Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea” (Matt 14:25).
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love scripture. I love the complexity of the text. I love the beauty of the language. I love the generations of scholarship that have built up around it. I love the centuries of history and culture and grappling with sacred questions that the Bible carries: Who is God? Who am I? Who are we together? The way the Bible came to be, with meaning being layered on over time, with important material of old being reclaimed and reinterpreted again and again to help a people wrestle with their new circumstances. The complexity of our scripture draws me in. And today’s gospel passage is no exception. We could talk about it for hours, the layers of meaning embedded in these words.
In good literature, poetry, and certainly in our scripture, the full meaning of an idea is often too large to contain in a word. It overflows the boundary of the word itself. Think about the word ‘red,’ for example. Yes, red is a color, and when we hear the word, we see that color in our mind’s eye. ‘Red’ also carries with it images of blood, life force, passion. Our church’s use of red as a liturgical color, for example, corresponds to this surplus of meaning in the word. We wear red, we dress our sacred spaces in red for Holy Week – leading up to what we call the “passion” of Jesus – and for Pentecost – when the very breath of God shows up as fire, breathing divine life into a new community. One example of how words overflow with meaning.
A similar thing happens in today’s gospel with the image of stormy waters. Many, if not most, in Matthew’s community would have been intimately familiar with Hebrew scripture. Just as “blood” or “passion” is evoked for us when we hear the word “red,” wind on the waters, being battered by the waves would have been for this community a symbol of primordial chaos, the force that was held at bay by God’s ongoing act of creation.
Battering waves would have evoked for this community the creation story, the first words of our bible: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). The first thing God did was speak light into being. The very next act was to separate the waters from God’s new creation: order out of chaos. Matthew’s listeners would also have called to mind Noah and his family seeking refuge in the ark to escape the flood and its destruction. And Moses parting the Red Sea to allow God’s people to escape from Egypt. And Joshua parting the waters of the Jordan River to enable the Israelites to enter into the land God had promised them. In the surging waters of this morning’s gospel text, the Matthean community would have heard the ongoing story of God carving out space in the chaos to create something new, something good, something holy and just. The stories that had long held meaning in Jewish tradition – the stories that helped a people explore ‘who is God, who am I, who are we together?’ ‘What new thing is God creating?’ – these stories, through Matthew, were being brought forward to a new generation.
So what new thing was this gospel writer trying to describe? This was a time of great turmoil and upheaval in the Ancient Near East. Matthew’s gospel was likely recorded from within a Jewish community in Antioch a generation or so after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple, from the time it had been built by Solomon a thousand years earlier and reconstructed following the Babylonian exile had served as the organizing focus of Judean religious life. It was now gone. On top of that, Roman oppression continued.
In this upheaval, this violence being perpetrated against Jewish communities, the sense that God’s grace and justice were being perverted was widespread. Many drew on Jewish tradition trusting that, once again, God would somehow intervene to set things right. How God would do this, though, was the matter of much debate. Competing schools of thought abounded. And in this mix, from within the Jewish tradition, Matthew’s gospel makes a proclamation about how his community believes the tradition should be carried forward: disciples being sent by Jesus into the stormy waters; God is building something new in the midst of chaos and oppression. This man, Jesus, was God on earth, and through him, in the face of the forces that threaten God’s created order, God is bringing about something new.
Matthew reinforced this proclamation with another image that carried meaning beyond its words for this community. When the disciples see Jesus walking toward them and cry out in fear, Jesus responds, “it is I.” He uses the Greek phrase, εγο ειμι. Though it’s translated into English differently, these are the same two words God speaks in the Greek version of the Old Testament when Moses demands to know God’s name: “I am.” Furthermore, Jesus comes “walking on the sea” toward the disciples (Matt 14: 26). In the imagery of scripture, Matthew is signaling that Jesus comes conquering the chaos, an action that is reserved for the divine. Matthew makes his message clear: God is indeed creating something new, and Jesus is the mediator of that divine presence. Matthew insists that Jesus has something new to tell the world about these sacred questions, about who God is, about what God wants for us, about who we are called to be with each other.
I don’t know about you, but the circumstances of Matthew and his community resonate with me. You can recite the litany as well as I can: the uncertainty of the times, the long list of things that might cause us to be as fearful as the disciples were in that boat. The competing factions at odds with each other about the best way forward. In our times, today’s gospel is a source of hope. I wonder if we, too, might be being called into something new. I wonder if the chaos presents an opportunity for a new creation.
In this passage, Matthew describes an epiphany for Peter and the disciples, a realization of God’s presence. And he does convey a sense of God’s compassion and mercy, having Jesus say “take heart… do not be afraid, I am with you.” (v. 27). But all true revelation makes a claim on us beyond compassion and mercy, beyond feeling comforted. It seems to me that real discipleship, in Matthew’s day and in our own time, is about accepting the commission to bring about God’s new creation. When we can sense God moving in the chaos to create something new, it seems to me, it demands a response from us. Where is God in this? Who am I in this new thing? How are we being called to be together now? It challenges us, as it did Peter before us, to wade into the struggle between chaos and creation. As Anoma shared in her message last week, just like Jacob, it demands that we stay in the struggle, that, in the words of John Lewis, as Anoma shared, we not give up, that we not give in. That we not let this moment pass us by without wading in and participating in the work that God calls us to
And so, today, I pray that these words from our scripture will become fresh again for our own time. I pray with all my being that from our chaos today there are ways in which God is creating something new right now, amid the uncertainty and perhaps the fear in which we’re living – something good something holy and just. And I pray that each of us will heed the call of discipleship and wade into the water, never certain, needing help to stay afloat, but willing to risk doing our part to help bring about God’s new creation for this time.