7 August 2011

Encountering God in Unlikely Places:

A Sermon for Proper 14(19)A



A few weeks ago I was listening to the CBC on a Saturday morning when the interviewer asked her guest, a musician, what she felt the most important part of her musical performance was. I confess my immediate reaction was to think it was kind of a weak question, but the answer really set me back on my heels and made me think -- "telling the story," she said. Because if I were asked what I thought was the most important part of teaching people about the Bible, or even of preaching, I too would answer, "telling the story." The details of the story differ -- the participants, the circumstances of time and place -- but the story Scripture has to tell has many common themes and teachings. One of those common elements is the encounter with God.

Over and over, Scripture offers us the story of a personal encounter with God -- sometimes direct, as when God speaks with Moses on the mountain or Jesus speaks with the woman at the well, sometimes indirect, as when Abraham and Sarah are visited by mysterious travellers at Mamre or Jacob wrestles with an angel to gain a blessing. In this way it bears witness to the on-going relationship that was built and continues to be built between God and God's people through such encounters. We have in the Bible a story that guides us in our encounter with God, both as individuals and as a faith community, in prayer and sacrament.

At first glance, Elijah the prophet doesn't seem to have very much in common with Peter and the rest of the Twelve. Yet in our readings today, both Elijah and the Twelve have an unexpected divine encounter that changes their direction.

Elijah is probably the best-known of the early prophets, the ones who left no written record of their work. His ministry is described in the first book of Kings -- in a stark and violent time in which the very survival of the covenant, the vehicle of Israel's relationship with God, was threatened, Elijah's story is itself full of conflict and violence. Because we have it at a remove, as it were, told in a cycle of stories about the prophet rather than through writings that originate with him or his disciples, it can be hard to separate out the particular Word of God that was given to Elijah in a particular situation from the stories that have been been attracted to him.

The story we have in today's reading shows us Elijah in a desperate situation. Following his challenge to the priests of Baal, in which Elijah demonstrated both the power of YHWH and the powerlessness of Baal, he finds himself not basking in a sense of achievement but facing an angry people who have abandoned their relationship with God and on the run from Queen Jezebel, herself a devotee of Baal. Our story picks up at the point at which Elijah hid himself in a cave on Mt Horeb, known as the mountain of God, another name for Mt Sinai, the place where Moses received the commandments. There God told him to stand outside the cave on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD was going to pass by. So Elijah waited in the cave for the Lord to come -- there he heard a great wind, but the LORD was not in the wind; he heard a powerful earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; he heard a forest fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And then Elijah heard something completely new and completely different. He heard the sound of sheer silence. Only then did he go to stand at the entrance to the cave. God was in the silence and spoke to him out of the silence. In silence Elijah encounters God and also encounters himself.

Out of the silence God asks Elijah for the second time to explain what he is doing and for a second time Elijah tells God that he is fleeing and why. And God sends Elijah away from the mountain and the silence with a mission to annoint both kings and a prophet, to fulfil a stark and violent future, a future in which Elijah will have no part, because that prophet is to be his successor.

We too encounter God in silence -- in the silence of our hearts, when we have through prayer or meditation, or reading of Scripture stilled all the distracting voices that beset us both from outside and inside, we open ourselves to God, sustained and upheld in God's presence by that relationship with God in which we share through baptism. Jesus too sought his father in silence and prayer. We see that in our gospel reading for this morning. After the miraculous feeding of the crowd, in which Jesus offers the people a foreshadowing of the Messianic banquet promised in the Scriptures, he sends everyone else away. We are told he 'dismissed' the crowds -- like pupils at the end of the school day, he sends them off to their homes in the villages from which they had flocked at the news that he was somewhere on their side of the lake. The disciples he sends off by boat to go ahead to the other side of the lake, presumably to make ready for him. But Jesus himself neither goes to the nearby villages nor makes his own way across the lake; instead he goes up the mountain to pray.

Like Elijah, Jesus seeks to be alone by seeking the uplands -- in that region north of the Sea of Galillee, the villages and towns clustered in the fertile valleys of the small streams that fed the lake while the more mountainous areas above the lakes were less settled and populous. So he can be fairly sure of being alone to pray. We don't know much about Jesus's time of prayer with his Father but we know it had an extraordinary sequel.

In the meantime, the disciples had taken the boat in which they and Jesus had crossed over from Capernaum on the northwest side of the lake and started back across. It was late afternoon when the feeding took place and evening by the time Jesus reached his place of prayer. The night brought bad weather on the lake and the disciples, experienced as many of them were in fishing its waters, were held back by choppy water and high winds from reaching land. Early morning found them still far from land. Those are the circumstances in which they saw Jesus walking toward them over the waves.

It sounds pretty fantastic, doesn't it? The disciples knew as well as you or I do that people, ordinary people like you or me, don't walk on water without sinking into it. Yet this fantastic story is, after the story of Jesus's arrest, trial, death, and resurrection, part of the best attested story sequence in the gospels. All the evangelists except Luke know about it, which means that the two great strands of gospel tradition, the synoptics and John, share that knowledge. So we have to take this extremely seriously and not resort to various methods of explaining it away.

So let's take it as a given that the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them over the Sea of Galillee. What did they do? Well, for the most part they did what you or I would do. They panicked. They started screaming that a ghost was coming. In the midst of the confusion, Jesus spoke to them and told them to buck up and not be afraid -- 'it's me!' he said. That doesn't seem to have done much good, people being what they are. But Peter is paying attention and decides to test what he thinks he is seeing and hearing. So he asks Jesus, 'If you are for real, tell me to come to you.' Jesus says 'Come,' and Peter is fine until he starts to think about it -- he notices the high winds and it's all over -- Peter starts to sink, and Jesus takes hold of him and gets them both into the boat. The reaction of the rest of the disciples in the boat is to acknowledge that Jesus must be the Son of God.

Why did Jesus do it? One might be pardoned for thinking the moral of the story is, don't go off alone to pray, because it will cause you to do bizaare things. But I doubt that's it. As for why Jesus did it, I think that's fairly plain. He did it to challenge the disciples. John the Baptist has been killed by Herod and Jesus has reacted by starting a new and very public phase of his ministry. In feeding the five thousand, he has revealed himself to be the Messiah. It is time for Peter and the rest to wake up and smell the coffee, to realise what they are getting into and whose companion they are.

What is the good news for us here now? I think it can be summed up in three words -- test, try, and trust. Peter and the others witness something they think is unbelievable and frightening. When Jesus tells them not to worry, Peter doesn't just do it. He tests the evidence of his senses, tests to be sure it is really Jesus he is seeing and hearing. God doesn't expect us or want us to be unthinkingly obedient or accepting -- God wants us to test our experiences and gives us two standards, our reason and the Scriptures, to use. When Jesus responds to Peter's test, Peter makes the trial. He steps out of the boat. That takes commitment and courage. Peter knew how dangerous that lake could be in a high wind but he tries. And finally we must hold on to our trust. Peter is able both to test the evidence of his senses and to make that trial of faith because he trusts in God and trusts in Jesus. That trust has been built up by encounters with God in the Scriptures and in prayer, by his relationship with Jesus as his leader, his teacher, and his friend. As long as he acts in trust, Peter can do what Jesus can -- he can walk on the waves. In John's Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that the one that believes in him will do the deeds that he does and even greater ones, but in this story we actually see Peter doing the deeds that Jesus does and and how he does so. But when he falters in trust, he falls into the water. Fortunately Jesus is there to grab hold of him, as he is there to grab hold of us as well. But Peter will not always falter -- he has a long road to travel, and another and more serious failure to face, but in the end, upheld by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter will do God's will in trust and welcome the Gentiles into fellowship and relationship through baptism. The promise of greater deeds in the future that Peter fulfils is not just to the disciples but to us as well if we tell this story and learn its lessons.