Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

Many of you know that I am the youngest of six children. Like many youngest children, my older siblings will tell you stories about me that are absolutely not how I remember things being when I was young. They will tell you that I was spoiled, that I got to do things they were never permitted to do, and on and on.

One complaint that I will admit to is this:

The four older siblings took piano lessons. When I was about three years old, I would listen to my brothers and sisters practice, more often than not against their will, for a mandatory 20-30 minutes. As soon as they finished, I would clamber up onto the too-tall-for-me piano bench and, legs dangling, begin to play everything they had been practicing, even though I could not read the music. My mother was convinced I was Mozart reincarnated and carted me all over the countryside to play for experts, including the department chairperson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Well, I was not the next Mozart, and my years as a prodigy faded fairly quickly as I tired of the expectation that I actually learn to read music and practice what my teacher wanted me to practice (I mean, what 5-year-old wants to do that?), but for a few years, I imagine that I was pretty insufferable.

I’m lucky my siblings did not throw me into a well or sell me to some passing Ishmaelites. 

In all honesty, Joseph was not a very likeable person. He had dreams that elevated him above the 10 brothers who outranked him by age, and he was his father’s absolute favorite. After all, he was the first child of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. The youngest son, Benjamin, can’t be the favorite because it was in giving birth to him that Rachel died. I’m not sure Jacob ever forgave him for that. But he doted on Joseph and gave him a resplendent garment that Joseph sashayed around in everywhere.

It’s important to remember here that Jacob was also a younger son, favored of his mother Rebekah, and elevated over his older brother Esau. Yet in a portion of this Genesis tale that we are looking at each week, when Isaac dies, both Jacob and Esau come together to bury him, and then we get a full accounting of the descendants of Esau. He may not have been favored, but he was not abandoned, either, and he and Jacob had enough of a reconciliation to come together in time of sorrow.

But this family dysfunction passes to the next generation, and the first 10 of Jacob’s sons can’t stand Joseph and sell him off to traders on their way to Egypt. But first they stole his robe and dipped it in goat’s blood, and wove a tale to tell Jacob about how a wild animal had done Joseph in. We didn’t read this part, but Jacob is inconsolable.

Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father bewailed him. (Genesis 37:34-35)

Meanwhile, Jesus and the disciples have retreated, leaving behind the crowds after feeding them with the loaves and fishes. Jesus sends the disciples on ahead in a boat while he goes up a mountain – again – to pray. If you have ever been on the Sea of Galilee, you know how the wind can blow, and a sudden storm in the night would be a terrifying experience. Yet, this time, the disciples weren’t crying out to be rescued. We just read that they see a figure, maybe a ghost, on the water, and that’s what scared them.

Once they recognize him, Peter, being Peter, calls out to him. Hey, if Jesus can walk on water, then so can I, right? And so out of the boat he steps, but when he realizes what’s happening, like Wile E. Coyote who has come to the end of the road, the cliff a few steps behind him, he falls fast.

I’ve preached on this story several times, and the past couple of times I approached this text, I preached some variation of “when Jesus calls, you have to get out of the safety of the boat and step forward fearlessly in faith.” I think that’s often the treatment given this story. I recently had someone tell me that they remembered the line “are you going to play it safe, or are you going to get out of the boat” from a sermon I gave NINE years ago!

Yes, it’s a great and motivating message. There are times when we need to step out our safe and secure lives and venture out in faith, trusting that Jesus will sustain us. We can be a timid and faithless people. But that’s not what it says to me right here and right now. In a time of COVID and upheavals in our country and our world, stepping out of the boat doesn’t seem courageous at all. It seems foolish and reckless.

Peter practically dares Jesus to ask him out onto the water and then begins to founder in the sea. And when Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” we of course take that to refer to the fact that Peter couldn’t walk on the water. Of course he couldn’t walk on water! It’s not how the physics of these things work unless you are the Son of God who has mastery over the forces of the deep.

No, I wonder if his “little faith” was not so much that he sank on the waves, but that he asked, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

If it is you.

It sounds suspiciously like, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (4:6) from the pinnacle of the temple.” If it is you. If you are who you say you are. The voice of the Evil One, the adversary, the tempter.

Perhaps Jesus was saying to Peter, “Your lack of faith is that you doubted me. You sank because where you belong in this raging storm is in the boat with your community. How will your community withstand the torrent if you go off on your own trying to be a hero, or trying to do it yourself? Get back in the boat and stick together. It’s the only hope you have. And I will be there with you in the midst of raging waters.”

A boat has long symbolized the church in architecture and art. The area of a church between the narthex and apse or chancel is called the nave which has the Latin root navis which means ship and from which we get the word “navy.” From the earliest days of church-building, this terminology emphasized this boat imagery. Vaulted ceilings of gothic cathedrals are meant to look like the keel of a boat with flying buttresses representing oars, keeping the ship steady.

And this is not the kind of boat where some folks are off playing shuffleboard and some are lounging by the pool. No, this is the kind of boat where everyone helps to trim the sails and pull the oars and bail the water. It’s a community, and, in that moment of stepping out of the boat, Peter abandoned his community.

So maybe Jesus isn’t calling us to be bold and to step out on our own. Maybe Jesus is telling us to be so bold as to work together as a community; to learn how to have everyone pitch in to make sure that the boat is in good condition and on course; to figure out how to get beyond the conflicts and annoyances born of familiarity, especially given that we have not, for the most part, been together for the past 22 weeks. Maybe having true faith doesn’t mean stepping out alone but having the determination to be that community of faith that can, together, survive the worst storms that the world might throw at us, so that we can get to the other side, together.

Joseph’s brothers weren’t interested in keeping him in their boat. No, they sold him into slavery and broke their father’s heart. Yes, there is more to this story. God’s hand is in this evil perpetrated against Joseph. We’ll get to that soon. But for now, sit with the idea that members of his own family decided that Joseph didn’t belong, so they got rid of him.

We, too, are a family. We might be more apart than together these days, but the bonds of affection between us as members of All Saints are strong. Much will be required of us in the weeks and months ahead as we knit our lives together, weaving a new fabric of what it means to be Church in this time and place. We are all in this boat together, and by God’s grace, we’ll all get to the other side.

ASEPSermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas