Walking on Water in the Dark
First Presbyterian Church
October 19, 2014
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat 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. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
I was one of the lucky ones at least where natural darkness was concerned. My parents did not protect me from my fear of it, but walked me into it on a regular basis, letting go of my hand for longer and longer periods of time until I grew a little bud of courage. Then they practiced letting me go alone, one of them calling out, “Have fun!” while the other called, “Be careful!” With those two good pieces of advice they helped frame a personal history of darkness that allowed me to go places I might otherwise not have gone.
--Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 38.
A couple of years ago, historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan wrote a book about parables. It is called The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. We know Jesus told parables and if asked on the spot any of us could name several and could provide a telling of a few of them.
One of the more famous of Jesus’ parables is The Prodigal Son. We all know that story. The younger son leaves home with his share of the inheritance. Goes broke. Comes home. Is welcomed by the Father, not so much by his older brother. Father throws a party. Brother refuses to enter. Father pleads with older brother to see the larger picture.
There is nothing particularly implausible about the story. There are no miracles as such. No one rose from the dead. No one was cured of a disease. No one walked on water. The story of the man and his two sons could have happened.
Yet no one is concerned whether or not that story happened. Even though that story might have happened, no one cares. It is a story. There is no belief involved. No one is asked to believe that story. We instead spend our time, and rightly so, discussing possible meanings of that parable. I have seen and heard many creative interpretations and presentations of that story. All provide a way to enter into it so that we can gain inspiration from it. We can talk about forgiveness. We can talk about sibling rivalry. We talk about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons. We can talk about social issues regarding economics and inheritance and patriarchy. The parable invites creative engagement. We have succeeded in being creative with this parable and with others that Jesus told.
All too often that wonderful creativity is left hiding in the dark when it comes to parables about Jesus. The focus question becomes whether or not people believe the story happened.
- Do you believe Jesus turned water into wine?
- Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?
- Do you believe Jesus healed a man born blind?
- Do you believe Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish?
- Do you believe Jesus walked on water?
- Do you believe Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day?
If you were counting I asked “Do you believe” six times, recalling the Red Queen who has this great conversation with Alice in Lewis Caroll’s, Through the Looking Glass:
"I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Lewis Carroll was poking fun at the church and the odd decision the church has made over the centuries to insist that parables about Jesus are articles of belief. The parables about Jesus are far more fanciful and incredible and unlikely than the parables that he himself told. Yet the church has insisted that people believe these impossible things and it further insists that if we believe these things without doubting that our credulity is a virtue.
It is no wonder that many thoughtful people, such as Alice, have said:
“There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.”
“There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.”
The answer to all those “Do you believe” questions is for a growing number of us, “No.” It is no wonder that we prefer the parables by Jesus to the parables about Jesus. The parables by Jesus don’t have the belief problem.
- Do you believe that a woman put leaven in three pounds of flour?
- Do you believe that the shepherd left the 99 sheep to find the one that was lost?
- Do you believe the owner paid the late hour workers the same as the workers who labored all day?
- Do you believe the Samaritan helped the man in the ditch?
- Do you believe that a farmer sowed seed and some fell on rocky soil, some on thorny soul, some on hard ground and some on good earth?
- Do you believe it? Do you have faith?
The answer to all those questions is “Huh? Who cares? You’re missing the point. They are stories.”
Yet when it comes to parables about Jesus, we have flattened them. They become yes or no stories. We believe them or we pretend we do. Or we try to take a deep breath and practice believing the impossible because everyone else does or so we think. Or we have given up on the whole thing.
And to push the envelope a bit further, we do the same with God. The question asked all too often is flat: Do you believe in God or not?
Some of us object to that either/or. Are there other options? Could we at least discuss a definition of the term, God? Could we talk about how the concept and symbol of God has evolved over the centuries? Could we talk about the various stories in which God is a character and what those stories tell us about ourselves? Could we talk about life and its pain, joy, and depth? Is there any creativity in this God-talk or is it just yes or no? Believe or leave the club?
I think that if Christianity is going to be a part of the lives of thoughtful people we will have to allow for interpretation of its literature beyond belief. New Zealand Presbyterian minister and theologian, Lloyd Geering, in his latest book has written that we are now theological do-it-your-selfers. The church’s beliefs can no longer be enforced. They are not even persuasive. It is up to us to creatively engage our tradition.
What about parables about Jesus? How might they be more interesting than articles of belief? Let’s try one. Jesus walks on water. It is a parable. If you want to believe it happened, fine. That is not the point anymore than whether or not to believe that a man actually threw a party for his wayward son. Both are parables told to invite creativity.
It is night. It is dark. The disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee in a storm. Apparently, they have not been able to get ashore. They are likely frightened. They are doing what they can to keep the boat on top of the water. They want to keep the boat from capsizing, from filling with water, from sinking. The boat is far from land. It is being battered by the waves.
Are you there? Can you picture it?
Perhaps you have been in a similar situation. Maybe you have been in a boat caught in a storm. Can you recall the feelings: fear, anxiety, panic? What goes through your mind during times like that? Do you think about your loved ones, those you might not see again?
Maybe it wasn’t a boat. Maybe this story invites you to recall another life or death situation. You might not want to recall it. You don’t have to do so. You know you could go there. You could go to a time when you were lost in a boat in a storm in the dark, either literally or figuratively. The external situation can vary, but the internal feelings are real.
The scariest time I know was when we received the call about our son in the summer of 2012. We were in Pittsburgh at the Presbyterian Church General Assembly. It was after 11 when we received the phone call that he had died. We drove all night back home hoping that it was some kind of mistake. Those storms never really end. If you are lucky you find a way to stay afloat in their midst.
You know that. Everyone knows the feeling of being battered by the winds in the dark. The circumstances differ but we all experience our unique storms. While the external events are unique, the internal feelings we share in common as human beings. Actually, it is the dark that binds us. Perhaps that is why there is a holiness about it. The holiness of shared experience. The dark contains a sacredness that invites us to learn to walk in it.
The disciples see a figure coming toward them. Is it a hallucination? But why do they all see it? In the middle of the sea, on top of the water, a figure is walking toward them. What do you do? You resort to supernaturalism. It is a ghost.
The ghost speaks: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” The ghost is not a ghost, but Jesus. The root word for heart in Latin is cor, that is also the root for the word courage. Heart and courage are related. To have a big heart means to be vulnerable enough to take a risk, to act in the midst of fear.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, writes that courage is something we can practice. Actual darkness is a good training camp. Learning to walk in the actual dark can teach children courage. My father liked to keep the farm dark. He didn’t like a lot of lights. They kept him awake. “It is nighttime, it is supposed to be dark,” he would say. I learned to walk in the dark, outside and inside the house.
I kind of like it, still. Walking in the actual dark can give us confidence, it seems. It can teach us to take steps, take some risks, move as we say, out of our comfort zones.
In our story, Peter takes a big step. He not only takes a walk in the dark, but in the midst of a storm on top of the water. That is a lot of courage. Before we get down on Peter and agree with Jesus that Peter has little faith, we might ask what the other disciples were doing. They are sitting in the boat. Peter takes the steps.
Brene Brown, author and professor of social work, titled a recent book, “Daring Greatly.” It is based on a speech she found by Teddy Roosevelt. He delivered it in 1910. It is called “Citizenship in a Republic.”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….
Peter takes his steps toward Jesus. He is going well until he notices the wind. It is like a cartoon. Wile E. Coyote walks off a cliff into mid-air and stands there. Only when he looks down does he fall. When Peter notices the wind, he becomes afraid and then he sinks. He cries out to Jesus and Jesus grabs his hand.
“Why did you doubt?” he chides Peter. No criticism of Peter is warranted. He did it. He took the steps. That is a reason why Peter is called elsewhere in the collections of parables about Jesus, the Rock upon whom the church will be built. This is that rock. The willingness to be vulnerable. The willingness to dare greatly. On that rock is the church.
After Jesus gets in the boat the storm stops. The disciples worship Jesus and say to him, ”You are the Son of God.” OK. Ho hum. I think Peter is the model. He is willing to try, to take the steps, to walk out and be like the Son of God rather than to sit in the boat and worship him. That is the question. Is the walk of faith having beliefs about Jesus, or is it about following Jesus? Is it about believing the stories happened or is it about living them?
Do I believe Jesus walked on water? The answer in the most important sense to me is yes. I have seen this congregation walk out toward Jesus on the water. I came here nine years ago because I thought this congregation was a pretty gutsy group. That first impression has proven right again and again.
This congregation despite what some of the neighbors might think, despite the critics, has taken a stand on behalf of those who have been marginalized and put down by others. At the risk of losing members, it became an oasis for the seekers, for gays and lesbians, and for those who trust that a walk in faith means taking a stand for our mountains, for healthcare, for reproductive justice, for sensible gun control, and for other important matters of social justice.
It has been an honor to walk with you these past nine years. I have grown very attached. I have grown quite comfortable, actually. Almost native. There comes a time when a new task is at hand. There is no particular reason that we are going. It is just time. You have heard what I have had to say these past nine years. You will have the opportunity to hear a new voice. Bev and I will have the opportunity for a new experience as well.
In our Reformed Tradition, there is no decision that is right or wrong. The Risen Christ is there through all walks. In these weeks to come, with tears and with courage, we walk with Christ through all the storms.