Last Sunday it was important to acknowledge that Jesus was grieving; grieving the death of John the Baptizer. And the disciples and crowds are grieving and hungry with Jesus. And Jesus has compassion on them and heals and feeds them. And it was important to acknowledge that we are grieving. Grieving the many deaths and losses of this extraordinary time, and that many are hungry. And Jesus has compassion on this grieving, hungry world, and heals and feeds us with God’s Spirit of grace and communion together, to feed others as we are fed.
This Sunday it seems equally important to acknowledge the disciples are afraid. They are in a boat by themselves as Jesus directed them, at night, and the wind and waves are blowing and crashing against them and they are far from shore. The disciples are afraid for their lives on the water. And in a strange but familiar scene, Jesus comes to them walking on the water and they think it’s a ghost and they are terrified.
And like last Sunday, it is right for us to acknowledge, we are afraid. For many different reasons in our time, we are afraid, even terrified. We may hesitate to name those fears, but we know and feel them. We fear this unseen virus that can take hold and multiply the number of infected so quickly and the severity of illness different from person to person, from mild undetectable symptoms to critical illness and death. And we fear the disproportionate impact of this pandemic on the lives of Indigenous, Black, migrant, poor, queer and other oppressed peoples. Fears for the homeless and those struggling with addictions. Fears for those already challenged by metal illness. Fears about the economic impact of this pandemic in lost jobs and income, access to childcare and other services. Fears for children and youth returning to school and are there adequate protection and safety measures in place. Continuing fears for elders and the ill, for healthcare workers and first responders. Fears about post secondary programs and being able to continue or complete a degree. Fears about isolation and loneliness, about when we will have contact with others again.
For these and many other reasons, with Jesus’ disciples on turbulent waters with us, we too are afraid. If not fearing the direct threat to our and others’ lives, we fear the uncertainty. Not that all in our lives and world was certain prior to this pandemic. And the lives of many who are more vulnerable were and are far more uncertain at any time. But now, there’s a greater, deeper uncertainty for what tomorrow and the next day and week and month and year may bring to our lives and world.
We know it as a church community as we prepare to try returning to in-person worship, with reduced numbers, safety protocols following Guidelines for Faith-Based Organizations from the BC Centre for Disease Control, preparing carefully, thoughtfully, but still tentatively, and we hear and appreciate people’s fears. What if someone get’s sick? What if our gathering is connected to or caused an outbreak? Our actions, our decisions, the realities of our lives and world are much more uncertain, less predictable, less reliable for everyone. And it is understandable, that we are, to different degrees, at different times and for different reasons, afraid, even terrified.
Let’s talk for a moment about an uncertain future. Let’s talk about Joseph’s future. Sent by his father Jacob/Israel to check on his brothers tending the flocks, we hear of Israel’s love for his youngest son, and the jealously and rivalry between Joseph and his eleven brothers because of the favouritism of their Father toward Joseph, who is a dreamer, symbolized by his Father’s giving Joseph a special long coat with long sleeves or many colours, (the Hebrew text is unclear) clothing more suitable for dreaming than for herding the flocks. Joseph’s brothers seeing him approach, the depth of their rivalry, jealousy and hatred revealed, tragically plot to kill Joseph when he arrives. But because of the intervening voices of Rueben first and then Judah, Joseph’s life is spared. As we heard, the brothers decide instead to leave Joseph to die in a pit. But then, by chance or is it God’s providence, a caravan of traders from Egypt approaches and they instead decide to sell their young dreamer brother to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.
The storey ends there for us this Sunday, with Joseph taken to Egypt, his future entirely uncertain, fearing for what may come next, fearing for his life.
Jesus comes to the disciples in their fear, walking on the turbulent waters that could take their lives. One person I read this week, wondered what image of Jesus walking on water we have when we hear this. Is Jesus walking above it all, gracefully striding along unaffected by the stormy sea? Or is Jesus waist deep in water, struggling against the wind and waves as the disciples are in their boat, to meet them in their fear, to be with them? What do you see, and does it make a difference to how we see Jesus coming to us and to anyone struggling and afraid?
On first sight of Jesus, the disciples are even more terrified, thinking they’re seeing a ghost. But Jesus words are tender and assuring, “Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid.” Can these words of grace from Jesus, coming to the first disciples and all Jesus’ followers, on any turbulent and terrifying waters, in every uncertainty and fear for our and other’s lives, be a gracious word of faith “that is near you, on your lips and in your heart” as Paul writes, and continues: “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.” Ultimately, eternally, saved and safe in Jesus coming to you, to us, to this world, in any and every threat and fear. “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” And that others, everyone, might know the tender, assuring word and presence of God in every frightening storm and terrifying sea: the people of Lebanon in the turmoil following the devastating explosion and all the trials they face in their broken country; people trapped in refugee camps in this pandemic time and at any time; people in nations where the pandemic is raging; people isolated and alone in their physical and mental trials and fears; people addicted and so at risk in this pandemic time; any and every person suffering and afraid, that they would hear and know this assuring word and presence of God, to calm fears, and terrifying seas, to save all and all this world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” How beautiful are the feet of Jesus walking on the waters of every threat and fear to bring this good and saving news. How beautiful are your feet, and of anyone who brings this good news to a suffering neighbour and world.
And lastly, for a moment, let’s talk about Peter. Unique to Mathew’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And we heard what happens: Jesus says, “Come, and Peter does, but because of the wind is more frightened, and begins to sink, crying out to Jesus to save him. And in a beautiful image, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches Peter. And Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
These words have at times been interpreted to be an invitation, if not criticism, to not fear and doubt, and instead to have faith enough to take risks, to step out of the relatively secure boat and join Jesus on the turbulent seas of ministry as Peter tried to do but failed because of his little faith and doubt. But do the words support this reading? Peter questions, in words very similar to the tempter in the wilderness with Jesus, “Lord, if it is you…; if you are who you say you are… then do as I ask or tell you. Jesus in this instance calls to Peter, “Come,” and Peter does, but is unable to stay above the wind and waves. Is it because of Peter’s little faith and doubt that he sinks? Or instead, is Peter’s questioning if it is Jesus coming to them in their fears and need, as Jesus met the crowds in the wilderness in their grief and hunger and had compassion on them and healed and fed them, as Jesus had met so many others along the way in their need and loved and cared for them, as Jesus comes to all in fear and peril, is it this that Peter fails to trust, and asks Jesus to prove for him, in his little faith and doubt? Jesus catches Peter just the same, fear, and little faith and doubt and all, as we see in Jesus, God comes to and catches each and everyone in our little faith and doubt, our fear and uncertainty, to save us all.
When they get into the boat all is suddenly calm, and they worship Jesus, who truly is the beloved of God. Will they be forever without fear and doubt? No. But can these words of good news be always near to us, on our lips and in our hearts, and our feet beautiful and ready to bring the good news of God’s coming to a fear-filled and uncertain, little faith and doubting world and lives, to save us and everyone and all creation forever? Can Jesus/God’s coming to us walking on the water of our and this world’s uncertainty and fear, leave little doubt and all faith in that? Tell others this good news. And let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.