Sunday, August 10, 2008
The Proper of the Day: The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
On this Sunday, a Feast of Our Lord, the community of St. Thomas's gathered as we always do to expereince God's saving grace in Word and Sacrament. From Genesis we heard how Jospeh's brothers sold him into slavery, and St. Paul reminds us that the Good News just doesn't appear in people's hearts, it must actually be preached. And in today's Gospel, the Good News is not only that Jesus walks on water, we can too. Here's my sermon for today:
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 14A RCL 2008
Gen 37:1-4,12-28; Ps 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar
May these words be in the Name of Him who immediately reaches out and catches us. Amen!
We’ve had some rainy weather the past several days. Last weekend in particular we had some pretty heavy rain squalls in the early evening. They were mostly just inconvenient, but you might ask the members of the worship guilds who were at the vicarage for a thank-you supper just how wet a certain vicar actually got. We came in and out not once but twice, actually. Fortunately, we managed to save all the food. And, like the feeding of the five thousand we heard about in last week’s Gospel, there were plenty of leftovers.
What was particularly cool about those rain squalls though was how they ended. On both Saturday evening and on Sunday, the rain came around 5:30 or 6 or so and was over pretty quickly. The storm fronts moved pretty quickly eastward, and it wasn’t too long before the western sky was clear and you could see the sun setting. And because of the rain and the sun, on both Saturday and Sunday there was an incredible rainbow that you could apparently see for miles around. I saw it on Saturday evening when a hiker pointed it out to me. It was actually a double rainbow, extending horizon to horizon as you faced east from the vicarage porch. We got several great shots of it because Thomas happened to have his camera with him. I sent one of the best versions to the members of the Executive Committee, and you can see it posted on the bulletin board in the lobby after church.
Not only, though, did we get the gift of a rainbow on Saturday, but on Sunday as well. Those of you who were visiting with me at the vicarage got to see it live. And it was a sight to see, too. Once again, horizon to horizon, and thick – you could see the individual colors. At one point it looked like one end of the rainbow was right on the stump of the old tree next to the Chapel. It was amazing to see – I personally have never seen one like it.
I wonder of the disciples in the boat saw a rainbow as they were finally heading for shore. I’d like to think they did. They had just suffered through a pretty intense storm, too, heavy enough that they had been rowing hard against an adverse wind all night, but hadn’t yet gotten to the far side. Right after the feeding of the 5000 – “immediately – is what the Gospel account says - Jesus had ordered them to go to the other side while he dismissed the crowds and stayed behind to pray for a while. So off they went, and early in the morning – the older translations use the phrase “in the fourth watch of the night” – Jesus came to them, walking miraculously on the top of the sea. They thought they were seeing a ghost though, and were very very afraid. Possibly they thought a demon from the sea was appearing and would annihilate them. But Jesus immediately – there’s that word again – calmed them down by assuring them that it’s really himself. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d still be pretty scared if all of that happened to me. But good old impetuous Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” Perhaps he had to shout to make himself heard over the wind. But Jesus yells back, “OK, come on then.” And then miraculously, Peter gets out of the storm-battered skiff and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus! Only after he gets a certain distance does it dawn on him what he’s actually doing. He loses heart, begins to sink, and screams “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately catches hold of him and saves him from drowning, asking him why he doubted. After that, they all get into the boat and the wind stops. And soon after that, I’d like to believe, they see a rainbow, maybe like the rainbow we saw last weekend.
I find myself intrigued by two elements of this passage at this time in the life of our parish. The first is the little story of Peter climbing out of the boat. Now this particular detail is not included in the same story from Mark and a similar one in John. You might know that it’s ancient tradition – from the 3rd century after Christ onward – that the boat in this story is considered a symbol of the church itself, the community of believers who are trying to follow Jesus. And so the boat – the church – is on its way, following Jesus’ command to go out into the sea to get to the other side, when it faces a horrible storm. And the people on the boat pray to Jesus for help, naturally – what other prayer could there be? And he immediately assures them that it is he who is with them even in the middle of the tempest. And then Jesus, who is Lord of both earth as well as heaven, calms the storm and the boat gets ashore safely. In other words, the church, even in moments of crisis, can depend on the saving presence of Jesus among them even when things look really bad, even while in the midst of doing exactly what Jesus wants us to do in the first place.
And then there’s this bit about Peter. Notice one detail that we often skip over. After Jesus invites him to, Peter gets out of the boat and actually walks on the water for a time, just as Jesus does. He too, is doing as Jesus commands. And for a time, it’s a true miracle. Peter is walking on the water. It’s only after his faith stumbles that he falters and begins to sink. And Peter too prays the most natural prayer he could: Lord, save me! And then more Good News: Jesus immediately catches him and saves him from the waters of the sea.
That’s the first point: when Peter did was commanded of him, he was miraculously successful! And the very instant he became fearful, because he was, after all, doing something that no one else had done before, Jesus didn’t hesitate for a millisecond but immediately reached out and caught him. The word “immediately” occurs three times in this one passage. The first is right after the feeding of the five thousand: Jesus immediately made them get into the boat. The second is when the disciples were mistaken about who they were seeing in the boat. Jesus immediately corrected them and assured them that they weren’t seeing a ghost but himself. And this third time, when Jesus immediately grabbed hold of Peter and saved him. Peter might not even have gotten his sandals wet! Jesus never hesitates to save. When he is called upon, he’s right there. And not only that, when the church is mistaken, thinking that Jesus really isn’t there but that it’s something else, Jesus doesn’t wait around to correct the mistake, but assures those poor boaters – and us – that it’s really Jesus who’s with us and not simply a figment of our imaginations.
My friends, our community of St. Thomas’s here in Vernon is vibrant and dynamic and we’re doing God’s will for us, to “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” We’re having a successful hiking season with our hostel, we’re moving ahead with our fall education and program plans, and we’re going to launch a Hospitality Ministry to help newcomers to the area get acclimated to Vernon. So we’re in the boat and on our way, doing what Our Lord has commanded us to do. But as you know, our financial situation needs our sustained attention. In the next twelve months we all need to understand the state of our financial health as a community and make potentially difficult decisions about what to do about it. Now the wind is picking up and we’re starting to have to row harder. It’s becoming more and more difficult to see to the other side. How are we going to get there? What are we going to do? Those are all important questions that we have to ask, as we feel that wind get stronger and the boat that is St. Thomas’s start to rock and get blown off course. Immediately after this Eucharist we will have an information meeting so we can all take the first step of understanding where we are as a parish. We’re going to keep rowing but we need to make sure we’re on the right course, and today’s session is an important part of that.
Remember that in Matthew’s gospel whenever something is repeated it means we should pay close attention to it? I invite you to consider the word “immediately.” Three times in today’s Gospel Jesus immediately takes some action for the good of the disciples. Immediately Jesus got them out of a possible mod situation. Immediately he reassured them that he was indeed with them. Immediately he rescued Peter from falling into the stormy waves. We’re invited to take note. Jesus immediately intervenes. He is dynamic and present. We know he’s present because he promised us he would be, and we make that presence real in the Eucharist we are celebrating right here and now. So although the waves are picking up and the wind is rising and in reality have been for some time, we know our prayers to Jesus are effective. Jesus is with us and will get us through this storm and to the other side. We have to row of course, we just can’t site back, but it will happen.
And you know how I know? I know because of another repetition. Remember that rainbow that occurred last weekend, the one I imagine the disciples also saw? How many times did our rainbow occur? Not once. Twice. Things that are repeated are especially important for us to take note. As I stood on the porch of the Vicarage not once, but twice, and marveled at the incredible gift of the rainbow God gave us last weekend, it came to me that not only is the rainbow a wonderful manifestation of the glory of God in nature. It’s also a promise. The promise of the rainbow that another biblical figure in another storm survived – Noah, of course – is that God will not abandon humanity ever again. It’s the first of the covenants of God for us imperfect and sinful people. The rainbow reminds us of God’s all-encompassing love for us, the love that wants nothing but the best for us. And so as I stood on the porch watching that 180-degree beam of light arch over the Chapel in splendor and majesty, I realized that rainbow is for us. Not once, but twice – listen up, you who are my beloved people of St. Thomas’s, Jesus is saying: I am with you always!
My brothers and sisters, we’re far from shore in our little boat, tossed on a stormy sea. Even though we’re doing what God has asked us to, to be the Body of Christ here in Vernon, we can’t see the shore on the other side. Things could get rough before they get better. When we’re in the middle of the tempest, it’s hard to see the way forward. When the disciples got to the other shore, all safe and sound, it’s not written that they saw a rainbow. But I’ll bet they did. And we too have seen the rainbow, the promise that God is with us right here in our boat. And what’s astounding is that we don’t have to wait out our storm to feel that promise. It’s already been given to us. What a tremendous blessing that we get to know the promise of God’s protection and presence not once but twice – listen up, God say to us – right from the middle of our boat!
In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.