Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19] rcl yr a
Sunday, August 13th, 2023
GEN 37:1-4, 12-28; PS 105:1-6, 16-22, 45C; ROM 10:5-15; MATT 14:22-33
command me to come to you on the water
I have a keen memory of one particular time I preached on today’s gospel, the story about Jesus walking on water. I was preaching conference for seminarians. A big part of the program was small groups, where you would preach a pre-prepared sermon to a handful of other seminarians and a coach, and get feedback on your sermon. And this was the text I was given to preach on: Jesus walking on water.
And I decided to preach it straight, and without any apology for just how weird and unbelievable a story it is—Jesus, walking on water? Peter walking on water too, at least until he began to doubt?
My approach was not to ask about its believability, but to ask a simpler question: what does this story tell us about Jesus, and the world we live in?And what this story tells us about Jesus is that he has command over the wind and the waves, and in this way, it is making a strong connection between the God who made the world, the creator who upholds all if this in every moment, including wind and wave—the story is making a strong connection between the God who made the world, and this Jesus, who has command over that same creation, the same winds, the same waves.
That is, we begin to see, in this story, that Jesus may be as much God as God is God. And that this Jesus who commands wind and wave, draws us into his world by faith and trust, just like Jesus does with Peter, inviting him to walk on water; we are invited, too, not into a world of our making, but a perilous world of God’s making, called into we know not what; and we learn that this one, who has command over wind and wave, and who calls us into his perilous world in trust, this one, Jesus of Nazareth, will pull us out, too—wet, cold, and gasping, and cares for us even when we lose our faith in him. Because both our faith, and our doubt, are in his hands.
Not a bad sermon, right?
Now the problem was that our coach was a New Testament scholar of a particular sort—at that time, over 20 years ago now, he was already retired, and I don’t quite want to say that he was old fashioned, but he did represent a certain way of reading the Bible that is a lot less common among Biblical scholars and preachers now.
And the first thing he said to me went straight to the root of what I was intentionally avoiding. He said “I’ve never seen anyone walk on water; it isn’t something that happens in the world I know; and so (he said), this isn’t a story about something that really happened, because people don’t walk on water.” What I thought was the least important thing—whether Jesus walking on water was believable or not—was for him the most important thing. And that was the sum of his critique.
I wonder now if he imagined me as naive. Which I was, in my own way. But in my defense, it was a hard-won naivete. I did grow up in churches that were often very concerned about whether Biblical events really happened. I remember one sermon, from my childhood, that was about the way in which certain windy weather patterns can theoretically combine in such a way that dry paths can suddenly appear across lakes and seas. This was all in an effort to say, “yes you can believe that Moses and the Israelites did cross the Red Sea on dry land—and we’ve got a meteorological theory that proves it possible!”
It was unlike my coach—my coach was willing not to believe that the walking on water ever “really happened,” while my childhood preachers would probably have come up with a theory about moving sand bars in blustery Near Eastern lakes that you could walk across, trying desperately to find a way of saying “Jesus really did kinda walk on water, and here’s maybe how.”
So I wonder if my coach at that preaching conference thought I was one of those folks trying to defend what he thought impossible to defend, the idea that Jesus walking on water really did happen.
The truth was, whether it really happened wasn’t a burning question to me, then or now, because we have no way to verify or refute many of the things we read in the Bible—what we have is the witness of the prophets and the scribes and the priests and the apostles. And we can, even after years of suspicion, come to trust that witness. And in trusting the witness of Scripture, in imagining the world anew, we begin to reimagine our own world as a world of wonder and enchantment—where this strange man, who has a mysterious relationship with the maker of world, draws us into his world in trust—and cares for us whether we believe or doubt.
I blame much of my naivete on the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. Lossky was a Russian theologian exiled by the Soviets between the world wars, and lived most of his life in Paris where he wrote The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. The book had such an impact on me that I very nearly converted to Orthodoxy, because I was so drawn to what this Russian émigré did: he described a world that came alive for me, a world where Christian teaching about God and Jesus and the Trinity and the Holy Spirit weren’t claims to be argued about, but are teachings that describe a way of living life that leads you deeper into the mystery of God. Lossky described a world where God became human in Christ, in order that we would be drawn closer to God.
And I was taken by it, I was invited to imagine living in a world of wonder and enchantment, a world enchanted by a God who wishes to be near us, a God who wishes for us to be made holy. In this way, Lossky was a huge part in my own coming to faith. I took him up on the invitation I found in the pages of his book. And I decided to try living in God’s world, a world enchanted by God. And once living in that world for a little while, it was clear that I would never go back to the world I knew before.
Before ending my sermon for today, I want to tell you briefly about what Parish Council did yesterday. We gathered together for a brief afternoon retreat where we prayed and ate together. We prayed for one another, but just as importantly we shared together, in prayer, our hopes and anxieties and worries and desires for this community, this parish. Because how easy would it be to spend our time in discernment about what’s next for us—especially because one of our pressures is a building of a certain vintage—and discern that future as though God has little or nothing to do with that future. Wouldn’t it be easy to move ahead and talk about the building, its problems, the solutions, as though we lived in a godless world, and all we needed were efficiency and productivity in order to solve technical problems. This would be to live in a world unenchanted by God.
But we don’t live in an unenchanted or wonderless world, we live in a the world of the living God, a God who has some mysterious and special relation to this Jesus—a relationship so special that Jesus can himself command God’s own creatures—the wind, the waves, and Peter too. And in this enchanted world, where Jesus walks on water, and where Peter can step out onto that water himself, into the danger and peril of God’s creation, and not only walk on water, but also fail to walk on water—this is the world we live in. God in Christ is calling us into this same world of his, his wonderful, his enchanted, and his wild world.
And in this world Jesus can call us to do things far more wonderful than we could ever imagine if we were to live in the world we make for ourselves; that’s the world where Peter sees Jesus, crosses his arms, sits back in the boat, and says “I can’t believe this is happening. James and John could you row a bit faster please, and get us out of this mess?”
But instead Peter responds, as he’s called out in faith and trust in Jesus, called out to do something extraordinary, called out to do something he could never have imagined without Jesus, called out even into risk failure, even sinking into the chilly waters of a dangerous sea.
Because this is a story about something else, too: even when we falter, Jesus draws us up, and out, but not necessarily into safety—instead he draws us deeper into his world, where we are embraced, cold and wet, by God’s grace.