Between Jesus and the Deep Blue Sea
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Gary Charles, September 27th, 2020
Crowds. I miss them. I miss the energy of being at a concert with the crowd cheering their favorite musicians on stage. I miss the deafening cheers of the crowd when the UVA point guard makes that game-winning basket. I miss the Sunday morning crowd at Cove heading to familiar pews and swaying to Linda playing, “Glory to God.” Even knowing that it is in everyone’s best health interest right now to avoid crowds, I still miss them.
Not Jesus, at least not the Jesus we meet in this story from Matthew. This Jesus has no distorted ego need for large crowds to fawn over him, to shout about how wonderful he is, to wear his colorful hats or bright T-shirts. And yet, wherever Jesus goes, crowds gather. He cannot find a moment’s peace, no matter how hard he tries.
As our story opens, Jesus is again looking for some peace and quiet. He sends his disciples out to sea and then pronounces a benediction on the crowd so they can go home. He is ready to be alone, to pray, to commune with God. No crowds. No disciples. No demands. Jesus is ready to get away from human need, at least for a while. He is ready to kneel and to tell God his own needs. Life has been one large crowd after another for him, one huge demand after another, since his ministry began and as this story opens, Jesus is tired. He wants some solitude, and he wants to pray.
So, after his disciples and the crowd leave, Jesus is finally alone atop the mountain, but he does not stay there long. Just when he is settled in silent prayer, he makes the mistake of looking down from the mountain to see his disciples’ boat being tossed about in a storm. At this point, he knows that his solitude and his prayers must wait.
Over the centuries, painters have portrayed what happens next with a colorful flourish. They picture Jesus sprinting down the mountain and then stepping out on the liquid sea beneath him, standing tall, defying nature, taking charge of the turbulent winds as a superman atop angry waters. These painters have more imagination than Matthew. All the Gospel writer says is: “Between three and six in the morning, Jesus came walking toward them on the sea.”
The disciples panic when they see a figure walking on water, approaching them in unsure light. They fear that they are being attacked by a sea creature, a phantom in the Greek. The prevailing belief in Jesus’ day was that the sea was filled with such demonic creatures. It was the sea that took away fathers who fished for their living, that swallowed children who wandered into waters too deep for their safety, that threw gale winds against them when they were struggling to reach shore.
The sea and the storm rages around them, but Jesus speaks not to the storm around them, but to the storm within them. He says, “Calm down; it’s all right. It is I; don’t be afraid.” At the invitation of Jesus, Peter steps out of the boat and joins Jesus atop the water, out upon the storm sea.
Here is where many of the most famous painters feature Peter sinking, overwhelmed, afraid, flailing about for help. And, they are not wrong. For almost immediately out of the boat, Peter is shaken by the storm and he sinks, sinks like a rock. He shouts to Jesus: “Lord, save me.” And, Jesus does and he will do so again and again. Jesus takes Peter’s hand and he asks Peter not why his feet gave way, but why his faith gave way. Jesus and Peter then climb into the boat. The storm abates and the sea calms. Everyone in the boat sings a rousing chorus of “Hallelujah” and the story winds to a close.
Read this story and the debate begins about miracles. What is a miracle? Did Jesus do miracles? Does God still do miracles? How can I order up a miracle? Read the story again, closely. Not once does Matthew say that this is a miracle story. Not once does he have Jesus waving his hands dramatically at the winds or muttering magic words to stop the storm and silence the sea. This is not so much a miracle story, as it is a call story. Matthew knows that Jesus is Lord of land and sea, and this Jesus calls not only Peter but calls us out of our greatest fears amid the greatest storms.
This story is a must reading in the year 2020, because it is a story about those who live their lives somewhere between sure confidence in the power of Jesus and dreadful fear that the undertow of life is simply sometimes too strong for us to survive. It is a story, then, for all of us who live somewhere between Jesus and the deep blue sea.
As a teenager, I was forced to read John Bunyan’s, The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was mostly a total waste of an amazing book on a young unreceptive mind. But, like most good books, a few scenes linger that make sense only later in life. One such scene occurs as Christian approaches the Heavenly City. Before he can enter, though, he and Hopeful must cross the River of Death, which, they are told, “is deeper or shallower, relative to your belief in the King of the place.”
Entering the waters, Christian begins to sink. He cries out to his good friend, Hopeful, and says: “I am sinking in deep waters, the billows are going over my head; all the waves go over me.” And as soon as he says those all too understandable words, he then breaks out in a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the water, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.” Long before Christian uttered those words in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the prophet Isaiah spoke those words and Jesus speaks similar words to Peter, “Calm down; it’s all right. It is I; don’t be afraid.”
To an immortal teenager in the 1960s John Bunyan’s, Isaiah’s, Jesus’ words sounded like so much religious nonsense. To someone increasingly well acquainted with his own mortality, with what it means to sink in a storm, what it is like to flail about in turbulent waters wondering if anyone is there to extend a hand, these words no longer sound like religious nonsense. They sound like a lifeline from God being tossed my way, our way.
I have always thought of Peter in this story and in so many Gospel stories as someone who was foolhardy and impetuous. In many ways, I still do. But, for this final Sunday of September in this bizarre year 2020, I see something else in Peter. I find myself admiring Peter’s confidence amid the storm. He does not put off faithfulness for a calmer time. He does not say, “Listen, Jesus, we are in the midst of a storm. It is time to be cautious, to batten down the hatches, lest we be swept under by these violent waves.” No, near dawn on turbulent waters, Peter decides to live.
What inspires me most about Peter in this story is that he refuses to put living on hold. In that respect, Peter captures what living in 2020 often feels like to me. After the pandemic, I will . . .
When there is a vaccine, we will . . .
When the election is over, then I can . . .
Over the years, I have read this story a thousand times, but this week it is a story that has my name at the beginning of its implied question: “Gary, are you ready to start living, right now?!” And, if “yes,” what happens next is not ambiguous. “If so, then do it.” Write that letter. Reconcile that relationship. Grieve out loud. Seek out that help and do it now. Write that check. Canvas that neighborhood. Speak out against raging racism. Call out that hateful language for what it is. Find ways to serve those who need you even when it would be safer for everyone and for you to stay at home, keeping the boat afloat, waiting out the storm.
I am not saying to stop wearing a mask. For God’s sake and for yours and for mine, PLEASE WEAR A MASK. I am not saying to huddle up in large crowds and let safe distancing be damned. For God’s sake and for yours and for mine, PLEASE AVOID CROWDS AND KEEP A SAFE PHYSICAL DISTANCE. I am not saying to stop washing your hands. For God’s sake, YOU DO NOT NEED A PUBLIC HEALTH MANDATE TO DO THAT; YOUR MOTHER TAUGHT YOU BETTER.
I am saying that Jesus is at least calling me to get out of the boat and venture out into these uncertain seas and these certainly turbulent times. He is calling, at least me, to stay connected and to get involved, no matter how challenging that is right now. The nation needs us. The church needs us. The world needs us. Is there a high chance of sinking when you and I respond to that call? Absolutely. But if this story in Matthew has even an ounce of metaphorical truth to it, Jesus is calling us out of our boats and if, and when, we sink, he is ready to take our hands and say to us: “Calm down, just calm down. It’s all right. It is I; don’t be afraid.”
At least for me, I cannot begin to think of words that I need to hear more.