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Pentecost 9: rowing in the storm

Lections for Sunday Aug 10, 2014.

Jesus-Walking-on-Water-by-David-Mach-collage-completed-2010-credit-Richard-Riddick@thedpc.com-1

“Jesus Walking on Water” by David Mach collage completed 2010

Not being in control is truly terrifying. I can vividly recall the time the brakes failed in a car I was driving. I was going down hill (toward the ocean, no less) when I realized what was happening. I mashed my foot into the pedal so hard that my butt was off the seat. Still going faster, I yanked on the parking break and could feel that it was having an effect, but the only way I survived was by taking a sharp, tire-squealing turn past a bewildered pedestrian and into a level alleyway. The next day I donated that junker to the Red Cross. I had dreams about being out of control in a car for months after that.

The terror of being in a small boat in big water whipped up by a storm is more rare. Our culture has become as divorced from the ocean as it has from the land. Fishing as a vocation is now dominated by huge steel ships that use methods perfected by industrial science at the cost of a way of life. Fishing is an industry, now, not a trade, and far less dangerous than it used to be. All big diesels and GPS with coast guard choppers ready to rescue any crew in peril.

Nothing could have been further from the truth for the poor disciples working hard against a contrary wind all night while Jesus meditated in apparent tranquility on top of a nearby mountain. They did not go out by choice that night, quite the opposite.

In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus indeed calls to his disciples in the midst of the wild and restless sea, but he is not beckoning them away from the storm. Instead, his voice calls them into the tumult.The text says that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat (14:22). A better translation of this main verb would be “to force” or “to compel.” Jesus did not give the disciples a choice. He compelled them to get into the boat and to leave him alone with the crowds. (Carla Works)

What was more terrifying as they pulled the oars? The sense that the sea would kill them all in an instant or the helplessness they must have felt to their cold, shivering bones?

This relationship between control and fear is particularly poignant in our age. We idolize individual choice. We are told that we are our identity, and that identity is constructed by the moment-to-moment choices that we make (particularly choices that require consumption of some sort), so not having choices is paramount to not having self. Cogito ergo sum has become Elegi ergo sum (I choose, therefore I am). One of the pillars of modern retail is creating the perception of choice, even when the products in question are actually indistinguishable. It is important that consumers feel like they are control of the exchange.

In what sense do we feel like we are in control when we follow Jesus? We say we want to obey him. Does that mean that, like the disciples, we will be forced away from shore, into the chaos? Pulling on an oar in a desperate attempt to keep the boat moving forward, barely under control, lest we go sideways and broach? I can identify with how following the path of Jesus can lead to some frightening and anxious places, when I’ve worried that the slightest misstep would lead to disaster, when there seemed to be no choice but to claw forward day by day in the hope the weather would change.

Where this Gospel story goes sideways  for me is when Jesus shows up. This is even more terrifying to the disciples than the storm! The truth is that for many of us the hard labor in the storm is actually a more comfortable reality than encountering the awesome power of Jesus to master those forces. We prefer to think of Jesus as some kind of regional sales manager. He sent out on a mission and we intend to do that mission and return with the results. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30) makes sense to us. The notion that Jesus would show up right in the middle of our work and blow our minds with his power is problematic because it seems to undermine our efforts. Why would I bother rowing if
I knew Jesus was going to save me in the end?

Put in practical terms, just how hard should I be working? At what point am I being a faithful and dutiful servant doing the Lord’s work and at one point should I “Let go and let God”? It’s a puzzle that eludes me, and this Gospel story has helped much.

Here is the other problem. Suppose that I am able to see Jesus in the storm and experience something of his faith. I see the power Jesus has and feel that I participate in it. Walking in faith, I step over the gunwale and onto the water. For a few precious seconds I have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus… but then I see the waves and my confidence sinks at the same time I do.

Practical example: I go off on a retreat or have an exceptionally good time of prayer or enjoy an inspiring conversation that convinces me of the Holy Spirit’s activity in my work. I come back to work and set to the task joyfully aware that God is working alongside me to bring about his purposes. But, again, this faith is difficult to sustain as soon as a few setbacks roll in.

Jesus response to all this, the disciples, me, our culture’s fetish for control, is a certain heavy sigh. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“I don’t know, Lord.” But at least in my doubt I am able, with the disciples, to affirm, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

About Tay Moss

Priest, blogger, diplomat: Tay Moss helps people navigate God's crazy universe with humor, good food, and an occasional idea. He is leading his congregation (Messiah, Toronto) through major transition as they launch a fresh expression of church. His professional interests include missional church, new media, and the mysterious arts of the priesthood such as manual acts and cassock-wearing. In spirituality: a monastic. In management: a skipper. At home: a cook. A man with too many hobbies, Tay also finds himself sailing, cooking, watching TV, producing videos, brewing, and building canoes. He can be followed on twitter (@taymoss), pinterest (wtaymoss), youtube (taymossninjapriest), and facebook (tay.moss).
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9 Responses to Pentecost 9: rowing in the storm

  1. Great post. Your point about making choices and having a sense of self is very significant (see Charles Taylor—“Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity’).
    I hadn’t noticed how Jesus set them up for this one. Perhaps there is a whole “spirituality of fear” that needs to be explored. When Luke Skywalker was being trained by Yoda in the swamps he says rather naively “I am not afraid” Yoda very perceptively responds “You will be”. Technology and management are all about getting more control. So giving our lives over to the control of an inscrutable (and since the ascension, invisible) Jesus, seems less sensible than assuming we will be able to maintain or regain control by our own endeavours. Then as you note, once in a while something even more frightening than the storm shows up. I suspect that a fear free path to spiritual maturity is an illusion cooked up by our ego.

  2. Dawn Leger

    As I’ve been reading more and more about this passage this week, it seems most commentators have more questions than answers. I think that in itself speaks to the uncertainty of who is in control of our lives these days.

    As Dell said we use technology to get more control in our lives, but increasingly it feels like technology is controlling us…setting trends, pushing us reminders and forcing us to buy and see. I read a suggestion this week that one way for parents not to forget their kids in the back seat is to put their cell phone back there, because you would never leave your car without your cellphone. So…is part of this to acknowledge that we ultimately have no control, but we can choose what/who to trust with our lives?

    Well, that was a tangent.

    And nice Yoda reference, Dell. I think I might experiment with the “being set up” angle, too. Raises interesting questions for our traditional understanding of Joseph as well. Did Yahweh put the jealousy in his brothers’ hearts? Or did Yahweh just inspire Jacob to make Joseph’s robe?

  3. Kyle Norman

    Personally, I am not going down the ‘setting Peter up’ road. I think it’s a hard, and moves dangerously close to determinism in life and faith – as in, God gave me cancer, God ‘inspired’ the bombings . . I just think that road is a bit too messy for me to get into.

    Two things that I am struck by in this reading: Firstly, I don’t think we should miss that Jesus literally says “Take Heart, I AM” Obviously this opens up a whole door of what is going on in this reading as per chronological understanding. It is not a declaration of Jesus presence on rocky waters – but a pronouncement of his Lordship – and his very identification as the one who holds command over all creation and powers. Jesus is the I AM – the Lord God of Hosts.

    The Second thing that strikes me is that the culmination and climax of this story is not in the stilling of the waves but in the worship of the disciples. How often we read this story as one that paints a nice message of “Jesus will calm your storms”. Yet perhaps this event is more about focusing solely on Jesus in order to see him as Lord of heaven and earth, and then bowing down to worship him.

    Hmmm.

    • Dawn Leger

      But Jesus doesn’t still the storm. There has been a progression since he stilled the storm in ch 8. It caused the disciples to wonder who he is. Now, he doesn’t still the storm. Instead, he calls Peter’s bluff and brings him out. And then, when he falls, he grabs him.

      In ch. 8 Jesus removes what they are afraid of-the storm. Now in 14, he keeps them in the storm. I liked Tay’s point that maybe it was less scary before Jesus showed up. Now they can handle the storm. But now that the One who created the deep has shown His face, they are frightened and Peter tries to show that he can handle this one. He doesn’t need Jesus complicating things.

      Which leads nicely into Jesus’s declaration. I AM. You don’t do this on your own, even when you think you do.

      • Kyle Norman

        Did Jesus call Peter’s bluff? I guess I read the text differently. I don’t read a bluff in Peter’s statement. To me a bluff suggests that Peter didn’t think Jesus was real (or the I AM), nor did he expect that Jesus would call him out.

        Yes Peter sometimes speaks before he thinks, but I see this as statement of faith. I read this text as suggesting that Peter believed wholeheartedly that Jesus was “I Am’ and that he would be called out of the boat. I think the ‘If’ is not an ‘if of questioning’ but an ‘if of expectation’ – If Jesus is in the storm then I can expect the realization of divine power in the midst of it

        Maybe the failure is in thinking he knew what that would be? Maybe he thought that once I step out of the boat the storm will go away. Perhaps the failure was focusing too much on the standing against the wind, rather than standing with Jesus. At any rate, the text seems to suggest that the ‘failure’ is in taking his eyes off of Jesus, and focusing more on the storm than on the saviour. Jesus lovingly reaches down and saves us in all situations.

        So maybe this whole thing is about the primacy of looking to Jesus in our own lives – not the ceasing of the storms, or the miracles that may happen, but the I AM who comes to us – and then seeing him, we bow down and worship.

  4. Reading over the comments, I find myself pondering our need for control as an element of the human condition. Even when it comes to what we read into/out of the text. What if the very exercise of study and exegesis was seen through the lens of this text?

  5. Kyle Norman

    Wise words from Jesse Dymond. Not surprising as his picture is of him on a lake!

  6. I’m loving this conversation. You all make really good points. This seems to be one of those stories which inspires a lot of different interpretations. Control, fear, and the acknowledgment of the gravity of Jesus’s “I AM” are all at stake. So is our proper work/disposition in response to each and all of those things.

    As I look toward preaching this Sunday I’m also looking at the connections to the Joseph cycle. Joseph is another messianic figure whose vision of God’s providence causes conflict and division. Dreams can be disturbing. Once my wife was mad at me for an entire morning because of something I had done in a dream she had the night before. She knew this emotion wasn’t rational, but the impact of the dream was powerful. The scene on the sea strikes me as similarly “dreamy.” I’m not saying it didn’t happen–but like the story of the transfiguration is seems to happen somewhat out-of-time. There is a surreal quality to this event and the way Matthew chose to present it. I’m reluctant to collapse the meaning of such a rich experience too quickly. Like Jesse, I think there is some value in not attempting to control the text.

  7. Having just returned from Newfoundland, and having last night with my father, watched the infamous movie about the Andrea Gail entitled, “The Perfect Storm”, it is quite fitting that I comment from a different perspective. It just so happened I took holidays during the same timeframe as the cod fish season, the last 2 weeks of July, wherein all aboard boat were permitted 5 fish. That is to say, if there were 3 people aboard, then the fishing license permitted a total of 15 fish to be caught without penalty. As it turned out, we only caught one codfish, it was about 8lbs. However, in a matter of a couple of hours only, the wind changed directions and thus, the waves became larger. Given we were aboard a fibreglass boat, a light boat easily to be tossed by the waves from side to side, we chose to go in closer to the shoreline. Even at that, the boat was still drifting too far and fast, so we went back to Jackson’s Wharf. It was quite an experience to have the weather change so suddenly and waves strong enough for us to go back to shore. Reflecting on how frightened the disciples are in the boat at their time in midst of a storm, and the vision of Jesus walking on water toward them – equally as frightening an experience – reminded me that even then, during the tumultuous times in their lives, as in ours, Jesus is present with us whether or not we called for him or not. Just as Joseph was granted favour by his father, and sold as a slave by his brothers, and then being sent to Egypt; as dismal as that fate seemed to Joseph, God was still present with him during this entire experience. Joseph essentially passed his human life into God’s hands after being thrown in jail; his mortal identity having been stripped away from him, humiliated, embarrassed, feeling worthless, enough to know Joseph had no control whatsoever over his fate. From this perspective, the stories are parallel to each other, and for me, highlights the fact that as much as we think we’re in control of our lives, we really are not. It is through faith that we learn that Jesus is the one and only propitiation for our sins–or atonement for our sins–so that we are reconciled.

    From a personal perspective, I’ve been in two car accidents and was a victim of a random act of violence wherein I was injured by a drug-induced person carrying a 1×4 piece of wood. I was struck on the side of my head on a weekend afternoon — broad daylight! I had absolutely no control at all over when and how these incidents took place. These personal experiences taught me, just as Jesus taught the disciples, that he is present with us, even during the most tumultuous of events in our lives and in the world. Our job is not to understand everything that is happening in the world. But is our job as a disciple to permit ourselves and make ourselves available to how The Lord will need us for His sake. That experience is frightening because we have no ideation as to what is needed or how we are needed in any given circumstance. However, it is by faith that we are led and it is by faith we know God’s presence in our lives, and that Jesus is with us always, no matter what.

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  • Having just returned from Newfoundland, and having last night with my father, watched the infamous movie about the Andrea Gail entitled, "The Perfect Storm", it is quite fitting that I comment from a different perspective. It just so happened I took holidays during the same timeframe as the cod fish season, the last 2 weeks of July, wherein all aboard boat were permitted 5 fish. That is to say, if there were 3 people aboard, then the fishing license permitted a total of 15 fish to be caught without penalty. As it turned out, we only caught one codfish, it was about 8lbs. However, in a matter of a couple of hours only, the wind changed directions and thus, the waves became larger. Given we were aboard a fibreglass boat, a light boat easily to be tossed by the waves from side to side, we chose to go in closer to the shoreline. Even at that, the boat was still drifting too far and fast, so we went back to Jackson's Wharf. It was quite an experience to have the weather change so suddenly and waves strong enough for us to go back to shore. Reflecting on how frightened the disciples are in the boat at their time in midst of a storm, and the vision of Jesus walking on water toward them - equally as frightening an experience - reminded me that even then, during the tumultuous times in their lives, as in ours, Jesus is present with us whether or not we called for him or not. Just as Joseph was granted favour by his father, and sold as a slave by his brothers, and then being sent to Egypt; as dismal as that fate seemed to Joseph, God was still present with him during this entire experience. Joseph essentially passed his human life into God's hands after being thrown in jail; his mortal identity having been stripped away from him, humiliated, embarrassed, feeling worthless, enough to know Joseph had no control whatsoever over his fate. From this perspective, the stories are parallel to each other, and for me, highlights the fact that as much as we think we're in control of our lives, we really are not. It is through faith that we learn that Jesus is the one and only propitiation for our sins--or atonement for our sins--so that we are reconciled. From a personal perspective, I've been in two car accidents and was a victim of a random act of violence wherein I was injured by a drug-induced person carrying a 1x4 piece of wood. I was struck on the side of my head on a weekend afternoon -- broad daylight! I had absolutely no control at all over when and how these incidents took place. These personal experiences taught me, just as Jesus taught the disciples, that he is present with us, even during the most tumultuous of events in our lives and in the world. Our job is not to understand everything that is happening in the world. But is our job as a disciple to permit ourselves and make ourselves available to how The Lord will need us for His sake. That experience is frightening because we have no ideation as to what is needed or how we are needed in any given circumstance. However, it is by faith that we are led and it is by faith we know God's presence in our lives, and that Jesus is with us always, no matter what.