Clinging Onto…or Letting Go
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,* for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
This particular story has been depicted in art many times over the centuries…and is often included as an illustration in children’s bibles and Christian coloring books. Here are a few examples from the world of art. The first two might be familiar.
In most of the artistic representations, the sea is rough, Jesus is walking on the water, Peter has left the boat to meet Jesus, but begins to sink into that choppy sea.
I know there are many people in the world who tell and retell this story as a miracle story of Jesus. A literal reading would focus primarily on Jesus’ demonstration or proof of his divinity…doing something that no ordinary human could do…providing an easy explanation for the exclamation from the disciples in the boat, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
But, I don’t think Matthew’s point is a literal one. This story may be about Jesus revealing the miraculous power of God’s way in the world, but I don’t think the main point is that he actually, literally walked on water.
Many Christian scholars believe that there are Gospel stories that survived about Jesus that were meant to be read and understood metaphorically. It makes sense when you think about the audience. The listeners at that time couldn’t read, but that doesn’t mean they were ignorant or lacked intelligence. They were as knowledgeable about their own cultural surroundings and stories of faith as we are…and they were probably more astute at listening, understanding and remembering the metaphorical meanings of stories than we are, because they were expected to remember them, reflect on them, discuss them and pass them on. Listening to teaching stories was a primary teaching method in that culture.
Early readers of Matthew’s gospel would have understood the metaphor of water as chaos. They knew how the creation story began, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Before God created, it was a watery chaos. Everyone knew that.
The theme appears again in another central story of faith. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through a chaotic watery passage. Everyone knew the story of the parting of Moses parting the sea. And there were several regularly sung psalms that spoke of the dangers and chaos of the deep.
This metaphor would not have been lost on the listeners of this story from Matthew. It’s a great story. Suddenly, in the darkest part of the night, during a storm, Jesus appears walking on the sea. For those who lived by the sea, some who made their living on the sea, wouldn’t this story resonate on multiple levels…metaphor being one of them?
For me, this is not so much a story about defying gravity as it is about overcoming chaos. The way of Jesus…the way Jesus is teaching and showing us that God wants us to live…that is the way that overcomes the power of chaos, that is the way that overcomes seemingly uncontrolled and unknown powers that threaten to pull us under. The author of Matthew is telling us, metaphorically, that there was something about Jesus…he invites us to a new way of life and new life…he asks us to trust him…and to no longer live in fear. Jesus teaches us how to live above the chaos and the fear…encouraging us that God’s love and presence is always with us, moving within and among us…holding us…and holding us up.
But, we find that Peter can’t completely let go of the old way of life…and as he clings to it, he is weighed down and pulled under. You know, the disciples are repeatedly represented as not getting it…not understanding what the Jesus way of life was all about…not understanding the full risk involved and the level of commitment that was being asked. But, isn’t that what discernment is all about? Don’t we constantly discern whether or not what we are clinging to should be kept or let go? Aren’t we always discerning what will weigh us down? What we will actually need for the journey? What needs to be left behind?
I can’t help but slip in a quick illustration of how clinging to an old way of life can weigh one down. (Gotta tell you, this would be the perfect time to share yet another episode in my downsizing and moving adventure, but even I’m tired of those stories.) So, I want to share with you an adventure story printed in Smithsonian magazine several years ago.
The article was about the Franklin expedition of 1845. Sir John Franklin and 134 men set sail from England to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean across the high Canadian Arctic…a passage that would greatly impact east-west trading. Franklin was familiar with this kind of expedition, as he had mapped most of the Atlantic side coast of Canada.
The group of explorers sailed in two three-masted ships…very sturdy frigates…and they departed amid an enormous fanfare. Finding this passage was deemed very important. They expected that it would take two to three years to accomplish their goal.
Now, these are the kinds of things they packed with them: twelve days supply of coal (to be used if they were on land), the uniform of Her Majesty’s Navy which included only an overcoat, an organ that played 50 tunes, a 12 hundred volume library, sturdy china place settings for the men, cut glass goblets, and heavy sterling silver flatware. The flatware was particularly interesting, as it was very weighty in the handle and was engraved with the initials of the family crest of each of the officers.
A couple months after they set out, a British whaling captain reported back to England that he had seen the expedition in Lancaster Sound and that the men were in high spirits. He was the last European to see them alive. For over twenty years, search parties found well-preserved bodies and skeletons in the frozen Arctic sea. And it was just last year, in September, that one of the ships was finally located…169 years later submerged below the Arctic Sea.
Franklin apparently died aboard ship and, after having been frozen into the ice for a winter…with the supplies running low…the men evidently decided to walk for help. That was why their bodies were found scattered. There was evidence that, as some of them decided to set out from the ship to walk for help across the Arctic, they took a lifeboat and loaded into it the organ, many of the books, some of the china, some of the sterling silver flatware…and they tried to drag it across the ice with them. None of the men on that expedition survived.
I realize this story is dramatic, but it does illustrate clinging to the past…the old way of life…when something quite different is required in order to move into the unknown future.
Peter sinks because he can’t completely let go of the old way of life. As he clings to it, he is weighed down and pulled under. Yet Jesus does not abandon him, either here or later when his faith falters. Jesus never abandons…he keeps extending his hand.
There seems to be another illustration taking shape right before our eyes. Let’s talk about Pope Francis. For many years now, I have been a Pope watcher. No, I wasn’t raised Catholic…and, though I admit to being a biblical and theological nerd, my nerdiness has not pulled be deeper into Catholic teachings. But I do watch the Pope because I know that he is the global face of Christianity, especially to non-Christians. Most of the world knows nothing about the United Church of Christ, but they do know the Pope. So, the Pope represents me…represents us…whether we agree with everything he says or not…whether we like it or not.
Pope Francis is the perfect example of someone living in the tension of clinging to or letting go of an old way of life so that a new way of life…the Jesus way…can be grasped, held onto and lived. He surely must discern every single day where each foot falls on the Jesus path, because he is certainly travelling amidst confusion and chaos. Can you imagine trying to drag the weight of the historic church into the future? Can you imagine the weight of centuries of doctrine and tradition? Can you imagine the day-to-day political maneuvering within the Roman Catholic Church with its considerable hierarchy? Yet, with Pope Francis, we seem to have someone determined to discern his call to God through the lens of the Jesus way….going way back to the basics of his faith so that the simple, yet challenging call of Jesus can be made visible through him. That is what we try to do, isn’t it? Live out our faith so that it is made real in the world through us?
Did you listen to his speech to congress? I watched most of it, but then went back to read it. So gently and so powerfully, he just laid it out there. Near the end of his speech…after he called for the protection of rights of immigrants and refugees…after he called for the end of the death penalty…after he called for the preservation of the planet from the ravages of climate change…after he called for our stepping in to care for the poor and dispossessed…after all of that, he called for an end to war profiteering and demanded an end to the arms trade. This quiet man…the People’s Pope…had command of the room and said what needed to be said.
These were his words: “Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.” Then he asked this critical question: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” Now, that’s a really good question…and since, in that setting, there wasn’t any room for debate, he answered the question himself: “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
To be honest, I was most interested in what he was going to say about climate change and our care of the earth. But, what I didn’t expect was his very gentle, yet powerful calling out of our death-dealing in the violence of war and arms trading. It was stunning…a real show-stopper.
Just as Pope Francis is taking risks and seems to be letting go of the demanding bureaucracy and heavy assumptions of his own church, can we as a nation let go of our practice of feeding the world’s violence through the money-making mechanism of war? Can we let go of the war industry and choose peace?
It is my hope that maybe, just maybe, Pope Francis has opened the hearts and minds of the Congress in ways that we haven’t been able to…maybe, just maybe he has set the stage for different kinds of conversations than have been held in the past. He certainly held up the mirror so that we could see our own actions with their bloody, dangerous and chaotic consequences. We can hope and pray that hearts were moved.
My friends, ours is a very old faith…born out of a courageous, compassionate Spirit-filled life-lived a couple thousand years ago. Over the centuries, denominations and congregations have grown up through that story. Vast libraries have been written about how to live the Christian life correctly. Christians have mountains of doctrine and church laws to stand upon and behind, should they want to. But, perhaps it is time for all of us to take a closer look at the stories and the life that brought us here…that brought us together…perhaps it is time to take a closer look at what it is we are clinging to and what needs to be let go of…because our Creator God is moving into the future and calls us to let go of whatever is holding us back from passionately bringing the reign of peace and justice, compassion and mercy, into a lived reality.
Letting go can be difficult…and clinging to something new is not necessarily easy…but living into a vision of a world bathed in love and hope…well, that is worth the risk. May you, in the days ahead, find yourself lifted above the chaos crossing the threshold to what lies ahead with confidence and joy. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.