Sunday, August 10, 2014

Two Miracles: Sermon for Pentecost 9

I preached this morning at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, and as it was a written-out sermon, I thought I would share it.

10 August 2014: Pentecost 9, Proper 14A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28    
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b    
Romans 10:5-15    
Matthew 14:22-33 

    One of the things that struck me about the lessons today is how both the story of Joseph and the story of the walking on the water upset the normal expectations of life.  In each of them there is danger and in each of them a miracle occurs, and something new grows out of each of them: in the case of Joseph, in his faithfulness through his terrible troubles the new people of Israel are made possible.  In the case of walking on the water, the new Israel, the Church, and her faithful members, will find a way forward through terrible troubles that are still to come.
    In order to get through our lives with some sense of equilibrium we often create an artificial sense of how things function.  We look for stability, permanence, predictability.  It isn’t so much that our personal experience is stable, permanent or predictable, but that there is an expectation that it ought to be.  Having this ideal helps us smooth over reality, simplifies our nonreflective preconscious expectations.  Families ought to behave a certain way, nurturing their futures, and when they don’t, in our constructs of likely consequences we expect terrible, irreversible results.  Nature ought to behave a certain way, so we live in the expectation that it will, and when it doesn’t, we gird ourselves in disaster response for what will surely follow.  But these two stories overturn both our “normal” expectations, and open our eyes to something new from God.
    Families ought to behave a certain way.  Brothers ought to love each other.  It’s a rough and tumble kind of love, the way that brothers often do love each other.  They give each other a hard time but when push comes to shove they unite and support each other.  Except in today’s story, when push comes to shove, Joseph is shoved in a big pit in the earth and only escapes being murdered by his brothers because a slave trading caravan passes by.  So what might be the Brady Bunch actually turns out to be more like Roots.  Joseph is carted off to be a slave in Egypt.  His brothers probably think that’s the last of him.  Our normal expectation would be that both Joseph’s life and his family’s happiness have been destroyed.  
    But the Joseph story is not just about the treacherous and savage behavior of brothers to each other, a replay of Cain and Abel, an instance of RenĂ© Girard’s theory of violence, a setup for family systems therapy for millennia to come.  It is about how God is using human behavior to create a people for himself.  Joseph accepts the reality of his situation and does the best he can with it, which in the end is very good indeed.  His faithfulness and hard work lead him from the pit to the palace, and along the way he acquires great wisdom, including the wisdom of forgiveness, a wisdom which surely can only come from God.  His brothers return, this time in great need, and instead of using his new power to punish them, he sets his family on a new path, which will ultimately lead to the Exodus, the Covenant, and the Promised Land. 
    The normal expectation of what would likely happen was overturned by a miracle: God brought the nation of Israel into being out of jealousy and homicidal intention.  St. Paul says to us this morning, “The word is very near us”.  The word was very near Joseph.  That word brought the future for the salvation of the world out of that sordid family drama. 
    The miracle of Joseph is at the end of the story, after his years of toil, insecurity, and danger as a slave, a miracle which ultimately produces a people for God.  Our gospel story this morning is structurally the mirror image of the Joseph story.  The miracle is at the beginning and points to a future of insecurity and danger for a people of God just being brought into being. 
    Peter sees Jesus, leaps out of the boat, and begins to walk on the water.  For the moment he disregards the conventional wisdom about water, so intent is he on the presence of the Word of God to him.  But, we say, people can’t walk on water.  Crucified people don’t rise from the dead.  Twelve guys can’t just bring a new people into being because they think they can.  Except they do.
    The people called to follow Jesus, the Word of God, can’t possibly navigate the uncharted waters of the future by themselves.  We know this, because we are those people today.  We are beset – we have always been beset, which is one way to read church history – with who knows what kinds of uncertainties and dangers.  Why try anything new?  The world we know conspires to defeat every good effort. Our future is like deep water in a storm in the dark.  We can’t possibly keep walking forward, let alone on water.  Except we do. 
    In my former parish in Anaheim there was a feeding program.  It came into being because a few people listened to the word of God one morning in church, when Matthew 25 was read aloud: Feed the hungry, it said.  The word was close to them.  They didn’t have much money, and there weren’t many people to do it.  But they did it.  They scrounged supermarkets for food, raised small amounts of money for milk and meat, talked their friends into helping, served the meal on the church china for hungry, homeless people, who used those dishes as carefully as if they were their own prized possessions, and for almost fifteen years every Monday night a couple of hundred hungry people sat down to a meal served to them by people who already had enough.  There were deep water and storms along the way.  But they always kept the word before them: Feed the hungry.  They walked across that water every Monday night.  I am sure you can tell me stories like that about Trinity. Because God is always calling us to cross the water.   God is always lifting us up out of the pit. 
    Both these stories tell us that the way we see things is not the way God sees them.  To the eyes of the world what happened to Joseph was surely the effective end of his life. Except that it was really just the beginning.  To the eyes of the world the way things usually are can’t be transcended, especially in stormy times, distress and chaos.  Except that those times are precisely the times when we can find the way through which God offers us in faith, finding firm footing not in our expectations and fears but in the Lord.   
    These miracles show us to keep our eyes fixed on the future.  God will make possible what now seems impossible.  When your whole world turns upside down and all seems lost, like Joseph keep on working, make the most of what you have, use the wisdom that comes to you.  Who knows what God has in mind in the end.  When the night is dark and stormy and the Lord just isn’t there, don’t be distracted by what in fear seems “normal”, by what is raging all around, like Peter was.  Look through the storm and see Jesus calmly walking toward you.  With your eye fixed on the Lord, who knows what you can do?    
    The Word is very near you.