The waves that beat against our boat
I don’t often name my sermons, but in my mind the title for this one has always been “The waves that beat against our boat,” even though the sermon itself begins in a landlocked pasture near Schechem, with Jacob’s sons.
The older sons resented Joseph because their father held a special love for this child of his old age. They were jealous; Scripture tells us they hated their little brother, hated him enough to kill him, until Reuben talked them out of it, so instead they sold Joseph to traders for 20 pieces of silver.
We, too, are living in a time when lives are sold. In the early months of the pandemic I saw a drawing of an old woman – probably about my age – holding a sign that said “Grandparents against dying for the economy,” after the suggestion was floated that “every older American should get back to work” and accept the consequences. Sell off the senior citizens for 20 pieces of silver. Then there are the children. Only a small percent will die from COVID, we are told, if schools fully reopen for in-person instruction. One father in a populous city wrote, “look at the statistics – in our city, that means 312 children might die.” Maine is fortunate to have so few cases so far, to have the potential for a safe, if complicated, reopening, but many, many places do not, and many others are choosing not to. Yet those at the highest level of our federal government demand full reopening, quite happy to sell our children for the sake of the economy, for those 20 pieces of silver. And what of our Black sisters and brothers who are being sold back into slavery with every door closed to them in education, voting rights, housing, and hope, with every killing, every “I can’t breathe”?
This is the turbulent world we live in – these are some of the waves that beat against our boat. No wonder I often feel like the disciples, out to sea in dark and stormy weather.
So now I want to go back and put today’s gospel story in context so we know why Jesus isn’t with the disciples in the boat to begin with. The whole reason for Jesus’ need for time alone goes back to the death of John the Baptist. John had initially been arrested for speaking truth to power, for naming Herod’s sexual immorality, but John was ultimately killed as the price for a dance by Herod’s stepdaughter, and so Herod wouldn’t lose face in front of his guests. Sex and violence and politics and wanting to be liked. Familiar stuff…. So we heard last week that when Jesus first got word of John’s death, he withdrew by himself, but the crowds found him, and of course he had compassion on them. That was last week’s gospel. He healed the people, and he fed them.
In today’s gospel we’re told that immediately after feeding the crowd, he made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him so he could finally have the solitude he needed to process his grief, to restore his soul, to pray.
Just to be clear, this isn’t the story of the boat almost sinking while Jesus slept on a cushion at the back of the boat. Yes, the disciples are far from land and waves are battering the boat, but the Sea of Galilee is famous for its sudden squalls and storms, and this storm doesn’t seem to be quite so ferocious as that other one. Scripture gives no indication that the disciples are scared of the weather. The waves are surely slowing progress, disrupting their journey, and those that aren’t fishermen might well find themselves seasick, but the disciples only become terrified when Jesus shows up and they think he’s a ghost.
And this is when we get that whole famous interchange with Peter. Jesus doesn’t start by telling Peter to get out of the boat. Peter is testing Jesus here. “You sure you aren’t a ghost? If you really are Jesus, go ahead and command me to come to you.” Jesus simply responds, “Come,” as if to say, “Well, that’s a silly request, but if it’s what you need right now, come ahead.” So Peter steps over the side of the boat. He manages fine at first, but then, like a little kid learning to ride a bike, he gets scared; he doesn’t have enough faith in himself to keep going, so he falls over. Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ isn’t about faith in Jesus; it’s about Peter not having enough faith in himself.
Frankly, most of us don’t. Think of God’s reluctant prophets: Jonah who ran away, Moses who insisted he couldn’t speak in public, Jeremiah who said he was too young. Or think of Jesus’ own disciples. He often addresses his followers as “O you of little faith” – while encouraging them to know that even that little bit is probably enough. Remember the mustard seed. Jesus calls us as we are — ordinary, doubting, fearful people – not to walk on water, but to more serious tasks. He invites us to stay with him in the boat, battered by waves though it might be, as we head with him to Genesseret, his next port of call, for another healing ministry. Or, more realistically for our time, to the next protest, or to the soup kitchen, or to the computer to write letters, or to the phone to check on a friend, or to knit another hat, or to the polls or the mailbox to vote in November.
Jesus felt confident in sending the disciples on ahead; and he feels confident sending us—even in these turbulent times—because he knows us, he trusts us, and he loves us. Remember how in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God says: “I have called you by name; you are mine…. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
The waves will continue to beat against our boat, of course they will, but we are in it together, and Jesus is there with us, and together we can brave the storm. Our task is to bring that boat safely to shore, and then get out and do the work Jesus calls us to do: the work of justice, and healing, and hope.