Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 14:22-33, “On the Water”

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach UMC
Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the Water

Matthew 14:22-33

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I have learned something in my short time living in Laguna Beach. I have met a number of people, been to a number of places, seen a number of things. This is by far one of the friendliest, most laid-back, beautiful places I have ever been, and daily I have to pinch myself to be sure that I’m not dreaming. But there is one thing here that absolutely defines the character of this area: the water. Every morning, I wake up, and the first thing I do is look out my window to see what the ocean is telling me. When I first arrived the “June Gloom” hadn’t yet cleared, and it was fog that met me, obscuring my view. On those mornings, I had to wait and wonder what the ocean would tell me. My fourth morning here, I was to meet Judy Pettigrew for breakfast. I arrived wearing pants and a sweater on the first morning that it was warmer than 68 degrees by 8 am. At the end of our meeting, I had a sunburn on my shoulders. The fog had lifted and before me sat a clear, turquoise sea, and her waves welcomed us to come to her shores. Most days, when I leave the church, I catch my breath at the beautiful scene that awaits me when I coast down Wesley Drive. The water is the main character in our story here in Laguna Beach. She will be petulant, angry, beautiful and tempting. She will have gray days, where her color matches the skies. She will have blue days where her depth rivals that of any sea under the sun. She has green days, which appear playful, but she will always remind you who is boss. The water here is our star. She is the featured performer, our muse.  
The main character in our story today appears to be my favorite disciple, Peter. I had a youth minister when I was in high school who always referred to Peter as the “Barney Fife” of the Disciples. He was well-intentioned, loyal, and a bumbling idiot. He was the butt of every joke, the very last one to “get it,” and even after denying Jesus three times, Jesus still made him the rock upon which the church was built. Peter is demonstration to me that our God is a God of forgiveness and grace. If Peter, a witness to the miracles, didn’t fully understand Jesus, then it’s probably okay that we don’t either.  
Just prior to this event, John the Baptist has beenimprisoned by King Herod because he insisted that Herod not have relations with Herodias, who belonged to another man – and not just any other man, but his brother, Phillip. Herod was afraid to kill John the Baptist because the crowds believed he was a prophet. But, at a lavish dinner party, a young maiden (Herodias’ shrewd daughter) dancedfor King Herod, and he foolishly offers to give her anything she demands. It never occurred to him she might demand John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  
When Jesus hears that his cousin has been killed, he withdraws alone in a boat to go and pray. But, the crowds followed him. He has compassion upon them, comes ashore and heals the sick until late in the evening. At that point, the disciples point out that it is late and no one has anything to eat. What follows is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread, which Jesus blessed and broke and gave to his disciples to give to the crowds. All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  
As the crowds are dispersing, Jesus takes his disciples immediately into the boat so that they can get to the other side of the shore. After everyone had dissipated, Jesus went up the mountain alone to pray, to mourn, to cry out and bless John, his friend and cousin. John was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. John prepared the way of the Lord, and proclaimed that he was not worthy to tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. John was the baptizer, the one who took Jesus into the Jordan and blessed him there. It was John who used the clear, cold water to baptize Jesus, and together they watched as the heavens opened and a the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, as a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It was water that initiated Christ’s ministry on earth. It was John the Baptist who administered it.  
And now, he was gone. Jesus, a compassionate savior, had postponed his grieving until after the crowds had been attended to, the sick healed and the hungry fed. As he went up the mountain, it was the sea of Galilee upon which he gazed. This body of water, which he crossed many timesgoing to and from Capernaum, was familiar to him. He knew its patterns, he had lured away its fishermen. He had called them away from the water and nets to a life of dust and miracles. Jesus and the Sea of Galilee were old friends. It was this body of water that moved at his command, whose winds picked up when his heartbeat raced. As he prayed for the life and death of his beloved cousin, his heart breaking at the brutal way in which John’s life ended, tears of sorrow rolled down his face. Rivets of shiny, salty tears appeared on his dusty face, and pooled under his chin. Collecting himself, Jesus inhaled and the wind gusted. The waves lapped the shores in rhythm with his breathing.
Jesus realized that the boat the disciples were in had drifted far across the Sea, the waves battering it and pushing them farther away. Early in the morning, Jesus realized that the only way to reunite with the disciples was to meet them in the boat. He took a steady breath, and with the faith of Moses, who had parted the Red Sea, Jesus stepped onto the water.  
It is compelling to believe that this is the miracle. You and I know that the molecular structure of water – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen – isn’t substantial enough to support the weight of a human being. And yet.  
Jesus walked on the sea, approaching the boat. But this man is the fulfillment of the law. He is the son of God, and the heralder of the kingdom. Why should his dominion over hydrogen and oxygen be of such a wonder to us? After all, it’s not the first time that the natural world has bent to his will. Seas had parted, food had multiplied, the dead had risen. Jesus was simply putting one foot in front of the other. The disciples insist on being rational, yet they choose a more irrational explanation. They believe it is a ghost, and they cry out in fear. But, immediately, Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“It is I” Jesus says. But, this is only one possible translation. What Jesus says to them is, “I, I am!” He reassures the disciples by announcing himself using the Divine Name, which was told to Moses, Abraham. “I am,” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” ἐγώ "Iεἰμι: "I-be," What Jesus does is more than offer comfort, he reminds them of who he is ontologically. He is more than a being, more than a physical being walking on water. He IS, the physical manifestation of a divine being. He IS human and God. He IS the fulfillment of the prophecies. Fear not, Jesus says, I AM.  
It is Peter, dear Peter, who cries out. Barney Fife, the earnest and hopeful disciple, who wants so much to do this right. He shouts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Jesus said, “Come.” The water, hardly still, lapped over Jesus’ feet as he walked. Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water. Jesus’ heart beat faster. Could it be? Could it be that Peter finally understood? Could it be that his best friend, the rock upon which the church would be built, truly understood that Jesus was in this world, but not of it. That his very naturewas nature; he was the fulfillment of the law – not just the law that governs people, but the laws that govern the physical world. Peter took step after step and Jesus’ heart leapt in his chest. His friend walked toward him, but the wind obeyed its master. As Jesus’ excitement grew, so did the wind’s response to his hope. The waves began to swell and Peter noticed the strong wind. He became frightened – his eyes, which had been locked on Jesus – glanced down and he realized the impossibility of what was happening. No amount of healing or resurrection or multiplication of food would explain what was happening to him at this moment. 
Peter’s fear spread through him like a virus, heating up his face and palms, his forehead going cold as he began to sink like the Rock that he was. The water that had held him up began to swallow him, and he was no longer in an ocean of safety and calm, but a sea of fear. In an instant its power was clear, as he sank deeper and deeper, “Lord, save me!” Peter finally gasps, and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” says Jesus. “Why did you doubt?”
The wind ceased and the water became as still as glass, as dark as night. Peter could barely make out the lines on Jesus’ face where his tears for John had fallen. They sat down in the boat and the disciples fell all over themselves to acknowledge what had just happened. “Truly, you are the Son of God!” they exclaimed.  
Jesus sat with them silently in the boat, until they reached Gennesaret. There, they were greeted by crowds who needed healing and comfort. The evening he had spent on the mountain was restorative enough for Jesus to fortify himself for the crowds and the Pharisees who were there to test him. Looking back, it was Peter who tried his best to test his faith. But, there was no need. The answer was there before them all along.  
Surrounding them, nourishing them, enlivening them, cleansing them, battering them, soothing them… it was the water that ran its course through the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ ministry. This simple element, this prevalent and abundant resource gave us: 
Waters of baptism 
Waters of birth
Waters of cleanliness 
Waters of calm
Waters of beauty
Waters of a storm
Peter, named Simon, Bar-Jona (Son of John), “Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks. “Didn’t you trust the water?”