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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 08/13/2017

“I’ll do the best I can, but I don’t walk on water.”  It’s the kind of thing any of us might say if asked to do something we’re not too sure about.  It’s a statement that lowers expectations, emphasizing the fact that that we are human, we’re not miracle workers.  The assumption of course is that whoever we say this to is familiar with the story of Jesus walking on water and I think most people still are.  Jesus walking on water is part of what we assume to be common knowledge although such things become less common all the time.

After three weeks of parables though, moving from chapter 13 to chapter 14 of Matthew, this is now two weeks with miracle stories, the feeding of the five thousand last week and now Jesus walking on the water.  The writers of the gospels were free to sequence things however they wanted as they worked with sayings of Jesus and stories about him and then wrote what are statements of faith more than they are biographies. 

I really wasn’t thinking about the sequence of parables followed by miracles though until I stumbled across a poem by Denise Levertov called Poetics of Faith which is printed on the inside back cover of your bulletin; I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was, one of those serendipitous things that sometimes happens. 

A number of Denise Levertov’s poems include religious themes that reflect her own personal experience, an experience of movement from agnosticism to faith, a movement that included significant doubt and questioning.  Such people give us what I think are very honest examples of journeys of faith and, in particular, the value of continuing the journey despite doubts and questions.  Poets can be especially good at this as they seem blessed with the ability to see things in ways that most of us don’t and then to put what they see or experience into words, thus inviting us into their world.  Anyway, when I read this poem it seemed perfect for today:  Poetics of Faith

Straight to the point’ can ricochet, unconvincing.

            Circumlocution, analogy, parable’s ambiguities, provide context, stepping-stones.

Most of the time.  And then

the lightning power amidst these indirections of plain
unheralded miracle!

I’ll stop there for now.  The miracle she then writes about is today’s story of Jesus walking on water and Peter’s effort to join him, but I’ll come back to that.

In looking at the first part of this poem, I think the poet has insights into Jesus and also insights into Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. I’m reminded that Jesus almost never got ‘straight to the point,’ knowing as the poet recognizes, that ‘straight to the point’ has limitations and can in fact wind up being unconvincing and counterproductive, ricocheting as she says, unable to convey the desired truth.  So rather than going straight to the point, Jesus used parables, parables that by nature include ambiguities that you have to play around with, but as you play, the parable can serve as a stepping stone providing guidance that moves you toward understanding and faith.

But then, amidst the indirection and ambiguity of the parables, we get the lightning power of plain, unheralded miracle, miracle that in no uncertain terms announces that in Jesus, something different is going on.  Parables do reveal Jesus as a profound teacher, but the intent of the gospels is to convey what the early church believed about him and what they believed was that he was much more than a great teacher.

 By using the sequence that he does then, moving from parables to miracles in this part of the gospel, Matthew dramatically shifts gears and makes the point that Jesus does things that only God can do thus making clear his belief that Jesus is equal to God.  Later on, the church would affirm this belief in more of a straight to the point fashion in creeds and confessional statements, but straight to the point isn’t where it starts; it starts with parables followed by miracles.

Today it is the miracle of Jesus walking on water that we consider.  Versions of this appear in three of the four gospels; usually John is the odd man out on these things, but in this case it’s Luke.  In all of the versions, the disciples had set out in a boat on the sea but Jesus wasn’t with them.  In the midst of a wind storm though, Jesus comes to them walking on the water.  What’s interesting is that none of the accounts indicate that the disciples were afraid of the storm; that’s another story.  In this one, they weren’t afraid until they saw Jesus, thinking he was a ghost, in that culture the water being seen as symbolizing chaos, the dwelling place of demons and spirits.  When Jesus joins them though, the wind stops and they make it to safety.  Clearly, part of what’s going on here is what I’ve already alluded to, that being Jesus’ ability to confront the powers of chaos and to overcome them, doing what only God can do. 

What’s unique in Matthew’s telling of this though, is the Peter piece of it, his effort to join Jesus on the water; the other accounts don’t have that.  Again we go back to the poem as Levertov begins with Jesus and writes: 

For example, as if forgetting to prepare them, He simply walks on water toward them, casually—and impetuous Peter, empowered, jumps from the boat and rushes on wave-tip to meet him—a few steps, anyway—(till it occurs to him ‘I can’t, this is preposterous’ and Jesus has to grab him, tumble his weight back over the gunwale).  Sustaining those light and swift steps was more than Peter could manage.

Peter is another character on a faith journey, one that we get in bits and pieces throughout all the gospels, a faith journey we can relate to filled as it is with “Aha” moments of seeming to understanding who Jesus is only to be followed by moments of “I’m not sure,” or even flat out getting it wrong.  The classic example is Peter seeming to get it when he confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God with that followed a few verses later by Jesus’ admonition to “Get behind me Satan,” when Peter questions the need for Jesus to suffer and die, showing that he really doesn’t get it yet.  In a couple of weeks we get those stories.

The usual take on Peter’s water walk is that as long as he remained focused on Jesus he was OK, he could do it, he could walk on water.  But, as soon as he lost focus and became distracted by the chaos around him, chaos that told him “I can’t do it, this is preposterous,” he began to sink.  That is certainly a good interpretation and one that has implications for us.   We too can be easily distracted not only by the chaos of our world but also by the good things of the world which can also become chaotic.  Either way, the result is to lose sight of Jesus and the importance of our relationship with him.  Like Peter, we might manage for awhile, a few steps, but eventually, having lost focus, things can come apart; we sink.

To his credit though, Peter did get out of the boat.  In faith, he took a risk.  Granted, he wasn’t totally successful in his venture, but in faith he left the relative safety and security of the boat and took a risk.  This too can have implications for us as our own journey of faith might have “getting out of the boat” moments.  For me, leaving the security of a teaching career and going to seminary was a getting out of the boat moment.  In this Reformation 500 year as we think about Martin Luther, he certainly had a getting out of the boat experience when, as an insignificant monk, he challenged the power and the authority of the church when it would have been easier to submit and continue his career as a pastor and teacher.  Sometimes though, you have to think and pray about what you are called to do, and it might involve getting out of the boat.

But not always; sometimes staying in the boat is the right thing to do.  That’s what the other disciples did and it was OK.  Jesus came to them as well and he calmed the chaos that swirled around them.  So this isn’t a sermon to admonish you to take a risk and get out of the boat but just for you to consider that getting out of the boat in whatever form it takes could be a possibility and that it could be life changing.

Typical of many gospel stories, there isn’t much in the way of immediate follow up to this story apart from saying that those in the boat worshiped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the son of God.”  That is a significant and important confessional statement but I wonder more specifically about Peter.  What did he make of his out of the boat experience?  I don’t know, but I like the way Denise Levertov ends her poem as she says of Peter: 

Still, years later, his toes and insteps, just before sleep, would remember their passage.

He only managed a few steps but the memory of those steps would stay with him as his journey continued, and so would the memory of Jesus’ hand reaching out to save him.  It was just a few steps, but those steps would remind him that he wasn’t alone but that Jesus was with him and that with Jesus, he did walk on water.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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