Friday, August 08, 2008

Pentecost 13A - Come on in, the water's fine!

A story made for TV!  Today’s Gospel story has got the lot, narrowly averted disaster, supernatural themes, mystery and a bit of high farce thrown in for good measure.  I know preachers are supposed to start with a story, entertain and amuse for a couple of minutes before hitting the congregation with the serious stuff, but this is impossible to beat.  Right after last week’s miracle of making the little you’ve got left in the fridge stretch out to feed the unexpected guests, Jesus sends the whole crowd packing, disciples and all, and takes the rest of the day off.  It’s not the only time we see him doing this, balancing the needs of others against his own need to pray, to rest and reflect on what he’s doing.  Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him, all, so to speak, in the same boat, and a very fragile little wooden boat it would have been, on an overnight voyage across the famously fickle Sea of Galilee.

And the disciples are making heavy weather of it.  Now, this isn’t the ‘peace, be still’, story, that happens earlier, in chapter eight.  The little boat is being battered and tossed about, like little boats always are, the disciples apparently aren’t in danger of being swamped but they’re sure as heck jittery.  Matthew maybe downplays this a bit, but to his Jewish Christian audience the drama of this overnight crossing would have been electric.  First century Palestinian culture wasn’t into sun, sand and surf!  The sea represented chaos, disorder, the home of monsters and other slimy horrors, a bottomless watery infinity of terror.  In the Book of Revelation for example, the writer’s idea of a perfect new creation is one where ‘the sea is no more’.  In Genesis, in the second verse of the whole Bible, uncreation is represented as a watery chaos over which God hovers and speaks the world into being.  For Matthew’s Jewish audience the night time drama of this little boat being tossed about on the black water represents everything that terrifies us, all rolled into one.  So here’s the first thing.  It takes courage just to get on with life.  It takes courage as disciples to know that Jesus sends us off ahead of him with a job to do, to live our lives in a way that proclaims the goodness and reliableness of God 

And Jesus takes a short-cut, catching them up by walking across the water.  I guess with stories like this we can’t avoid asking ourselves, ‘can I really believe this one?  Did Jesus historically really truly walk on water?’  and we can’t avoid noticing that the nature miracles especially all seem to resonate with Old Testament themes.  So whether Matthew is embroidering a bit on something that really happened, or whether he is just telling a rollicking good yarn, the story of Jesus walking on water means something, it means that the God of the Old Testament who weaves creation out of the watery chaos, who is represented in Psalms as stilling the storm and riding on the waves, it means that this God is present to us in Jesus.  And the disciples, of course, find this even scarier than whatever might be lurking under the black water.

So here’s the question.  While the rest of them all do the sensible thing, which is to cower a bit lower in the boat, roll their eyes and groan and pass out, Peter does the typically Peter thing, which is to say he gets Jesus to invite him out there on the water.  Why does he do that?  Why get out of the boat?  Is this Peter being foolhardy and brash, is this a sort of immature me-too-ism, does he just not know any better, or is Peter just really wanting to be wherever Jesus is?

I remember once, years ago, when I lived in Brisbane, being at one of those theme parks on the Gold Coast with my little boys.  One of those places where you pay a small fortune to ride down waterslides and get drenched at every turn before finally getting dumped into a pool the size of a bucket at the bottom with shrieking strangers catapulting into you.  Except while we were there it started to rain, and I remember thinking, as we all ran for cover, that there was something a bit contradictory about being afraid of a summer shower when we had all paid good money for the privilege of being drenched anyway.

So what is it about getting wet?  Do we love it, or we scared of it?

Bit of both, probably.  Something in us doesn’t want to play it too safe.  Something inside us is attracted to the idea of just jumping in, like Peter, right into the middle of wherever Jesus is, or wherever Jesus wants us to be. 

A clinical psychologist named William Sheldon, writes that human beings have got a subconscious motivation that runs deeper than sexuality, deeper than the desire for security, or power, deeper even than the need for approval and acceptance.  And this hidden motivation, Sheldon says, is the need for orientation, the need for purpose and meaning.  We want our lives to matter, to stand for something that’s true and worth something. [1] And so we want to jump in.

But, you know what? we’re surrounded by water, and the dragons lurking underneath are real.  Psychologically, there are real sea-monsters in the deep waters of our lives.  What does it mean for us to affirm with conviction that Jesus is Lord, when we are all too aware of the deep destructive powers in our own lives?  You don’t need me to tell you what the limitations are in your own life, the fear of failure, or the fear of success, the fear of loving or of being loved, the patterns of self-sabotage or jealousy, the insecurity that drives us to possessiveness, the guilt that drives us to lay undeserved blame at the feet of others.  We all have this stuff, different variations of it that we have inherited or acquired from ancient disappointments, underwater stuff in the oceans of our own lives. 

And there’s even scarier stuff in the water that doesn’t come swimming out of our own brains.  For Matthew, and the community Matthew wrote for, the fearsome realities were not limited to inner psychological demons.  There were also the political and social and religious powers that limited and controlled the lives of men and women, that kept human beings in relations of oppression.  Twenty one centuries later, the external dangers are just as fearsome.  The helpless anxiety created by wars and random acts of terrorism.  The moral paralysis of climate change created by human economic activity.  The runaway cost of housing and food prices, the financial pressures on young families, the moral vacuousness of a popular culture based on Big Brother and big TV screens.  Whole countries at risk from AIDS.  The knowledge that every single day of the year, 30,000 children die of hunger and easily preventable diseases.

But Matthew’s story tells us something profoundly reassuring.  It tells us that the sea-monsters aren’t the only inhabitants in our inner oceans, there is someone else who walks in the middle of our fears with the power of compassion and of healing.  It tells us that the deep waters of our fears and failures, the chaos of our world’s politicking and misplaced priorities - that that’s where God is, and that’s where God invites us to be as the practical agents of God’s love.  Matthew's story tells us that we can function even in the deepest water of our own fear, because God is there ahead of us.  This is the second thing.

So brave, silly Peter gets out of the boat.  For a few steps he walks, then he starts to think to himself, ‘hey, nothing underneath my feet’.  It’s like one of those cartoon characters who walks off the edge of a cliff.  You don’t fall until you happen to look down and notice that there’s no ground there any more.  He takes his eyes off Jesus.  So this is the third thing.  When you’re in the middle of the chaos of life, whatever your own personal version of chaos is, don’t look down.  Keep focussed on your true centre.  Keep looking at Jesus.

Of course Jesus comes to the rescue.  And as he pulls Peter back into the boat he uses that phrase he uses so often, ‘you of little faith’.  How do you imagine him saying that?  I used to think it was a bit of a put-down, an exasperated way of telling the disciples off, a sort of ‘oh, if only I had a few real disciples, you lot still don’t get it’.  But as I read it in this story I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that Jesus is overwhelmed by love for Peter at this point.  Jesus is calling Peter his little one.  Jesus is commending Peter, ‘you, who do have a little faith – you, who wanted to get out of the boat and come to me wherever I am’.

Come on in, the water’s fine.




[1] Quoted in Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008, p. 254.