Sunday, August 13, 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

We modern people have problems with miracles:
many of us simply do not believe in them,
and those who do believe
feel vaguely guilty about it,
as if we haven’t quite kept up
with the modern age.
They seem to be a relic
of the world before Science,
which we now believe
(with unwavering faith)
can explain everything
through material cause and effect,
and which definitely excludes
the miraculous.
Science (at least as popularly conceived)
offers us a world
that is regular and predictable,
and even those of us who believe in God
like our world regular and predictable.

Take the case of Jesus walking on the water.
We have become quite ingenious
at coming up with explanations
of what really happened.
Some 19th-century historians
suggested that Jesus was actually
walking on rocks just beneath the water’s surface;
more recently, an article that appeared
in The Journal of Paleolimnology claimed,
“A rare set of weather events
may have combined to create a slab of ice
about 4 to 6 inches thick on the lake,
able to support a person’s weight.”
These sorts of explanations,
appealing to things
like conveniently placed rocks
or extremely rare weather events,
may be implausible
(not to mention the fact
that they make Jesus
into something of a fraud),
but as implausible as they are
they still keep us firmly rooted
in a world within our control,
a world from which God is kept
at a safe distance.

But if we look
at our Gospel reading today
we see that this miracle
is no less of a problem
for Jesus’ disciples,
even though they lived
in the world before Science.
Matthew tells us that when they see
Jesus walking toward them across the water,
the disciples reach for what,
in their world,
is the more plausible explanation:
they are seeing a ghost,
not a flesh and blood human being.
Ghosts are odd and disturbing,
but not as odd and disturbing
as the flesh and blood Jesus
striding across the water;
not as odd and disturbing
as a God who joined himself
to the frailty of human nature;
not as odd and disturbing
as the power and presence
of God drawn so near.

It is not Science that makes the disciples
doubt that it is Jesus whom they see;
it is what it might mean for them,
that the flesh and blood Jesus
is lord of the wind and the waves.
They too want a world
that is comfortable and predictable
(even if populated by ghosts).

But let’s face it,
this world of comfort and predictability
that we believe Science can secure for us?
It’s an illusion.
We’re not safe.
Our boat is battered and buffeted
and nearly swamped:
saber-rattling threats
of nuclear war with North Korea,
white supremacist terrorism
in Charlottesville,
twenty-four people killed
in the wake of the election in Kenya,
thirty infants dying in an Indian hospital
because of a billing dispute
with the company that supplied oxygen.
The safety and comfort and predictability
are all an illusion.

But what if the presence of Jesus
dispels the illusion and unhinges the world
in such a way that I can no longer
hold God at a distance,
and I can no longer calculate outcomes,
and I must now think differently
about everything?
What if the drawing near of God in Jesus
means that the world
is not in the iron grip
of cause and effect,
but is ruled by the mystery
of cross and resurrection?
What if it means
that love is stronger than violence,
and that God is found not in fire and fury
but in the tiny whispering sound
heard by the prophet Elijah?
As the band The Violent Femmes put it
in their song “Jesus Walking on the Water,”
“Oh my, oh my, oh my, what if it was true?”

Would I, like Peter, get out of the boat,
out of the illusion of comfort and predictability,
to walk toward Jesus across the watery abyss,
the abyss of everything that I fear:
pain and poverty, dishonor and death?
Could my faith sustain me in such a walk,
or would I, like Peter, begin to sink?
Do I believe that,
even if my own faith should fail,
Jesus will stretch out his hand
and catch me
and hold me
up over that abyss?

At the end of the day,
the problem for us
with Jesus walking on the water
is not that it goes against Science.
The problem for us
with Jesus walking on the water
is that it challenges us to get out of boat,
to abandon our illusion of safety.
The flesh and blood Jesus,
suspended over the abyss,
invites us, people of flesh and blood,
to join him there;
he invites us to trust
that God truly has drawn near;
he invites us to believe
that he will hold us up.
“Oh my, oh my, oh my, what if it was true?”