Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
August 13, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

I ask you to keep in mind the events in Charlottesville VA the last couple of days, when hundreds of white nationalist neo-nazis marched and were met with counter-demonstrators – some of whom were friends of mine – who were there for justice and peace, as we move into the lessons for today.

Reuben is the eldest son of Jacob.  You remember Jacob – whom we last left vying for the hand of Rachel, only to win Leah.  His uncle Laban was a worse deceiver that Jacob himself, and Jacob paid dearly for his trickery against his father and his brother Esau.

But eventually, 20 years after he fled his home, he, along with two wives, two “handmaids,” and a dozen children, including one daughter, Dinah, is to be found in Canaan, cautiously reconciled with Esau, and doting on the first son of his beloved Rachel, the clever and proud Joseph.  Joseph had visions which, he said, showed all his siblings bowing down to him. 

You would think that Jacob, his father, would remember his own history, and realize that choosing favorites among his offspring was not likely to turn out well.  But apparently such was not the case, and Joseph was his clear favorite.

And his brothers were jealous and resented his status as the favorite, and his braggadocio and pride.

So when the occasion offered, and Jacob was nowhere near to protect him, they plotted Joseph’s death.

Enter Reuben.  He stood up for Joseph and opposed any plan to kill him.  Instead, he said, let’s put him in that great dry hole over there and leave him there.

Scripture tells us he meant to come back and rescue him later.  It would appear he had good intentions, up to a point, although it can’t have escaped him that rescuing Joseph and restoring him to his father might have gained him some of his father’s affection in return.  And he was the one who had him cast into a pit.  I don’t get the impression he really thought things through at all.

But when Reuben was off with the flock, his other brothers had a new idea – let’s sell him to those Midianites … and so they did.

But when Reuben returned, and learned of this heinous act, he … did nothing.

He didn’t chase after the Midianites.  He didn’t fight with his younger siblings.  He didn’t stop them from pouring blood on Joseph’s coat.  And, when they all got home, he didn’t tell his father what had really happened to the beloved son.

Reuben’s good intentions were insipid, and nipped in the bud, and he never looked back.  There was no regret, no remorse, no repentance … not one bit.

He knew the right thing, and he turned his back on it.  Later, as if to show how shriveled his soul had become, he took up with Bilhal – the handmaid of Leah, and the mother of two of his brothers.  

Fast forward several centuries, and we come to the setting of today’s Gospel.  After feeding thousands of people, the disciples have gotten into a boat to cross the sea of Galilee, and Jesus has gone up to the mountain alone to pray.  Night falls, and a storm rises.  The fishermen in the boat know what to do – it’s not the first time in their lives they have had to contend with the chaotic powers of wind, water, and weather.  They make no headway, but they aren’t sinking, either.  Chances are they’ll be just fine.

But when they see a faint figure of someone coming toward them through the wild wind and wild waves in the dark and spray of crashing water, what else can they think but that it is some kind of spirit or ghost?  Not unnaturally, because it is so unnatural, this terrifies them.

Their terror is not lessened when this figure comes closer and they see it is Jesus, and he tells them “Do not fear, I AM.”

Yes, I know that the NRSV says, “It is I.”  But the word he speaks is “Eimi.”  And “Eimi” is the answer that God gave to Moses when Moses asked God’s name.

I AM is here.

The wonder is that instead of cowering in the boat, Peter responds to this vision, and these words with a request – “Let me come to you!”

“Come.”

And, unlike Reuben, Peter risks everything: out of the boat he boils, and takes a step, and another, and then, like Wiley Coyote suddenly realizes where he is and begins to doubt and with that doubt begins to sink, and cries out “Save me!”

And Jesus reaches out and takes his hand, and asks him, “why did you doubt?”  and they climb into the boat and suddenly all is calm.

Oh you of little faith.

Peter had enough faith – or hope or trust or dream or wisp of sight – enough to get out of the boat and start across the water.  He did have a little faith.  Enough to start.

And when that wasn’t enough, he called out, and Jesus was there to bring him back.

We need to learn how to have faith.  It’s not about words.  It’s about being willing to take the risk, to put our lives on the line, to put ourselves “out there” to do whatever it is Jesus challenges us to do, calls us to do, asks us to do.  Even if it might cost us our very lives.

Reuben may have wanted to, but in the end did not have the faith-brought courage to, do that.

Peter started, but drew back when it got scary and hard.

And we?  What about us? 

What about me?  What have I ever done that required faith in God, where faith, where trust that God would have my back, was the only thing that would make it possible?

How willing am I to risk it all?  Does it help if I know that Jesus will be there?

We are living in troublous times, you and I.  We are divided from our compatriots, our neighbors, even friends and family members.  We are afraid that there might be war.  We are afraid that there could be civil conflict.  We are afraid that we cannot end the drug epidemic, the violence, the hateful words and the hate-filled thoughts that seem to grow worse every day.

And I’m not going to stand up here and tell you it’s going to be alright – God will protect his own.  God will fix everything; God will make it right.

Because when has God ever done that?  [pause]

When God acted to fulfill the prophecies of restoration given to the people of Israel, God became a human being.  And when that human being died on the cross, and descended into the bowels of hell, and then rose again to walk among his friends for a few days, and finally was taken up / in / into heaven, God took humanity up / in / into heaven with him.

It is through humankind that God has answered our eternal cry for help.  It is through humankind that help will come.

And now you’re thinking, but, but, but … we need God, just like Peter needed Jesus that day!  And you’re right, you’re absolutely right.

I don’t deny it.  I know the power of God works in me, as I know the power of God works in you.  Every time we reach out, every time we take a risk, every time we stand up to oppressive power, every time we hold out a hand to assist someone in need, every time we pray, every time we weep, we do it because of the presence of the spirit of God within us. 

That’s what the cross gave us – and when we take up our cross, we take that with us – the spirit of God that upholds us, strengthens us, comforts us, and challenges us to be like Peter and take a risk to answer the call, “Come.”

Come to the wild waves and the wild wind and the spray of crashing waters, into the chaos that terrifies and might even annihilate you, Come.  Because Jesus is already there.  That’s where we find him.

Come.  Cast off the fears of Reuben, and take on the faith of Peter.  Do the right thing.  Come.

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