Have You Walked on Water Lately?
A Sermon by Bill McKinney
Preached at Federated Church UCC, Orleans, MA
August 10, 2014
Text: Matthew 14: 22-33
Churches in the Congregational tradition haven’t paid a lot of attention to the liturgical calendar so it may surprise you to know that today is the 19th Sunday in what is known as “Ordinary time.”
Ordinary time. It’s the longest season of the Christian year: 33 weeks. It starts at the end of the Christmas season and runs through Ash Wednesday, then returns after Pentecost all the way to the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the time when we aren’t focused on Christ’s birth and death or the beginnings of the church. What’s special about this season is that it’s, well, ordinary.
Ordinary time is not dull. In fact, as we see in today’s reading from Matthew, extraordinary things happen in Ordinary time.
This is a familiar story. It appears in both Matthew’s and Marks’s gospels. Jesus and the disciples have been busy. They have fed the crowd of five thousand and Jesus has gone away by himself to mourn the death of John the Baptist and to pray. He sends the disciples away.
Early in the morning – just before dawn – the disciples are in a boat in the middle of a lake. A vicious storm comes up and huge waves batter the boat. The disciples are scared to death. They are without their leader.
The disciples look up and see someone on the water walking toward the boat. They can’t tell who it is and they become even more frightened. Somehow this ghost-like creature is managing to overturn the laws of nature and to walk on the water. They cry out in fear.
Jesus, probably sensing their terror, calls out to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter responds to Jesus in a rather strange way, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And so he does. Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk toward Jesus. But Peter gets frightened and he begins to sink, calling out to Jesus: “Lord, save me.”
Jesus reaches out to Peter and catches him, saving the disciple from drowning. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus and Peter get into the boat with the disciples and the winds cease. The disciples worship Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the son of God.”
Now what are we to make of this passage?
The traditional interpretation – the one I remember from “Sunday School” — has focused on its miraculous dimension. Jesus is so powerful that he can even walk on water. He can even empower his followers to do the same thing! All you have to do is trust. Preparing for today’s sermon I found myself thinking of the old hymn from the Pilgrim Hymnal, “Jesus Savior Pilot Me, Over Life’s Tempestuous Sea.”
There is, of course, something to be said for that traditional interpretation. It reminds us that God and Jesus are with us in life’s toughest moments, when waves threaten to drown us.
This morning I would like to propose a slightly different way of thinking about this text. It seems to me there are three important lessons for us today.
First, storms confront us all the time in ordinary time.
Sometimes those storms are shared by large numbers of people. That’s the reality of globalization. Today, no-one is untouched by global warming. Islands in the South Pacific find themselves underwater. The Polar ice caps recede each year. California experiences drought, beef prices rise and fisher folks on Cape Cod find their industry dying.
An epidemic in West Africa becomes a storm in the United States. Terrorism in Latin America floods our borders with young children. Reality confronts us in Ordinary Time.
Those storms also take highly individualized form. Last week I lost a close friend from high school, a talented artist with a gallery in Rockport. His wife and daughter and their families are going through a storm today. Later in the service we will pray for others whose personal boats are being crashed by waves. Maybe it’s illness, maybe it’s a fractured relationship, maybe it’s economic uncertainty.
Sometimes the storms are visible to others and sometimes they are hidden, but the storms are very real.
I once read a book by a distinguished black church pastor in Washington, DC. Its title was Preaching Through a Storm. The author argued that the church today is either in the midst of a storm, just coming out of a storm or about to enter a storm.
The storm, in other words, is the new normal. And that’s the first lesson for today: Storms confront us all the time in Ordinary time.
The second lesson from today’s scripture is that Jesus calls us to get out of the boat in the middle of the storm. Jesus calls us in the midst of tumult. Jesus calls us into the tumult. It is in the tumult that we discover God is with us.
I admit it’s counter-intuitive but I think Matthew is reminding his listeners that there is no salvation inside the boat. That is why Jesus calls to Peter and says “Come.” It’s his way of saying to the disciples that their job is to walk on water with the confidence that he will be with them on the journey.
There’s an old joke about three religious leaders who are on a beach together. The first, a Catholic priest gets up from his beach towel and walks about a quarter mile out to a raft in the ocean. The second, a Protestant minister, does the same. The third, a rabbi, gets up and walks toward the raft to join his colleagues. Suddenly he finds himself underwater. The priest turns to the minister and says, “I thought you were going to tell him where the rocks are?”
I suspect the point of the joke is to debunk the miracle of Matthew 14 but I would also suggest that there are rocks in the water that help us on our journey through our storms. Rarely are we truly alone in the midst of storms. We have the reality of the rocks of families and friends. Our schools and churches, our social networks, first responders and a host of social institutions are rocks that help us navigate through stormy waters. And thanks be to God for them: They help us as we respond to Jesus’s invitation to walk on water.
The third lesson is that we also need boats in the storms of Ordinary time.
Recall that today’s reading begins with Jesus dismissing the crowds and going off by himself to pray. He has had an active day of teaching a large and somewhat rowdy crowd, culminating in the feeding of the thousands. We might think of this as Jesus on the water, in the storm.
Jesus recognizes that he needs a break. He needs to “chill out” and to be with his God. So he sends the disciples away and goes into spiritual retreat mode. He goes to spend time in the boat.
Those of us who live on Cape Cod know something about that. For many of us the Cape has been our boat where we find protection and support in the middle of our storms in ordinary time. I live in the little village of Craigville, which since the 1870s has been a place of retreat for thousands of people each year. One of my roles in Craigville has been to raise money, which is something I actually enjoy doing!
Last year we received a large donation from a local resident whose personal religious background is Roman Catholic who comes to Craigville for relief from her high-pressure law practice in Boston. After being asked for a gift she took 24 hour to think about her gift. “I watched a group of teenagers as they walked by my house to head toward the dining hall. I imagined their lives back home and all the difficulties of being a young person today while I listened to their laughter as they walked together. What I saw in their eyes was joy. This gift my way of saying thanks for their joy.”
In closing, I want to encourage you to walk on water, confident that in the storms of Ordinary time you will find the rocks you need along the way and the boats you need to hold you up in stormy times.
Ordinary time is okay. As much as I enjoy the extraordinary seasons of the liturgical year, I am happy to spend most of my year in Ordinary time. It may be the highlight of the Christian liturgical calendar. Not long ago I recently came across a short poem by Gregg Braden that I share with you. It’s called “Make the Ordinary Come Alive:
Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.