Stay in or get out?
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
So the dinner is over, the people have gone home, and Jesus puts the disciples in a boat and sends them out to sea while he goes up the mountain to pray. And evening comes and the wind gets up and the waves batter the boat and continue to do that for hours and hours and hours while Jesus is still up the mountain, not with them, and when finally he comes walking along on the water, they think he must be a ghost.
Reading this reminded me of a Leonard Cohen song in which he says “Now Jesus was a sailor and he walked upon the water and he spent a long time watching in his lonely wooden tower and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him….” And although I don’t think Cohen was much of a religions person it seemed like he had a real insight into this passage.
So Jesus says, it’s ok, it’s me, and Peter puts him to the test. And Jesus complies with Peter’s request and Peter gets out of the boat, and Peter is ok for a minute, but then he gets scared and he begins to sink, but he calls out to Jesus to save him and just like that, Jesus does. He reaches out and grabs him and they get into the boat.
And ever since, people have been arguing about whether or not Peter should have gotten out of the boat - and by inference, does Jesus want us to get out of the boat or not?
If we reads this story in somewhat allegorical fashion, as the early church did, that the boat is the symbol of the church, having been cast out into a chaotic and dangerous world after Jesus left and the religions were splitting up, then the answer is no, Jesus doesn’t want us to get out of the boat. He wants us to stay together as a community and not let ourselves be distracted or get fractured and some be lost. Others say, no, we just can’t sit around in the boat all day, we need to take some risks, and if we begin to struggle, we will call Jesus and he will save us. Still others suggest that if we just keep our eyes on Jesus, then we can walk on water, too.
At different times in my life I have held each of these positions. The last one, just keeping your eyes on Jesus, wasn’t a keeper, though. I know it’s different from some people. But me, I mostly go back and forth between understanding the need to stay in the boat and feeling the urge to get out. I understand the historical perspective of keeping together in times of turmoil, which Matthew’s community certainly was experiencing as a newly formed and fragile community struggling for survival. But I also have a strong streak of risk-taker in me. And by golly, if Jesus didn’t want Peter to get out of the boat, then why did he tell him to do it? Just to show Peter’s foolishness? Peter was perfectly capable of showing his foolishness all by himself, and Jesus wasn’t really one to shame people. When he says, ye of little faith, he’s not saying ye of NO faith. Even a little faith can move mountains, Jesus says.
So, I go back to Leonard Cohen which is poetry and not theology, but I often find that the way to apprehend God is through poetry. That’s what most of the Bible is anyway - poetry. How else can you talk about the Divine? So I go back to that song and think about how we maybe we are most able to see Jesus coming to us when we are drowning. When we are going under. That’s when we know he has been watching us, and recognize him coming to us, and if we need to we can call on him to save us and he will. He will walk on the water - he will transcend the chaos - even if we cannot. He will save us even if we cannot save ourselves. Which of course we can’t, not in the capital S Salvation business that Jesus is in. God will do what we cannot do, and maybe God will have to do that while we’re in the boat because that’s the best we can do, or maybe God will do that when we get out of the boat and flounder because that’s the best we can do, also.
Jesus has remarkable compassion for people, for humanity. And of course since our belief is that Jesus shows us God, this means that God has remarkable compassion for humanity with all its failures and foibles and floundering. If all we can muster is a little faith, we are still beloved and worth pulling out of the water that is rising around us. And that is such good news.
So sometimes, I guess, Jesus puts us in a boat and sends us off and tells us to hunker down and stay together and in the end we will be ok. Because he will be watching. There’s a time and place for that, no doubt.
And sometimes Jesus calls us out of the boat into risk taking, into something we’ve never done before and not sure we know how to do or can do anyway. There’s a time and place for that, too. I think as a parish this is where we are right now. We’ve been hunkering, but maybe the time for that is passing away.
And if we get out of the boat we may start to sink. That’s the risk. But the Divine gaze is always on us and the Divine arm is always at the ready to save us because we are beloved, as individuals and as a community. And save us he will. Because it is the way of God to turn our suffering into joy.