Sermon given at Good Shepherd, West Springfield on August 8, 2014
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
In this compelling story, Matthew uses the word “immediately” three times in just twelve verses. “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” When the disciples cried out in fear “immediately Jesus spoke to them…” When Peter starts to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand…” We are tempted to say “Matthew, with all due respect, get yourself a thesaurus.” But Matthew is a brilliant writer and he has a reason for all those “immediatelys.” With them and with Peter’s question: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Matthew is telling us who Jesus is and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.
The significance of the first “immediately.” Remember what has happened to Jesus before this story. His beloved cousin John is executed by Herod. Jesus goes away to a deserted place to mourn. But 5000 people follow him there and because of his great compassion, he spends the day healing and feeding them. The grieving of Jesus is interrupted. But he needs to mourn and mourning is hard work. When Jesus dismisses the crowds he immediately goes up the mountain to do this necessary and difficult remembering and soul-searching. He can’t wait any longer.
He goes not only to mourn, but to pray. Here is one reason why prayer was vitally important to Jesus and to us as his followers. I’ll get there by way of a basketball story. (Don’t you think God showed God’s sense of humor by calling me to a diocese where the Basketball Hall of Fame is mere blocks away from my office?) One evening many years ago back at our home/church in Millbrook New York, our daughter Caragh was taking her daily 200 foul shots at our basketball hoop in the parking lot. It was getting dark and it was starting to rain but Caragh kept on shooting. Betsy said “why is she still out there in the dark and the rain, taking the same shot over and over again?” I knew the answer to that question. “She is developing her muscle memory. She keeps repeating the same shot because if there is two minutes left in a close game, and she is exhausted, and the crowd is going wild, she needs her muscle memory to take over and sink those shots.”
Jesus goes to the mountain to pray to develop his “soul memory.” John has suffered an unjust death. Jesus knows his fate will be similar. He prays in the quiet of the mountain so his soul memory will take over in the midst of the chaos of his last days. And that is one reason why we gather in this church, week after week, and experience the God who loves us no matter what, the God who has embraced our lives and will not let go. We do this over and over and over again, because when the road gets tough, as it always will, we will have a soul memory to draw upon. When life is hard, we will have a memory of prayers, psalms, and images to give us courage and hope.
The second “immediately.” Jesus walks toward the disciples on the water. They are terrified because they think it is a ghost. “Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.” Some biblical scholars say this is not the most accurate translation. Instead of “it is I”, Matthew wrote “I am.” “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”
This is important because “I am” is God’s definition of God’s self in the Hebrew Scriptures. “I Am Who Am” God said to Moses. Now as a definition this seems pretty disappointing. Moses and you and I might be hoping for more. “I Am Who Am.” Actually, it says everything about God. It means God is being itself. All that is, is in God. God is not separate from us. God is and we live in God. As today’s collect says “we cannot exist without you.” Therefore, because God lives we live. And always will. That is why there is Eternal Life – because God lives.
Jesus is clearly identifying his life as God’s life. Because of that we are called to “take heart” and stop letting fear rule our lives. After all, God is here – how can we be afraid? That is going to be demonstrated in Peter’s question to Jesus.
“Lord, if it is you…” What comes next tells us who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice, Peter did not say “Lord, if it is you, tell me to stay here in the boat, where everything is safe.” If he said that, it would not be Jesus because Jesus is the one who invites us to New Life, not clinging to the old life. And Peter did not say, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to admire what you are doing, out there walking on the water.” Peter did not ask that because that would not be Jesus. Jesus is not looking for admirers. Jesus invites us to do what he does.
M. Scott Peck, the renowned author of one of the most popular books of all time, The Road Less Traveled, spoke about being at a conference with 400 Christian psychiatrists – counselors who spoke about faith with their clients. Peck read the story of the time Jesus was teaching and the house was so filled with people that no one else could get in. Four friends of a paralyzed man desperately wanted Jesus to heal him. They climbed up on the roof and lowered the paralyzed man on a cot in front of Jesus. Jesus healed him.
Peck asked the crowd of counselors to think about who they were in the story. Did they identify with the paralyzed man? Or his four friends willing to do anything to get him help? Or Jesus? By a show of hands, many identified with the paralyzed man. Many identified with his friends. No one identified with Jesus.
Now that might be out of humility, but these counselors were in the business of healing. Don’t you think someone would say “I am called to heal as Jesus healed.” Peter knew that. Lord do what you always do. Call me out of my safety zone and call me to do what you do.
The last “immediately.” Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk on water. When he notices the strong wind, he becomes scared and starts to sink. (Think back to the “muscle memory/soul memory” story from a few minutes ago.) As Peter starts to go under, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”
Of course Jesus reached out immediately to save a person going under. And if it is the Lord, he is asking us to do the same. Who in your life is starting to sink? Who are you called to reach out and catch? Let’s all think about that. Let’s expand the image. Due to climate change, our earth is going under. The time to do something about it is “immediately.” 30,000 people in the United States are dying due to gun violence, and another 100,000 are injured. Those who follow Jesus need to reach out “immediately.” One in five children in our country is sinking into a life of poverty and food insecurity. Children are drowning in a sea of poverty and violence in Central America. Jesus reaches out “immediately.” When should we act?
Barbara Brown Taylor, the powerful Episcopal preacher who was on the cover of TIME magazine a few months ago, says this “It is time to reject a ‘put-off’ life and lead a ‘caught-up life.’ Get ready for the Jesus who is continually coming into the world by living today. Write that letter, reconcile that relationship, get the help you need and do it now. Refuse to keep living yesterday over and over and over again. Today is the day to be generous. Today is the day to be a new creation.”
I will end this sermon with an invitation. I invite any who wish to, to come forward and I will anoint your head with oil and say these words: “Take heart. God lives. Do not be afraid.” That is the truth. And I will do it immediately. Amen.