this is true, however. We tend to assume that our faith would be stronger if we saw things others were privileged to see.

But in fact we have two stories today which show that isn’t necessarily the case. This story of Jesus and Peter, and walking (or not walking) on water is clearly one. Peter ought to have walked with no problem, given that Jesus invited him to do so, and given that his first steps showed that he could. But he looks around, and starts to sink. And Jesus gives him a new nickname. No longer “Rocky,” he calls Peter “Little Faith.” Not exactly one you hope to have stick. Peter’s faith is actually not strengthened by seeing Jesus’ power firsthand, and even experiencing it. He still sinks into the waves.

But Elijah’s not much better. The context is that he has just had his major victory as a prophet – the whole episode of Elijah versus the 400 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (another one of my favorites as a child) was a huge vindication of his connection to the true God, and that’s what just happened before today’s story.

The sacrifice of the prophets of Baal remained intact after hours of chanting and screaming at Baal to burn it. Elijah takes a higher degree of difficulty, pouring gallons upon gallons of water over his altar and sacrifice, and in one explosive torching, God’s fire burns the whole thing, animal, wood, stones, water, to dust.

It ends somewhat badly we have to say – Elijah has the 400 prophets put to death. But it’s still his signature prophetic moment. Yet when Queen Jezebel in fury signs his death warrant, Elijah flees to the wilderness and mopes that he’s all alone.

Enter the one true God, who wonders, justifiably, what Elijah’s doing out in the wilderness moping instead of doing his job as a prophet. Simply put, we think that if we’d have seen things like Elijah saw – that altar incident alone would have been pretty impressive – we’d be so much stronger in our faith. But even here – after he is given a second gift of experiencing the presence of God – he still repeats that he’s all alone.

This is pretty important. Theophanies, experiences of God, tend to be expected to look like the three events Elijah first sees – great wind, earthquake, fire. Moses had experiences like that on this mountain, and so did the whole nation of Israel. But God wasn’t in those events for Elijah.

God did, however, come to Elijah in a quiet, whispering voice. Do you get that? God spoke to Elijah in person, in an audible, if quiet voice. We’d love to know what that would be like, experience it ourselves.

And yet, when given a second chance to answer why he was moping in the wilderness instead of doing his job, Elijah repeats his complaint. It’s as if it doesn’t matter to him that he’s just been in the presence of God, that God has spoken to him. It doesn’t appear to have strengthened his faith at all. And he subsequently loses his job – part of God’s answer is to, essentially, fire Elijah and tell him to anoint Elisha as his successor.

So that’s our problem. We read the Scriptures and long to see what those believers saw. But apparently it doesn’t have the effect we think.

We are once more with Thomas and Jesus in the Upper Room a week after the resurrection, and struggling with what evidence we need for faith. And we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

And given that the opposite doesn’t seem to have the impact we imagine – who can forget those Pharisees and scribes who didn’t believe in Jesus even after witnessing him raise a four-days-gone dead man to new life – perhaps we might stop thinking of our experience as second best and start listening to Jesus’ answer about where our faith actually is strengthened and nurtured.

In fact, we all have come to faith by the way Jesus really hopes for. It’s not second best – it’s the only way he has in mind.

We find our answer at the end of this Gospel story. When Jesus gets into the boat with the disciples. Then the storm calms. Then he’s no longer a scary figure on the water that makes them think of ghosts. And then they worship him, “truly you are the Son of God.”

If we can make this stretch with the story, it seems faith is found in the boat with Jesus, not looking out at the water for miraculous things to see. It’s Jesus’ way – and part of the reason he often tells people to keep quiet about his miracles.

If he came to restore relationship between the Triune God and the people of the world, then it wouldn’t be by flashy miracles and interventions. It would be by relationship – his with the believers, the searchers, the ones just looking for help.

He teaches, and hopes that we hear and follow his teaching. He welcomes, and hopes we learn from this and model his welcoming. And yes, he heals and does other things, but in that he invites us to show compassion to others even when it’s inconvenient or stressful to us. And he creates a community – the people in the boat with us – to surround us and support us and help us in our faith.

And really, that’s the only way any of us have come to faith, isn’t it? We have come to faith in this boat we call the Church, through all the ways Jesus set up for us to do so. There’s a reason we call this room where we all sit the “nave” – it’s from the Latin for “ship.”

And it is here in the ship of the Church that we have met Jesus, been taught by him about God, and been given the gifts of God for faith – bread and wine in which the very presence of God dwells, water which not only cleanses us but brings us into new life from death, Word which guides and shapes and teaches and comforts and challenges, just as Jesus himself, the true Word, did.

Here, in the boat with Jesus, we marvel at what we know and see, and we worship: “truly you are the Son of God,” we say with the disciples. And it’s not second best. It’s the only way the vast majority of us ever believe at all.

Some still receive visions, miracles – like Peter and Elijah. My mother had one of each – a literal vision of Jesus, and a miraculous working by God which cannot be explained except as miraculous. So far as I know, I have had neither. But the truth is I’m fine with that. I’ve got my theories of why my mother had that privilege and I did not. And I certainly wouldn’t mind it if God saw fit to give me such an experience. But I don’t see it as necessary to faith. If anything, such things seem to complicate the matter, if Elijah and Peter are any guide.

Of course, the boat is not the goal for us, in Jesus’ mind. It’s the place where he has put us together and where he is present. But it’s a boat, and it’s going somewhere. It’s what Paul is saying to the Romans today – there are places we are sent to tell this Good News.

Jesus and the disciples are traveling to another place to do ministry – this time foreign parts, as we’ll see next week. And our nave, our boat, while anchored to the literal earth, is not a sanctuary for us to hide from the world. It is the place of faith-building, the place where we are together with Jesus.

But there are places of ministry we are called to reach – some literally neighbor to our anchored boat, others take a little travel. And we’re going to need to listen to Jesus to find out what our next ministry needs to be.

And we’re not always going to get along inside the boat. The first disciples didn’t, so we shouldn’t expect that. That’s because Jesus fills the boat, not us – he brings in people. Because it’s his boat. But it’s hard, because we naturally want to pick and choose our boatmates, and that’s simply not our call.

And it’s a much bigger boat than just this nave – it’s the whole Church on earth now and throughout time. And that means that there are lots of folks in the boat that we don’t like much.

It’s good that it’s Jesus’ boat, though – it’s the only reason any of us feel at all welcomed either.

And the thing is, Jesus somehow gets what our strengths and abilities are, and brings folks into the boat who have differing gifts and abilities, all so the work that needs doing can be done. The twelve disciples needed Thaddeus for some reason, though whatever gifts he had weren’t noted in Scripture and any contributions he made were similarly kept from us.

Ultimately, as we are strengthened in our faith, we are given the strength to serve as we are called.

And that’s the gift Jesus gives to all believers – not everyone gets a vision or a miracle to see. But everyone gets the strengthening of faith and the gift of the Spirit’s power to do our ministry.And I’ll take that exchange any time. And thank you for sharing this particular boat with me – I look forward to seeing where Jesus will send us.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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