Aug 09 | “If you want to walk on water,” (Sermon, August 9th 2020)

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Matthew 14:22-33

During the last few months a lot of us have embraced quarantine projects like gardening, bird-watching, crocheting, or getting ahead of all of those little chores we’ve been meaning to do around the house.

One of my projects has been learning the mandolin. I figured out that the best way to practice every day was to seek out music I wanted to play, and that led me to bluegrass, which led me to reacquaint myself with the brilliant Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where bluegrass music is almost a character unto itself.

For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a clever retelling of the Odyssey, set in the deep South in the 1930s. Three hapless convicts escape from a chain gang and run off in search of treasure which their self-appointed leader, the vain, arrogant, fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill, claims to have stolen from an armoured car and hidden. On their journey they encounter many bizarre characters and situations.

This week’s story of Peter climbing out of the boat immediately put me in mind of an early scene where the men, having a meal by a campfire in the woods, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a congregation of Baptists in white robes, all heading “down in the river to pray.” The imagery is masterful and haunting as they pass by almost like spirits, singing in four-part harmony. One of the three men, the sweet but gullible Delmar, is caught up in the moment and rushes into the river to be baptized by the preacher. Once he arises from the water, he walks back to his friends, crying out with joy that he’s been saved and intends to lead a sinless life.

It’s not only his sudden rush to the water that reminded me of Peter stumbling across waves through a storm, but how his enthusiasm completely overwhelms his faculties. Delmar shouts that the preacher has explained that all of his sins have been “warshed away,” including the supermarket robbery that one assumes put him on the chain gang in the first place.

Everett responds, “I thought you said you was innocent o’ those charges!”

Delmar pauses for a minute, looking trapped, then admits, “Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that sin’s been warshed away too!”

That so reminded me of Peter, always first in line, always acting before thinking, always buoyed up by his conviction. We often make fun of him for it, but I actually admire Peter, as someone who all too often becomes bogged down with worry about what the possible consequences for any given action might be. Discernment and level-headedness are important, but it’s all too often people like Peter that start the revolutions we need.

But let’s explore this passage, because I think we often look at it a bit simplistically. The standard message from sermons on this passage says, to quote the title of megachurch pastor John Ortberg’s book, If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.

Lutheran pastor Angela Denker, whose blog post on this passage is called, DON’T get out of the boat!, writes that what pastors like Ortberg do is “undermine traditional Christian theology about God’s role in salvation, and make it seem possible that salvation could be attained by human works and striving alone. …A theology reliant on human and not godly glory is not ultimately kind to any of its human adherents.”

She goes on to say that interpreting this passage as a story about the Christian individual being called to take initiative and a few nutty risks for the sake of their faith isn’t necessarily wrong, but adds: “Notice the sole actor. It’s you. You take initiative, you walk on water, you are the leader, you call to Jesus, you get out of the boat. …The listener is left to conclude that their actions and words are more important than Jesus’ words and actions.”

Pastor Denker encourages us to focus not on Peter’s actions, but Jesus’: “It’s time to put the spotlight on the most important actor in the Bible. Not me, not Peter, not [North] American Christians, but the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew who came to redeem not just me and my buddies who look and think like me but the world. Notice how the story changes when we focus on Jesus’ saving actions, not on what we need to do to save ourselves. Suddenly we see God for who God is: God is inviting, God is forgiving, God saves us. When Peter began to sink, Jesus didn’t laugh at him. Jesus didn’t say, “C’mon Peter, pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Why didn’t you work harder?” Instead, Jesus extends his hand when Peter is in need. Jesus saves Peter not because Peter is the ideal American man, a Promise Keeper or an elder or the middle-class success story, but Jesus saves Peter because saving is what Jesus does.”

She’s right of course – that’s what the name Jesus, Yeshua, means. God saves.

Where Pastor Denker kind of loses me, though, is in her coy avoidance of what it actually means to be saved by Jesus. A lot of us gathered here grew up in churches where being saved was something metaphysical, something you gained by a particular prayer or altar call. Being saved, we were told, is about being spared from hell, which we all richly deserve. It hinges not only on a particular set of actions and beliefs, but is something that only occurs for, as Denker says, “me and my buddies who look and think like me.” The true miracle is then that God would love a disgusting sinner like me enough to spare me from eternal torment.

But I wouldn’t call that a miracle, and I really think that God, the maker of heaven and earth, the architect of everything around us and everything outside perception, would be baffled by such a claim.

The miracle is not that we are saved from deserved abuse despite our flaws. The miracle is first that we exist, and second that God was one of us, and not only lived among us but willingly received our absolute worst and made it into something beautiful – salvation for the entire cosmos. We are saved not from hell in an imagined time to come, but from being bound to our own tyranny. God chose not a sumptuous palace and a sword but a lynching tree and pain. Not because someone had to receive justified wrath to “make up” for our sin-sickness, but because God wanted to be closer to us, and transform the evil we inflict upon one another. The lynching tree becomes a Tree of Life – not just for you and me, not just for humankind, but for all things.

The running joke in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that Everett regularly finds himself confronted with experiences outside the bounds of logic and yet refuses to see them for what they are. After Delmar receives baptism, their compatriot Pete also races to the water. Everett mocks them for it, as well as other characters who make theological statements. Without spoiling anything, at one point he is finally driven to heartfelt prayer, which is answered pretty unequivocally. Within minutes, though, Everett claims that the prayer was made out of desperation, and the so-called answer has a purely scientific explanation. While his ultimate goal in life is pure – to be with his daughters, whom he loves unconditionally – he is constantly thwarted by his own ego. Throughout the film he’s given many chances to change, but he doesn’t, and he is therefore caught up in a cycle of repeated struggle, all because he refuses to consider that he might not be the big boss of his life.

Over the last few months the daily makeup of our lives have shifted dramatically. We’ve been given a chance to think about how we want to live going forward, as individuals, as a community, and as a planet. Most of all, we’ve been shown how vulnerable we really are.

Let our hearts be grounded in the one who saved us once and will save us again, and let us be birthed anew by the one who transforms all sin, all fear, and all sickness, now and always.

leave a reply