Stay in the Boat

Rev. Fr. John Scott Trotter
St. Stephen’s, Blytheville; Calvary, Osceola
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 14
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

I remember as a kid learning the story of Joseph’s many colored coat. Well, it turns out to be a long pointy-sleeved coat. Still, it is special, it’s associated with royalty, but mostly because it is an extravagant gift from his father, Jacob, because Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. And Joseph waste no time in gloating about his gift; you might say he is a bit of a prig about it. So much so, his pompous behavior drives his brothers to contemplate murder; which they would have committed, save Ruben’s mitigating advice. As it turns out, they trap him in a pit, and either sell him, or loose him, to passing traders, and Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt.

This is no children’s story. It’s quite a potent tale. It foreshadows Israel’s slavery in Egypt. It reminds us that evil does not always come from “out there”, rather it can actually begin with the people of God, with us, when there is no shalom, when there is no peace. I rather suspect there is a lesson our nation can glean from all this, but what catches my attention is the lessons we can glean about the problems we have: like we don’t have any money, that we have fewer and fewer people attending church, that we have far less influence than we once did. There is a tendency to look out- there, somewhere, for the causes of our troubles. But our troubles don’t start out-there, they start with us.

Shawnthea Monroe wrote that she is grateful to Linda for her hairdressing evangelism. She continues: “The church is full of evangelists; we share with people our experiences with movies, restaurants, cars and resorts. We talk about diets, books, doctors, plumbers, hair stylist, lawn care, and department stores.” It seems we will talk about anything, except God in Jesus Christ, except the Gospel. Even when we know Jesus makes evangelism a priority.

Matthew’s Gospel closes with Jesus’ words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

One of the reasons we are such poor evangelist is because we’ve mistaken evangelism with walking on water. John Orthberg wrote If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. We’ve come to believe to be good evangelist, we’ve got to do as Peter tried to do, and step out in faith. There’s just one tiny problem; we’re likely confusing two Jesus and boat stories. The first we read way back in chapter 8, about the disciples fearing death in the midst of a storm as Jesus lay sleeping in the back of the boat. In this story, there is no storm; the disciples are not afraid of a storm, they are afraid of an approaching figure, afraid of a ghost. This is not a story about fear, this is a story about doubt.

Jesus approaches the boat; he sees the disciples are afraid and says to them: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Peter replies, “If it is you, tell me to come to you.”

Hopefully this scene evokes two bible memories: 1. Jesus’ “It is I” should evoke God telling Moses “I am who I am.”
2. Peter’s question “If it is you …” should evoke Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness (and may evoke the High Priest’s interrogation in the courtyard, and the mockers at Jesus’ crucifixion).

Okay – that’s four bible memories. The point is, Peter is testing Jesus; he wants to know if Jesus is who Jesus says he is. After Jesus rescues Peter, Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The other disciples worship him saying, “Truly you are the son of God.” The next time we hear them say this is after his resurrection.

The moral of the story: Leave walking on the water to Jesus. The ship, which becomes an early symbol of Christianity, of the Church is where we want to be. It provides the way for us to get around. It’s true there are times when the church needs visionaries to get out of the boat, and walk on water. There are more times when life in the boat involves faithfully pulling along, believing that Jesus is near, pressing on because you believe Jesus when you’ve heard him say, “It is I, Don’t be afraid.” There is something to be said for faithful, low-key work in the boat, for simply believing “I am,” for simply believing, “It is I.”

And this brings us back to Monroe’s observation about evangelism, and to Paul. For the last several weeks we have heard Paul arguing to the Romans about God’s faithfulness. To be blunt, he has a problem: Is the reliability of God imperiled by the gospel’s failure to attract the majority of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries? In good midrashic (Jewish bible argument) form, Paul argues from at least four scripture citations that could be used against his position. But in the end, Paul takes God’s work in Christ to be the standard by which he finds meaning in sacred texts. From his example, what God did and does in Jesus Christ is the final determining factor in how we appropriate scripture into our lives.

In our context, what God in Jesus Christ does in your lives determines how you appropriate, how you understand scripture to be meaningful in your lives. Evangelism is simply sharing those stories, sharing those experiences. Evangelism is your answer to Paul’s litany:

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?

And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?

And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?

And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

In summary: A good evangelist acknowledges our father has given us a celebratory coat; we are heirs of Christ’s resurrection. But, we are not to gloat about the coat, because it’s all about the work by God in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, we should stay in the boat, stay in the church; faithfully pulling oars, pressing on in faith because you know God is with us.

Finally, in words unique to you, you’ve heard Jesus say, “It is I, fear not.” Simply share your story—no quippy bible quotes, no complex theology, just simply share your simple story.

And—oops—now finally, invite another to join you, to join us as, in faith, we journey to the other side, knowing that along the way you will see Jesus, and all will be well.

Amen.