Pentecost X – Proper 14A – August 13, 2017
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
This is a day of celebration as we prepare to welcome Mollie Olivia Jacobsen into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism. This is no light undertaking. In the baptismal service all who are present will promise to support Millie as she grows up into the person she was created to be. As it is for all of us, growing up involves reaching, risking, standing, stumbling, falling… and getting back up again. We grow with the love and encouragement of our families, our friends and of the larger community to which we belong. We grow because… is God’s great desire that we become fully who we were created to be.
Millie is being welcomed to grow into the life giving story of our faith, the Christian In this story we share a common memory of God’s guidance and strength that is forever and always freely offered to the beloved at all times… in times of trial, in times of perplexity and in times of chaos. God led Moses and his people out of bondage in Egypt through the wilderness and into the promised land. God came to be with us in Jesus to show us the power of love and compassion… and he witnessed, with the whole of his being, against the powers of injustice and oppression, freely giving up his life for the sake of all humankind. The story doesn’t end there. The prophets of old spoke of God’s dream. God uttered the Word, the Logos, and the word became flesh in Christ Jesus. Through Christ’s resurrection death was conquered death and all things were made new. This is the story that we come here to remember together. We are called by name to grow into faithful witnesses… to live in the newness of life that invites us to come together as a beloved community and to share in the building of God’s dream of peace on earth and well-being for all people everywhere. This is, indeed, a special day.
As we turn to our lessons for today we hear, in first Kings, we hear that Elijah, after a tumultuous time goes to a cave to rest. He is distraught that the Israelites have forsaken their covenant with God, they have torn down altars, warred with one another. The prophet is exhausted. Elijah gets a message that the Lord is about to pass by. He peeks out of the cave. There was wind. There was an earthquake. There was fire. Yet God was not in any of the chaos. Out on the ledge Elijah encountered God in the “sound of sheer silence.” God was encountered in the “still, small voice.” Amidst all of the turmoil we, too, are called to be still… and listen for God in the silence, and to help our children and one another to grow in God by growing in the richness prayerful stillness, gaining strength for the journey.
In Matthew’s story we feel for Peter as he has he stumbles and falls on the water. But let us go back in the story a bit. At the beginning of this chapter Jesus learns of the brutal death of John the Baptist. Before he has time to grieve he continues to encounter the sick, and he continues offering the gift of healing… drawing an immense crowd that seeks to be in Jesus’ presence. The hour was late and the people were hungry. Jesus took two fish and five loaves of bread. He blessed and broke the bread and there was more than enough to feed the 5,000 men who were gathered as well as the women and children. The number could have been 10 to 15 thousand. Before Jesus dismissed the crowds he didn’t simply ask, he compelled the disciples to get into the boat and cross over to the other side. They had more work to do in the morning. The disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee having no idea what the next encounter, the next mission, the next moment of ministry would look like. With the disciples on the water, Jesus finally was able to have some time alone to pray, to grieve, and to gain strength for his new day.
Through the night the boat was battered and tormented by whipping wind and waves. When morning came Jesus came down from the mountain and went to the shore. He saw that the boat was far away from land. Jesus saw the battered boat rolling and listing.
It was in this place of chaos that the miracle occurred. But what was the miracle? Was it that Jesus was able to walk atop the churning Sea of Galilee? Was it that Jesus had command over the elements? Was this yet another opportunity to recognize God’s presence in the person of Jesus? Was it something else?
It was probably between 3 and 6 am that the disciples spotted a figure walking towards them. The figure appeared unworldly… like a ghost… and now they were really terrified. l The Greek word used in the text is “phobos” as in “phobia”.. they were terrified, they “squawked” when they saw this ghostly figure approaching. Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I”… as in God’s own name “I AM” that he spoke to Moses on the mountain. “It is I” says Jesus “do not be afraid.” The mystery of the ghost-like figure is solved. The terror the disciples experienced was in encountering God in such a surprising and unexpected form.
The Story of Jesus walking on water appears in the Gospels according to Mark and John. Luke does not include it. It is only in Matthew’s account, however, that we hear about Peter’s part in the story. After realizing who Jesus is… Peter, in his audacious fashion, asks for confirmation of Jesus’ identity by telling Jesus to command him, Peter to come out of the boat. He asks Jesus to command him to step out into further chaos. Jesus says, simply, “come.” Why? To satisfy Peter’s uncertainty? To invite him to take a daring step that Peter would never have even envisioned before this moment? Like a young child intent on making it to the outstretched arms of his mother. With wobbly first steps Peter actually does walk on water… for a brief moment. His focus does not last. He notices the strong wind that he had be oblivious to just seconds ago and he begins to sink.
An often touted explanation for Peter sinking is that he lost his focus on Jesus… with the implication that if we don’t keep our laser focus of faith on Christ we will doom ourselves to sink in the waters of failure. We could blame Peter for a making foolish, impulsive, risky request in the first place, asking Jesus to tell him to in stepping out of the boat. Peter starts to sink because he “sees the wind.” He is back in the chaos. Then Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” …and Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Was Peter truly a failure? He did walk on water… if but for a moment. “When they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This holy encounter… in the midst of chaos… these issues of faith and obedience are ones for us to sit with.. and engage with… to chew on and to learn one. There is not one simple explanation. We could say that Peter was impulsive and foolish for even leaving the boat. What he does do is reach out… risk… and obey. Is that not an act of faith? It this not the true witness and miracle?
Faith is not something that we simply will into our lives. A life of faith is an engaged life. We must live out our faith… we must live it to grow in it. We must dare to risk… knowing that we will stumble, we will make mistakes.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said of this scene: “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith… The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definitive step is demanded, the call vanishes in thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”
Water cleanses and purifies, water is necessary for all life, plants and animals alike, our bodies are 72% water, water has the power to excavate as witnessed by its ability to gouge and excavate great canyons. It is the source of both life and death. It is through the waters of baptism that we are welcomed into new life in Christ. Amidst the storms and chaos in our midst …we are called into fellowship with one another in Christ’s name.
Our role as the beloved community is to help Millie grow into the person she was born to be. It is to be a supporting presence in the midst of life’s trials and storms. It is for us to recommit ourselves, each day, to the baptized life.
So let us, together this day, recommit ourselves to this life as we renew our baptismal vows…