This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Against the Wind

Matthew 14.22-33

         Jesus wants to be alone to pray.  So, before evening falls, he dismisses the crowd, now stuffed with miraculous bread and fish, to their homes, and he sends his disciples off across the lake in a boat. 
         Once again we see that those whom Jesus gathers together he also sends out. 
         By the time it gets dark, the disciples’ boat is far from land, and they are working against a heavy, steady head-wind. Several of them are fishers, so they know how to handle a boat at night in bad weather.
         I am not a sailor, but I do know that sailing against the wind is a difficult and exhausting job, involving repeated tacking and wearing, coordinating and resetting the position of the sails with the rudder.  Basically the boat does a zig-zag pattern, making very slow progress.  You have to use the wind that is against you to help you move forward.  Experienced sailors know how to do this so that the sail becomes like a wing, and the wind that is against the boat actually starts sucking it forward.        
         Just as he sends his disciples into this head-wind, Jesus sends his church out into the world.  And the world is also a difficult, challenging, frustrating, unsafe, insecure, constantly changing place.  And that’s in relatively normal times. 
         The times in which we live are not normal.  Ours is an age of tumultuous change, when one historical era is falling and another is trying to emerge.  Much of what we depended on, and almost all of what our grandparents depended on, is crumbling into dust.  Our institutions are all in question, including especially the church.  Technology advances exponentially; the economy is veering back into freefall; the government is paralyzed; marriages and families are in disarray; we have crippled the Earth’s climate, for heaven’s sake… do I need to go on?  How are we supposed to get anywhere against this hurricane head-wind, in these deep swells?  We can hardly just keep our balance in the boat, let alone manage all the technical changes in the position of the sail and the rudder… Oh, and did I mention that those in our “boat,” the church, are fighting with each other tooth and nail?
         By the same token the church does not want to simply cave in to all these changes so that they come to define who we are.  But stubborn resistance to change as a matter of principle doesn’t work either.  Jesus does not tell the disciples to drop an anchor and hold to the same spot.  He wants the church to move forward, not stand still. 

         And in the middle of all this, the disciples, looking into the night, see this pale form moving on the water.  And they think it is a ghost, an apparition, a phantasm, an unidentified aquatic object.  The disciples, amid their strenuous work, cry out in fear.
         The fact is, when you’re in crisis, when you’re consumed with hard labor, it isn’t always easy to recognize Jesus.  Especially when Jesus comes to you in a highly unlikely and unexpected way, he can look like just one more layer of catastrophe, this unknown thing, getting closer… as if we didn’t have enough to worry about.  Who expects Jesus to appear with the wind, on the waves, from the very elements that are harassing us?  The wind and the waves are what we are fighting against.  We think Jesus should come down from the sky or out from within our hearts, but apparently in the elements of the crisis itself?  I don’t think so.
         Jesus immediately speaks to reassure them.  “Take heart,” he says.  “I am here; do not be afraid.”  He wants them to be confident.  He wants them to know he is with them.  In Greek, he actually says “I am,” which is how God names himself to Moses in Exodus.  To say “I am” in this way is practically to identify yourself with God.
         And then he tells them not to be afraid.  It is their own fear that is their greatest enemy.  Perhaps what might banish their fear is the knowledge that not only is Jesus present with them, but that he is coming along with the wind and walking on the waves, and these elements do not bother him.  He navigates the chaos and the bluster effortlessly.
         Jesus is not absent in the cataclysmic changes we are going through.  He is in fact over and above them.  He is coming to us in and through them, as if to say that these elements will not swamp us, they will not defeat us or keep us from where he has sent us to go. 
         Peter answers Jesus and says, “Since you are there, command me to come to you on the water.”  Peter wants a direct experience of this power that Jesus has to be in the wind and on the waves, but not overtaken by them, and certainly not swallowed up in them.  He wants to be in the elements but at the same time impervious to them, just as Jesus is.  He knows he can’t do this on his own, but if Jesus commands him to he can do it.
         And Jesus tells him simply to “come.”   And Peter climbs out of the boat.  And he starts walking on the water!  It is not enough to be buffeted by the sea and the wind in a boat; that’s for wimps!  Real followers of Jesus get out of the boat!  To come to him is to get out of the boat; it is to abandon your own comfort zone and your fear; it is to abandon even logic and the laws of physics, for crying out loud. 

         We work so hard to keep the boat afloat and moving towards the goal; we even fight with each other for control of the boat itself, and here is Jesus basically telling Peter, “You don’t need no stinking boat!  The boat is just because of your lack of imagination; if you trust me, really trust and obey me, the boat becomes superfluous, unnecessary.  You can just walk through these changes and challenges, without having to worry about the sail and the rudder and the wearing and the tacking, and all that.
         Peter responds to Jesus’ command.  He keeps his eyes on Jesus… for a while.  He actually walks on the water… but then he gets distracted.  He probably says to himself, “Wow, I am walking on water!”  And a particularly strong gust of wind shakes him, and he looks away from Jesus, and he starts losing his focus and his balance, and his feet get wet, and he starts to panic and sink.
         He doubts, and the word for doubt here means being of two minds.  He loses his single-minded attention on Jesus.  He starts to think, “But on the other hand this is water and I am heavier than water, ergo, reasoning inductively, I should be sinking.”  And that’s it.  Entertaining “the other hand” does him in.  And Peter, whom Jesus called the “rock,” begins to acquire the properties of a rock in water.
         When Peter starts sinking, he calls out, “Lord, save me!”  It is the most basic prayer of humanity, the appeal to God for salvation, for healing, for liberation, for mercy, for assistance.  “Lord, I am yours; save me!” is a verse from Psalm 119.  It is sort of a Christian mantra expressing the most basic truth about our relationship to God.  We belong to God and we plea for God to rescue us when our obedience falters in distraction.
         And Jesus reaches out his hand and does rescue Peter, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  Jesus knows that we are of two minds because the pressures and threats of the world often seem more real to us than he does.  We stop trusting in his word and instead go back to trusting, you know, our own eyes, our own experiences.  Instead of remembering Jesus we remember the dog-eat-dog rat-race world, and everything we have on our to-do lists, and the many things we are worried and anxious about.  We fall back into imagining worst-case-scenarios and preparing for them.  Jesus recedes into a figure from ancient history.  In other words, we see the wind, we feel the waves surging beneath us, and we resume assuming that this is more real than Jesus.
         Peter takes the Lord’s hand, and they both step into the boat, at which point the wind dies down.  I try to imagine the faces of the other eleven disciples at th is point.

         This story is about how to obey Jesus, and what Jesus requires of us in a difficult, challenging, tough environment.  It is about how to live as disciples in a changing world.  We have to make some headway; we have to be making measurable progress towards the destination to which Jesus directs us: the Kingdom of God.  Our life together has to demonstrate real progress towards realizing peace, justice, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, and love.    
         And at the same time we have to use the changing environment itself to draw us forward.  Even if it is oppositional, God can use it in service of the gospel, like sailors make use of the wind, even if it is against them.  New forms of music, art, technology, business, philosophy, family life, and other cultural manifestations may sometimes be used by the church to convey and embody the good news of God;s love for the world.  The Apostle Paul was an expert at finding, adopting, and baptizing things from his culture so they served his mission.  But we have to be able to show progress, that we are not just caving in and accommodating every cultural fad or influence.
         This demands a constant discipline of looking for Jesus’ living presence with us.  We need to be in continual dialogue with each other and with Jesus’ word in Scripture.  We have to keep our attention riveted on him.  That is what makes miracles possible.  And we have to realize that because we and our situation are always changing, so we hear his words, which don’t change, in ever different ways.  Yesterday’s answers are not always faithful for today.
         I we lose our focus on him, and on the saving, healing love of God for the world that he embodies, then we start inevitably to sink.  We are swallowed up by the changing world and disappear and dissolve into it.
         If we are motivated primarily by our fear, our insecurity, our anxiety, our discomfort, our negativity… then we will have lost sight of the Lord who comes to us and calls us to him.
         But if we do maintain our single-minded attention on him, and if we do respond to his word with unquestioning obedience, then even the pressures and changes of our world cannot consume us.  We master them.  We sail through them.  They become ineffective against us.
         What is our focus?  Is it fear of change?  Or is it love of Jesus?  Are we obeying our own insecurities and anxieties, our own fantasy about the way things should be?  Or are we obeying Jesus’ word and command?  Are we letting the winds of change blow us off course?  Or are we using them to follow Jesus?

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