Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 13, 2017
“To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster”
Matthew 14: 13-21 – The Message (alt.)
As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he dismissed the people. When the crowd dispersed, he climbed the mountain so he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night.
24-26 Meanwhile, the boat was far out to sea when a fierce wind came up against them and they were battered by the waves. At about four o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them walking on the water. They were scared out of their wits. “A ghost!” they said, crying out in terror.
27 But Jesus was quick to comfort them. “Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.”
29-30 He said, “Come.” And jumping out of the boat, Peter walked on the water to Jesus. But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink. He cried, “Master, save me!”
31 Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand. Then he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
32-33 The two of them climbed into the boat, and the wind died down. The disciples in the boat, having watched the whole thing, worshiped Jesus, saying, “This is it! You are God’s Son for sure!”
I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up. The Jetsons, Flintstones… But it was really all about the Bugs Bunny characters for me. Remember them? Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Tweety and Sylvester… And of course, today’s gospel story reminds me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. When you think of Peter attempting to walk on water, you too naturally think of the Coyote, don’t you? Every time he chased the Roadrunner over a cliff, he would be half way across when he looked down and realized there was nothing below his feet. But it wasn’t until he stopped to look down that he sank like a rock. Every time. Meep. Meep.
Or I imagine Peter is like a child just starting to walk. You can see the look of joy on their faces as they take their first steps toward someone encouraging them – come on! You can do it! But then they look around and realize nothing is holding them up and collapse in a heap. Is that fear? Is that doubt? I can’t do this! A lack of faith?
Amy Hunter said this text leads to a lot of bad theology. One of her classmates became a Christian during college. She told everyone she met, “Now, when I step out of an airplane, I know God will catch me.” Amy’s response to her was “God has better things to do than catch people stupid enough to step out of an airplane.” Such bad theology will cause people to take stupid risks, she said, but worse, it will lead people to believe that when something bad happens, and bad things do in fact happen even to good people, the fault lies with our lack of faith. If only I believed harder. Or blaming God. God wasn’t there for me.
So, to explore the meaning of these stories, I always start by looking at the characters involved – imagining with whom we might identify. Oftentimes one option is that we are part of the crowd watching things unfold. Perhaps one of the Pharisees or a soldier, steaming under our collar at something Jesus is saying, or we are among the poor who listen to Jesus’ message of an upside-down world and gather up hopes for liberation. But there’s no crowd in this scene. We’ve left the crowd behind.
If you remember last week’s story, Jesus heard the news of how his cousin John’s severed head had been served up on a platter at a birthday party because Herod promised his step daughter she could have anything she wanted. That news reached Jesus who immediately looked for a way to go off and be by himself for a while. However, while he was looking for a boat, someone saw him and soon a crowd of thousands came surging toward him. He was overcome with compassion and set aside his need to be alone. Late in the afternoon, the disciples of Jesus told him to dismiss the crowd so they could go get something to eat. He replied, “You feed them.” And with nothing more than 5 loaves and 2 fish, 5,000 men, not to mention women and children too, ate until they were full, after which 12 basketfuls of left overs were gathered up.
You heard how today’s passage began, “As soon as the meal was finished…” To me that sounds like, “After the dishes were washed and everyone had gathered in the living room to watch TV…” You know, lounging at the end of the day. But no, today’s passage comes at the conclusion of Jesus trying to get away but sidetracked instead by his compassion for the thousands who sought him out. Then, it was only after that meal was finished, that exhausting delay, that Jesus sent his disciples off so he could finally be alone.
Meanwhile, those disciples, must have been chatting nonstop. “Can you believe what just happened? Can you believe how many people were fed? Can you believe how many baskets were left over?” Chatter, chatter, chatter – finally noticing, “Hey, the wind is getting a little stronger.” Until the force of the winds was full on. Some of these guys were fishermen, yet even for the hard core, hour after hour, by 4 in the morning, they were all worn down and on edge; so, no wonder they all cried out in terror at the sight of Jesus.
So, out in the middle of the sea, there was no crowd watching this scene unfold. Therefore, if we’re looking for someone with whom to identify, all there is left is Peter or a generic disciple. Our options are limited to 1) when we act as impetuous as Peter, or 2) we’re as incredulous (what are you doing!), or 3) as cautious (you wouldn’t catch me doing that!), or 4) if you’re like me, preoccupied with my head hanging over the side of the boat and you can just tell me about it later.
Well, speaking of impetuous, the thing that gets me every time is how Peter was only scared once he saw himself doing it. Literally the scripture version of Wile E. Coyote. Or an infant learning to walk spooked only by her ability to walk. Why? Why does that happen? Why do we doubt what we’re already doing? What makes us afraid of success?
It occurred to me that this might be an example of self-sabotage. So naturally, I turned to the ultimate spiritual guru for advice on this matter – Oprah. And I found a treasure trove of O Magazine articles from which I could now share with you this newly acquired wisdom. But funny enough, along the way, one of those biblical commentary-type articles I’m supposed to read instead of Oprah reminded me that the gospels, and in particular, our preaching, is not about offering good advice but rather the good news. So, sufficiently chastised, I printed off the self-sabotage articles for later.
If our text today is more about good news than good advice, then perhaps trying to find ourselves in one of the characters might not be as important as considering the only other character left in the story – Jesus. And if so, then what is this story about?
But first, frankly, we have to say, the story of Jesus walking on water is kind of absurd. And it’s led to some rather absurd attempts at explanation. For example, all that fiercesome wind had simply pushed the water to one side, therefore, he could just walk out on sand. Or that it was a really shallow lake. Or that it had been a really cold night so a layer of ice had formed. That was National Geographic!
I sympathize with such attempts. And all the attempts made to explain other miracle stories, such as, that the blind man hadn’t really been that blind or the lepers skin wasn’t really that bad or that Lazarus had only been in a coma and wasn’t really dead. But the gospel writers believed all those things to be true – bread multiplying, water walking, and everything in between. What’s the point of trying to explain away their worldview?
Yet where does that leave us? How do rational people in the 21st century deal with stories like these? How do people who believe in and value science handle this? Especially at this, as Al Gore calls it, very inconvenient moment in history. It is more important than ever to lift up climate science; not that we will be saved by a miracle. Alaskan villages are sliding off the tundra into the sea. And Jesus hasn’t been there to hold them back. Is our plan for global warming to learn to walk on water?
And due to a lethal combination of political instability and global warming, this morning, a mounting famine in Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Somalia is threatening the lives of more than 20 million people. And even more alarming is that an estimated 1.4 million severely malnourished children will likely die in the next few months if bolder action is not taken. Not a single word on the news while we watch two of the most unstable people in the world dare each other into nuclear war. Please, Jesus take the wheel!
I may have veered off track a little bit…! But that’s not surprising because as I followed the news this week I kept thinking, what does Jesus walking on water have to do with anything happening in Guam or Seoul or other places of violence, fear and famine? It all seems a little self-indulgent. And leads to some rather trite platitudes such as “Without faith in Jesus, you will sink.” Or, “With faith in Jesus, even you can walk on water.”
But my insistence on what walking on water means in the context of world events today has to be considered in the larger scheme of things. John Dominic Crossan said, when you ask the meaning of a parable or a story, you must consider three things. “What is its meaning – for then, for now, for always.”
So, what did this story mean then? What did the original audience make of this story? Three things seem pertinent. First, their ears would no doubt have been triggered by memories of hearing Psalm 107:
“The stormy wind lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths.
The courage of those in the boat melted away in their calamity;
They reeled and staggered like drunkards,
And were at their wits end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
And God brought them out of their distress;
God made the storm be still,
And the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
And God brought them to their desired haven.” (verses 25-27)
As part of the wisdom writings like Job and Jonah, the seas were mysterious and threatening forces opposed to God. But God had mastery over the sea. As part of the liberation story of the Exodus, God parted the waters for the Hebrews to escape slavery in Egypt. The claim that Jesus could calm the seas meant that he had the power of God.
Secondly, when Jesus came to the disciples on the frightening, churning sea, he told them, “take courage, It is I.” But, actually, scholars point out the original Greek is closer to “Take courage. I AM.” As we know, God is the great I AM.
And, third, remember, as the passage began, while the disciples got on a boat, Jesus climbed a mountain. Where did one go in the Hebrew Scriptures to be with God?
Water-walking Jesus was a theophany – an appearance of God. Like God in a burning bush, God appears in Jesus. Like God is the master of the sea, Jesus can calm it. Which is why the passage ends with the disciples exclaiming “You are the Son of God!” That is the “then, now, and always” meaning.
Whether bread multiplying or water walking, whatever miracles or healings and all the rest, all of this is a narrative that concludes: Jesus is the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Master, Savior and Lord. Which all happen to be things that the great Caesar Augustus claimed about himself. And when his followers called Jesus the Son of God, it drove Caesar crazy. This may be the character in the story I had never considered before…
An inscription was found in which Caesar Augustus said of himself in the third person: ”The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…” 
Sound familiar? In other words, only I can save you. “I alone can fix it.”
Caesar sought to create order and control by means of threat and violence. He welcomed it. He used fear, intimidation, bluster and bloviation. But, we have a choice. To seek peace through that kind of violence and imposition of the dog whistle known as “law and order” or keep insisting on the pursuit of peace through justice and reconciliation.
What I offer today is not some good advice. The Good News, however, is that in the “then, now and always” scheme of things, Caesars fall. And so: To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster, I say, “We know what you are doing.”
And we’re going to keep resisting. We are going to keep the narrative on justice and compassion. We’re going to do it across partisan lines to stand with any people who choose to follow the Son of God, the One who loved the hungry, the sick, the incarcerated, the stranger, the refugee and immigrant in our land. And we’re going to keep calling out your insane fascination with white supremacy; your concern and compassion for not hurting the feelings of the KKK.
We’re going to stand alongside Cory Gardner and tell the truth: “Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
The resistance of Christians, for whom Jesus is the Son of God, not Caesar, is driving him crazy. And it is working. Right now, in the middle of this week’s double down crazy, we may be feeling doubtful and unnerved. That continues to be the point. But, we’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep Showing Up for Racial Justice, this afternoon and every day after, because Black Lives Matter. We’re going to keep standing outside ICE detention centers and rush to the airport when necessary, make phone calls and attend town halls.
To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster, I say, that’s not a threat. That’s good news for the world.
We’re going to need some water walking skills. When Peter started to sink it was because he doubted what he was actually already doing. In response, Jesus said to him, “You of little faith.” We could read that in an angry tone, “You of little faith,” or a sympathetic one. Because, remember: Jesus talked about the power of faith even the size of a mustard seed. That may be all we have today.
But keep going and don’t stop to look down. “Take courage, I AM. Don’t be afraid.” Which is not so much good advice, it is good news!
 Amy Hunter, “Stepping Out,” The Christian Century, July 26, 2005
 David Lose
 https://sojo.net/articles/how-would-jesus-respond-famine. Contribute through such organizations as The World Food Program http://www1.wfp.org/fighting-famine
 Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Harper Collins, 2001, page 208