August 13, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
How do you know that it’s Jesus?
How do you know, when you’re in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of the night?
How do you know when you’re in the middle of a crisis—a death, an illness, a turbulent time?
How do you know when you’re in the midst of a transition—going from one shore to another…from one place to another?…one stage of life to another?
How do you know that it’s really Jesus who is coming to you? Who is leading you, reaching out for you? How do you know?
We’re not very good at recognizing God at work in our ordinary, daily life. And, this story suggests, we might not be very good at recognizing God during the crunch times either.
The disciples have just participated in the feeding of the 5,000. Seen five loaves and two fishes turned into enough to feed the multitude with twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over. And then they are told to get in a boat and head for the other side.
And Jesus goes up the mountain by himself to pray…to be with God…to commune with God. That’s part of the problem…because that’s where we assume God is, right?…up on the mountain top. Far away…out of reach…Not down here with us.
So there they are…in the boat…alone…battered by the waves and far from shore…far from Jesus…
Completely without the one whom Matthew makes a big deal out of calling “Emmanuel,” “God with us.”
The disciples are literally (but also) figuratively, “at sea.” Far away from the presence of God.
Is that a familiar feeling? Being far from God…or maybe feeling like God is far away from us?
If you spend time practicing the disciplines of prayer (private and corporate),
receiving communion, being grateful, studying scripture, working for the common good, resting—observing the Sabbath—
if you dedicate time to practicing and becoming skilled in those disciplines you do gradually become more aware of God’s presence around you all the time.
But I suspect most people, even most Christians, in the midst of our busy lives, probably feel separated from God more than we feel connected to God.
We feel spiritually adrift most of our days.
But because we’re generally so competent in every other area of our lives (or we like to pretend we are), and because we can generally rely on our competencies to get us through whatever we need to get through, we hardly notice how much “at sea,” we are in our spiritual lives.
Occasionally we might wonder, and maybe check our heading, correct our course a bit, but mostly a lot of people are drifting, and hoping, and trusting that, “if we don’t mess up too badly,” we’ll get to where we think we’re going.
I wonder if that’s what Jesus means by “you of little faith,”…relying on our own abilities to get through our daily life, rather than becoming aware of God’s presence in all of it…maybe by “little faith” he means more like “shallow faith.”
The shallow faith of only sensing, knowing, and turning to God when the chips are down. Jesus calls us to something deeper than shallow faith. Not walking on water, but walking with God every day of our lives.
We usually become acutely aware of how shallow our faith is—become aware of being adrift—when the storms come…
When the crisis starts
When the stress start to mount…
Then those low-level feelings of separation from God—and each other—can turn into unbearable feelings of alienation, depression, fear…
But are we any better at recognizing Jesus—God—in the midst of a storm than we are in the midst of our “normal” life?
This story today suggests—not really.
Where were you God?
Where are you God? are common laments during times of crisis. Very often, the more “at sea” we are, the further away from God we feel. And the more we turn to relying on only ourselves.
That’s certainly true of the disciples. They are not afraid of the storm. A few of them are experienced fishermen…They’ve been through storms…they know the drill.
They are relying on their own ability and getting by—just like all of us who struggle through the rough seas of our lives. Sure, they’re cold, and wet, and miserable, and maybe feel like they’re at the mercy of forces they don’t understand and can’t control; but they’re not terrified…they’ve got it together. At least, until they see Jesus.
And then…”It’s a ghost!”
Well, what would you think?
What could possibly do such a thing? What in the world could move over the water like that?
For the ancients, and especially for Jews, water represented the chaos that opposes creation.
And the only thing that can and does tame it…that is continually shown as triumphing over it…is God.
Moving over it in creation, unleashing it during the Flood, drowning the Pharaohs’ army in it. God “tramples the waves,” and “walks in the recesses of the deep” according to Job.
So, for the disciples in that boat, there is only one thing that can move over the surface of the water like that…God.
But they don’t recognize him.
Because they knew God was far away. They knew they were on their own. And they were doing fine…until they weren’t.
But they weren’t really used to seeing God in their every day life, so they don’t recognize Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us. When he comes to them as only God can.
To make this really clear, Matthew has Jesus say, “Take heart. It is I,”
Now, “It is I,” is perfectly fine, very mundane translation, but it doesn’t reveal the full impact of that statement.
The Greek for “it is I” is “ego eimi”… which is how the Hebrew phrase YHWH is translated into Greek. When Moses asks God at the burning bush what should we call you, God (in Greek) would respond, “ego eimi”—I AM.
In other words, what Jesus says here isn’t “Take it easy, it’s just me.” He says—while hovering over the deep in the dead of night… “take courage, I AM, do not be afraid.”
But they still don’t get it.
Peter immediately throws out this question…the same kind of question that Satan asks Jesus in the desert when he puts God to the test…”IF it is you…” “IF you are the Son God”…turn these stones to bread, throw yourself down, command me to come to you on the water.” He’s testing God…testing his own unbelief…
That’s the doubt. That’s the shallow faith. Not noticing the strong wind, and becoming frightened. The message of this story is shouldn’t be “if Peter had had enough faith he could have walked on water.” That is a shallow and harmful interpretation because it encourages us to link faith only with the miraculous—the supernatural. And it’s especially harmful because when that shallow faith runs hard up against the very real storms of life…aging, disease, accidents, death…and we start to sink, we can start to feel guilty that “we just don’t have enough faith” to overcome these things.
But that’s not the message…Peter’s lack of faith isn’t that he can’t walk on water…it’s that he fails to recognize and believe that Jesus is—in the midst of the storm—mediating and revealing the presence and reality of God with them. Always.
As one commentator puts it: “Faith is not being able to walk on water—only God can do that but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.” (New Interpreters Bible. V. VIII p. 329-330).
May we have that faith…to see and know God’s presence with us not only during the stormy times, but every day of our life.