Sunday, August 14, 2005

Proper A14, Aug 7 sermon--"Stepping out of the Boat"

IN the richly symbolic world of Matthew’s audience, most of the original hearers of the Gospel would understand there is more to this story than what is on the surface. We see the stormy sea in the scriptures several times. At the beginning of Genesis, the stormy sea is the uncreated world. God’s Breath sweeps across the watery chaos and creates order. Jonah is thrown out of the boat when the sea is turbulent as a sacrifice to an angry god. The image of a stormy sea means something to the mind of the ancient people. It is a mental cue as rich for Matthew’s original audience as the image of the world trade center is for us. When Christ calls Peter out onto the sea, the ancient people would be amazed that first of all Jesus is walking on the stormy sea, and secondly that Christ calls Peter out of the boat and into the chaos. This symbolism would certainly point to the Divinity of Jesus. Who else but God has power over the turbulent chaos?
The image of the boat has deeper meaning for the original Christians as well. The boat was a symbol for the church, for the community of believers. This boat was indeed navigating a stormy sea in Matthew’s community’s era. The Christians were beginning to be disenfranchised from the mother faith, Judaism. The Romans recognized and respected the authenticity of Judaism, but they did not allow for “unofficial religions.” Therefore, as the distance between “The Way” (What early Christians called their religon) and Judaism grew, the more danger the Christian communities were in by the empire. It didn’t help that the Christians worshipped a man who was crucified for insurrection as an incarnation of God.
The boat was a safe place. The storm outside was the embodiement of Chaos. Peter wanted Jesus to invite him out into the chaos when he saw what Jesus could do. This was ultimately meaningful for the early Christians. Peter was the “everyman” of the Gospels. He had ample weaknesses to match his greatness. He was the legendary pillar of the early church—yet he was also portrayed by the gospels as the one who often stuck his foot in his mouth. Now as then, many Christians could identify with the character of Peter, and this is the intention of the gospel writers.
Matthew is the only evangelist who writes about this encounter with Peter in this story. John and Mark also write about the disciples encountering Jesus walking on the water and calming the sea—but Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us this bit about Peter. What could he be saying through this unique account?
If we are willing, if we ask our Christ to call to us to step out of the boat—Christ will do it! The Christ walk is an adventurous path. Through stormy seas, in the face of multitudes, among the diseased and deranged—Christ is not just a soft lap or a cuddly embrace. Matthew wants his audience to know that Christ calls us to look through our fears and see the face of Christ pulling us forward. Though the obstacles may be insurmountable, and though we may be afraid—Christ is amidst the Chaos, and will challenge us to walk with him.
This summer I’ve been reading the Chronicles of Narnia. I saw a preview for a movie version of the book coming out this winter, and I wanted to make sure I was fresh on the story before I went to see it. Something stuck out to me in the children’s novel that really reminds me of today’s passage. As many of you know who’ve read the book, two brothers and two sisters, Peter, Edward, Susan, and Lucy, stumble upon the enchanting land of Narnia inside an old wardrobe. A wicked ice queen has anointed herself the ruler of Narnia, and has plunged the whole land into an eternal winter. Another main character of the book is Aslan the Lion—the mystical creature king and savior of Narnia, who according to the author, CS Lewis, is a Christ figure. As the four children are learning more about Narnia and the legend of Aslan from their friends Mr. And Mrs Beaver, one of the children asks the question. “This Aslan—is he quite safe?” Mrs. Beaver responds, “Aslan? He’s a lion—of course he’s not safe: but he’s good.”
Getting out of the boat may not be safe. In other words, getting out of the boat may mean leaving our feeling of security behind—but we are promised that Christ is with us even in our fears—if we concentrate on the presence and power of Christ, we have the potential to do things we may find utterly impossible.
Where do you see disciples walking on water today? Perhaps you may think of missionaries braving hostile environments or people to do the work of Christ. Perhaps you may think of relief workers rushing to the scenes that may not be secured. Perhaps you may think of military chaplains bringing the hope of Christ to our soldiers in the midst of death and destruction. Perhaps historical figures like Martin Luther King. We may think of ourselves as one of the other 11 in the boat watching Peter and Jesus taking a risk.
I want you to look in the mirror when you hear about Peter’s journey though. When have you ventured out with faith even in the midst of your fears? When have you called to Jesus—if it is you—command me to come to you? The storms raging around us aren’t always monumental earth shattering events. Sometimes it may be giving a ride to someone walking in the heat loaded down with groceries, when the Spirit moves your heart to do so. Perhaps it may be reaching out to someone who is different than we are, even though our social norms may frown upon socializing with “those types,” Perhaps it may just be getting out of bed in the morning in the midst of a bout with depression.
There’s another part to this story though. Peter doesn’t just jive right over to Jesus on top of the crashing waves. It gets to him! He loses his focus on the powerful pull of Christ, and instead starts sinking in the churning sea. Terrified, he cries, “Master, save me!” Master, save me! Those words—that familiar prayer in the midst of failure!
Here’s the beautiful thing about this man, the Christ. Jesus wasn’t some guru high on his own cosmic consciousness. He didn’t let Peter sink for attempting something so bold. He plunged his hands down immediately and lifted him up! I like Peterson’s version—“Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand and said, “Faint-heart, what got into you!” I think Peterson gets the tone of Jesus’ reprimand better than our usual translation, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Faint heart, what got into you? It’s not so chastising, it is more familiar and more characteristic of this teacher and friend we call a savior. Aslan is not safe, but he is good. The lion may be fierce and terrifying, but he has a soft spot in his heart for the four: Peter, Lucy, Edward, and Susan. When we falter amidst our storms, when we lose focus on the eyes of our master and begin to sink back into our individual chaos, we can always call on the name of our savior. Master, save me! Paul tells us to say aloud the welcoming words to God, Jesus is my master!
Speaking aloud our faith. Giving it full expression. Not only in the corner of our minds, but in the vibration of our throats. Calling on the sweet name of our master puts our prayer out in the open. We alter the world around us when we speak something aloud. I think this is why Jesus says, “IT is not what goes in your mouth but what comes out of it that defiles you.” The Holy Breath which gives us life is created afresh by the powerful minds that God bestowed on us. We are uniquely proficient among all of creation for forming the breath into a myriad of sounds. When we speak words of hatred and violence and ignorance, we give powerful creation to hatred, violence and ignorance. However, When we speak aloud our hope and faith and love, it changes the pattern of air in front of us. Voicing our innermost beliefs actually changes our environment—good or bad. What a gift it is to have the power of speech! If we are in need, then say it—don’t be ashamed to say it aloud. “Master, save me!” We are all in need, and by the grace of God, Christ is ready to pull us out of the chaos, ready to pull our feet out of the dark, churning sea of fear itself.
To prove it to us, Christ offers himself in a real and tangible way. Christ instituted the celebration of communion to let us always be aware that he is so close to us that we can taste it. We may have mouths full of the salt water of fear—we may have choked on our fear as we were sinking, but Christ is here to give us mouth to mouth resuscitation! In the eating of this meal together, Christ is really here among us, walking us back to the boat.

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