Year A Proper 14
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Proper 14, Year A--Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b;
Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
One way to make sense of the Feast of the Transfiguration is that it speaks to us about perception, or what the classical Christian tradition calls discernment—the ability to see God in the midst of our daily struggles, the ups and downs of our hum drum everyday existence. In that light, Jesus’ clothes shining with a dazzling whiteness is not so much information about the nature of Jesus as the Son of God (though it is that, of course), but a call to us as the gathered people of God to witness to, and live from, God’s presence and action in all situations—at daycare centers and in divorce proceedings, on our deathbeds and changing diapers. It’s interesting to note, that after this mountaintop experience, Jesus heads right back down into the fray. What does he encounter? A distraught father with a son who is possessed. And after Jesus has healed the young boy the disciples do nothing less than start squabbling about who is the greatest. The arc of narrative is clear—if our spiritual lives consist only of spiritual highs, fuzzy feelings, and magic carpet rides to bliss, and if our spiritual lives don’t allow us to navigate the nitty-gritty details of daily life—sick kids and inveterate ladder-climbing—we need to go deeper in our faith and our prayer. God longs and yearns to be all in all. God longs for divine love to permeate every nook and cranny of our lives, not just that sliver of time between 10:30 and 11:45 on Sundays.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus challenging the disciples to take what they’ve seen atop Mt. Tabor and live it out in the midst of daily life. He wants them to walk the walk, to be what love looks like in the world. Jesus pushes the disciples to leave the comfort, safety, and security of being bathed in light on the mountaintop and head down the other side of the mountain to both see that divine light in everyone they encounter and to be that light of love, radical welcome and indiscriminate, boundary-crossing hospitality to all those whom they meet. Notice that Matthew writes, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” Like a mother bird nudging her fledgling chicks out of the nest to test their wings in the groundlessness and terror of freefall, Jesus sends the disciples out on the unpredictable and ever-shifting waters in a rickety boat to see how far they have integrated their mountaintop experience with the realities of daily life.
This becomes more clear when we pay attention to the basic geography of today’s Gospel. We move from the solidity and security of dry land to the shakiness and tippiness of a small wooden boat. Boats, unlike buildings, are incredibly open and vulnerable to the elements. One false move, one shifting of the weight to one side too quickly and the whole thing can capsize. Ask anyone who has been caught in freak storm in a canoe in the middle of a lake and they will tell you—there is nowhere to hide. So Jesus is sending the disciples out into a scenario where their habitual ways of relying on their own efforts, and on their quick wits will be exposed for what they are—flimsy, man-made substitutes for absolute surrender to God as God is. Notice, too, that Matthew makes a point of telling us that after Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, he goes up the mountain to pray. In the disciples’ minds—not yet able to see with the eye of the heart that perceives God in all things—Jesus is absent. He has gone up the mountain, back to the place where “holy” things happen, and left them all alone in the midst of terrible storm, battered by waves and far from shore.
Who here hasn’t felt battered by the storms of life? Whether it’s a bad diagnosis, the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, each of us has experienced that wave cresting over the bulwarks and threatening to drag us under. And who here hasn’t felt as if solid ground, a brief, temporary respite from the terror of unending freefall, is far, far off like a distant shore receding on the horizon? Isn’t that what life feels like a lot of time? The disciples, of course, like any human being in their right mind, react with fear and panic. Fear is one of the most powerful forces on the planet and in our individual lives. We fear death. We fear loss of control and being powerless. We fear losing the affection and esteem of other people. We fear the unknown. We fear the prospect of change and long for the safety, security, and predictability of solid ground. And sometimes we’ll do anything, anything, to get to that solid ground no matter the cost, no matter whom we have to step over to get there, or how we have to compromise.
It seems to me that for this Cathedral at this particular time, there could be no more powerful Gospel than this passage from Matthew. Like the disciples in the boat we feel like we are being tossed about at sea. By now you’ve heard that our Interim Dean Canon Clevenger has resigned after ten days on the job. Suddenly, just when we thought the storm was over and that we might find a little shelter from the uncertainty of this in-between time, we are battered by more waves. Seriously, God? What are you up to? Emerging from the silence of my prayer this past week, I started to wonder if perhaps God isn’t doing something with us here at the Cathedral like Jesus is doing with the disciples. I wonder if God, out of God’s immeasurable love for us, and out of a desire for union and communion with us, isn’t trying to show us something about surrender, and trust, and about our own craving for safety and security. Maybe God is saying, “Not so fast Cathedral Church of St. Mark, I want you to go let go a little more deeply. I want you to see how badly you crave standing on the seashore and use that as the vehicle for you to abandon yourselves to me, to trust in me alone. Not priests, not Deans, not beautiful music, not coffeehour, not your ideas, not your images, not your church growth consultants and congregational developers, but me and me alone. Then you’ll see what new thing I am doing in this place that goes far beyond your plans, your projects, and your expectations.”
In sitting with this passage from today’s Gospel, it dawned on me that the real miracle in this story is not that Jesus walks on water, or that Peter is able to get a few steps in before starting to sink like a stone. It’s easy to get lost in dead-end debates about the so-called nature miracles and forget their spiritual import—that the waves and storm are as much about the storms of life and our internal reactions to them as they are about literal whitecaps and small craft warnings. The real miracle, I think, is that Christ appears in the storm and speaks to Peter out of the wind, and waves. The real miracle, for which we must give constant thanks is that God has not left us orphaned. We are not alone. We might think that God is “up there” on the mountaintop and that we are lost at sea, and abandoned to our own devices. But today’s Gospel opens our eyes to the reality of God with us even in the midst of the storm. Even in the midst of panic, fear, and uncertainly the voice of Christ calls to us over the tumult—“Come. Take a step. Do not be afraid.” As Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans—we think God is either “up there” or “down there,” but the reality is that “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” God is present in all things including us—closer than thinking, closer than breathing, closer even than consciousness itself. Like the disciples, we forget that God is always walking alongside us, that God is the center of our souls. We forget that Jesus, Emmanuel, is always with us and for us calling forth new life from apparent dead-ends, making a way out of no way. As Fr. Thomas Keating is fond of saying 99% of our problems in prayer (and in life I would add) stem from the mistaken perception that God is absent (or up on a mountain taking a camping holiday!)
One way to read Jesus’ call to Peter to leave the boat and walk on water towards Jesus is that Peter is being asked to drop everything and follow Jesus empty-handed. His image of God as an absentee-landlord who dwells dispassionately above the storms of life has to die so that Peter might awaken and be reborn in the waters of the true and living God, the God who suffers with us, who takes our pain, and our fear, and our panic, and our cries of dereliction on the cross of life, holds them tenderly, and transfigures them in to a new thing. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Without the storm—without the whipping winds and battering waves—the risk is that we never experience the kind of death and rising to new life that Peter experiences. We should give thanks for the storms of life, however grudgingly, for they always contain within themselves the kernel God’s call to find ourselves more deeply rooted in the divine love, more open to the freedom of life in Christ. Storms teach us, in a particularly viceral but effective way to abandon our illusions of self-sufficiency and relying on our own efforts and surrender ourselves to the God who is mighty to save. We drop our pride and utter like Peter, “Lord save me!”
Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO writes about this story in his wonderful little book Awakenings—
God is hidden in difficulties. If we can find him there, we will never lose him. Without difficulties, we do not know the power of God’s mercy and the incredible destiny he has for each of us. We must be patient with our failures. There is always another opportunity unless we go ashore and stay there. A No-risk situation is the biggest danger there is. To encounter the winds and the waves is not a sign of defeat. It is a training in the art of living, which is the art of yielding to God’s action and believing in his love no matter what happens.
My prayer for this cathedral and for this congregation is that we might not let fear, panic, and the myth of scarcity overwhelm us in a time of transition. My prayer is that we remember that this is a time for training in the art of living, the art of yielding to God’s presence and action in this place. My prayer is that we, like Peter, might step out even from our boats to find ourselves swimming and walking and sleeping and talking in the waters of God’s love. My prayer is that, like Peter, we too might rise from the waters holding fast to the always outstretched hand of our Lord and calling out to Him for help. May we be washed clean of our illusions, our pretenses, and our self-satisfaction, ready to give ourselves to the new thing God is doing right under our noses.