Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2011: Time After Pentecost–Lectionary 19

Texts:   1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13  •    Romans 10:5-15  •   Matthew 14:22-33

walk-on-waterSomeone once told me, when you’re analyzing a dream you should assume that every character in the dream is you, or an aspect of you. So, if you’re having one of those dreams where you’re back in high school and being tormented by your classmates, you not only ask yourself, “who or what am I scared of,” but also, “what parts of myself embarrass me, or am I constantly aware of?” Or, if you’re having that dream where you’re being chased by something or someone that you can’t escape, you not only ask yourself, “what am I running from,” but also, “what am I chasing?”

Interpreting Jesus’ miracles often feels like interpreting a dream. Like dreams, the miracle stories tend to operate with physics that don’t apply in the real world. Sometimes it’s the reality-stretching kind of miracle, like last week’s feeding of the five thousand. Other times the general rules of reality are stretched past the point of belief, as they are this week, where we find Jesus walking on the surface of the sea while a storm rages all around.

Really, this story feels like a dream. You know how, in dreams, the story can leap from one location to another, from one setting to another, and you just go with the flow. That’s how this story unfolds. Jesus has just been told that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, has been murdered. The world is a dangerous place for those who speak truth to power. In response, he retreats into the wilderness, looking for solitude. But the crowds follow him, and he responds to their need by instructing his followers to feed a multitude larger than they can care for on their own. The loaves and fishes are collected, blessed, and passed around – and when all is said and done, there are baskets left over.

Then, as in a dream, the scene shifts. Immediately Jesus makes the disciples get back in the boat and head for the other side of the sea, while he stays behind to dismiss the crowds and spend time on the mountaintop praying. In real-life we might expect the disciples to argue with Jesus about leaving him behind with the crowds. After all, they are often depicted as being confused by his commands, or arguing with him. But, as in a dream, they just get in the boat and head out to sea, leaving him behind. Night falls, and Jesus is alone on the mountaintop. Meanwhile, the disciples are at sea being battered by the waves, with the wind blowing against them.

You know what it’s like when you’re in the middle of a dream and a part of you realizes that you’re dreaming? There’s a name for that, it’s called lucid dreaming. You’re in the story, but part of you is watching the story unfold from a distance – like the feeling you get when you’re absorbed in a really good book, you imagine yourself into the point of view of the characters even as you remain aware that you are curled up on the couch flipping through the pages.

That’s how I often feel when I read the bible. The Jesus story is pretty compelling stuff: the birth stories, the wisdom sayings, the parables, the miracles, the crucifixion and the resurrection. It’s easy to just get swept along by the plot. But the external observer, the lucid dreamer, is always in the back of my mind asking questions. I did a bible study earlier this week with the Executive Committee, and they had lots of questions too, so I know it’s not just me. Questions like:

  • If Jesus is able to walk on water and command the seas to stop, then presumably Jesus knew there was a storm brewing in the first place. Why did Jesus send his followers into a storm?
  • If Jesus didn’t want his followers to be afraid, why did he come walking across the water in the early morning hours? Why not just calm the storm from the safe side of the sea and let them get a little rest overnight?
  • If it was storming all night, then why didn’t Peter notice the strong wind until after he’d gotten out of the boat to do something impossible?
  • How could Jesus accuse Peter of having little faith, when he was willing to climb out of a boat in order to walk on water in the middle of a storm, trusting Jesus’ command to step out in faith?
  • Finally, why did Jesus ask Peter to do something so impossible in the first place?

All reasonable questions, if this story is read like an episode taken from reality. But, in the dream logic that seems to rule this tale, you just take each of these oddities as a part of the fabric of the narrative and instead of asking “why” or “how” you ask Martin Luther’s famous question, “what does this mean?”

I don’t know how many of you caught the movie “Inception” when it came out last summer. Like “The Matrix,” “Inception” was a movie playing with ideas about fantasy and reality, a movie built around the idea that we construct our own realities. And like the movie “Inception,” where dreams were built inside dreams, the gospel of Matthew has been slowly unfolding over the last few weeks to reveal the alternative vision of the world Jesus invites his disciples to live into.

First it was a parable about a farmer willing to waste precious seed on all sorts of soil. Then it was a parable about a landowner who instructed the field workers to leave the weeds among the wheat. Then, in parable after parable, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like small things finding great value in God’s economy. Then, as the waking world was rocked by news of the empire’s violent action against the prophet John, Jesus took his band of willing, wide-eyed dreamers into a living parable of lack transformed into plenty, the dream he’d been describing becoming solid enough to feed hungry people. But as this dangerous dream of a world transformed broke into the waking world, the violence of the empire was reflected in the stormy sea that battered the fragile little boat bearing God’s people from one shore to the next.

The values Jesus preached sound good and sweet and unobjectionable – that is, until you take them out of the storybook and start insisting that they have a place in this dangerous world of ours. The parable of the sower sounds good enough, until you start insisting
that we waste our own precious resources on people and places that look less promising than rocky soil or thorny patches. The parable of the weeds and the wheat is a lovely tale of non-discrimination, until you say that we won’t sort people out of our neighborhoods on the basis of their immigration status, or mental health, or addiction history. The parable of the mustard seed growing into the grandest of all trees, sheltering all the birds of the air is all well and good, until you suggest that even the smallest church might have a calling to make itself a home for the widest variety of people imaginable in our community. The feeding of the five thousand reads like the long-awaited answer to world hunger, until you hear Jesus say, “they need not go away, you feed them.”

Then the dream logic, wherein Jesus puts his people on a boat and sends them into a storm makes all kinds of sense. That’s what it feels like, following Jesus. It feels like being packed onto the ark and sent out into a world flooded with more needs than we can imagine.

Even still, when Jesus appears walking on the waves, Peter doesn’t voice the kind of angry, exhausted exasperation I might be tempted to offer. Instead he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Isn’t that how we feel as we gather here many mornings? We are tired, the world has been battering the bow of our lives and we feel like we’ve been launched from the safety of familiar shores into a new job, a marriage, a diagnosis, a divorce, a death, a life, a world we don’t know how to navigate. Getting out of the boat and trying to wade into, much less walk atop, these waters seems foolish, even impossible.

Yet, we bring what little faith we have left and offer it to Jesus, like those five loaves and two fish, and pray that in God’s economy they will be enough to get us through. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” God, if this is what you want for my life, don’t just set me out to sea in the middle of a storm, let me hear your voice. Let me know that you are here, with me, in this storm.

Peter’s request is like Elijah standing on the mountaintop, waiting out the wind and the earthquake and the fire, and finally hearing God in the still eye of the storm. It is, I think, what brings many of us to worship, what drives us to prayer, the hope that we will hear a word from God that will bolster what’s left of a fragile faith with enough courage to get out of the boat and try the impossible, to walk on water.

Friends, the storm is real. It’s not a dream. It’s Wendy standing before us as she did last Sunday, pleading with us to fight to keep the budget from being balanced on the backs of those with the least among us. It’s the climate of grief and anger and fear building as we come up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. It’s the gang signs that showed up just outside our sanctuary doors last week, a reminder that the gentrification of Logan Square is also a kind of class conflict in which not everyone wins. It’s the 12-step group that calls this church their home preparing to gather later this week to say goodbye to one of their number whose recovery will now continue in heaven, but not on earth. It is the homeless men who sleep behind the trash cans in our alley, trying to escape the heat of the summer sun, and our neighbors’ anger.

Bringing the parables of the kingdom of God out of the realm of dream and into the waking world is dangerous. It got John killed. It got Jesus killed. And, if we take the dreaming seriously, we may end up dead as well. Or perhaps that’s how it feels.

Have you ever had the dream where you’re falling, but just as you’re about to hit the earth you wake up? In the gospel dream, Peter gives Jesus his full trust. He musters all the faith he’s got to give, and he climbs out into the water. For a minute it looks like he’s going to make it, and then he feels the fury of the storm and he begins to sink. It’s like that moment in the dream of falling when it seems like there’s no escaping a bad end.

Then, like he’d been there all along, ready to catch us, Jesus reaches under the waves and pulls us up, setting our feet on solid ground, with a question that sends us back into the dream, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Little faith? Little like those seeds that got tossed onto all kinds of soil, even soil like me? Little faith? Little like the mustard seed that grew into the greatest of all shrubs, sheltering all the birds of the air? Little faith? Little like the paltry five loaves and two fish that fed five thousand? Little like that? Just enough to be multiplied in God’s economy?

What if, in God’s dream, we’re all of the characters in this story? We’re like the disciples, sent out in this upside down ark of a sanctuary, heading for a storm we can barely imagine. And we’re like Peter, terrified for our lives, but still listening for God’s voice in the middle of the storm. And we’re like Jesus, walking on the waves and plucking people out of the water and bringing them into the safety of the boat.

But, how can that be? Is it even appropriate to compare ourselves to Jesus in these miraculous parables?

Don’t we call the church the Body of Christ though? And how is it that each of us becomes a part of that body? Don’t we sink beneath the waters, only to rise as part of a body so much larger than we’d ever dreamed? Maybe it is only alone that we sink, but together that we rise.

Once they were all in the boat – Jesus and Peter and all the rest of the waterlogged disciples, then the storm ceased. That fact strikes my external observer, my lucid dreamer, as important. It makes me wonder, who’s in our boat this morning, and who’s missing – still out in the storm? That is the question that lingers on my lips as we wake up from the dream this morning.

Those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Let all of us, gathered in God’s ark this morning as well, say “Amen.”


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