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August 9, 2020 — The Rev. David Rider

By August 11, 2020 No Comments

Matthew 14:22-33

As some of you know, I retired recently after 12 years as Executive Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute, an awesome Episcopal organization with roots back to 1834 serving mariners in routine and extreme conditions

It was a steep learning curve at first, absorbing new jargon, safety and security protocols that have life-and-death consequence for those who make our modern way of life possible

If I could distill SCI’s crisis response ministry down to one sentence, it’s a no-brainer: “Stay out of the water!”

Stay out of the water: it never goes well when someone falls overboard into the harsh and unforgiving sea or river

Although now retired, I still enjoy one perquisite of an open invitation to join the harbor tug fleet as photographer while they do their careful work of guiding massive ships in and out of New York Harbor

Several weeks ago, the docking pilot invited me to join him on the bridge of the ship as he pulled it from the dock and aimed it out to sea: at the end of the job, however, I had to join him in climbing down a rope Jacob’s ladder from the safety of the ship into the bobbing tug below

Stay out of the water

Even more recently, I was on a tug as we met an inbound ship at the Verrazano Bridge

With the massive ship fast approaching, the tug pilot nonchalantly informed me that I had to switch from his tug to another in the middle of the harbor so he could divert to different job: Stay out of the water

Guess what guidance I might have given to Peter in today’s story before he leaps from the safety of his boat to walk on the choppy sea

For all the romance and aura of going out to sea, biblical depictions conger ambivalence at best

Lest there be any doubt in today’s passage, Matthew informs us that the boat was being tortured and tormented by the sea

In biblical literature, the sea embodies the forces of chaos held at bay only by the creative act of God but always threatening our very existence while representing all the bleak and anxious forces that surround us

Going all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, no human can walk on water, which is a feat reserved for the deity

In today’s passage, the hapless disciples become double-frazzled—like us today who are double- or triple-frazzled by life

They had just departed from the chaos of feeding 5000 hungry souls, and they now find themselves overwhelmed by the sea at night when they become even more terrified by what they fear is a ghost

Notice that Jesus does not still the wind right away

He simply admonishes them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Instead of taking a deep breath, impulsive Peter jumps in, quickly gets in over his head, and must cry out in a life-and-death way for rescue

Does this ring a bell?

Have you ever had a time when your primitive emotions cause you to act impulsively, quickly getting in over your head?

Peter—our first disciple and proxy for our own human condition— embodies a ready/fire/aim approach to life, and he does it again in today’s passage

While some pious commentators state that Peter should have summoned more faith for his water-borne journey, I respect the laws of physics and say he should have stayed in the boat!

At the same time, however, I empathize with Peter’s humanity and frazzled nerves, which I can liken to a day navigating the crowds in Covid-era Manhattan

Sometimes we stay cool-headed, and at other times our impulsive actions get us into choppy water

Once exhausted Peter and resilient Jesus get back into the boat, the winds ceases and the disciples cry out in joy, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Today’s story takes us away from a steady diet of summer parables to wade into a gripping drama of terror, chaos and rescue

Given our own continuing struggle this summer to navigate a pandemic while standing up for racial justice and reconciliation before undergoing a predictably chaotic autumn election cycle, we have every reason to feel overwhelmed and full of doubt

By the way, Matthew’s version of this story read today remains a notch more upbeat than Mark’s earlier version: Mark’s version has Jesus issuing a loving chastisement for no faith while Matthew’s version has Jesus giving them credit for little faith—Jesus does not condemn but works with what he encounters in you and me

Like the optimistic Lutherans of Lake Wobegon who celebrate that the glass is a quarter full, Mathew’s Jesus can work with a little faith

Whether you have no faith or little faith, Jesus meets you where you are and bids you to get back into the boat

Jesus meets us when we embrace the blessing of this life, when we are sucking wind, thrashing in the water or terrified by the ghosts in the night

However bleak the moment, Jesus cries out: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Sure, it’s easier said than done, but with Jesus at our side the wind ceases, we can take a deep breath and work to step out of life’s chaos and maybe even into the quiet center of God’s loving embrace

In this crazy summer, it doesn’t take much to list the kinds of chaos that can take us out, but with Jesus we also celebrate the peace that passes all understanding

“Do not be afraid.”

There are few things more contingent than the chaotic sea at night

Remember that Jesus uses this same admonition—do not be afraid— as his first post-resurrection words when he encounters the frightened disciples in the locked upper room

As Easter Christians, we summon the risen Christ to be with us on our best days and our most chaotic

We do not summon Jesus selfishly or hoard his blessing; rather, we cry out the Good News that the risen Christ stands by the entire human race

Not just me, not just ‘our people’ but the entire human race—what an awesome vision and moral compass

Do your best to stay out of the water at sea

Wet or dry, however, give thanks that Jesus walks with us as we walk with him

Jesus beckons us to have courage even in the most harrowing times

Such courage gives us the stomach to stand up against injustice

Such vision enables us to look carefully at our own lives and those of our families of origin, as in our Sacred Ground discussions

Such presence gives us the means to still the chaotic waters of life

Such love enables us to work for reconciliation in the crazy, terrible wonderful world we call home

Jesus says it best: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

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