- Parish House
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Rob Leacock
You wake up bright and early on a Monday morning, and suddenly realize that you’ve forgotten that today is the first day of school. You thought you had another week. You don’t know your schedule or have any of your supplies. You can’t find your backpack; your lunch isn’t packed. You don’t have any clean clothes. You haven’t done any of your summer reading.
You’re on top of the high dive. It’s very high. It didn’t look so high from the other side of the pool. It’s very high. You forgot that you don’t like heights, but now you remember. It’s very high. The only thing you hate worse than heights is jumping off places that are very high. The line behind you is long, and the folks waiting to joyfully leap into the pool below are getting restless.
You’re at Sunday worship. It’s a lovely day. The congregation has gathered and the procession starts down the nave. The minister you were absolutely sure was scheduled to preach that day because you double-checked the preaching schedule turns to you and says, “I can’t wait to hear your sermon this morning!” That did not happen this morning, by the way.
But maybe, likely, you have found yourself alone—maybe not physically alone, but feeling alone, isolated—in a place you don’t want to be, didn’t expect to be, didn’t choose to be, having to do something you don’t want to do, something you’re unprepared to do, scared to do even. A situation that has you asking, “How did I get here exactly?”
You’re in a boat at sea. It’s the middle of the night. There is a storm.
You’ve been following around this charismatic and rabble rousing teacher who has plucked you up from your life and said, “Follow me.” This is the guy that everybody’s talking about, the guy everybody’s going out to see. The guy who baffles even the most learned Pharisees and Scribes. And he comes along and he picks…you. And he say’s I want you to come along with me.
You join him on his lecture tour—even though you don’t half understand what he’s teaching because he’s kind of hard to follow and uses weird farming metaphors. Not only does he not often explain things in a straightforward manner, when he does stop and explain, you sometimes feel like you understand less.
Whenever he’s like “You guys getting all this?” You just nod because you’re a little scared to admit you’re not really sure what’s going on. And it’s not like the professor is keeping regular office hours to begin with for you to pop in for extra help and besides, we’ve got to get a move on to the next lecture. Maybe one of the other guys who seem like they get it will explain it to you or let you borrow their notes.
Next thing you know some guys from Jerusalem are telling the teacher an awful account about how Herod had John the Baptizer beheaded. And everyone is feeling uneasy and scared. So Jesus tells us that maybe we should lay low for a bit. He suggests that we cross over the lake on the boat, over to where it’s isolated and we won’t have this crowd following us around.
You hardly arrive before the people start coming out from who knows where. Like, thousands of people. And there’s all these people hanging around like they’re waiting for something to happen. Jesus was walking around curing sick people. But it was getting late, and there wasn’t anything to eat out there.
And then something happened; it was amazing. You can’t even explain what happened. It was like there was no food. It was a crisis. A no-food crisis. But you get these little loaves and small fish, and Jesus takes the food and says the prayers and then you’re passing it out and everyone is eating. You’ve hardly passed everything out before you’re collecting what’s left over.
You’ve never experienced anything like this, and you and your friends are exhilarated but totally exhausted. And it’s late. It’s going to be night soon. And you’re not even thinking about what’s next. He’s standing on the lakeshore over by the boat. And he’s saying, get into the boat and go on to the other side.
Well, it’s kind of late, don’t you think…
Get into the boat
The crowds are still here; we should send them on their way first.
Get into the boat
We’ll wait for you while you dismiss them…
Get into the boat.
But, Teacher, how will you get across? Where should we meet you?
Get into the boat.
So you get in and push off and you watch him standing there on the shore as you drift further and further away.
And it’s getting dark.
And the wind starts blowing.
And the waves are beating against the boat.
Of course, you remember the last time you were all out in a boat in a storm. But Jesus was with us that time (of course he slept through most of it). But no use in bringing that up now. Because you and everyone else is and crying out and save me, Lord.
And how did we get here exactly?
Most often when we refer to this episode in the gospel, we call it “Jesus Walks on the Water.” I guess we could make it about that. But is it about that? Is that what’s really going on? Jesus defying the laws of physics?
But let’s set that aside. In fact, let’s ignore it completely. Let’s even momentarily look past the wind and the waves and the storm and let’s focus on this one little bit there at the start of the passage where Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat.
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. But the English doesn’t really capture it fully. The original Greek word is a bit stronger. He compelled them, he ordered them, he constrained them to get into the boat. He put them into a situation in which they didn’t have a choice. They were getting into that boat whether they wanted to or not.
And here’s the thing: we might consider the walking on water to be significant—even though it really seems like Jesus was just trying to get to the other side himself. It’s no small feat. But as a preacher and a Christian, I’m not sure how the walking on water fits into my faith or understanding of the gospel. At least not easily.
What in my life could I point to and say “That was a walking on water moment”? I don’t readily have an answer, but to say I have been in that boat before. I work at a school and school starts this week—I am metaphorically speaking, standing on the shore being told to get into a boat with 70 or so colleagues for the next 10 months. Being a Christian, I think has a lot more to do with getting into that boat than walking on water. The life of the church has been less the wonder of Jesus tip-toeing across the waves than it is about him pointing to the boat.
One reading of this text would argue that Matthew is metaphorically presenting his community and us with the idea that we, the church, will have to venture out into the uncertainty the world has to offer us and Jesus won’t be sitting right there with us in the proverbial boat. It’s not the most obvious metaphor for the church there is in scripture, but it’s a righteous one. We can easily say that not everything in our journey of faith resembles the elation of the feeding of the multitudes that immediately precedes the episode in the boat.
We too, will be fed—literally and spiritually. But we cannot stay here. We literally cannot stay here, for all sorts of reasons. But spiritually, we cannot remain here, as much as we would like to. Like Peter, John and James up on the mountain after Jesus is Transfigured, we cannot stay at the summit but must head down the mountain.
I don’t mean to say that we’re always destined to stormy waters, so batten down the hatches! But we can’t know—much less control—what will happen once we set out from the shore. What can we do about the wind and the waves and the storm?
The same Lord who walks across waves, who feeds multitudes of people with just a few loaves, who miraculously heals, who teaches with astounding and confounding wisdom…
The Lord who sees us in our struggles—not just the sort of broad existential struggle of humanity, but the very real struggles you know, that you might be facing right now—did I mention that school is starting this week?! The Lord who knows our struggles does not want to abandon us.
The Lord who loves us so profoundly, that he comes near to us, speaks to us, says do not be afraid.
The Lord who defies not only nature but the sinful judgment of the world, who gives his life for us, who dies for us, that we might live, that our life might be joined to his.
This is the same Lord who stands on the shore and compels us to get into the boat. Amen.