Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14A
There certainly is a lot of power on display in the gospel lesson today. Jesus performs all sorts of impressive miracles. But we’re likely to miss quite a lot of the significance if we just focus on the power and the wonder. This is not just a story about an impressive miracle, it is a story about the most important conflict in the ancient world: the conflict between chaos and order, and how Jesus conquers the forces of chaos in order to allow life to flourish.
The first thing we need is a lesson in spiritual geography. In the beginning of the story, after dismissing everyone, Jesus goes up onto the mountain to pray. He’s not going up there just to be inspired by the beautiful scenery. He’s going up there because mountaintops are the dwelling-places of deities and demons. Mountains, along with deserts and other wild places are places where chaos reigns. In a town or a city, humans can establish order and can keep out the destructive forces of chaos. But on a mountain, in the desert, there is no protection from those forces. One might even die out there. And even the order of the city was always in danger of being swallowed up again by the forces of chaos, the forces of the wild. It is a contrast struggle to keep chaos and bay, to keep the wilderness from swallowing up the cultivated land and human settlements.
But those un-ordered places are not just dangerous, they’re also powerful. They are places where the boundaries between the physical world and the spiritual world are thin. They are places where the spiritual world can be accessed more easily. Powerful, but also dangerous.
Jesus goes up on the mountain all by himself, which is dangerous. Most people in the ancient world wouldn’t try something like that. It conjures up images of Moses up on the mountain alone with the fiery, smoking presence of God. The people below were sure that he must have died up there. And not because of a physical danger, but because of a spiritual danger. For Jesus to go up alone and to come down unharmed is a sign of his prowess as a holy man. Ordinary people wouldn’t try something like that. Jesus faces the powers of chaos head on, and he is not defeated.
While Jesus is up there, the disciples are headed across the Sea of Galilee. It’s actually a freshwater lake, 13 miles across in one direction, 8 miles in the other. However the gospel writer doesn’t use the word for lake, but the word for sea, because it’s more foreboding, more dangerous. And, in fact, the Sea of Galilee was notorious for how quickly and unexpectedly it could go from calm to storm.
For people in the ancient world, the sea was not just a collection of water, it was a living being, In fact, the sea was often thought of as a god or a goddess. In the Greco-Roman world it was associated with Poseidon or Neptune. For Semitic peoples, it was Tiamat, perhaps the greatest symbol of chaos in the ancient world. Tiamat was imagined as a dragon or sea monster, and in many ancient middle eastern creation accounts, god creates the world by slaying this water-chaos monster. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll find that bible still retains some of these ancient, ancient myths about God slaying the chaos sea monster. In Psalm 74, for example, “God, with your might you sliced apart the sea, smashed the heads of sea monsters. You crushed the head of Leviathan and gave it to desert dwellers for food.” That’s part of a creation story. God slays the sea monster and uses its body to create the world, with half of its body up above (the waters of the heaven) and half of its body down below (the waters of the deep).
For the ancients, when that storm comes up on the Sea of Galilee, it would not be understood as just a natural phenomenon. A storm on the sea was a supernatural phenomenon. It was the spirit of the sea rising up against them. It had a will. It was trying to destroy them.
So while Jesus is facing the forces of chaos up on the mountain, the disciples are struggling against the forces of chaos on the sea. And when night is just about over, in what the called the fourth watch, Jesus comes out toward his disciples, walking on the sea. Think about that image for a moment. He is literally trampling down the personified forces of chaos. He’s not just walking on a placid lake. He’s walking over the roiling, chaotic power of a storming sea.
When the disciples see him coming, they are terrified. And of course they would be. Even in the ancient world, no one expected to see someone walking on the sea. And it is all the more remarkable because it’s happening during a storm. According to the Greek, the disciples think that Jesus is a φαντασμα, a phantasm, that is, an apparition, an illusion, a specter, a ghost. They think they are seeing things. This vision of Jesus might very well be a part of chaos’s plan to destroy them. And they are extremely afraid.
But Jesus speaks to them. He says, “Take courage, don’t be afraid.” And he says one more thing. The New Revised Standard Version, reads, “It is I.” The Common English Bible says “It’s me.” What Jesus really says is, “I am.” That is, he uses the name of God, the great I Am. Don’t be afraid; I Am.
And then Peter, who has always been the most impetuous of the disciples, does something crazy. He says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus replies, “Come,” Peter steps right out of the boat. Now think about that for a moment. Here they are, battling for their lives against this angry storm, and they see something that they think is a ghost trying to trick them, and what does Peter do? He steps right out of the boat. No, Peter. Stop! That’s just what the phantasm wants you to do. It’s trying to drown you! It’s kind of like a horror movie. No Peter! Don’t go out there! It’s going to get you!
But Peter steps out anyway. And astonishingly, Peter starts to walk on the water. And he walks; one step, two steps, three steps. He keeps going…. eight steps, nine steps, ten steps. He has almost made it to Jesus when he looks around, and he feels the wind, and the waves lapping at his feet, and he comes to his senses. What is he doing out here on the water? He becomes afraid, and he starts to sink. And as he is being pulled under, he calls out, “Lord, save me!” It’s a theological word. Save me, heal me. And Jesus reaches out his hand, just like he would for a healing or an exorcism, and he catches Peter. And then Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you hesitate? Why were you of two minds?”
When they get back in the boat, the wind dies down, the storm stops. Jesus conquers the chaos on the mountain, and he conquers the chaos of the sea. His disciples recognize this, and they worship him as the son of God, the one who does on earth God’s traditional role of holding the chaos at bay, of making a safe space for civilization to flourish.
This is a really complicated story to preach in this particular time. Because think about it for a minute. What would a pastor usually say at this part of the sermon? Don’t be afraid! Get out of the boat. Don’t stay stuck inside your house. Don’t stay stuck inside the church building. Go out there into the world. Don’t be afraid. Go out and meet people. Be brave. Get out there. Don’t be afraid. Have faith.
And I guess some preachers are sticking with that message, even now. There’s a church not too far from here with a sign that reads, “Welcome, God is stronger than COVID-19.” And yes, that is true. God is stronger than COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean that God wants us to be stupid or careless. That doesn’t mean that God wants us to put our lives and the lives of others at risk.
Do you know where the largest COVID outbreak in Oregon is? It’s not a nursing home or a meat packing plant or a prison. It’s a church. 240 cases at one church in Union County. I find that very disturbing, that an institution like ours that is supposed to be bringing life is instead spreading death.
There is a reason that we’re not meeting in person right now, and it’s not because of a lack of faith. In fact, right now it takes quite a lot of faith to stay at home. There is quite a lot of pressure in the other direction.
We all want to be able to act as if there is no health crisis right now. We all want to be able to visit and embrace our friends and family. We all want to be able to go to the store, to the salon, to the theater, to the club, and to behave as we would have before. I don’t know of anyone who is secretly rooting for the virus, anyone who desires to keep people apart unnecessarily. There is no conspiracy here, no attempt to arbitrarily impinge upon the freedoms of another. There are no COVID police roaming around, whisking away anyone who refuses to wear a mask.
For the most part, we are left up to our own devices. It is up to each one of us to behave in a responsible way or not to. I can choose to ignore the safety guidelines. And each time I choose to ignore the guidelines, it may seem like a rational choice. If I give one person a hug, there is actually a fairly low risk that either one of us will contract COVID, because chances are that neither of us are carrying the disease. If just two people bend the rules, there is little risk.
But if all of us, or even just many of us, choose to bend the rules, that’s when we get a pandemic out of control. Each individual contact is not particularly risky, but when all of those contacts are added together… well, that’s when you get over 5 million cases and over 160,000 deaths in the country that claims to be the greatest in the world, the country that claims to have the greatest healthcare system in the world. We are number 1. We’re number one in irresponsibility. We’re number one in death. No one else comes even close.
We all find ourselves right now in the midst of an angry storm. We all find ourselves in a terrifying tempest, a harrowing hurricane, a cloudburst of chaos. We seem surrounded by the forces of chaos in a way that most of us have never experienced before. When else have the forces of nature broken through our carefully crafted shell of civilization in such a totalizing way as this disease has?
We are in the midst of the storm. It doesn’t take any faith to go out our doors as if nothing has changed. That doesn’t take faith. What takes faith right now is loving my neighbor. What takes faith right now is taking each step with not just my own interests, but the interests of the whole community in mind. What takes faith right now is walking like Jesus, walking through the storm, with the goal clearly in mind, and not getting distracted by our own selfish desires.
It’s hard, I know. I haven’t always done the right thing, either. More than once, me feet have slipped beneath the waves.
But Jesus coaxes me on. Keep coming. One step in front of the other. Keep walking, through the storm. Because at the end of the walk, there is healing. At the end of the walk, there is peace.
Jesus is calling us to walk by faith. And it’s easy to ignore that call, to stay in the boat. No, Jesus, there’s no storm here. Let me just keep rowing on like I did before this virus. If we do, we will be swamped. Already, so many have died who didn’t need to die.
Jesus calls us, in the midst of this storm, to live in a way that we are not used to, in a way that none of us have ever experienced before, in a way that is uncomfortable. Jesus calls us to walk by faith. And if we slip, Jesus is there to pick us back up again. But we have to actually accept his helping hand.
It is hard. It is a sacrifice. And it is all the harder when we feel like we are missing out on something that others are enjoying. But it is the right thing. It is the loving thing. It is the faithful thing. And Jesus helps us do hard things, for the love of God, for the love of ourselves, and for the love of our neighbors.