1 Kings 19:9-19 and Matthew 14:22-33. Special thanks to Ken Houghton for helping me find a copy of the Patrick O'Leary poem on very short notice!
Good morning. I’m delighted to be here, and to see so many of you again, and I’d like to thank Eric Heidecker for inviting me to preach today.
This morning’s readings are about people, scared out of their wits, who learn that they can’t get away from where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing. Elijah, hunted by people who want to kill him, flees to Horeb, only to have God command him to go back. He still has kings and prophets to annoint. He doesn’t get to run away.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is still badly shaken by the death of John the Baptist. His first attempt to sneak away for some alone time was interrupted by a huge crowd, desperate for healing, who followed him. He healed them, but then they needed their supper. We heard about the famous Feeding of the Five Thousand last Sunday.
When the story picks up this morning, I imagine that Jesus is pretty tired. “Finally!” he must be thinking. “They’re all healed. They’re all fed. Now I can send everyone home and have some time to myself.” And so he does: packs the disciples off in a boat, dismisses the crowds, and climbs up a mountain to pray. He spends all night there, a much-needed mini-sabbatical. But in the morning, he again has work to do. The disciples, hapless as ever, are stuck in their boat in the middle of a storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
I’m told that the Sea of Galilee is quite geologically similar to Pyramid Lake. The winds on Pyramid Lake can be really dangerous, and anyone who’s been in a small boat, or even a larger one, knows how terrifying a storm on the water can be. People die out there. Anyone who knows the water knows that, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the disciples were frightened out of their minds even before they saw a ghostly figure walking towards them across the churning water.
Seeing the ghost freaks them out even more, until Jesus speaks words of comfort. That’s when Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter’s always doing stuff like this, trying to set himself apart. Yesterday, August 6, was the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbed up the mountaintop and was joined by Moses and Elijah just before being clothed in light. Remember how Peter responded to that event? “Hey, Jesus, let’s build some houses and stay up here.” That time, Jesus said no. Sorry, Peter. We have to go back down the mountain. We have work to do.
This time, he says yes. Peter isn’t speaking out of pride now; he’s frightened, and Jesus wants to comfort him, because that’s what Jesus does. So he calls Peter, who starts walking on water just like his beloved teacher. Mind you, the storm hasn’t stopped yet. It won’t stop until Jesus gets back into the boat. I think Peter’s so desperate to be out of that blasted, bucking boat, so desperate to rejoin his Lord, the source of his safety, that he doesn’t even realize at first what’s happening. But the minute he looks down and sees the whitecaps under his feet, he panics again. He sinks, and Jesus has to haul him, sputtering and coughing, back up.
Where does Jesus take him? Back into the boat, while the storm’s still raging. Sorry, Peter. You can’t stay on the mountain and leave your friends behind. You can’t get out of the boat and leave your friends behind, either, not for good. You still have work to do. You’re in the same boat with the other disciples. You’re in the same boat with Elijah, and with me. You’re in the same boat with everyone who has heard God’s voice, whether it’s offering comfort over the raging winds of the storm or issuing commands in the perfect silence afterwards.
God’s people don’t get to run away, and they don’t get to opt out. Jonah learned that. Elijah learned it. Jesus learned it, when he prayed for the cup to pass from him and it didn’t.
All of us here this morning are in that same boat. All the baptized are in the same boat, whether we’re safely ensconced in a church we love, or bailing furiously to try to keep a parish from sinking, or flailing in the freezing water after our beloved home has vanished under the waves. Whatever else is happening in our lives, whatever storms we’re riding out and whatever fears we’re facing, we’re still bound by the promises we made at baptism. Our job is to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to seek justice for the oppressed, and to welcome the stranger. Sometimes that work is exhausting. Sometimes it’s joyous and uplifting. It’s always with us.
This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds us of the promises that come with this backbreaking responsibility. God will grant us the rest we need, the mountaintop respites we need to replenish ourselves. If we listen for the voice of God, we will indeed hear it. In the midst of chaos, we may discover a startling ability to walk on water, however briefly, and when we sink, Jesus will haul us up by the scruff of our necks. Necessity is leavened by grace.
Above and beyond those promises lies the larger one, the ultimate one, the promise that the ends we fear -- economic collapse, disaster, death -- are not really the end. Beyond death lies resurrection. To get there, though, you have to stay in the boat.
I have to admit that when St. Stephen’s closed, I thought about simply leaving the church. I’m at St. Paul’s now, and I like it, but it’s still not home for me, not the way St. Stephen’s was. I know it never will be unless I stick with it, so I keep doggedly going to church every Sunday. But now St. Paul’s is having some of the same problems -- financial shortfalls, sparsely filled pews -- that brought down St. Stephen’s. This is happening to mainstream denominations all over the country, and it’s only one symptom of the very scary economic storm the entire country is weathering right now. The fact that churches are having so much trouble means that the people they serve are having even more trouble. When churches struggle, our baptismal promises become more important, not less.
I’m praying that St. Paul’s will pull through. In the meantime, I still volunteer as a lay hospital chaplain. That work reminds me, every week, how many people in this storm need any rescue we can offer, whether it takes the form of a hot meal, a cup of cold water, or simply the lifeline offered by anyone willing to listen. And it reminds me every week that when human rescues fail, God is still there, waiting to haul us out of the water by the scruff of our necks.
I don’t believe that belonging to a church is the only way to do God’s work of healing the world. It’s the way that works best for me, and for many of us. In church, we can all pull on the oars together. But church is only one vessel. God has given other people other vessels, and will give us other vessels, too, if we need them. Ultimately, though, the planet itself -- God’s beloved creation -- is the boat we share with everyone else who lives here. This ship, we can’t jump.
Shortly after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, poet Patrick O’Leary wrote a poem called “The Boat.” I would like to close by reading it. It speaks to the time when it was written, but I believe it speaks to our time, too, and to Jesus’.
by Patrick O'Leary
I am in a boat.
No. We are in a boat.
And it's not a boat
but you know what I mean.
And the boat is going somewhere
Or maybe nowhere.
But it is floating for now.
Unless it's sinking.
It is so comforting to be in a boat.
To have a vessel. A destination.
We don't know the destination.
But at least we're floating.
But then there is the ocean
Or this small part of its depth
That surrounds us, buoys us
As if it wanted us to be here get there.
We do not think about the depths
Below us. The cold dark water
Who would want to drink an ocean even if they could?
So this boat. This water.
You and I
between here and there.
Is somebody rowing?
In this whole world
There is only you and I and this boat
On this ocean. And what happens
depends on us or the ocean.
I say we have to be very careful.
We are only so strong.
A boat is a delicate thing.
And I have never seen an ocean broken.
I say we love each other
But that is so easy to say.
That means knowing
who we're rowing with.
We did not choose the ocean.
We did not choose the boat.
We did not choose each other.
But we must choose.