Saturday, September 6, 2008
Thirteenth after Pentecost, 2008
Sailboat on the Sea of Galilee, photograph by E. Bartov
August 10, 2008 XIII Pentecost (RCL Proper 14/A) Matthew 14: 22-33
At St. Luke’s in Scituate, Massachusetts (the church we attend when on vacation), they have the custom in the summertime, on Sundays when the weather is reasonably good, to schedule a service for 7 p.m. at the town beach. They gather, spread out their beach blankets, have a brief and very informal service of Evening Prayer and Holy Communion, and then picnic together—with the kids and some of the adults too taking advantage of the opportunity for an evening swim, and everybody enjoying a time of friendly conversation, worship, and fellowship. Actually, I confess that Susy and I have never gone to one of these services, as we always seem to have other family things to be doing at dinnertime--but it does seem to me like a great idea, and certainly the folks in the congregation who have told us about it always talk about it with great affection and enthusiasm.
A nice summertime image, in any case: a picnic by the shore, catching a cool breeze and spending quality time together as Christian friends.
And in this series of readings that we’ve had from Matthew’s gospel it all seems seasonally familiar. First that Sermon by the Shore, Matthew 13, as Jesus shared this amazing collection of parables (the Sower, Wheat and Tares, Mustard Seed, Leaven in the Loaf, Treasure in the Field, Pearl of Great Price, Dragnet, Householder), then at the beginning of chapter 14, as we heard last week, as Jesus tenderly reaches out to heal the sick who have come to him for comfort, and then as they all sit down together for the miraculous meal and the feeding of the multitude, and now finally here--we might say the summer service over and the picnic blankets folded up and packed away--Jesus has his friends get into the boat and head out across the lake to their evening campsite, while he is going to have a little down-time for reflection and prayer. He’ll walk around the shore the long way and meet them later, on the other side.
And then, of course, while they’re in the boat, the skies cloud over, something of a storm begins to stir up, wind rain and lightening, as so often happens at the shore in the summer, and as they are tossed about and bailing like crazy and in something of a panic about keeping things together, suddenly Jesus appears--and they can’t believe what they’re seeing!--walking not on the shore but skimming over the swirling waves, make of that what you will . . . and then finally there is this incident with Peter, so classically, with the brash boldness of his enthusiasm, to leap over the side of the boat, miraculously himself, with the buoyancy of faith, and then I guess he suddenly realizes where he is, and as his heart sinks with fear, his momentum fails, and he begins to slip beneath the waves--only to be rescued, lifted back to safety, by the strong hand of his tender Lord and Savior. And Jesus rejoins his friends in the boat, and the wind dies down, the storm passes by, and they continue their journey to the other side.
There are about 10,000 jokes that have referenced this story in one way or another, of course, but the disciples in the boat weren’t laughing. Perhaps we make the jokes—and a lot of them are very funny—because the story makes contact in a place very deep in us, with an intimacy that is almost embarrassing. What to do with what has just happened, how to process it? They seem to rest there in a hushed silence. The evening now embracing them with a sense of shimmering wonder, awe, amazement, and a loyalty to and appreciation for Jesus deeper than words can express, though we do get that summary creedal affirmation: “truly you are the Son of God.” A sense of being surrounded by this overwhelming divine graciousness. Held securely in the palm of his hand. Interestingly, they say the same words that the Roman Centurion and his companions as witnesses to the crucifixion would say on that hill outside Jerusalem not long after, in Matthew 27. “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
An iconic moment: a moment ever after to have thematic applications, in art and music, stained glass windows, and I suppose countless sermons and meditations and prayers: lifting up a vision of Jesus as “Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all Nature,” in the words of the familiar hymn. Ruler of all Nature. Earth and all stars bow down before him. And an affirmation of his presence in continuing relationship with us as individuals and as his church, and perhaps with some special emphasis in this season of storminess in the life of our wider church: how in the midst of our storms and high winds, all our enthusiasms, our doubts and our certainties, our puzzling over life’s miracles and mysteries, when we are in the right and when we are in the wrong, in the midst of every day, as we are striding boldly across the water toward him or as we begin to slip beneath the waves, in the least likely places, he will be there, to lift us back up, to bring us safely home.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.