Walking on the Sea with Jesus: A Homily on Matthew 14:22-33

Gustave Brion, Jesus & Peter on the Water (1863).

This is the text of a homily preached from a kayak “on location” in Puget Sound, a stand-in for the Sea of Galilee where the gospel for this Sunday takes place. You can view the video below. 

“Get in the boat!” Jesus tells the disciples. “Get in the boat and go to the other side of the lake.” We don’t know the exact words Jesus used, or his tone of voice, but Matthew’s gospel is pretty clear about the forcefulness of his command. The original Greek words suggest that he had to force them or push them into the boat. They clearly were reluctant to go. But why?

They may have been hesitant to go anywhere without their trusted teacher. And certainly none of them would be eager to go to the other side. That’s where the Gentiles lived, those weird foreigners who were so disliked and feared. The other side, in the disciples’ eyes, was a bad neighborhood, infested by Roman rats.

But the scariest thing was the sea itself. Although the Sea of Galilee is only a large lake (about one-third the size of Lake Tahoe), its original Hebrew name, Yam, means “roar,” perhaps because of the tempestuous waves created by its infamous sudden storms. A few years ago, 80 swimmers in that lake had to be rescued when strong winds swept them out into deep waters.

I have only seen the Sea of Galilee in good weather. But almost without warning, it can become a wild and dangerous place. The fishermen disciples knew the risk of drifting too far from the shore, but here was Jesus making them cross its depths for five or six miles—that’s the distance between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Would you want to do that in a small boat in a big storm?

For biblical people of the land, wild seas were not just physically dangerous. They conveyed a cosmic threat as well, manifesting the primal chaos which threatens to undo the harmonious stability of the world. Only the divine Creator can tame this chaos. As the Psalmist says,

You rule the raging of the sea.
When its waves roar, it is you who subdues them.
(Psalm 89:9)

Scriptures like that made the world seem safe, but when the winds kicked up and the waves began to wash over their little boat, Jesus’ disciples were probably thinking of another Psalm:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me. (Psalm 69:1-3)

Matthew tells us that “the wind was against them.” No matter how hard they tried, they could make no headway. When the sun went down, the storm continued to batter them in the dark. They became exhausted, disheartened, and afraid. Would the long and terrible night ever end?

This was the archetypal night-sea journey, where everything familiar and safe is left behind in a perilous passage through a formless sea of unknowing and unmaking which threatens to swallow the voyager.

We know something about that, don’t we? We are all on a night-sea journey now, in this strange and anxious time. Having left behind the shore of “normal” life, battered by the fierce waves of multiple crises, we are trying desperately to stay afloat in the darkness. But like those first disciples, we find ourselves against the wind.

So how does the gospel story end? In the darkest hour just before dawn, Jesus “came walking toward them on the sea.” It’s an extraordinary moment in the gospel narrative, but a few centuries ago it became something of an embarrassment. Empiricists declared it to be the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen, and authors of books with titles like Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) began to purge the gospels of anything “inconsistent with the Light of Nature, and the eternal Reason of Things.” [i]

Christian rationalists sought plausible explanations for gospel miracles. Healings were deemed psychosomatic, for example, and walking on water, if not dismissed altogether, was explained as Jesus wading in the shallows along the shore, or standing on a raft which disciples couldn’t see in the dark.

This isn’t the time to address the complex questions about biblical miracles, but let me say in passing that we should be careful about applying modernity’s criteria for what is possible to anything dealing with the transcendent. The gospel stories come from a different thought-world, and sometimes they describe realities not yet fully realized in our fallen and unfinished world. Those of us who have grown familiar with biblical texts can forget just how strange the stories really are, and how strange Jesus is.

In both Jesus’ day and our own, the powers-that-be tend to affirm and enforce a “reality” of suffering, cruelty, and violence. “It is what it is,” they tell us. But then Jesus invades this so-called reality and calls it into question. He not only preaches the impossible, he proves it: the blind see, the lame walk, prisoners go free, mourners dance, and the poor inherit the earth.

Make no mistake: Jesus leads us into a very different world, and that world, in comparison to the present state of things, can appear miraculous to inexperienced eyes.

As for the story of Jesus walking on water, the question of its historical plausibility is not a critical question for me. It’s not the kind of thing I expect to happen, but I won’t rule out the possibility of something uncanny and transcendent lying behind this enigmatic narrative.

Jesus was in but not of this world, and the mysterious is an inseparable element of his story. How much does it matter what we are able to make of the story’s strangeness? What really matters is what the story makes of us.

And the story, like the disciples’ boat, is built to transport us out into the sea of unknowing, to find something we will miss if we remain on shore. So get on board, little children, get on board. Even if you are reluctant to embrace the miraculous, get on board. The story wants to take us all to the other side.

And so we soon find ourselves far from shore, awash in the sea’s brawling swells, helpless against the wind, hearts breaking in the endless night, when suddenly we see something—someone—walking toward us, walking on the sea like the Maker of heaven and earth who once “trampled the waves of chaos” (Job 9:8).

How can this be! It’s a ghost! A phantasm. A figment of our imagination. Our fear is making us crazy. But then we hear that voice we know so well:

“Take heart, it is I;
do not be afraid.”

It’s still hard to make out what we’re seeing in the darkness, but Peter calls out, “Lord? Oh Lord, if it is really you, call me, and bid me come to you.” The voice answers, “Come.” And that’s what Peter does. He climbs out of the boat, and begins to walk toward Jesus, striding impetuously across the water as if it were solid ground.

His eyes see nothing but the gaze of his Master. But just before he reaches Jesus, he remembers the storm, the wind, the waves. He remembers his fear. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the raging water. Immediately he begins to sink, and the sea is swallowing him. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Jesus grabs his hand. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I like to think Jesus says this tenderly, with a smile.

And as soon as the two of them get into the boat, the wind ceases. The storm is over. The sea grows smooth and still. After so much turbulence and drama, this sudden calm may be the story’s greatest miracle, one we so desperately need today.

Buffeted on every side by so much danger, affliction, and loss, we have come to know the demons of anxiety and sadness. We’ve drifted too far from the shore, the wind is against us, and some of us are starting to sink. Who can even remember what it was like to be at peace in an uneventful time?

James Martin, a Jesuit author and teacher, wrote a book about Jesus based on his pilgrimage to the places where the gospels happened. At the Sea of Galilee, he recalls a time when he was deeply stressed by the relentless grind of nonstop speaking engagements. It felt like a ceaseless storm, and he was drowning. So he decided to pray about it with a visual meditation on Jesus and Peter on the sea.

“When I closed my eyes,” he says, “the first thing I saw in my mind’s eye was Jesus, clad in a light blue robe, standing silently on the sea, a glassy calm. He stretched out his hands as if to say, ‘Come.” But unlike Peter I didn’t feel the invitation to walk on the water, as if to prove something. Instead, he seemed to be saying, ‘Why not come into the calm?’ The wind whipped around his blue garments, with the sound of a flag in the wind, but both he and the sea remained calm.” [ii]

Why not come into the calm? What a precious and necessary gift this story wants to give us, inviting us into the calm. We all need that calm so very, very much. And I would be tempted to leave it at that, but I believe there is something else, equally important, we need to take from this story.

Last year, a minister in the United Church of Canada, Hilde J. Seal, was speaking with a parishioner at the door after worship. The woman thanked Seal for her sermon, and then she said, “I wish you would speak about racism.”

The preacher thought about that challenge for weeks, but she worried that the volatile subject might take her congregation, as she put it, into “troubled waters … Deep, murky, swirling, rushing, dashing water… exploding like a storm.” It’s not something a pastor does lightly.

But when it came time to preach on Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, she knew she had to go there, to address systemic racism in her country in the light of the gospel, because the middle of that storm, or any other, is exactly where the church needs to be if it wants to fulfill its vocation, trampling on the waves of sin and fear.

“Jesus calls us into the rough waters,” she said, “to meet the power of God’s presence within the storm. So let’s get out of the boat, to walk on the water toward Jesus. “But I warn you,” she added, “that once our toes are splashed by the swirling, rushing, dashing water… we might feel like we are about to drown.” [iii]

The wild sea, the storm-tossed boat,
the sinking disciple crying for help—
these are powerful and challenging images.
Most of us would rather remain on shore,
or at least inside the boat.
Who among us is prepared to step out into the deep?

That kind of courage doesn’t come naturally. British novelist Olaf Stapledon once described comfortable moderns as ill-suited for times of crisis.

“[A]ccustomed only to security and mildness,” he wrote, “[we] were fit only for a kindly world … We were adapted only to fair weather, for the practice of the friendly but not too difficult, not heroic virtues, in a society both secure and just. Instead, we found ourselves in an age of titanic conflict … when grave choices must be made in crisis after crisis, and no simple or familiar principles were adequate …” [iv]

Those words from 1937 could have been written yesterday. We are indeed better suited to fair weather and a kindly world. But that is not where we are right now, is it?

A 14th-century prayer, the Anima Christi, incorporates the powerful words that Peter shouted against the wind: O good Jesus, … call me and bid me come to you.

And faith knows how that prayer gets answered:
Come.
That’s what Jesus says to Peter,
and he says it to us as well:
Come.

Sometimes that will mean seeking the place of calm in a stormy world; and sometimes it will mean consenting to leave our comfort zone for the wild sea, where our only stay against drowning will be the touch of the Master’s hand.

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

O good Jesus, call me, call your church,
and bid us come to you –
wherever you are,
even when you are
in the heart of the storm.

 

 

[i] John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. The quote is from from Matthew Tindal’s Christianity As Old As the Creation (1730).

[ii] James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: Harper One, 2014), 237-238.

[iii] Hilde J. Seal is a minister at the United Churches of Langley, British Columbia. Her excellent homily, “With-in a Storm” (August 11, 2019), is online: https://www.unitedchurchesoflangley.ca/podcasts/sermons/2019-08-11-with-in-a-storm

[iv] Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) is a science-fiction classic admired by H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing, and Arthur C. Clarke. This passage is cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK, 2008), 509.

A Voice to Raise the Dead

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

I’m writing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I’ve been among some amazing people to reflect together on the deep connections between art and spirituality. The fruit of those conversations will find their way into future posts, but meanwhile here is what I’m preaching this morning from the pulpit of Hattiesburg’s Trinity Episcopal Church, based on the gospel text from Luke 7:11-17. 

Watch out! There’s going to be a collision.

Here comes a funeral parade, with a dead young man, his grieving mother, and a whole crowd of mourners, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.

And from the opposite direction, pretty as you please, here comes the Jesus parade: the holy man everybody’s talking about, along with his passel of disciples and a whole bunch of folks who’ve just seen Jesus cure the centurion’s slave in the blink of an eye and who want to see what in heaven’s name he’s going to do next.

The Jesus people are all laughing and talking and telling stories, but suddenly Jesus raises his hand and they all stop, because he’s seen the widow, he’s heard her crying—they can all hear her crying—and Jesus is so moved by her tears, his heart just fills up and overflows with compassion. and whatever he was on his way to do no longer seems all that important.

He knows that moments like this are why he came into the world. So he heads straight across the town square to meet that funeral procession, with all his folks trailing after him, wondering what’s going to happen.

What is going to happen, in the middle of that dusty little country town, is a great cosmic showdown: the parade of death running smack into the parade of life. And here’s how it goes.

Jesus reaches out to touch the coffin, and the pallbearers come to a dead stop. Everybody gets real quiet. Maybe the widow recognizes Jesus. Maybe she’s heard stories about his miracles. But she’s not asking for any help. Her son is dead. She knows his story is over. Nothing Jesus can do about that, she thinks. She’s long since resigned to her grief.

And the only thing Jesus has to say to her is, “Do not weep,” because it’s her son that he wants to talk to. Then Jesus speaks the words he has been given the power to say:

Young man, arise!

And the dead man sits up, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and words start to spill out, words of wonder and joy, and he is alive again. Then Jesus gives him back to his mother. And all the people standing round don’t know whether to be scared or whether to start shouting “Glory to God! Glory to God!”

And as for all of us who listen to this story today,what do we do with the strangeness of it in a world where too many young men and women die and parents weep and there is no resurrection parade that shows up to make everything all right again?

Can we still take hope from this story, or is being snatched from the jaws of death only for the lucky few, like winning the lottery, while the rest of us can only dream of such a happy fate?

This would be a cruel story if it were about a blessing which most of us will never know. But what Jesus did that day in the village of Nain wasn’t a promise that we all now get a free pass to escape the human condition. Jesus didn’t really go around raising up everybody who died. It only happens three times in the gospels. Jesus didn’t come to give everyone a few extra decades of earthly existence. That’s not why he was here.

He was here to show us God, and to show us how humanity is made to become like God—not by grasping power and glory, but by embodying compassion, which is one of the dearest of God’s names.

It wasn’t God’s plan that Jesus spend all his time putting funeral directors out of business. But on that particular day in Nain, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He felt compassion for the widow, and as the incarnate Author of Life, he returned the widow’s son to the sensory world of dust and sunshine just so death wouldn’t get too uppity. Sometimes death needs to be reminded that it never gets the last word.

But Jesus didn’t mean for us to place our own hope in such temporary reprieves. The resurrection of the dead is a mystery more ultimate and profound than what happened to the widow’s son. Dying and rising are inseparable partners in the same transformative dance. It’s the way the story goes, and we just have to live with it. That is why, even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

So what does this gospel story want to tell us today, wherever you and I happen to find ourselves on life’s journey in the year of grace 2016? I’ll tell you what I hear.

The first thing is, our God is compassionate. Our God is moved by our tears. And in the end, as poet Jane Kenyon said before her own untimely death, God will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”

Secondly, I am struck by the power of the voice of the Divine Beloved, the voice of Jesus, speaking to us the word of life: Arise. And I don’t think we have to wait for the Last Day to hear it, either.

We are being called back to life every day, every moment, if we only have ears to hear. On her wonderful website, The Painted Bird, Jan Richardson has posted her poem inspired by this gospel. “Blessing for the Raising of the Dead.” tells us that ‘while this blessing / does not have the power / to raise you, /  it knows how to reach you. / It will come to you, / sit down / beside you, / look you / in the eye / and ask / if you want / to live.’ You can read the whole poem here.

Finally, I hear this gospel telling me one more thing. It is not enough simply to hear the voice that blesses and revives. I believe, now that the tongues of Pentecostal fire have settled on our own heads, that you and I are called to speak that voice as well, to be ourselves the voice that blesses, the voice that calls the dead back to life—dead hopes, dead neighborhoods, dead dreams, dead souls.

The word of life is not something we ourselves possess, but God has empowered us to speak it nonetheless: to be Christ’s voice for those in need, to be Christ’s voice to a broken and longing world—

the voice which speaks the word
uttered for all eternity
in the heart of God:

Arise, it says. Arise.

 

 

The Faithful Centurion: A Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Pentecost

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

The gospel story for the Second Sunday of Pentecost[i] describes a world in which things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to.

A Roman centurion treats his slave more like a friend than a piece of property. When the slave gets sick and is close to death, the centurion implores the Jewish community to help him find a healer.

Normally, Jews and Romans were not on the best of terms. Occupying armies just don’t get much love, and besides, doesn’t everybody know that foreigners are just “not our kind?” If only we could build a wall high enough to keep them out!

But this Roman centurion has somehow made friends with the local Jewish elders. He has even built a synagogue for them. So they are happy to help.

The Roman has heard some stories about Jesus and his healing gifts, so he asks the elders to go beg Jesus, that he might come and heal his slave.

Now we’ve heard a lot of stories about Jesus getting the local clergy mad at him, so we may be surprised to learn that there were also some of them who admired Jesus, and maintained good relations with him. That is clearly the case here. And what the elders say to Jesus is this: “The centurion is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.”

So far, not much is going the way we would expect. A centurion treats his slave like a friend. A Roman loves the Jews, and the Jews love him back. And as for Jesus and the local clergy, they are getting along swimmingly.

But there are more surprises to come.

Jesus goes with the elders to find the centurion’s house, but just before they arrive, the centurion sends some friends out to say, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; that is why I did not presume to come to you myself. But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I know something about authority, since I have soldiers serving under me. I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and I say to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

How strange to see a Roman officer humbling himself before a wandering Jewish rabbi. “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof,” he says.

And Jesus is “amazed.” That word in the gospel is usually applied to people who are amazed at Jesus. But here it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed. And why? Because the centurion has total faith in the power of Jesus to heal his slave, even at a distance.

“Just as I command my slaves to come and go as I wish, I believe that you have the power to command sickness and death to depart from my house. Only say the word.”

It may seem a little odd that this exchange doesn’t take place directly between Jesus and the centurion. The centurion communicates through intermediaries. This is, he says, because he is not worthy to have Jesus even enter his house. It’s a pretty extraordinary bit of deference on behalf of the powerful Roman.

In any case, Jesus turns to the crowd which has been tagging along because this was clearly the most interesting thing happening in Capernaum that day, and says, “You know what? I haven’t found this kind of faith among any of you folks who go to church. You all could learn something from this centurion fellow. You may call him an unbeliever, but he’s just given you some of the best spiritual teaching you’re ever going to get.”

And then, because this wants to be an odd story from beginning to end, the servant is suddenly well without Jesus ever saying a prayer or speaking a healing word. This miracle happens offstage, and we only hear about it later.

Notice that Jesus never actually meets the centurion or the slave. Everything happens at a distance, through intermediaries, rather the way that prayer works. We may not meet Jesus directly, in the flesh, but his effect on us is still palpable and powerful. And as the centurion believed, it is faith that makes that connection happen.

This strange little story is about a world which is repeatedly and radically disrupted: social and cultural barriers are crossed, enemies act like friends, the master/slave hierarchy is upended, earthly power humbles itself, the religious experts are schooled by a pagan outsider and oh, by the way, a healing miracle happens without any fanfare or even the slightest tangible demonstration of cause and effect. Just another day in the life of the God of surprises.

We could take a number of things from this story, but today my question is this: Who outside our own faith communities has something essential to teach us? And are we capable of appreciative amazement? Are we capable of receiving that teaching with gratitude and humility?

Where are the ones, beyond our institutional and theological boundaries, who are practicing social imagination and nurturing a better future? Where are the ones who are already doing holy work without even knowing God’s name?

Who are the ones
living a practical faith
serving a need
working for change
refusing injustice
breaking boundaries
loving enemies
making peace
showing mercy
finding the lost
tending the sick
visiting the prisoner
binding wounds
soothing the suffering
comforting the afflicted
nourishing wonder
fostering delight
shielding the joyous
organizing the powerless
repairing the world
welcoming the Kingdom . . .

Who are they and how can we learn from them?
How can we support them?
How can we join them?

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Luke 7:1-10 (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

One vast miracle

Perseids (sm)

Tonight after sunset I will drive over the Cascades to a dark plain 200 miles east of Seattle to watch the Perseid meteor shower, summer’s great nocturnal spectacular. This will be the best one in five years, as there will be no moon to dilute the blackness of space. A night sky free from city lights is an awesome sight. Throw in up to 100 meteors per hour, and it is pure wonder.

Loren Eiseley, a scientist whose nature writings deeply shaped my own sensibility toward the natural world, said that “the word miraculous has been defined as an event transcending the known laws of nature … We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each of us in [our] personal life repeats that miracle.”

Whether lying in an August meadow with my father as a boy, or trekking to an 11,000′ mesa to keep watch till dawn, I have been religious about keeping my appointment with the Perseids. The photograph above was taken two years ago, when I set my camera to make a series of 30-second exposures starting at midnight. This year’s peak should be about 1 am. I will keep my eyes open as best I can until first light, then drive into the rising sun to spend a week in an alpine lakes basin north of Yellowstone.

I have backpacked in the mountains of the West almost every summer since 1971. It is a week of holy obligation, a blend of adventure, beauty and silence without which my year would be incomplete and my soul undernourished. As a young priest, I helped lead many teenage backpacks in California’s Sierra Nevada. Toward the end of those week-long hikes we would devote an evening to campfire reflections followed by quiet time under the stars.

The first time we did this, I read them a passage from Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, describing one of his bone-hunting expeditions in the Dakota badlands. “Fifty million years lay under my feet,” he wrote, “fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was travelling on the farther edge of space.” He then listed the chemicals in the soil of that dry and barren land, imagining the strange wild creatures they had once constituted. “The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorous had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.”

But then Eiseley looked up, and saw in the last light of day a flock of warblers hurrying across the sky. Like their extinct ancestors, those birds were also complex combinations of chemicals. And the very fact of their animate life in a “dead” land struck him as a perfect instance of nature transcending “night and nothingness.”

As I read, the campers’ young faces glowed with rapt attention in our circle of firelight. Everything we had experienced together in those mountains seemed transfigured by Eiseley’s words. The “natural” world, in which we lived and moved and had our being, felt radiant with wonder under the spell of his poetic perception. After the reading, we sang a few songs, then dispersed into the darkness beyond the fire to keep a time of quiet.

When I first announced that we would have a “quiet night,” some of the teens expressed concern. At other church camps, they had experienced enforced silence as somewhat uncomfortable. Being alone with one’s thoughts, particularly in the company of others, could feel awkward and unnatural. I assured them that absolute silence was not necessary, that conversations were fine, as long as they maintained the reflective spirit of the evening. So while some did go off by themselves, others engaged in thoughtful exchanges sotto voce. As bedtime neared, I returned to the fire one more time. Two girls were quietly reading to each other from my copy of The Immense Journey:

I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorous, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang, It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched itself close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them in the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

… As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, “What did you see?”

“I think, a miracle,” I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.