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Jesus, Command Us!

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 13

Text: Matthew 14: 22- 33

Friends, allow me to start by speaking briefly to yesterday’s news out of Charlottesville. If you’ve been tuning in, you’ve seen the utterly despicable and disturbing demonstrations of hatred, deadly violence and white nationalism as hundreds have gathered in Virginia in a racist, torch-carrying, coordinated response to the removal of another confederate statue. There have been passionate counter-protests too. In today’s New York Times, Michael Eric Dyson calls the blatantly white supremacist rally an “alt-right unity fiasco.” The racial taunting, hostility and outright brawling led to the Governor to declare a State of Emergency. I’ll return to this in a moment, but first let’s start with our appointed text.

If you are like me, you think you’ve heard this story before and what there is say about it. And if you are like me, thanks to those cartoonish prints that might hang in your grandmother’s house or a church school class room, it may call to mind one of those awful images of a tall, white, shiny Jesus, surrounded by a halo of moon rays, striding across the Sea at night in a giant robe, arms held out wide, with a cheesy, toothy smile. Lord, have mercy!

Preachers tend to either side-step the water-walking miracle, choosing some metaphorical interpretation, or they lean right into it, lay claim to it and dismiss any need for explanation, making the simple point that Jesus is the Son of the God, so why not? The tension between the two approaches is captured beautifully by Denise Levertov in a poem which uses our passage an illustration. It’s called the 'Poetics of Faith'.

“Straight to the point”
can ricochet,
Circumlocution, analogy,
Parable’s ambiguities, provide
Context, stepping-stones.
Most of the time. And then
The lightning power
Amidst these indirections
Of plain
Unheralded miracle!

For example,
as if forgetting
to prepare them, He simply walks on water
toward them, casually— and impetuous Peter, empowered,
jumps from the post and rushes on wave-tip to meet Him—
a few steps, anyway—
(till it occurs to him,
‘I can’t, this is preposterous’ and Jesus has to grab him,
tumble his weight
back over the gunwale).

Sustaining those light and swift steps was more than Peter
could manage. Still, years later,
his toes and insteps, just before sleep, would remember their passage.

Impetuous Peter, empowered. Indeed. A version of this story of Jesus walking on water appears in Mark and John as well. But Matthew is the only one that includes sinking Peter, or any specific reference to Peter. So let’s stay focused there.

A few other observations that are important if not timely. First, the story at first appears atypical in that Jesus’ miracles are usually attached to stories of healing outcasts, raising people from the dead or, as we saw last week, feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. At first glance, it would seem there is no social or political context crying out for a display of Jesus’ divine powers. It’s just him and the disciples.

And yet, there is a sense of urgency here that makes me wonder if there’s more going on. What if Jesus isn’t quite so casual as he approaches the boat. Recall the opening line, “immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” He made them do it? Other translations use the word “forced.” He forced them to get into the boat! So much for that cheesy smile. Jesus is at his most serious here, and who could blame him. As I laid out in my sermon last week, just a few lines earlier in the very same chapter 14, Jesus learns that Herod violently executed his cousin and mentor John the Baptist, literally serving his head on a platter, at his daughter’s request no less. Jesus first move in response was to take some time for himself, presumably to process and tend to his grief, if not to think through next steps for his Kingdom-of-God-is-Near resistance to the Roman empire that just killed his friend. He tried to get away, that is, before the crowds followed him, 5,000 strong, and pressed him back into service. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that the reason those 5,000 people were gathered, and hungry, is because they were sick of violent imperial oppression that surrounded them. They were ready for change and they were looking for Jesus to lead a military rebellion. No wonder he sees fit at the beginning of our passage to “dismiss the crowds.” But the next line is that “he forces the disciples into the boat!” There’s a clear sense of urgency here! Maybe he is trying to prepare them! Maybe he’s wanting them to get their feet wet, to go and face the stormy sea as preparation for the spiritual and political storms that he knows are still to come!

One more thing to point out: He does get away for a bit. And once he’s found some time in prayer on a mountain, he circles back to them. He’s ready. As if carried by nothing but sheer, single minded purpose, he strides over the water towards them. He says to them: “Have courage. Don’t be afraid!” They were terrified he was a ghost, of course, but I wonder if they were also terrified that Jesus too had been hunted down and killed. Remember, John the Baptist was just slain by Herod, in this very same chapter. I’d say they would have been terrified no matter what! They needed Jesus to be a boss and to tell them what next! What now?! You see, this is the only way I can make sense of Peter’s strange response. He says “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water!” Command me? Why say that? Why such forceful language? Well…maybe Peter isn’t as foolish as he seems. Maybe he gets it! Maybe he’s telling himself and Jesus: “The only reason I’m out here in the first place is because you made me do it! Whatever comes next, I know it’s not gonna be easy, and you’re gonna have to make me do that too!”

Suddenly, the story starts looking at once surprisingly unfamiliar and yet strangely familiar, as if maybe we’ve been in that boat ourselves! Think about it. Some moment where you were pressed into service, where the storms of life were raging all around you, where you know you are no longer captain of the ship, and yet where there’s some further encounter that pushes you all the more to the edge, to do something, the outcome of which is entirely uncertain. It may start with a simple yes, and then the demands keep coming and coming. Take the risk and the demands of bringing a child into this world, or of making art, of starting a new company, or teaching church school class, of finally coming to terms with an addiction, or your rapidly aging body or your mortality, recognizing you can’t do any of this alone!

Impetuous, empowered Peter! And couldn’t Jesus use a few more just like him, or just like you and me? You see, we can’t know these poetics of faith until we are out on the open water, until we are faced with raging storms, or a sinking heart, until we’ve come to face-to-face with our limits. Which brings me back to Jesus, who makes them do it, who commands them to go, and then says, and always says, come! Come on, I’ve got you! God’s got you! God’s got this! We may fail at first, spitting up water over the gunwhale, but he will be there- Jesus, his hand over our back, pulling us to safety. Can we actually hear his words, “You of little faith,” as words uttered without harsh judgment? After all, a little faith is better than no faith! My guess is Jesus meets him with grace, knowing full well why he was scared witless, why he doubted, knowing it’s all part of the preparation. Maybe Jesus was proud of him for taking the leap in the first place! “Sustaining those light and swift steps was more than Peter could manage.” Exactly! But now his toes know! His insteps can remember what it feels like to take a risk, to obey the command of someone we can trust and to be carried by faith in a divinely inspired purpose.

I wonder whether, as one commentator has noted, “that the storm and their inability to land the ship is a metaphor for the disciples’ inability to navigate the waters of the Roman Empire.” (1) For soon they will turn their faces to Jerusalem, soon Jesus will face the cross. He needs them ready to take risks, to resist, to do something. Maybe the real reason Jesus walks on those waters is because he knew they were testing grounds, not merely for the disciples’ words but for their actions. So often this passage is understood to be about Peter’s faith or lack thereof. But what if the real measure of faith is not whether you will say he is Lord but whether you will act like it, making his purpose your purpose. We can say we believe, even if we have ongoing questions about what that means, but are we ready to get into the boat? Are we ready to step onto the water? Maybe our ask should be Peter’s: “Jesus, command us!” Make us get out of these too-safe waters of our white privilege! If we haven’t already, get our feet wet in the struggle for Black and brown lives, for Native lives, for LGBTQ lives, for homeless and hungry lives, and remind us that when we flail and sink in that work, which we will, to get back up and to keep believing, to keep acting!

Michael Eric Dyson has already written of yesterday’s events: “Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.” (2)

Are we ready to so speak out, even to act out, against the violence and oppression brought to bear against our cousins and siblings and mentors in the struggle? It may well be a grace to be in this good ship First Church together, where we are “made” to make promises to one another and to little Cricket too, to follow in Jesus’ ways of justice and mercy. Sometimes, we too need to be made, forced even, to step up and step out, if not by Jesus then by the events that are demanding it of us every day. We need his commands to come and follow him! Come and resist this empire while loving your enemies! And what better moment than right now.

Friends, the political storms are raging all around us. Between North Korea and Charlottesville this week, how many times did you find yourselves saying “This is scary!” I don’t think Jesus would come casually in such a moment. He comes, then as now, with a miraculously calm but fierce and fearless urgency, one that’s ready to force us if he has to and for our own good, to get in the boat, to get on the bus, to face into those roiling waves of turmoil! Courage, he tells us! Don’t be afraid!

The German theologian Helmut Thielicke has shared that “A sailor in World War II once wrote home: ‘If you should hear that I have fallen in battle, do not cry. Remember that even the ocean in which my body sinks is only a pool in my Saviour’s hand.’…We don’t know what destiny is reaching for us in the remaining years of this decade, but one thing we do know: that hand reaches out for us, too.”

Are you ready to act like you believe in his fierce and urgent purpose of love and justice? Can you sense that hand of wider purpose calling and lifting our sinking hearts now? Then what is one thing you will do in the coming days, weeks and months to show up or to speak up for peace and justice? What is one thing you will to do remember, repent of and deplore the evil legacy of white supremacy? What can we do together as disciples, in this boat we call our Church, as citizens on this ship we call our country, given the stormy, stormy seas around us? Join me and take some time to pray on it first, alone if you must. Jesus did, before he came down from that mountain and before he came down from the next one when he set his face to Jerusalem. Think about what is just one thing you will do to act out your faith! Then go ahead, be like impetuous, empowered Peter who knows what he needs! Ask him to command you to do it! And be ready to jump! Amen.

1) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2017/08/
2) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/charlottesville-and-the-bigot...

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