August 13, 2023, Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Ghost on the Water

Let me start by putting today’s reading from Mathew’s gospel in context: Chapter 14 begins with the power and violence of Empire: sex, corruption, narcissism, debauchery and death (and no, I’m not talking about a current political figure, but about King Herod and his beheading of John the Baptist, all because he is so smitten by his step-daughter’s erotic dance that he promises her whatever she wants, which happens to be the prophet’s head on a platter). 

When John’s disciples tell Jesus that John has been killed, it is this loss, this horror, this grief that precipitates the events leading to today’s story. As one commentator says, “It seems to me that the whole of Chapter 14 is played out in the shadow of John’s death.”

Jesus and John had known each other since before they were born. They were cousins, and I like to imagine that as boys they hung out together when their families were in Jerusalem for the High Holy Days. They would have understood each other in ways no one else could, both destined for sacred callings. Jesus had come to John at the Jordan River, and despite John’s reluctance, he had baptized Jesus. Their lives were intertwined. And now John is dead, killed for the price of a dance.

Jesus is grief-stricken. His immediate response to the news is to “withdraw in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”   He needs time alone to process his sorrow. But he doesn’t get it. People figure out where he’s going and race ahead, so when he gets there, he finds not solitude, but a needy crowd, perhaps also disturbed and distressed by news of John’s death, perhaps even including some of John’s former followers. And, being who he is, Jesus doesn’t get mad at them for interrupting his solitude, nor does he incite them to anger against Herod for his meaningless, egregious execution of John, but instead Jesus recognizes them as “sheep without a shepherd,” has compassion on them, heals them, and then gets the disciples to help feed all 5,000 of them.

And that’s the background for today’s reading: it’s just after the miraculous feeding that “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat [presumably the boat he had come over in] and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”

Finally! Finally, Jesus has the time alone that he’s been craving. Here on the mountain he can grieve for John, remember him, share the depth of his loss with God, the One he calls Abba, Papa. In this time of stillness and solitude, Jesus also has time to consider his own precarious position in relation to Empire. John’s execution is a stark reminder of his own vulnerability. No wonder he doesn’t sleep that night.

But as dawn approaches, Jesus comes back down the mountain to rejoin his friends. In the telling of this miracle in Matthew’s gospel, there’s no indication that the disciples are frightened of the storm that’s battering against the boat – the Sea of Galilee is famous for the squalls that blow in, and some of the disciples are fishermen who are familiar with the weather. No. It’s seeing a figure walking towards them on the water that terrifies them.

Jesus’ miracles don’t usually frighten the disciples. They’re familiar with his miraculous healings of the sick and disabled, and they’ve just helped him feed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, so they know Jesus has capacities beyond their understanding. Those miracles they seem to take in stride. This is different. To begin with, they’re tired; like Jesus, they’ve been up all night, not only battling the storm but probably wrestling with their own fears after John’s death, and what it means for Jesus, and for them.

And then — there he is: “early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.” Despite its miraculous nature, I find this a deeply moving, very human image of Jesus. He’s spent the night alone in prayer on the mountain, and now he longs for the companionship of his friends to help process his grief; it’s as though walking on the water is simply the fastest way to get there. I don’t think he meant to scare them.

But he does. When they see him, they see something strange, alien, ghostlike coming through the storm. As soon as Jesus realizes their terror, he reassures them: “Hey—it’s just me. Don’t be scared.”

But of course they are. And of course we are, too, when something comes at us that is beyond our understanding, whether a person or a situation, especially when life already feels chaotic. I suspect we all have our own “ghost on the water” experiences. An opinion piece in the New York Times reminded me of one of my own. The article dealt with the aging population of long-term prisoners, and I thought of a woman who showed up in one of my “Grace and Grief” workshops for incarcerated mothers. Most of those who took part in this workshop over the years were young mothers who were in prison on drug-related charges. Many were clean and sober for the first time in years, and they had come to realize just how deeply they missed their children. But in one of my workshops, an older woman showed up. I’d seen her around. I knew she was in prison for life because she had killed her husband. She was my ghost on the water, an alien figure in an already chaotic setting. I wasn’t frightened of her in terms of my safety, but I thought she couldn’t possibly belong in my workshop and I was scared of how to manage with her in it. Turns out that her grown children had understandably rejected her for killing their father, and cut off all contact. She’d had no visitors in all her years there, no letters. She ached with loneliness for her children. But she had managed to build a life for herself in the prison, and over the years had become a mentor to newly incarcerated women, helping them settle in. She was gentle and compassionate with the young mothers in the workshop. And she was in the process of advocating to get hospice volunteers to be allowed to assist those who, like her, were in prison for life and were going to die alone.

Who knew that the ghost on the water was Jesus?

Who knew that a convicted murderer could become a mentor?

Jesus comes to us disguised in many ways, and our call is not to turn away, but to step into the water towards him, even if it scares us, even if we don’t quite make it, knowing that he holds us tightly by the hand, and will not let us go.

And by the way, King Herod actually came to believe Jesus was a ghost – the ghost of John the Baptist come back to haunt him.