Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I feel like a fish out of water
We were dead in the water
He’s in deep water
To be in hot water
To muddy the water
It won't hold water
To have just one oar in the water
To pour cold water on
Just treading water
To spend money like water
Keep your head above water
Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water
You can lead a horse to water
I can't walk on water

Those of you who speak English as a second language can no doubt testify to the difficulty of learning idioms that belong to this language. ‘To pour cold water on something’—meaning to discourage an idea—demonstrates how a common phrase or set of words can convey meaning completely unrelated to what the words literally say.

And if you doubt what I say, or you think this won’t hold water, I give you manger des pissenlits par la racine. Literally 'to eat the dandelions by the root,’ it is the French way of saying ‘kicked the bucket.’ Isn’t language fun? Interesting, the French idiom gives us an image (or, a weird image) that still seems to give us a visual of what we’re talking about. Why the Danish say “to take off the clogs” and the Dutch say “to give the pipe to Maarten remains a bit of a mystery.

Notice also the way our idioms related to water seem to fall into groups. Many of my examples relate to trouble, and some relate directly to swimming. Remembering that learning to swim was very rare in the past, treading water or keeping your head above water make perfect sense for times of trouble or to describe barely hanging on. Some relate to an abundance of water or the vastness of water (deep water) and at least one is just a Bible reference.

But notice how ‘walking on water’ has entered common parlance to mean ‘asking the impossible’ or attempting the impossible. And the reverse is true too. When it is said that someone can ‘walk on water’ it means they can do something extraordinary, something that others simply cannot do.

Well, that pretty much sums up the lesson for today. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus needs a time away, and the twelve drop him off on the opposite shore. Some time later Jesus decides to rejoin his crew, and walks on the water to them. They freak (as the kids might say), thinking he might be a ghost. “Relax,” he says, “it’s me—don’t be afraid.” And in a strange version of the Doubting Thomas story, Peter says “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you.” He begins well enough, but soon he notices the wind and the waves and begins to sink. He utters a short and perfect prayer (“Lord, save me!”) and Jesus gives him a hand along with a slight rebuke. The others say “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I say a strange version of the Doubting Thomas story because both stories involve demanding something tangible from Jesus—a Jesus that is in the midst of an extraordinary moment. And it is the extraordinary moment that bears examination, the extraordinary moment that can perhaps best be described as ‘liminal.’

Liminal literally means ‘threshold,’ the in-between places and times that speak to transition. In both of these stories Jesus is both with them and not with them. He is on the water with them but he is not in the boat. He is in the room with them but was actually dead just a few short days ago. And for Peter and Thomas to ask for proof, or confirmation, or a demonstration, also speaks to the ambiguity of liminal times and places.

Strange too that water appears when we enter a liminal space. God separated the waters and the dry land, creating the first coastline, the first threshold between shore and sea. God parted the Red Sea to create a liminal and very temporary space for the Israelites to pass. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, not on land and not in the sea, but in that transition between reluctance and the call of God.

I would argue that we seek the sea in these warm summer months precisely because it speaks to us on some deeper and more profound level—the shore being the liminal place between our home on land and the primordial place from which we came. I made the same point just last week by the campfire: explaining to my ever-patient family that the comfort we find by the fire comes from a million years of just sitting and staring, making the occasion grunt and maybe roasting a marshmallow.

But liminal spaces are generally more about discomfort than comfort. Transitions can be tense—or painful—and often require that we surrender one thing in favour of another. For Peter and the others, it seems to be the realization that this is no ordinary rabbi. Instead, they have come to see that this man has a rather unique relationship with nature is none other than the Son of God, or simply God, since the Son of God can be no other.

And the inverse of this lesson—this realization—is that they are not God. Peter gave it a good try—he may have even demonstrated some God-like certainty for a moment—but the sinking and the crying out confirmed that he is just a man. Jesus may ask ‘why did you doubt?’ but we know the question is rhetorical. We know and he knows that Peter is just a man.

So if ‘walking on water’ is doing the impossible, why do we insist—time and time again—that we can walk on water? Why do we try to change people when we know in our heart of hearts that they must want to change? Why do we try to forgive every sin and slight when we already know that forgiving everything is something only God can do? Why do we try to be all things to all people all the time when we know that our limitations are real—and accepted by everyone but ourselves?

And why do we think we can solve the world’s problems? Almost every problem I can list is bigger than you and me, bigger and more complex that we can comprehend, yet we are surrounded by voices that say only you can make a difference. I’m not arguing for inactivity, and I’ll still carry a pop can around the entire day before I put it in the trash, but I won’t carry the entire weight of the world around with me, because that job belongs to God.

When Peter says “Lord, save me” he gives us the most pure form of prayer there is, the most heartfelt, and the most candid too. “Lord, save me” says ‘I cannot save myself’, and that ‘solving most problems is beyond me,’ and that the act of saving belongs to God alone.

The most difficult liminal space is the space between what belongs to me and what belongs to God: what humans can solve and what only God can solve. Take, as an example, the war in Gaza. This conflict has been active for 66 years now, reaching the point where the parties involved can no longer agree why they are fighting. Yet the conflict continues.

Meanwhile, each side is also waging a war for public opinion, saying ‘accept our perspective, join us in hating the other side.’ They attempt to reduce the conflict to the simplest terms possible, terms that, of course, support their side. They portray their enemies as monsters, even as they say that they only want peace. Information is met with disinformation, tweets are read as news, and everyone with an opinion can find something to bolster their narrow view.

The truth is only God can transform the human heart, only God can take a person to the place where they say “enough” or “Lord, save me!” Only God—not the UN, not John Kerry, not even the United Church of Canada—only God can ‘walk on water,’ meaning only God can do the impossible when generations of human effort have failed.

May God find us in that liminal space between our desire and our real limitations, and save us once more. Amen.


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