Get Back in the Boat

Preached on 13 August 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A

The title of today’s sermon is “Get back in the boat.”  But before I go there, I would like to say a little bit about miracles.

Many rational people who believe in and understand science and the laws of physics believe the miracle stories.  And, many faithful, committed Christians struggle with them.  They can’t quite believe their literal truth at face value.  They may even try to find alternative explanations for how those events could have occurred.  Or, they may dismiss them entirely.  Thomas Jefferson dealt with the miracles by literally cutting them out of his Bible and discarding them.

Miracle stories are not there to test our faith.  Belief in the literal truth of the miracles is not a litmus test.  It doesn’t separate the insiders from the outsiders, the faithful from the faithless, the saved from the condemned.  It doesn’t define the “real Christians.”

Nor are they included in order to “prove” who Jesus is or to demonstrate that he is better than or more powerful than “ordinary” human beings.  Like every single other story in the Bible, whether a made-up story like the parable of the Prodigal Son, or a story about a historical event that can be corroborated by other sources, like the fact that Herod ruled in Palestine at the beginning of the current era, the miracle stories are there to tell us about the nature of God and the nature of humankind.  They tell us how to be in relationship with God and our neighbor.

What does this story have to tell us?  One of the beauties of the Bible as the living word of God, is that the stories can speak to us in new ways every time we come to them; even familiar stories like this one, that we have heard again and again.

I told you at the beginning that the title of this sermon is “Get Back in the Boat.”  Often preachers use it to urge their listeners to get out of the boat, to move beyond their comfort zone.  Like I said, the Bible can have something new to say every time.  So, let’s take a look at the story.  I know it raises some questions in my mind.

When we come into the story, it’s already been a long day.  It started with Jesus hearing that John the Baptist was beheaded and he suggests that they take the boat and get away from the crowds so they can rest and get refreshed.  But word has spread and the crowds are already there, waiting for Jesus when they land their boat.  So, Jesus heals the people they bring to him.  Then, as evening comes, he decides that the disciples should feed the crowd with just a few loaves of bread and some fish.  Finally, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead in the boat while he sends the crowds on their way home.

I wonder why he does that?  The disciples are exhausted and overwhelmed and most likely at least a little fearful; they’ve just heard that John was executed. Why does Jesus send them out on the lake at night, when they’re already utterly spent?  Why not stay there and rest for the night?
And then the storm comes up.  That alone is terrifying.  They probably can’t swim.  Now it’s not just Herod threatening their life, but nature itself.

Rowing as hard as they can against the wind, they’re even more exhausted.  Then, in the wee, small hours of the morning, they see a form coming toward them through the spray and the wind.  What could it be?  “It’s ok, it’s just me,” they hear Jesus’ familiar voice.  “If it’s you, call me to you,” Peter calls out.  (I wonder what that’s about?)  So, Peter gets out of the boat and heads toward the form, but then the fear kicks in again and he finds himself up to his neck.  “Lord, Save me!”  and immediately, Jesus reaches out and grabs him.

Have you ever been there?  Are you there now?  If you’ve been watching the news the last few days, you may be feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and more than a little fearful.  When we hear hateful racism spewing from the mouths of our fellow citizens and see them violently attack, in acts of terrorism, people of courage who stand up to them, disagree with them, and protest their hatred and racism.  When our president fails to clearly condemn them, we may wonder what has happened to us as a nation; as a people.  And all that after a week (well, months) of escalating, alarming rhetoric and events that have many of us feeling overwhelmed. We may cry out in desperation, “Lord, Save us!”

Immediately, Jesus reached out to Peter.  I can imagine him saying, “You’re okay, I’m here.” And then he guides him back to the boat, back to his community.  Only then does the wind calm down; when he’s back in the boat with the other disciples, the storm is stilled.

They continue on their way until they get to Gennesaret.  There is more work to be done.
The crowds come to them and Jesus cures the sick people, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.

We’re not meant to go through the storm alone, trying to walk on water, just by holding Jesus’ hand, so to speak.  We need to get in the boat with our sisters and brothers, our community, and row to our Gennesaret.

To be silent in the face of racist terrorism against our sisters and brothers is to support it.
To be complacent is to be complicit.
It is saying “Amen” to the hatred and violence.

We need to get in the boat, joining our sisters and brothers.  There is a great deal of healing needed in Gennesaret, in Virginia, in Charlottesville, in Washington, in Seattle, in Everett, in Monroe and Lake Stevens and Bothell and Woodinville and Snohomish and maybe even in our own neighborhood, our own hearts.

And remember that Jesus is with us, always, to the end of the age.

Thanks be to God.