Thursday, August 14, 2014

“When Our Attention (to God) Is Strong, We Walk on Water” (Matthew 14:22-33)

 “I don’t know where it comes from,” the young married man confessed to me, “this sense of dread.  But I can tell when it all started.  My wife and I had only been married three days when she said to me, ‘Honey, let’s not cook tonight.  How about you grab a few sandwiches and a six pack from the grocery store.’”

I had to chuckle.  I’ve been married too long not to.

“What did you experience at that moment?” I said to the young man after making the necessary adjustment in my demeanor.  He said, “I experienced fear.  I mean, when I was growing up, we always ate a home cooked meal—oh on occasion we’d all go out, like for birthdays—but on a Monday, to not cook our supper, well, this was out of control.”

Don’t you just love the word CONTROL?  Do you react to it as strongly as I do.  Let’s look it up in Webster’s Dictionary.  Control means, “To exercise direction over; dominate.” 

I once heard a young man say to a good friend, “My plan is to dominate my thirties.”  I thought to myself, “Good luck. Dominating your thirties is like trying to dominate a pair of panty hose—if you’re female—you don’t wear pantyhose, they wear you!”

A woman, I’ll call her Jackie, was diagnosed with a degenerative neck condition and had to undergo surgery and wear a neck brace for quite some time.  “I am so mad,” she confessed to her coffee drinking lady friends one day, “I mean, I’ve done everything in my power to stay thin and strong.  Everyone else at this table is pretty relaxed about their health.  I don’t mean to offend you, but you all are a tad bit on the chubby side.  You don’t walk on a regular basis and you don’t choose the stairs at work.  I do all the right things and I’m sitting here with a neck brace on and you’re not.”

Control.  It is no wonder that the Old Testament Book of Proverbs offers this wisdom, “We plan the way we want to live, but only God makes us able to live it.”  The Yiddish proverb sounds like this, “Man plans, God laughs.” 

How old were you when you discovered that life is hard? 

How old were you when you discovered that life is hard, but God is stronger?

Methodist Pastor Pamela C. Hawkins, in the religious journal WEAVINGS, tells the story about the day her husband received three depleting diagnoses:  progressive, degenerative neurological diseases.  “Life sentences,” she writes with candor, “for Ray, my life partner of 35 years, and I to live out the rest of our love together.” It’s painful for both of them.  He cannot settle himself in his own bed.  She cannot get a full night’s rest—a baby monitor sits beside HER bed enabling to listen to his fitful sleep and the signs that he’s in distress and needs her help—a gift from a friend who observes the signs of strain and sleeplessness in HER eyes. 

 “Marks of the care giving life I have undertaken with the man I love,” she states quite frankly.

How does she manage this part of the marriage journey with Ray?  Hawkins confesses, “Bathtub time with God.”  In the early hours of the day Pam finds peace and space to breathe in her “Self-imposed solitary confinement with God,” she says, “In the small, tiled room in the center of our home.”  Here she finds her voice through honest prayer, like the psalmist:

“O God, my God, our God,

Hear my prayer.

Listen to my worries,

Guide me through my fears

For in you, alone, I find refuge.”

Hawkins concludes, “I recognize God as holy Caregiver—Care is God’s idea, God’s example, God’s creativity.”

What a beautiful image:  God as holy Caregiver.  Do we think this is the image of God Jesus is familiar with in our story from Matthew, the story of Jesus walking on water?

Let’s look at the text.  First, we meet Jesus alone with God.  He’s fed a large crowd of persons both spiritually and physically, and now he’s creating a space for God to renew and inform him.  Last Sunday I introduced the importance of the spiritual discipline called solitude.  Solitude is “the practice of being alone with God, of giving God access to you.”  Jesus is giving God the necessary time, undistracted time, so that God can increase God’s gifts in Jesus.

While Jesus prays, the disciples are struggling through the night in a boat against a stormy sea. 

If you remember your dreams, and recall a storm either at sea or on land, the dream is letting you in on a little secret:  at the moment your life is rough.  Storms are a metaphor for difficulty, and difficulty is scary—difficulty in your own personal way of thinking, difficulty in the family, difficulty at work, difficulty in the nation and difficulty abroad.  Peter has two options at this moment in the presence of this storm—he can stay in the boat and panic with his friends or he can step out of the boat walk towards Jesus on the water, like Jesus invites him to do.

Peter chooses to step out of the boat and walk towards Jesus on the water.  However, let us recognize that Peter isn’t walking because he has received special powers, he’s walking because Jesus invites him to walk and whatever Jesus invites us to Jesus makes possible.  This is the truth of life in the Spirit---where there is God’s in-breaking and invitation there is risky but life-giving, supportive activity.  God said to Abraham, “Leave your home and I will bless you,” and God gave to Abraham what God promised.  God said to Mother Teresa, “Help the poor people who are suffering,” and God provided.  The world is filled with stories of people who have been enlightened in a dream, and in a vision, and in a simple sentence to leave this and go there, to stop this and start that, to wait for God instead of meddle themselves;  they even have received words and lyrics to songs and scientific formulas.

I read a sentence years ago that I keep very close—“(God’s) provision is promised for the price of your trust.”

Isn’t this what faith is all about?  A God who PROVIDES.  Or as Pamela C. Hawkins would say, “A God who CARES.”

“Take a step towards me,” Jesus says to Peter. 

What Christian isn’t familiar with this invitation—the one that the Spirit offers all of us, saying “YOU take a leap of faith towards me”—and not the other way around?  In the same breath, what Christian hasn’t lost their nerve in their surrendering to God—and began to sink, like Peter?

That’s why spiritual disciplines are so important.  By spiritual discipline I mean a daily commitment to be accessible to God.  I don’t know about you, but I discovered a long time ago that a one hour worship service once a week does not carry me deep enough into God’s presence where I hear God and surrender.  Trust is a daily conversation—surrender is minute by minute. 

 A sure sign that we’re NOT trusting God, or not surrendering to God, is the lack of attention (time) we give God AND the fruits of our perceived separateness:  our inability to let go of worry or the need to control a situation, our addictions to spending money or stock-piling it, to accumulating wealth, power and status; our dependence on alcohol and other drugs, including our reputation.  Whether its solitude or silence or reviewing the day or downward mobility so that we’re less consumed by the demands of our stuff—a spiritual discipline says to God, “I desire you.”  The absence of a spiritual discipline says to God, “I’m looking elsewhere for power, for peace, for support, for strength.”

I love how Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on water ends for us, his listening audience.  Jesus doesn’t withdraw his love from Peter even though Peter is scared to get out of the boat and take Jesus’ hand.  Jesus simply points it out to Peter.  Jesus doesn’t live and work among us to make us feel guilty; Jesus lives and works among us for our health and wholeness—to open us up to a better self, a more rewarding life.

“You might want to know, Peter,” Jesus says directly to Peter, “You have lost your nerve.  However, I have not.  Here, take my hand and let me pull you up.” 

“Caring, after all” we must remember if we are going to be determined in our surrendering to God, “is God’s idea.”

Let us Pray:  May we find the courage, Gracious God, to let you secure our faltering faith.  Amen.

(Preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana on August 10, 2014.) 

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