If Walking on Water is the Goal, Get Out of the Boat

Seeing today’s gospel brought me back to a spirited discussion that took place on the first day of a new semester in seminary.  We arrived in the room to find two words written large on the board.  JESUS SAVES.

The professor welcomed us, introduced herself, pointed at the white board, and said “For the next hour…discuss.”  What do those words mean to you? What does Jesus save us from? Or should we say what does Jesus save us for?

Apparently those two words mean different things to different people.  Often it depends on where in your life you (rather like Peter) are drowning: sin, finances, addiction, depression, or relationship? (The list goes on)

When I saw those words on the board, my mind went to a funny memory. When I was in middle school, there was a billboard in my home town of Napa, California.  That billboard had the same two words-JESUS SAVES. What made it funny was that a vandal with a sense of humor somehow got up onto that billboard to add the words, “GREEN STAMPS.”  What made it even funnier was that my mother was a serious saver of green stamps and it was nothing short of a religious experience when she would amass the correct number of stamps to earn a new toaster or set of dishes.  In part as a result of that experience, my mind was open to the possibility that there could be wider meaning to “Jesus Saves.”

Peter calling to Jesus to SAVE him is a central part of Matthew’s gospel text this morning.  We should note that illustrations of sea crossings where Jesus gets into or out of a boat are important within the synoptic gospels.  They illustrate times when the disciples get to glimpse something important about Jesus and when they’re given the chance to respond.

When Jesus begins walking towards boatthe disciples they think him a ghost.  But Peter is intrigued and wants to try it too. The whimsy of his excitement is charming in the Greek where the original reads more like, “I want some of that water walking too!”

Jesus just made it look easy, that is until the winds and the waves come up and Peter’s confidence turns to anxiety. When he begins to get “that sinking feeling” is when he cries out “Lord, save me!”  We can bet he was questioning whether getting out of that boat was really such a good idea.  But here’s the thing. If we ever hope to walk on water, getting out of the boat is essential.

Too often this story is reduced to the object lesson of Peter taking his eyes off the Lord. That’s a piece of it but larger is the confession that Jesus has the capacity to save.   We often overlook the fact that Jesus provoked the disciples to take a risk with their faith.

So here is something to think about.  Does the Peter’s doubt come when he begins to sink? Or does the doubt come in when he cries out for the Lord to save him?  There’s nothing wrong with the walking, the trying, or even the sinking and the failing.  Or does his doubt comes when his anxiety turns from water rescue to the fear: what if God doesn’t save me? What if I really do drown?

I think this may be at the heart of our fear. My week is bookended by two funerals. Both of the deceased likely cried out to God to save them, one from depression and one from cancer.  I also learned that a dear friend is not only battling throat cancer but now lung cancer.  I’m certain all three asked/are asking the question of what if the “saving” doesn’t come in the here and now.

That’s the tricky thing about faith. We have to step out of the boat.  Faith starts with action, with taking a step. The best intentions in the world don’t do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give us the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.”

Faith is the willingness step out of the boat, whether you think you’ll sink or skate. And Peter had that. So why does Jesus address him as “you of little faith”? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith-and over time he grew that faith. He grew  it by putting one faithful foot in front of another.

Dylan Breuer writes, “ That’s why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God’s reluctant prophets and Jesus’ wavering disciples. They didn’t have it all together but the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God’s mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith growing that- shared across the Body of Christ-could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.”

God does not demand that we step out of airplanes or take crazy risks. All God asks is that we get out of the boat and step forward, even if the ground beneath us is no more substantial than water. What matters is that we are walking toward Jesus, whose hand is held toward us, stretched out in invitation, stretched out to grasp us no matter what.

Jesus Saves.

Thanks be to God.


Lord, Let My Heart be Good Soil

In recent years, a kind of hipster slang has entered our lexicon centered on the word “Word.”  Here’s how it works.  When you read or hear something you particularly like or strongly agree with, you say “WORD.”  Saying “WORD” is a staccato, shorthand response communicating that what’s already been said has been so completely that nothing else needs to be added.  Saying “WORD” or even “WORD UP!” means you’ve heard it, you’ve experienced it, and you get it–whatever the “it” is.

In other word’s it’s a cool way of saying AMEN!

Truth is we throw the word “word” around a lot.  We ask people “What’s the good WORD?”  We say “Now there’s a WORD of truth.”  Humorously if we’re mad at someone, we say that we need to have a WORD of prayer with them.

The biblical passages from this week’s lectionary are from Isaiah and Matthew. Both affirm that that the Word of God is an experience.  Being open to the word and listening to the word are both key to that experience. Said another way, the Word of God is not flat and it never returns empty. It has creative power and metaphysical dimension.

Our sacred text tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It tells us that the Word of God became flesh, and that it was God’s word that spoke the world into existence.  And in Jesus, the Word was inseparable with true encounter with God.

In the same way we cannot suppress a yawn, we cannot suppress the potential of God’s word!  If our hearts are good soil, the WORD will grow in a way that is unique to you. That’s because how you hear it, how it lands on you is particular to you.  My particular response to God’s word led to me to become a liberation theologian. A liberation theologian is someone who sees the core purpose of the gospel as being the liberation of God’s people–liberation from anything that oppresses, anything that robs them of the knowledge and experience of God’s extravagant love.  How the Word lands on the soil of your heart will be a clue to what makes your heart soar or what gives it pain.

According to the Religious News Service, this summer many Americans are watching in helpless horror as more than 52,000 children fleeing violence stream over our southern border. Many are making a dangerous journey by themselves to escape murder rates and gang violence in Central America, particularly El Saborder childrenlvador and Honduras, that are unparalleled except in countries at war. Did you know that if you live in New York City you have a 1 in 25,000 chance of being murdered? But if you live in Central America you have a 1 in 14 chance.

Rev. Gay Clark Jennings recently wrote, “People of goodwill at the border have offered food, water, shelter and compassionate care to these refugee children while others with hardened hearts have blocked buses carrying them to processing centers, despite the fact that it is not illegal for people to cross the U.S. border and ask for protection under U.S. law.”

How have we forgotten that the Gospel of Matthew recounts the story of King Herod who slaughtered all the babies and toddlers around Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to prevent the reign of Jesus — the child he had been told would become a king. That means that as Christians, we worship a child who fled from the violence in his home country.

Jesus was an immigrant.

The baby Jesus survived Herod’s massacre because his parents took him across a border to a land where he could be safe. Just like parents in Central America are sending their children away, Mary and Joseph took great risks so their son could survive. It’s no different!

How we respond to the world around us is in part determined by how the WORD of God has landed on the soil of our lives.  The fate of the world God loves demands that we connect the dots between our faith and our lives. For if we do not, we will be saying that the Word of God is just a book,  or maybe just a few verses we memorized for confirmation.

If the WORD is alive, if it does not return empty–if it has landed on good soil, may we respond with holy intention.   May our prayer forever be, “Lord let my heart be good soil.” AMEN.


Possibility in the Midst of Little

Matthew’s  gospel tells the story  of the feeding of the 5,000;  a story that contrasts two very different (let’s call them…) community dinners.   Now some congregations might get confused about what part of the story constitutes the miracle. That is unless you’re a congregation who’s been operating a dining hall at the Minnesota State Fair for oh, say, 64 years, and providing free  community dinners for about six months.

Certainly when we saw that great crowd of 6,000 BMW bikers descending on the fairgrounds last weekend,

"Feed My Sheep"
“Feed My Sheep”

we weren’t sure what to expect.  But I can tell you this, none of us said as the disciples did:  “send the crowds away so that they may go into the City of St. Paul and buy food for themselves!”  And Jesus did not have to say to us what he needed to say to his early disciples: “They need not go away; YOU give them something to eat.”

In truth, there were a few times when our serving the 6,000 bikers was nothing short of a miracle-especially when we ran out of eggs, or bread, or strawberry rhubarb pies.  A couple of times it rather felt like we were dealing with  2 fish and 5 loaves.  One thing we never ran short of was compassion, and compassion is at the heart of today’s text.   You see it wasn’t about WHAT Jesus did, or HOW he did it. It was about WHY.

Matthew records that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them.  He healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

To fully experience why he withdrew in the first place, we need to know about the other “community dinner.”  Did you catch the transitional line at the beginning of the gospel? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Heard? Heard what?  What Jesus just heard was that his friend and cousin,  John the Baptist  had just been murdered, beheaded  by King Herod at  an opulent, A-list, over the top dinner party—another kind of community meal.

The juxtaposition of Herod’s A-list dinner and Jesus feeding the 5,000 couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful.   David Lose is President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes, “One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s like switching channels from the Kardashians to a news report on immigrant children stranded at the border. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In fact every one of Jesus’ acts points us to the character of the God.  In this story, the character of God that Jesus reveals is captured in that single word, “compassion.”  And the contrast between Herod’s dinner for the “haves,” and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000  “have nots,” was that Jesus’ dinner was banquet of possibilities, a banquet where Jesus  created an outpouring for people who almost never have enough.

Banquets are a funny thing. Rather like community dinners.

What we are doing with our community dinners is that we too are creating an outpouring for people who almost never have enough.  Are you smellin’ what I’m cooking here? People talk about how nice our community meals are, that we put out the china, the flowers and the good food.  We do that because have a certain expectation about the way we want our dinners to be.  Dr. Ruby Payne is a popular speaker on the topic of understanding poverty. She remarks that when people of privilege enter a banquet, their first concern is that it looks pretty and will they like the choices?” People in the economic middle will be concerned with whether it tastes good. However, people living in poverty, those with little,  will want to know if there is enough. And with Jesus, there was so  much that there were leftovers!

This was important because in Jesus’ time the only religious choices beyond Judaism were often cults and sects, some of which required economic  standing.  Except Christianity. What distinguished  Jesus’  ministry was the fact that everyone, with or without economic or social standing, were ALL welcome.   That’s why they were following him.

Jesus’ entire ministry was to represent the God of extravagant possibility in the midst of little. For in God we have everything that we could ever want, more than enough for our hearts, heads  and stomachs to hold!

The real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry. God still shares God’s presence with us, in the bread and in the wine – and…

God continues to use us to care for world that God loves.