Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
There is a lot to think about and pray about in recent days. The world seems to be in the midst of a great storm.
Just open the paper this morning and you will see: a growing war of words and bravado with North Korea; White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis marching in Virginia, clashing with counter-protestors and resulting in death and injury; and alarming new warnings about global warming, which threatens to destroy our fragile earth. There is not a lot of good news these days.
It is not hard to draw a line to these events as something like the storm on the Sea of Galilee that the disciples are weathering in this morning’s gospel. Or to Jesus’s command to Peter as one that beckons us not to stand idly by, but to step out into the storm as agents of Christ.
A few weeks ago I talked about how maintaining our focus on the kingdom of God helps us get through hard and confusing times. I do believe that. But today’s gospel gives another clue to how to deal with the difficulties of life. This story of Jesus coming to the disciples over the waves and Peter stepping out on the water to him reminds us, “that Jesus often calls us to go into uncharted waters, but when we go in faithfulness, he never abandons us.”[i]
There are lots of rich images in the text:[ii]
- Turbulent water – a sign of trouble, unrest – think of the many different troubled waters in the Bible.
- Jesus appearing to the disciples – sort of a pre-echo of the appearances after the resurrection.
- Jesus statement to the disciples, which can also be translated, “I am.”
This story also appears in Mark and John’s gospels, and there are many parallels with their versions; but what is unique to Matthew is the dialogue with Peter, and Peter’s attempt to step out of the boat and walk on water to Jesus, in response to the command of his Lord.
Theologian Clifton Kirkpatrick says this:
“What is clear from this passage is that we are called to step out in faith, even in the midst of troubled waters, if we are to be faithful to the call of Christ.
“Stepping out in faith is not a guarantee that we will not face troubled waters or be filled with fear, but it is always accompanied by the assurance that Jesus will not abandon us, that when we need it most, he will extend his arm to lift us up and get us back in the boat.”[iii]
The disciples are frightened when they see Jesus walking across the stormy sea; but Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”We must not let a frightening moment discourage our faith; rather we must continue to believe in the goodness of God and God’s world, and dare to see God in the very thing that frightens us. Peter does fine until he loses that focus – when he is distracted by the wind, he begins to sink.
A few years back The Rev. Liz Maxwell, my friend and mentor (who also preached at my installation here nearly two years ago), preached on this passage, speaking of Christ’s loving response –
She told the story of the Philadelphia Eleven, the eleven women who were the first women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974. This was two years before the General Convention of our Church affirmed and explicitly authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood. (From this vantage point it seems hard to believe that was only 43 years ago – in fact it was only in 1970 that women were first seated with voice and vote at the General Convention.) You can find more information about them on the Internet.[iv] What really stuck with me from that sermon was the poem, Water Women, by Alla Bozarth-Campbell, one of the women ordained in Philadelphia in 1974. It speaks of what it’s like to be in the boat in the midst of the storm—of what it takes to weather it, and of the strength that comes from joining with others in the struggle:
We do not want to rock the boat, you say,
mistaking our new poise for something safe.
We smile secretly at each other,
sharing the reality that for some time
we have not been in the boat.
We jumped or were pushed
or fell and some leaped overboard.
Our bodies form a freedom fleet
Our dolphin grace is power.
We learn and teach and as we go
each person sings ~
each person’s hands are water wings.
Some of us have become
mermaids or Amazon whales
and are swimming for our lives.
Some of us do not know how to swim.
We walk on water.
Now, by talking about the need to walk out in faith, to dare to act when you are facing fear, I don’t want to suggest that any difficulties you are having in life are because you didn’t step out of the boat, or didn’t focus properly on God—I instead suggest that the willingness to step out in faith is often what is needed, and a renewed focus on the way of Christ may make things a little easier.
And one way we step out into turbulent water is through the quietly subversive act of baptisms. It is a moment when we embrace the faith of Christ, or it is embraced for us by our caregivers.
Our catechism tells us that all of the sacraments—Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance, and Anointing—are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. And baptism, perhaps more than any of the other sacraments, reminds us of the meaning of this important theological tenet: Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.[v] In short, it is the grace of God that makes it possible for us to step out of the boat!
Baptisms are always moments of great joy. Families gather together, get dressed up, and celebrate a momentous occasion in their lives. We mark the entry of new members into our Christian community, and parents, godparents, family, and especially church family promise to support these newest members as they grow and learn and discover their place in the Body of Christ. And, like all of the sacraments, baptism is also a passage, a moment of transformation—in baptism today, little Talia will become something new: A members of the Body of Christ.
I remember several years back having a preparatory conversation with some parents whose children were about to be baptized. I remember one of the parents talked about responsibility of helping his daughter live into her full identify as a child of God. As I discussed with that anxious parent, the Good News is that this job of nurture is not one these parents must undertake on their own. God supports those who are baptized – and all of us when we dare to step out in faith.
One important way God does that is through this church, through you. We all have a responsibility to Talia as she begins her journey of faith—as she steps out of the boat today. In fact, in a few moments, I will ask you if you will, “do all in your power to support [them] in their life in Christ.”[vi]
Now, before you answer that question, let’s think about what that means. Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says that Christians are called to be a community “capable of forming people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world.”[vii]
We gather here not just to make new friends, or to sing and worship, or even just to make ourselves better people. Our job is to help form each other. To work together to help each of us witness to the gift of God’s grace that we have received. To give each other what we need to step out of the boat in faith.
And that’s the Good News, my friends: We are not alone in this endeavor. We not only join together in this work today, but we are part of a great cloud of witnesses from the past, not only throughout the church, but specifically in this town, this Diocese, and this church itself. Think about it: people have been baptized on this corner of Main Street and Pine for almost 200 years. It is our awesome responsibility to support and shape each other as members of the family of God. To give each other courage; to equip one another to step out in faith.
Today we are witnesses to the beginning of the journey for Talia; wherever we are on our own journeys, we are fellow travelers. There is still so much to see, so much to experience. With this morning’s baptism, let us all recommit ourselves to each other’s formation as the Body of Christ, marveling at the grace of God who has put us together in loving community. Let us find the courage to brave turbulent waters.
In the words of the baptismal prayer, may we all have inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder at all of God’s works.[viii] Amen.
[i] Kirkpatrick, Clifton. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 332.
[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_Eleven, accessed 08/12/2017; and http://allabozarthwordsandimages.blogspot.com/p/the-philadelphia-ordinations-and-what.html, accessed 08/12/2017.
[v] Kirkpatrick op cit.
[vi] Rite of Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 303.
[vii] Hauerwas, Stanley, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982, p. 3), as quoted by Greg Garrett in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 239
[viii] Op cit., Rite of Holy Baptism, p. 308.