Across the Deep

across the water
A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:9-18Psalm 85:8-13Romans 10:5-15, and Matthew 14:22-33.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Friends of mine recently shared some photographs of their son learning to swim.  The time span of the photographs was about a week or two, but the first few photos showed a little boy of 4 years old with a look of absolute terror on his face. The next few pictures showed the little boy in the water, with a lot of splashing.  But the final photo was unmistakable: there was a proud kid with his head popping out of the water, a huge smile for the camera, clearly having learned to swim.

Those pictures have stayed with me.  They remind me of my own learning to swim so many summers ago.  But they also give form to some of the feelings I have been having this week with increasingly dismay at our leaders, escalating conflict with North Korea and others, and then with the violence in Virginia this weekend around the demonstration of white supremacists and nationalists.  Those pictures make me remember when I was afraid of the water and when I was nervous about going into the deep.

The scriptures today don’t give precise answers for how to deal with the mixture of fear, ignorance, and hatred that result in white supremacy and blind nationalism. But the scriptures do speak to fear and how God will show up in the midst of fear and bring us to deeper faith.

I love how God shows up for Elijah in our first reading.  Elijah is terrified.  He’s been doing his work as a prophet, but Jezebel (the wife of King Ahab) has had enough of Elijah and has threatened to kill him.  Elijah is tired and scared, and so he basically hides in a cave, looking for God, waiting for God.  But God comes not in power and might.  Not in light and strength.  God comes not in earthquake or fire or in any way that Elijah has been taught to look for God.  Instead, God shows up in a still, small voice, the “sound of sheer silence.”

When it comes to fear of the water, it’s not only my friends’ son and me when I was little who are afraid.  As people of faith, we join a long tradition of aquaphobia.  Some theologians have pointed out that it seems that many of the people of Israel were afraid of the water. Remember Jonah who is brave enough to refuse the will of God, but when a storm comes on the sea, he loses all heart. It was a brave thing to be a fisherman or a tradesperson who traveled the seas. And that fear can be seen in the disciples of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracle of feeding thousands of people has just happened. Jesus is exhausted. He tells his disciples to get back in the boat and cross the Sea, while he will go up the hill to pray. The skies grow darker, it gets late, and the boat drifts into deeper water. The disciples are quite a way from shore and the wind is against them. Suddenly, they see Jesus, walking towards them on the water. They think it’s a ghost until he speaks and he says to them, “Take heart. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” But Peter, being a little skeptical, says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus says, “Come.” And so, Peter gets out of the boat, and he begins to try to walk on the water. He’s doing it. He’s making it. It’s working, it’s a miracle, but then there’s a wind, a strong wind. The wind picks up, Peter gets scared, and he begins to sink. Jesus grabs him, but then asks him, “What happened? Why did you doubt?”
What a question! “Why did you doubt,” which, coming from Jesus, as he looks Peter in the eye with love and honesty, is really asking, “Why did you doubt me?” It’s a question we can certainly forgive Peter for not answering. I don’t know how I might have answered it.

Imagine the faith it must have taken for Peter to step out of the boat. Would you have done that? Would I have dared? Peter took that initial step, maybe one of the biggest steps he’d ever taken in his life and it goes well….. until. Until there’s the wind that really symbolizes and embodies fear of all kinds. Fear takes over. Fear of being alone. Fear of wondering if Jesus really has as much power as it seems. Fear about whether Peter has made the right step. Fear of looking ridiculous in front of the other disciples. Fear of deep water.

I don’t know about you, but I relate a lot to Peter. I get that kind of fear and it usually tries to pull me down. The deep water is scary.

We’re in deep water, as a country.  Institutions, traditions, and hierarchies that used to give a sense of structure and order have crumbled or are no longer valued.  The reaction for many people is fear—and often, with no reflection or center, that fear becomes a self-centered fear: basic and primal. We see that fear in narrowly myopic leaders, in people who cannot see beyond themselves to think of neighbors or the Common Good, and we obviously see that kind of fear in movements that target “the other” as the enemy.

My friends with the child who’s learning to swim are afraid, as are most parents.  But because they don’t really go to church much or think very deeply about God, my friends retreat into a fundamentalist kind of Roman Catholicism, taking a phrase or scriptural verse here and there, and then put all their trust in whatever religious-sounding voice reinforces their fear.  When they’re feeling like they’re in deep water, such people refuse to figure out how to use a float, and instead, put their trust in the promise of a golden life raft. It’s same whether we mean Buddhist fundamentalism (like in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, or Thailand), Hindu fundamentalism (in India or Pakistan), Muslim fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, or Christian fundamentalism in its various stripes.

The opposite of fundamentalism is faithfulness, and we’re called to move out on deep water in faith.

We move toward deep water personally whenever we feel God calling us into a new direction. We feel suddenly dropped off in the deep, perhaps through no intention or desire of our own. Deep waters are the stuff of new jobs, new responsibilities, new relationships, new ideas or opinions, new perspectives, even a new level of Christian discipleship.

If we’re feeling strong, if we’re on our game, if we have a bit of faith, then we’re like Peter and we take that first step. We’re amazed that we’ve done it. We’re out of the boat, we’re on the water. It still feels murky, a shadowy figure of Jesus calls us forward, but we step into the new place, the new job, the new relationship, the new reality. But then the wind comes, and we begin to sink. Maybe the wind sounds like the words of another person suggesting that what we do is foolish and makes no sense. Perhaps the wind sounds like someone with no faith saying, “you can’t walk on water. You have no right to expect a miracle.” Or maybe the wind is simply a memory of the past, some past failure that blocks my trust of the future.

But Jesus calls Peter out of the deep. He lifts him up from sinking, and he does the same thing with us. But we meet him in the deep. The life of faith calls us to swim, to jump, to step into the deep water, into the thick of things, using the wind—and it is there that we will meet Christ.

In the James Michener novel, Chesapeake, Michener compares ships to people. He writes,

A ship, like a human being, moves best when it is slightly athwart the wind, when it has to keep its sails tight and attend its course. Ships, like [people], do poorly when the wind is directly behind, pushing them sloppily on their way so that no care is required in steering or in the management of sails; the wind seems favorable, for it blows in the direction one is heading, but actually it is destructive because it induces a relaxation in tension and skill. What is needed is a wind slightly opposed to the ship, for then tension can be maintained, and juices can flow and ideas can germinate, for ships, like [people], respond to challenge” (Chesapeake [1978], 445.)

If you’ve ever sailed, you’ll know the truth of this passage more than some of us, but I think we can all hear in the sailing image a symbol of how we are called to go forward, we take risk and take a chance, and THAT’s where God meets us. He lifts us up, he gives us strength, he renews us and holds us and takes us where we need to go. Today’s Gospel shows us how to use the wind to take us into the presence of God. Use the wind to remember that Jesus and Peter walked on the water. Use the wind to remember that Jesus didn’t let Peter fall and he won’t let us fall.

God doesn’t show up in simplistic ways or easy answers.  But God is always present, if we will notice, if we will receive God’s strength and support, if we will take the hand that is offered, especially as we’re sinking.

Let us use the wind to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to keep us going, to keep us living, to keep us growing into the presence of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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