A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-23
When you heard the gospel story of Jesus walking on the water, what was your response? Was it a polite eye roll; or did you at least wonder about it? More to the point, to the extent that you are able to pay attention, what do you make of it? What do you do with it? How might you relate to it? Truth to tell, I can ask you these questions because I hold them myself. And they bring to mind something that I have tried consistently to convey to you about how to approach the Bible. With regard to scripture as a resource for our faithful living, the central element I have tried to make with you is this: that the Bible is neither to be taken literally nor as just a metaphor. Rather, my point has been to say that the Bible needs to be taken seriously. Consequently, the issue of “how” we take the Bible seriously is the challenge, especially in cases like this day’s gospel of Jesus walking on the water. In taking this passage seriously – and honestly, why has Matthew told it? Why has this story lasted for two thousand years? What does it say to us now? I have to chuckle when I recall the recent cartoon on the “facebook” site, Episcopal Church Memes. Clearly mindful of today’s gospel, this meme envisioned a most telling – and playful -- rendition of today’s story of Jesus walking on the water. The meme depicts a toddler-aged Jesus in a bathtub with his mother Mary watching. The toddler Jesus is not exactly “in” the tub but standing cheekily (after all, his back is to us) – the toddler-Jesus stands on the tub water, hands on his hips. A sternly frustrated Mary sits by the tub, pointing her index finger down toward the water and saying to her precocious son, “Sit!” The meme’s caption reads: “Young Jesus at Bath Time”. (If this description sounds familiar, the meme was included in this week’s NOW.) Beyond a playful chuckle, is there anything more to this gospel story; or do we simply move on to avoid all the nagging inquiries? I trust that you will not be surprised when I say that, yes, there is more to this lesson than a chuckle or some embarrassment over Jesus “Walking on the Water”. And one place we can gain a serious toe hold on its meaning is to note how Matthew presents the story. What I mean by this is that Matthew sets the story of Jesus walking on the water right after he tells the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. The forensics of this arrangement not only matter; this coupling of the two stories provides a clue to the significance of this morning’s gospel. Noted New Testament scholar (and retired Anglican bishop) N. T. Wright (who I unabashedly admit is my go-to New Testament resource) – Wright has suggested that one of the messages provided by the coupling of these two stories (that is, of having the “Feeding of the 5000” directly connected to the account of Jesus walking on the water) is that what Matthew is conveying in the “Feeding of the 5000” story is meant to be a model of the Christian vocation (what followers of Jesus do in their lives) and the “Walking on Water” story represents the Christian life of faith. (that is what it takes to follow Jesus. In terms of the events surrounding the “Feeding of the 5000”, a serious reading of that story would acknowledge that a “miracle” occurred (“miracle” being an occurrence that is not normal in the nature of things). Yet, then in response to the inevitable comment: “Did this event really happen?” here’s one “serious” response: Which would be a greater unnatural occurrence? For Jesus to have produced from a few fish and loaves of bread enough food to feed the 5000; or would it be a greater “miracle” if his presence provoked the 5000 to share freely and without hesitation what they individually had with the group? Which outcome would be more stunning in terms of what is beyond the “normal” or “natural”? In living with both possibilities, a serious reading of the “Feeding of the 5000”, would lead to a profound and transforming insight into what followers of Jesus are called to do – that is what our vocation is: namely, to pay attention to the abundance of life with God and then share its richness with the hungry (both in terms of stomach and soul)? Correspondingly, the story of Jesus “Walking on the Water” demonstrates what it takes to follow Jesus’ example and to trust (that is, have faith) in his life as our life’s model. Whereas the “Feeding of the 5000” illustrates what we are called to do as God’s people (that is, to receive the God-life and live in grace and gratitude), today’s gospel speaks to what it takes to follow Christ, clearly illustrating the entrepreneurial risks of keeping track of Jesus. Today’s gospel of Jesus “Walking on the Water” is, then, (to use N.T. Wright’s insight) a representation of the life of faith/the necessary element of trust for the followers of Jesus. To my way of thinking about the life of faith and how today’s gospel presents this life, I choose to see it all in baptismal terms. This is to say in rather blunt and simple terms, how wet are you and I willing to get? The clear and unavoidable proclamation of both the “Feeding of the 5000” and Jesus “Walking on the water” is this: first and foremost, Jesus is Lord of all creation. As God’s presence among us in fully human terms, the very elements of creation and nature proclaim his dominion and obey him. Which is to say that when life rages like a tempest against us and threatens to overwhelm us with deep chaos, the saving presence of God-in-Christ -- Jesus -- is with us to save. With that proclamation that all nature reveals, perhaps the essential question is, who among us is willing and faithful enough to enter the raging storm to follow? Jesus? Or do we become distracted and overwhelmed by the storm and the waves and lose sight of God’s Christ? Of course, the story’s answer to these issues is Peter, the one follower of Jesus who is more inclined to act before he thinks. Once the unexpected sight of Jesus as a threatening ghost is clarified (“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”), Peter asks Jesus to invite him to join him on the water. “Come”, Jesus says; and Peter (to his and our amazement) manages to take a few steps on the water toward Jesus, but soon realizes that he is in the midst of the storm and strolling on the water is highly irregular. So, he immediately goes “kerr-plunk”, and begins to sink like the proverbial stone. Well, you know the rest of the story. Jesus rescues Peter and calms the storm, to which Peter soberly exclaims (with what I imagine is a mixture of great relief and dizzying wonder), “Truly you are the Son of God.” So, what does all this say about our life of faith – the one that you and I in our Baptisms have promised God and one another to live by? The answer, I think, is in line with what Bishop Wright says, when he refers to this passage as a “picture of the life of faith” or (as he quickly adjusts) “a life of half-faith”. Yes, seriously folks, how wet do you want to get? Let’s be honest about this and own our answers. Moreover (and this is my basic point), I want to suggest that you and I have already walked on water; and (with Peter) we have also been so frightened by this experience and the risk it entails that we have (again with Peter) also bailed and sunk. But, as I say, we have walked on water – you and I. We have taken at least one step in which we risked moving toward Jesus and the God-life, trusting his call to us, and following his example, to go where we have never dared to go before. Or else, we wouldn’t be here; would we? Thiink about it. When have we taken risks in the deep water, dared to go beyond our understanding, not to mention our control? For example, if you knew then what you know now, would you have taken that risk? Would you have chosen that career path? Would you have married that person? Would you have started that business? Would you have dared to reach out to that need? Was it, in reflection, worth getting that wet? taking that risk? trusting that much? In that near drowning experience, have you tried thereafter to take another step after that first dunking plunge? And if you wouldn’t take that leap of faith again, what part of your life, of who you are would be sadly missing. To the extent that we have heard and responded to Christ’s call and have tried to trust and live Christ’s life, know that we have walked on water. And , O Lord, we have gotten wet. Walk On! Thanks be to God! Amen.