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August 9, 2020 is Pentecost 10A/Proper 14A/Ordinary 20A
1 Kings 19:9-18 – (complimentary series) …and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 (semi-continuous readings in Genesis until September) – 17-year-old Joseph is loved by his father the most, and hated by his brothers, who sell him into slavery.
Psalm 85:8-13 (complimentary series) – Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (semi-continuous) – Give thanks to the Lord, offspring of Abraham, children of Jacob, who caused famine in Egypt, and sent ahead his servant Joseph, who saved them, and became a lord in Pharaoh’s house.
The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Jesus walks on water. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught [Peter], saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Prayer of the Day
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. I wait for | you, O LORD;
in your word | is my hope. Alleluia. (Ps. 130:5)
Genesis 37 – Joseph sold into slavery
Our Old Testament reading in the semi-continuous series is Joseph being sold into slavery, Genesis 37. Isaac died in Genesis 35. Genesis 36 is dedicated to the descendants of Esau and his legacy in Edom. Genesis 37 to the end (chapter 50) is really about the Joseph story. This is 30% of the book of Genesis. We will read only two portions of this story, Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 this Sunday (August 9, 2020), about Joseph being sold into slavery, and Genesis 45:1-15 next Sunday (August 16, 2020), in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and promises to provide for them in the midst of the famine. The semi-continuous reading of Genesis ends here. The next Sunday (August 23, 2020) we start in on the book of Exodus. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers in Genesis 50 does appear in the complimentary series of the lectionary, a month from now, on September 13. This is the climax, and it must be included if one is to preach on this story, either on a Sunday or as a series. “Do not be afraid,” Joseph said. “Am I in God’s shoes? You may have meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
1 Kings 19 – Elijah encounters God in the silence after the storm
The complimentary Old Testament readings follow the ancient practice of choosing Old Testament readings that complement the Gospel reading. We read about Elijah encountering God in the quiet after the storm.
Like so many characters in the Bible, Elijah’s theophany takes place as he is fleeing for his life. Think of Jacob’s two dreams which take place when he is being pursued first by Esau and Laban. Elijah prays about Israel’s unfaithfulness, and boasts of being the last faithful one standing: “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
God tells him to go stand on the mountain. We don’t know if this is supposed to be a vision or an actual event. There is little distinction in most Old Testament stories anyway. The text begins by telling us Elijah spend the night in a cave. What happens next may be understood to be part of his dream/vision, or something that awoke him in the dark, as one might wake to a storm in the night.
I am reminded of Paul’s description of one his many visions, from 2 Corinthians 12. Paul speaks of himself in the third heaven, in the third person. Even he isn’t quite sure whether this was an actual event in the body, or a vision in the spirit:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
On the mountain, Elijah hears a mighty wind, so powerful it breaks rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Earth, wind and fire. No revelation.
Then there was silence.
At this point, Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle. Moses also hid his face (Exodus 3), when God appeared in the burning bush. The glory of God was believed to be likely to be too much for a human to bear. When Moses was on the mountain in Genesis 33, he did the same, because God says, “no one shall see me and live…”
18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
It was in the silence that Elijah heard God’s voice. One is reminded of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” We could all use a little more silence in our lives.
God’s message begins with a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gives God his I-am-the-only-one-faithful-to-you speech again. He is instructed to anoint two kings, and then Elisha as a prophet in Elijah’s place. Leaders make leaders. Raise up leaders. By so doing, there are 7,000 faithful who remain in Israel.
During the five Sundays of August 2020, we read from the next four chapters of Romans: 9, 10, 11, and 12. The epistle readings make no great effort to speak to the gospel reading as do the complimentary Old Testament readings.
Romans 10 is a continuation of Paul’s extended argument and struggle (Romans 9-11) with his fellow Jews who have not accepted Christ as the messiah. All three chapters read like an interpolation, as if Paul inserted them after having finished the rest of the letter. One can read from the end of Romans 8, and skip to the beginning of Romans 12 and see the continuity of his teaching about the Spirit.
Paul is perplexed that so many polytheistic, pagan Gentiles are flocking to the one God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but so many of his own fellow Jews are not. The argument is hard to follow. Interpreters have struggled with this section since the day it was written.
5Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14But 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? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Dr. Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago points out Paul’s use of the Old Testament to make the point. Six of the 11 verses in today’s reading from Romans 10 contain quotes from the Hebrew Bible. Consider:
- Romans 10:5 > Leviticus 18:5
- Romans 10:6-9 > Deuteronomy 30:12-14
- Romans 10:11 > Isaiah 28:16
- Romans 10:13 > Joel 2:32
Verses 14-15 have come to be a passage about mission. Paul, using a common rhetorical device as he has in other letters, offers a series of four successive questions: All who call upon the Lord will be saved, but how can they call if they have not believed? How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear without proclamation? How can proclamation happen if no one is sent? So, blessed are the travelling feet of missionaries and preachers who are sent to bring good news.
Matthew 14:22-33 – If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Our text begins, “Immediately.” Immediately after what? This text takes place immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, which we read last week. Matthew 13 had three weeks of parables of the kingdom. Then Jesus received news (Matthew 14) that John the Baptist had been executed as entertainment at Herod’s party. (We did not have this text in the lectionary.) Jesus went off to be alone and lick his wounds (Matthew 14:13), but the crowds followed him. Then, two miracles occur immediately in the wake of the death of John the Baptist: the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which we treated last week and Jesus Walking on the Water, a curious story. Keep in mind that Jesus calmed the storm back in Matthew 8.
After the feeding, Jesus sends the disciples back across the lake, and dismisses the crowd. He finally gets the alone time he has been craving, heading up the mountain to pray, just like Moses, Hauerwas notes in Matthew, The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Exodus 32:30-34). By evening, he is alone on the mountain. One can dwell on this a bit. If Jesus needs down time, don’t we all? We dare not engage in constant decisive action without sufficient time for reflection. Action needs to be informed by prayerful reflection.
In the middle of the night (like Elijah?), Jesus comes to the disciples, still in their boat, walking on the water. David Garland (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary) reminds us of what many of the translations leave out. In 14:25 literally says that Jesus comes to them τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς ἦλθεν, on the fourth watch of the night. For this society, night begins at 6 p.m. Each watch is three hours, so the fourth and final watch is 3:00-6:00 a.m. It is also the time that God’s salvation comes. The Lord rescues the city of God at the break of day, in Psalm 46:5. I believe this story tracks closely the salvation from the raging waters spoken of in Psalm 46, an awesome alternate possibility for the Psalm of the day.
Garland also reminds us that what most translations render “far from the land,” regarding the position of the boat, is actually σταδίους πολλοὺς, “some, or many stadia.” A stadia, from which we get our word “stadium,” was a foot race about 1/8 of a Roman mile, a bit over 600 feet (200 yards, or two U.S. football fields). So, let’s say “some” means four. Four stadia would be half a mile out to sea. It’s a decent distance.
They are terrified. “People do not walk on water,” Hauerwas reminds us, though the modern reader will not need the reminder. The disciples assume it is a ghost: Φάντασμά: a phantom.
One might take this opportunity to talk about theophanies. In my three decades as a pastor, I have heard many amazing stories from parishioners. People have had mystical experiences, but they don’t want to be thought of as weird, or crazy, so they rarely tell them to casual listeners. I don’t have explanations for what I’ve heard, and they’ve seen. Visitations by dead relatives, or crime victims or divine messengers. I listen carefully then wonder with them about interpretation. What does this mystical experience mean for you? Obviously, if someone presents as mentally ill, we would seek medical help. However, as any pastor will tell you, often these experiences are recounted by everyday people, who are as surprised as anyone, and trying to understand their own experience. It helps, in a postivistically philosophical world, for the preacher to acknowledge that people have mystical experiences. Be prepared for some appointments if you open that door.
When they freak out, shouting for fear, Jesus responds, ἐγώ εἰμι. The first two words are often translated “It is I,” but these are the words that God speaks when Moses asks who he should let Pharaoh know sent him (Exodus 3:14): “I AM.”
The Israelites were not a sea-faring people. Their literature is filled with a sense of fear and respect for the sea. That the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea was a big deal. Hauerwas points out Psalm 77:19, which might make a better Psalm for this Sunday than the appointed texts: “You walked through the sea; you passed through the surging waters, but left no footprints.” I AM provides food, freedom and a way through the raging waters of life.
Then, immediately after “I am,” Jesus says the usual: μὴ φοβεῖσθε. “Be not afraid.”
God is our strong refuge;
A sure help in time of trouble.
We will not be afraid,
Though the mountains quake in the heart of the sea
Though its waters roar and foam!
But the story does not end here. Peter asks to come out on the water as well. Jesus gives a single-word response: Ἐλθέ. “Come.”
Peter does walk on water (only in Matthew’s gospel), but when a strong wind comes along he starts to sink. σῶσόν με. “Save me!” he cries out. Jesus reaches to him and pulls him up. He then calls Peter what often used to be translated “O ye of little faith.” It is actually a one-word name: Ὀλιγόπιστε, “Little-faith-one.” And then, “Why doubt?”
Jesus seems to be insulting Peter for his lack of faith, but we need only think back one chapter to the text we read on July 30. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty bush. And in three chapters we will read that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. It only takes a little.
Garland asks, “If this is a story about discipleship, what is the lesson?” (Reading Matthew, p. 159 of 274). Are followers of Jesus to go out and learn how to walk on water? Shall we go out and walk on The Gulf of Mexico, Lake Houston, Lake Conroe, Lake Ponchartrain? If the boat is the church, as many ancient Bible interpreters agreed, don’t disciples belong in the boat?
Perhaps the message is that Jesus should be the focus, not the church.
Or, the subtle message here may be, if you lose sight of Jesus you’re likely to sink down. Many of us have found this to be true in our lives. It is faith that buoys us up. In times of grief and sorrow, when the waters of life get rough, it is a deep-seated trust of God that puts things in perspective, bringing peace and comfort.
When life gets difficult, in plagues, pestilence or pandemic, when the seas of life get choppy, it is normal to be afraid. We are seeing this now. People respond to fear differently. Some respond by cowering. Some respond with anger.
Courage is not a lack of fear. It is moving forward in spite of our fear. Keeping our sights set on Jesus is a way forward. This requires risk, humility, and vulnerability. I commend to you Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability. This is a scary new idea for some. The preacher will have to bring it to life. Christ, our relationship with God, Jesus’ way of being in the world – these become our compass in life when skies are gray and threatening.
Peter may have little faith, like many of us, but he has enough faith to get out of the boat. I love the title of John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. There are some awesome sermon illustrations in that book. You could download this book in the next couple of minutes and find some inspiring ideas.
What listener in your assembly will not identify with Peter, his desire, his fear, his doubt, his hope? Life is risk. Vulnerability. People, congregations, communities and even nations can be driven by fear. We are not our best selves when we are afraid. John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). He may have a little faith, but keep in mind that Jesus renames Simon, Peter: The Rock. Rocky. Peter is the original Rock, not Sylvester Stallone or Dewayne Johnson.
David Garland takes an alternate view. He sees Peter’s step out of the boat as a bit impetuous and self-aggrandizing. “Jesus does not promise to deliver [us] from the storm, but through the storm. The disciple’s task is therefore to stay in the boat worshipping and confessing, not attempting the sensational.”
Our text ends with, “Those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Surely you are the Son of God.’” We are only half way through Matthew’s gospel, and the disciples have already grasped who Jesus is, and are worshipping him. These words convey Matthew’s purpose in telling the story. The event is meant to reveal who Jesus is, as should a good sermon.