Sunday, July 23, 2017

What can we say come August 13? 10th after Pentecost

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There’s no greater extended drama in the Bible than Genesis 37-50 – but as the lectionary (understandably!) lops off scene 1 (chapter 37) from the rest of the story, it seems to me that to preach on just this will inevitably have to jump ahead, or reduce things to moralisms – or we take the notion of “dream” and launch off into whatever.  I’ll wait until the climax in chapter 45 next week to pick up the thread from ch. 37.


Parenthetically, the Revised Common Lectionary always lists “alternate readings,” and this week’s are lovely.  The Psalm has that poetic, picturesque verse 10: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”  And then 1 Kings 19:9-18 – God not coming to the shattered, lonely and forlorn Elijah in the storm but in the sheer silence/still small voice.

So this week I’m tackling the Gospel.  Frankly, Matthew 14:22-33 is a text I always avoided until, given no choice at all as a guest preacher, I spoke from this text at Duke Chapel three years ago.  My avoidance could be chalked up to two things: (a) the dreadfully trite “when the storms of life are raging” sermon is so predictable and corny – but maybe you can make it work; and then (b) the mentally awkward image of walking on water; I’m sure the pious happily devour such texts, but cynics (like me) just get derailed.  We can make it into a cute image (a la John Ortberg’s If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat – which has a fair amount of wisdom, actually, but just isn't my style). 

But I like to ground things in hard reality.  I love taking groups to the Sea of Galilee, where we experience two moments sequentially.  I take them to see the “Jesus boat,” that amazing underwater archaeological find of a real wooden fishing boat from the time of Jesus, now housed attractively at Kibbutz Ginnosar.  I joke that I wish the boat had “S.S. Simon Peter” carved into the brow… but here is a boat Jesus surely saw, perhaps stepped into, or even fished from.  Jesus, the fishermen, the sea: real things, real places, God in the flesh.

Then we sail out onto Galilee, and I love it when the captain turns off the motor, and we just feel the quiet, the waves lapping against the boat, the breeze.  

One time we did have a storm rage upon us suddenly – high drama.  I love in that moment to read a miracle story that’s tough enough – where the storm rages, Jesus is mystifying asleep in the stern, and the disciples wake him, asking if he even cares if they perish.  Calmly he says “Peace, be still” – and although I know he’s addressing the storm, I wonder if he was always speaking to the disciples.

We tend to make this story symbolic, and the author has symbolic intentions – and yet I am sure if you could ask Mark, Did this really happen? he’d say Of course.  Maybe ditto for the Walking on the Water – which is tougher, as it’s not Jesus and nature, but a human being defying the laws of physics, albeit with divine aid.  Peter in the story evidently had precisely the same doubts I have just voiced!  What’s the preacher to do? 
I have let the questions be, even in the preaching moment – and have occasionally asked a different kind of question.  Want to see miracles in this story?  It’s not the walking on water.  It’s barely noticeable, right before the storm: “Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray” (14:23).  Jesus did this often on the hills by Galilee, maybe under some discipline or obligation, but probably out of a hunger to be alone with God.  We fear being alone; we aren’t sure how to transform loneliness into solitude.  We are always connected, always available – and so we are never available or connected to God, or even to other people.  So explore the wonder of quiet, prayer, contemplation, etc.  Once I even gave my people the last ten minutes of my sermon time just to sit and be totally still and quiet.  They seemed to like that sermon more than when I’ve filled the time chattering away.
The other strain on credulity?  Jesus says “Have no fear,” or “Be not afraid,” or “Do not be anxious.”  This is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Bible – and it feels like theological piling on, as we are anxious, and God demanding we not be only makes it worse; we are clueless how to ‘obey’ such a command.  And yet there it is.  Maybe we learn, we grow, we stretch, we engage in a program like Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, you get a breathing app for your phone (as deep breathing seems to help – and this strikes me as biblically sensible!); we ponder Scott Bader-Saye’s wisdom in his great book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good.  When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good and right. Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.”

I am fond of Madeleine L’Engle’s recollection (in Walking on Water) of swimming in and then sitting on a rock overlooking Dog Pond, and thinking of Peter: “As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”  I think this text does invite us to dig deeply into our notions of what is possible and impossible (a consistent scriptural theme, as in Gen. 17-18, the Annunciation, etc.).  Ponder with me that Aristotle quote: “That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.”  Or the great moment in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale: “Miracles come to those who risk defeat in seeking them. They come to those who have exhausted themselves completely in a struggle to accomplish the impossible.”  He explains that such “defiance” is “moved by love.”

Maybe the sermon simply invites people to move in whatever risky, uncertain way toward Jesus.  St. Francis tried to take each step of his day with Jesus’ actions and stories as his map, his blueprint.  Peter got chided for failing – but at least he tried.  I may trot out that old but never worn out prayer from Thomas Merton (in Thoughts in Solitude): “My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I will do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me.”

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

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