Sunday, July 30, 2006

Proper 12B

2 Kings 2:1-15; Psalm 114; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16; Mark 6:45-52

It all started with Batman. I don’t even know where our then three-year-old son’s first Batman toy came from, but there he was on our coffee table, his superhero body impossibly proportioned, his long plastic cape forever frozen in mid-rustle, standing strong and tall and proud, and towering over all the others. All the others, that is, who had come to visit the little toy baby Jesus lying in a little toy manger. It seems Charlie had arranged a somewhat chaotic jumble of sheep and shepherds, kings and camels, dinosaurs and matchbox cars all there together to visit baby Jesus, all safe under the protective watch of Batman. Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.

I think it was Spiderman who swung into Charlie’s life next; then came the Incredible Hulk, and Superman, and the Power Rangers, until his toy box was full of superheroes using their super strength to save the day. But that began to change after we took him to see The Incredibles, an animated movie about a whole family of superheroes. You see, in that family, each member is a superhero, but only the father, Mr. Incredible, has super strength. The mother, ElastiGirl, is super stretchy. The little boy, Dash, is super fast. The little girl, Viola, can become invisible. All of a sudden, then, toys without impossibly proportioned bodies and plastic capes became potential superheroes. Little Charlie’s stuffed monkey, rescued a thousand times by Superman, had the power to walk on his tail. The little red racecar had the power to fly. The happy meal puppet had the power to leap tall buildings….well, you know. The little toy baby Jesus had never been safer.

The little real baby Jesus was born in a world that felt very unsafe to the people of Israel. They longed for a messiah, a superhero with super strength to rescue them mightily from the weight of the law and the heavy hand of Rome. So far, it didn’t exactly seem like Jesus was going to save the day. Sure, he had some impressive powers – healing diseases, exorcising demons, restoring life, and that thing with the loaves and fish had been a really neat trick. Maybe this was just his secret identity, they thought. Maybe he was waiting for just the right moment to flex his muscles, brandish his sword, and defeat the enemies of God’s chosen people. But Jesus was not that kind of hero. All the while they were waiting for him to show his super strength, he was saving the day, saving them, saving the whole world by the power of love. He was defeating the enemies of God’s chosen people – not the religious authorities or the Romans but enemies far more prevalent, far more sinister. Fear. Hatred. Isolation. Judgment. Despair. Death. Like so many superheroes, Jesus’ power was completely misunderstood.

When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. It doesn’t sound much like saving to us, but as wind whipped water sent currents into chaos, and the little boat fought to move forward, Jesus wanted to show them that his power to save was far beyond the strength of even the mightiest warrior. His was the power of God. Take heart, it is I. Be not afraid.

In the ancient near east, and all throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the power to manipulate water belonged only to God. Water represented chaos and destruction (in Mississippi and all along the Gulf Coast we understand why). Over and over again, when water threatened life, God alone was able to hold it back, to dry it up, to contain its chaos. And yet in those same scriptures it is also out of water that life is born and with water that life is sustained and without water that life withers.

In the beginning….in the very first chapter of the very first book of the bible, a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters, and begins to create the heavens and earth. Where once there was chaos, now there was life. In their flight from Egypt, God saves the Hebrew people when by faith Moses stretches out his hand over the Red Sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. In the very midst of chaos, the way to a new life is offered. While journeying through the wilderness, the Hebrew people grow thirsty, but there is no water to drink, and they despair, wondering if God is among them. God tells Moses, I will be standing there in front of you….Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. When chaos disrupts or threatens life, God is standing there, mighty to save. Whose life was ever more chaotic than Job’s, who yet in the midst of his ordeal struggles to hold on to his belief that God still cares, saying, God is wise in heart, and mighty in strength….who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the Sea….Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him. Like Job, straining against adverse winds, our eyes squinted and our muscles tense, we do not see God walking toward us, passing by, beckoning us to turn our boats and follow. The mission of Jesus Christ would be to help us see God in the midst of chaos, a mission that would begin when Jesus came up dripping from the waters of the Jordan River, and a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved.

Water, the chaos that threatens our lives and the means by which we live, is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace given to us in baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death, our prayerbook reads. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. We may never be able to part oceans or to turn flintstone into flowing springs or to walk on water, but in our baptism we do receive the power to be creative in the midst of chaos, to live in hope though the wind batters our boats, to see and to help others to see Jesus and not a ghost. In our baptism we receive power not as self-sufficient superheroes, and not as mere sidekicks, but as many members of the Body of Christ.

And so lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, Paul writes, sounding for all the world like Peter Parker’s grandfather….With great power comes great responsibility. Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

It wouldn’t do too well at the box office. By the world’s standards, it doesn’t sound much like saving the day. It doesn’t sound much like power. But then, our inclination to save ourselves, to strain against adversaries, to fight our way forward, to stand strong and tall and proud, towering over all the others….in the end, it just whips up more wind, more water, more chaos, more fear, hatred, isolation, judgment, despair, even death. In the end, it wears us out.

Adverse winds blow from every direction, in our world, our nation, our community, our families, in our dear Episcopal Church. Straining against those winds, against one another, against God, we misunderstand our own powers. Early that morning, on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walked on the water full of the mighty power of God - not super strength, but the awesome power of humility and gentleness, patience and love, unity and peace. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are given the power to make a way in and through the chaotic waters of life. We are given the power to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors and our adversaries as ourselves, to work for justice freedom and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being – all this never by our own strength, but always and only with God’s help.

What would happen if we faced the adverse winds in our lives with humility and gentleness rather than fierce straining? With patience rather than fumbling urgency? What if, in the midst of struggle, we bore one another in love? What if we made every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, not blind to injustice and sin, to what divides us, but also not blind to hope, to the presence of Christ in our midst? The storms might not cease – they didn’t always cease for Jesus either, but it was by this kind of strength that he rendered wind and chaos, fear and isolation, hatred and despair and even death powerless.

When he sees that we are straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he comes toward us early in the morning, walking on the water. Will we see him? If not, we don’t have a ghost of a chance. But if we are willing to look into the wind, to look at one another, with the power of his love, then we are saved, and a new life has already begun. Let us pray,

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen.

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