Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sermon -- 10 August 2008

Proper 14 / 13th p/ Pentecost — 10 August 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Gen 37:1-4.12-28 Ps 105:1-6,16-22,45b Rom 10:5-15 Matt 14:22-33

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

One of the stories that’s been passed around in the Episcopal Church in the past couple of years — maybe you’ve heard this one, but also maybe not — if you don’t hang around in the usual blogs on the Internet, that indicates that you are a person of considerably better taste than some of the rest of us — anyway, the story is about Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She wanted to try to establish a better working relationship with some of the other bishops who had not supported her election as presiding bishop, and in fact were not in favor of women as bishops at all. So she invited Bishop Iker of Fort Worth and Bishop Ackerman of Quincy to go fishing with her, a suitable thing for successors of the apostles to do. So they got in the boat with their fishing tackle and rowed out into the middle of the lake and prepared to fish. Bishop Ackerman asked, “Katharine, would you like me to help you bait your hook?” The PB replied, “Oh, thank you, Keith, but no, I know how to bait a hook — after all, I was an oceanographer before I went into the ministry.” And after a few minutes, there was a strong strike on the Presiding Bishop’s line, and she started to reel in a large, thrashing bass. Bishop Iker said, “That’s a great catch, Katharine! Would you like help landing it?” The PB responded, “That’s very nice of you, Jack, but I think I can manage. Just hand me the net, please!” And as she reeled the fish in, she deftly scooped it into the net and brought it aboard. They all agreed that it was a fine catch, and the PB then slipped the hook and released the fish back into the lake. At this point Bishop Ackerman said, “Oh, no! We forgot the beer! Look, there’s the cooler back on the dock!” Bishop Katharine said, “That’s okay, I’ll go get it. Only fair — I caught the first fish.” And she got out of the boat and walked on the lake back to the dock. As soon as she was out of earshot Bishop Iker turned to Bishop Ackerman and said, “You see? The woman can’t even swim!”

(If there is anyone here from the Diocese of Quincy or the Diocese of Fort Worth and you are offended by this story: It’s a joke. Get over it.)

“Walking on water” is one of those phrases that has become so common that I suspect there are some people who use it who don’t really know where it comes from. One of the standard items in personnel evaluation forms is: (1) Walks on water; (2) Swims in water; (3) Drinks water; (4) Drowns in water. (That’s another joke, folks!) One of my favorite lyrics from the musical play Jesus Christ Superstar (I think I’ve mentioned this before) is Herod Antipas’ line when Jesus is brought before him: “So you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ! Show to me that you’re no fool — walk across my swimming pool!” (Ironically, the appearance of Jesus before Herod occurs only in St. Luke’s gospel, which is the only one which does not include the story of Jesus walking on the water!)

So what are we to make of this story? Today we hear the version in St. Matthew’s gospel, which Matthew has taken from St. Mark’s earlier gospel, with a bit of editing and with the addition of the part about St. Peter. But this story also occurs in St. John’s gospel — clearly the same story, but told in somewhat different words. To me this clearly indicates that this is a story from early in the Jesus tradition (whether from the beginning of the tradition you can judge), well before the formation of the Markan and Johannine traditions. (We might note that in both traditions — the synoptic tradition underlying Mark and Matthew, and the tradition underlying the gospel of John — the story of Jesus walking on the sea immediately follows the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we heard last Sunday, and which is also obviously from the early Jesus tradition.) (I could have built a sermon on that connection, but I didn’t. Maybe in three years!)
So let’s see what’s going on here. When the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, they are terrified. The Greek is actually a little more flexible than that: they were troubled, they were upset; and they said, “It is a phantasm!” — a ghost, or an apparition, or a vision — “we must be dreaming!” But it’s still pretty scary. Jesus says, “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!”

Then Peter, uniquely in Matthew’s gospel, does something I find a little surprising and puzzling: he says, “Lord, if that’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus answers, “Okay.” And so Peter gets out of the boat and starts toward Jesus.

What’s this all about? There’s a strong wind, the waves are tossing the boat all over the place, the disciples are already spooked as it is even before Jesus shows up, and Peter gets out of the boat?! Why on earth would he want to get out of the boat? May it not be that he’s asking Jesus to prove himself? Give me a sign! “Let me walk with you across Herod’s swimming pool!” “If you are the Son of God, let’s jump off the pinnacle of the temple!” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Give us a sign!

When Peter realizes what he has really done, he gets scared, he takes his eyes off Jesus, he looks down, and he starts to sink. Jesus rescues him, of course, but he chides him: “Why did you doubt?” But I don’t think Jesus means, “Why didn’t you believe you could walk on the water just like me?” (which is what we might first think), but “Why didn’t you have faith in me without asking me for a sign?” It is not God’s purpose for us and for our life in the Kingdom that we should be able to walk on water. Not even the clergy!

God has work for all of us to do — to proclaim and to model and to implement the Reign of God in the world — God’s kingdom of love and joy and peace, and goodness and truth and beauty, and justice and integrity. That’s what we need to be about. It’s not about walking on water.

And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon -- 3 August 2008

Proper 13 / 12 Pentecost — 3 August 2008
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00

Genesis 32:22-31 Ps 17:1-7,16 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:13-21

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Last Sunday in Track One of the Revised Common Lectionary, and for a few previous Sundays, we were traipsing about in the Patriarchal Sagas in the Book of Genesis, and today we are still traipsing. The story has moved on a little; last week Jacob had finally been allowed to marry Rachel, at the cost of having to marry Leah first. Well, then this cheery family got into a baby-making contest (and you thought the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel just happened by accident?). Leah got off to a fast start, and Rachel wasn’t doing at all well, so Rachel gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be a surrogate mother so she could catch up. Leah said, Well, if that’s the way you’re going to play! and she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate, and then Leah had a couple more sons of her own. She also bore a daughter, Dinah, about whom a little later on there is a tragic and unpleasant episode, but that’s another story for another time; it’s not very edifying or theologically significant. I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t picked up on it yet. It’s full of sex and violence. Then finally Rachel had a baby of her own (Joseph). So in the Sons Contest, counting those born to the maidservants, Leah was up eight to three. (Rachel would later have one more son, Benjamin, but she would die in that childbirth, to Jacob’s very great sorrow.)

So Jacob decided that it was time for him to take his now rather considerable family and go back home to Canaan. (Well, an angel told him to.) There are stories about all of that, too, because Jacob’s father-in-law Laban really didn’t want him to leave, and there was a bit of contention about whose sheep and goats were whose, but they finally parted in peace. But that’s yet another story for another time.

This pretty much brings us to the First Reading for today, where we find Jacob on his way home from his long sojourn with Uncle Laban in the old country.

Jacob and his twin brother Esau were on the outs (a sibling rivalry of long standing, having to do with selling birthrights for a mess of pottage—that’s another story for another time!). And so Jacob’s return to Canaan was a careful one. In the event, you’ll recall or will be delighted to hear, Jacob and Esau were reconciled and reunited in peace; but in the part we hear read today that issue is still up in the air, and Jacob, worried about his family’s safety, sends them away, and he is left alone. And in the middle of the night Jacob has his famous—and mysterious—wrestling match with a stranger who turns out, apparently, to be an angel or a manifestation of the Lord, and Jacob receives a new name—”Israel”—which in Hebrew means, roughly, “wrestles with God.”

(People’s old Hebrew names actually meant something, you know. Rather like Native American names. I once saw an ad for a T‑shirt that read “My Indian name is Runs with Beer.” I liked that. Except I don’t run very well any more, and I don’t drink beer any more. Oh well. But I digress.)

“Israel” — “Wrestles with God.” I daresay that the idea of wrestling with God, or striving, or contending, or fighting with God, is not something most of us usually think of in connection with our spiritual lives as Christians. We think of worshipping God, or obeying God—or perhaps disobeying God—but not, very often, fighting with God. At least not as something to be regarded as positive or constructive. And yet the name “Israel” has its origin in a fight with God, and the whole history of the Israelite nation can be viewed under the model of wrestling with God—and not only the Israelites of Old Testament times but even the history of the Jewish people in the Christian era. The struggle with God is a common theme in Jewish spirituality right down to our own times—for instance, in the stories by Sholom Aleichem from which the musical play Fiddler on the Roof is drawn—remember Tevye the milkman’s running argument with God?

Are we willing to wrestle with God? Do we care enough about God, and our relationship with God, and the building of God’s Kingdom, that we will stand up in protest and contend with God in our hearts? Do we love God that deeply? Are we that committed to the Reign of God? Or do we quit? Do we resign ourselves and say, “Oh, it’s God’s will” and give up, long before we can possibly have found out what God’s will really is? (Be very careful about what you say is “God’s will”!) Or do we just walk away, saying, “Well, God, if you’re gonna be like that, just forget it!”? We surrender, or we desert, but we will not wrestle. And yet with God, as in our relationships with each other, to be willing to struggle is a sign that we take the relationship and our commitment to it seriously.

The depths of the mystery of God are very great, and God will not be tamed by us. Like Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, God can be very gentle and yet also very terrible. As indeed is Jesus himself (of whom Aslan is a literary figure). A major New Testament image presents God as our loving Father, and rightly so; yet God is not just good old Dad. In the depths of the divine mystery God also comes to us as the fearsome stranger summoning us to combat in the dark of the night: challenging us that we may truly grow, wounding us in order to make us truly whole, slaying us that we may truly live. Our response to this God who summons us to wrestle is to say with Jacob, “I will not let you go, until you bless me.” And thus—perhaps only thus—are we given to see who we really are, what our name really is. Only in relationship of that depth are we, with Jacob, able to see God face to face.

And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.