Proper 14, Year A: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our imagination and hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As we start looking at this gospel reading for the next few minutes – I invite you to let your imagination pull you into the scene. As you think about the story, you can ask yourself: Is there some person, or some viewpoint, or some words in the story that jump out – words or feelings or personalities that particularly grab your attention. Are there words that seem to be saying something directly to you? Or is there a particular person that you identify with? Basically there are 3 players in this story: Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the disciples.
Here’s how the story goes – first some background and then the story itself. Try putting yourself into the action.
This story comes immediately after the one we heard last week where Jesus and his disciples fed more than 5000 people with just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. This miraculous dinner obviously causes some excitement. We might wonder if this is one of those times when Jesus comes on so powerfully that the people want to make him their leader, their ruler – right then and there on the spot. It seems that in order to bring emotional levels back down to some kind of reasonable level, Jesus makes the disciples go away – get in a boat and head for the other side of the lake. Then he graciously and gently pushes the crowds away – tells them to go home so he can have some alone time.
Jesus then heads up the mountain to pray and while he’s up on the mountain by himself, the disciples, who in the meantime have gone out in the boat, find themselves in the middle of a horrific storm.
I’m guessing that many of you are boaters – or at least have some experience being out on the water. Imagine yourself onboard with the disciples in this story – on a sail boat probably about 25 ft. long and 7 feet wide, enough room to comfortably hold twelve people – the twelve disciples, in our case — but not many more.
The sea of Galilee (actually more like a lake) is fairly shallow as lakes go – about 150 feet at the deepest point, and because it’s shallow the winds can whip up the water fast and furious without warning. This potential for dangerous storms is made even worse because of the high mountains right by the shore. When the cool dry air off the mountains meets the warm, moist, semi-tropical air around the sea, it creates strong funnel shaped winds that drop onto the water and cause violent waves — this makes for serious danger for anyone caught out on a boat during a storm.
The sea of Galilee is only about 64 square miles so you’re never really out of sight of land when you’re out on the water, never out of sight of land when it’s daytime, that is. Remember: as we’re out there with the disciples, it’s night time, and there was no artificial light 2000 years ago when this story happened. So as you’re imagining yourself in that boat – imagine pitch black – in the middle of a scary storm. It seems that we’re in a whole lot of trouble here!
Back on the mountain, it turns out that Jesus has been monitoring our treacherous voyage. And somewhere around 4:00 o’clock in the morning – as we’re out on the stormy sea, we look out into the darkness — and we see – we think we see — Jesus walking on the water. With the terror of the storm, we’re not thinking very rationally at this point – so we don’t quite know what to make of this vision of Jesus out there in the middle of the storm on the water. Then we hear – we think we hear – Jesus’ voice saying “Take heart, it is I – don’t be afraid.”
I hope you’re still with me – still imagining that you’re sitting in that boat, taking this all in. If your mind works like mine tends to work, you may want to take some time at this point to try to make some kind of sense of this scene. Of course, none of this makes sense rationally. We’re in the land of the miraculous here, most likely suspended for the moment between faith and doubt.
But our friend Peter, impetuous Peter who always seems to immediately have something outlandish to offer – Peter hops up and asks Jesus to command him to walk on the water too. How stupid is that idea! But Jesus says: OK – come on out of the boat.
Now you’re watching this – what do you think? Should Peter have kept his mouth shut and stayed in the boat? Maybe you remember that song from the musical Guys and Dolls “Sit Down, Sit Down, Sit Down, Sit Down: Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat?” Actually this is exactly the conclusion many early Christians came to when they read this scripture in Matthew. Stay faithfully in the boat! For the early Church the boat represented the stability and safety of the church and, they said, “That’s where we’re supposed to ride out the storm!”
But Peter being Peter hops out of the boat and does actually start walking toward Jesus. At that moment, he’s doing exactly what Jesus is doing – he’s walking on water. And doing what Jesus does – isn’t that part of our commission as Christians?
But then, as we’re watching all this from the boat, we see Peter start to sink as he realizes – in his head – what he’s doing: He’s doing something that he can’t possibly do – in the middle of a deadly storm at that. He’s scared – he takes his eyes off Jesus — and he starts to go under. But from an innate sense of knowing where true safety lies, from his deep, yet still-growing faith that knows where salvation comes from. Peter cries out for Jesus to save him – and Jesus reaches out to him and pulls him up.
So what do you think – should Peter have stayed in the boat? He could have saved himself the embarrassment of failure by just stopping to think before he hopped out of the boat. He could have avoided Jesus’ public chastisement, Jesus saying to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” By the way, I wonder what the tone of Jesus voice was when he said that: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Was he in stern, “school marm” mode – or was he just having a little fun with those words – was he just giving Peter a little loving poke?
Who do you identify with at this point: Peter or the other disciples – the impetuous, risk-taking Peter or the rational disciples who see their best chance of survival in the safety of the boat? In your imagination, think about it: you’re sitting in the boat looking over the side into the water. If it helps you to imagine the scene in a different way, try thinking of this pulpit – up here where I’m standing – the pulpit is the boat. And down there – on the step in front of the altar is the water and the wind and the waves. Take a moment to visualize that. (Move from pulpit to the floor.)
As a seminary student I’m relatively new to preaching. In spite of the fear factor that goes along with getting in the pulpit, I continue to feel called to preach the good news. That sense has been affirmed this summer, and I am so, so grateful for the experience and the opportunities you’ve given me here this summer.
As for the fear factor in preaching: for me, being up there in the pulpit – in the boat – usually feels quite a bit safer than being down here on the water. But the good news is that Jesus is always with us wherever we are – and he speaks through all of us wherever we are. Jesus is both in the boat and on the water outside the boat!
But you know what The Spirit is saying to me in today’s gospel story? “If you’re even going to begin to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!”
I wonder – what boat are you called to step out of ?