And You Want to Travel With Him

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: August 13th, 2017

Pentecost 10, Year A


No recording

Scripture Text:

Matthew 14:22-33


And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water.
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower.

And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”

But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

The words of my favorite Jewish Buddhist, Leonard Cohen from his song “Suzanne.” As with so much good poetry, Cohen’s meaning here is not particularly clear. We can puzzle over the words and analyze them to death, but, in the end, the best thing to do is to let the poetry just wash over us. Just sit with it.

I certainly don’t know exactly what Cohen means by it all, but I do know that these words have a meaning for me, a meaning too deep for words. They invite me to see today’s Gospel as much more than just a really awesome miracle story. Suddenly, it’s my story; suddenly, it’s all our stories.

Today’s reading begins right after the feeding of the 5,000 with loaves and fishes. Remember that when the disciples first saw those 5,000 hungry people who had been with Jesus all day — he’d been curing them and talking with them — the disciples basically said to him, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s blow this pop stand.” But Jesus had compassion and love for the people who had come to see him, so he made sure they were fed.

As the Gospel begins today, all that feeding has been take care of. Jesus and the disciples are now on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. At this point, Jesus does want to be alone. He makes all of them get into a boat to get to the other side. He compels them to leave him because he yearns for solitude.

Now, remember that Matthew wrote this Gospel for a Jewish community of Christians who weren’t even called “Christians” yet. It must have been very meaningful to that audience that Jesus went up a mountain to pray. Like Moses, Jesus ascends the mountain to be alone with God, with his Father.

In the meantime, the disciples are in big trouble. They are being tossed about by a storm; the boat is “battered” by the waves. Most of these men were intrepid fishermen, so this must have been an extraordinarily frightful storm.

Then, early in the morning, between 3 and 6 am, in the midst of the tempest, someone comes walking toward them on the water. Tired and traumatized by the storm, they fear a ghost walks toward them. But Jesus speaks to calm them. The literal translation of the Greek is “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”

That I am also spoke directly to Matthew’s Jewish readers. Those words must have been powerfully startling for them. Not only does Jesus do what only God can do — have power over the chaos of the wind and the waves — but Jesus is the I am, the exact words with which Yahweh, God, identifies God’s self in the Old Testament.

And then Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” I have mentioned before that those words appear in the Bible 365 times. (Someone has actually counted.) There is one for every day of the year. That can’t just be a weird coincidence.

Anyway, the storm is still raging, and Peter, in what must have been a momentary lapse of reason, challenges Jesus: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” It’s insane, but Peter obviously believes that his Jesus is so powerful, he can work miracles through others, including himself.

And Jesus does call him. He says, “Come.” So, Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water. But he takes his eyes off Jesus for a second; he’s distracted. The wind is so strong; fear pulls him away from his focus. He sinks and calls out what we all call out from time to time: “Lord, save me.”

And Jesus does.

Asked and answered.

And then Jesus says, in what I think must have been a gentle, chiding way, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Whenever Jesus says that kind of thing to people in the Gospels, it is to people who do believe, but they are people just like us, people who have taken The Word into their hearts, but when the storm rages and peril surrounds them, fear wears away at their courage.

There is trust in them and there is trust in us, and there is also doubt. Actually, the Greek word used for “doubt” in this passage is very appropriate. It connotes vacillation rather than full-out skepticism or disbelief.

When Jesus and Peter arrive at the boat, the winds calm, the storm dissipates. As Jesus climbs in, the disciples do not greet him. They do not honor him; they do not praise him. They worship him: worship being appropriate only for God. In fact, they recognize him saying, “Truly you are the son of God.”

Who among us has not, in desperation, essentially asked Jesus, “Lord, command me to walk on water?” There we are: in dire straits, in a fragile boat, tossed about by a storm. Perhaps we have been traumatized by the death of a loved one, or an addiction, or the loss of a job, or any number of things. Finally, we have nowhere to turn but to Jesus. We know we have to do what we think is impossible — move through the storm, experience it, live it, trust that peace and serenity wait for us on the other side of the tumult.

Yeah, that’s about as easy as walking on water.

But that spark of faith in us, that same craziness that Peter had, tells us that Jesus can make the seemingly impossible happen. So, with trust and confidence, we step out of the boat. Our eyes are on him and we walk on water like it’s solid ground. The storm still rages around us, but our trust and God’s grace sustain us. And then, we start to worry about the storm, the turmoil in our lives, and that worry turns to fear. We take our eyes off Jesus; we try to take control of our steps on the water. We sink like a stone. We cry out, “Lord, save me!”

“Do not be afraid,” he said — 365 times it’s there in the Bible. Those words appear again and again because they are the key, the key to becoming who we must become, the key to doing what we must do, the key to keeping our eyes on Jesus.

We sink like a stone.

But an arm, Jesus’ arm, reaches down to pull us to safety. We can begin again. We can step on the water and walk through our pain, putting aside fear, not being afraid, trusting that grace will see us through, trusting that peace and serenity await us on the other side of our pain.

We want to travel with him.
We want to travel blind.
And we think maybe we’ll trust him
Because he’s touched our perfect bodies with his mind.


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