I am not one for long good-byes, but apparently this time it is not to be avoided. I’m here again to continue that task after having delivered last words not too long ago. That time grace and the lectionary gave me a portion of Jesus’ farewell address as a suitable launching pad for my final thoughts. Today a more whimsical force gives me the story of Jesus walking on water. I am going to resist the temptation to joke about my water walking skills in spite of having pictorial proof. When in Liverpool to resolve issues preventing our new organ from being completed I was photographed walking a cross a fountain that gives the illusion of such capacity. Nevertheless, feet of clay are not known for their buoyancy.
For progressives it is all too easy to dismiss this story with a joke because it is outside our experience of the physical world. We are tempted to use it to get into a discussion of what is a miracle anyway. Alternatively, we defend our selves against those with the view that failure to believe the historicity of the story questions our faith. Instead, I would like to argue that while the story is suspect in terms of what we know about physics, it is metaphysically true.
What do I mean by metaphysics? It is that branch of philosophy that looks at reality and asks two fundamental questions: What is ultimately there? And what is it like?
To answer the first question it is important to look at what immediately precedes the story. Three things are reported in the 21 verses just prior to it. Jesus has learned that his cousin, John the Baptiser has had his head handed to Salome on a platter by Herod. Jesus went off alone to grieve but the crowds found him and he had compassion on them and healed the sick. The disciples tried to run them off because they didn’t want to invite 5000 folk to tea. Jesus ignored them and fed the crowd with five loaves and two fish. Having cured and fed them, he sent the 5000 home and then sent the disciples off in a boat back to Capernaum. Finally alone, he went up to a mountaintop to pray.
Those are the outward reports of the reality. But ultimately what was the situation? Clearly, this was the height of success of his ministry according to Matthew. He was the new Moses feeding the people with the new manna. The disciples had to be chuffed. You can hear them in the boat talking excitedly about what a day it had been and how they have backed the right horse, conveniently forgetting the earlier news about what happened to that locust-eating wingnut John. Jesus had not forgotten. He knew how those in power would view the day’s events. He knew John’s fate foreshadowed his own. He sent them off not because he needed to be alone. This wasn’t about him. He sent them off because they couldn’t be dependent upon him alone. Soon enough they would have to continue their journey without him.
There is yet another level to this reality. It involves the sea.
In the world’s religions born in India, crossing water was a common symbol of salvation or enlightenment. The waters represent the painful existence in the world, plagued by ills, a continual passing from life to death to rebirth. Tossed about on the turbulent sea, the wayfarer finds rest only on the other shore.
The Rigveda, the oldest of Hindu sacred scripture says:
Carry us across, as by a boat
Across the sea, for our good.
In the Bhagavad Gita the hero is told, “Even if you were the most sinful of sinners, Arjuna, you could cross beyond all sin by the raft of spiritual wisdom.”
In a collection of sayings from the Buddha called the Dhammapada, he says, “Few are there among men who go across to the further shore; the rest of mankind only run about on the bank. But those who act rightly according to the teaching, as has been well taught, will cross over the other shore, for the realm of passions is so difficult to cross.”
This motif of crossing troubled waters for either salvation or enlightenment is expanded further in Hebrew Scriptures where crossing the Red Sea is part of the Jewish foundational story of Passover. It is a story of liberation from slavery. After 40 years in the wilderness crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land follows it. “When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety.” (Dt 12:10)
So in answer to the metaphysical question of what is ultimately there, it is the reality that enlightenment and liberation do not come to those who stay in a safe place fenced in by their fears and needs for security. Enlightenment and liberation cannot be gained secondhand. We each have to make the crossing.
The second metaphysical question, “What is it like?” is revealed in the disciples’ night terrors. Terror of the unknown. Terror of death. Terror of powerlessness. Terror of being alone. Terror of loss. I suspect we have all had nights when we have been visited in turbulent times by these unholy terrors. What happens next depends on us. Do we forge ahead or return to shore?
Family systems therapist and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, gives an illustration in his book Generation to Generation of what is required to move ahead when a community is awash at sea. Someone has to be a nonanxious presence and stand up in the boat and point to the far shore. The others in the boat may start rocking it to get that brave soul to sitback down. But if that person remains standing and pointing others will either stand as well or jump overboard and swim back to where they started.
In our Gospel story Jesus is clearly that person. Jesus’ presence establishes that if he can cross these waters so can his disciples. So can we.
I don’t think making such crossings is something we relish doing. Like Jesus pushing the disciples to leave, it is the divine within us that pushes us into uncertain waters. The divine that seeks wholeness and peace on the other side.
It has been 35 years since I started seminary. During that time a lot of turbulent water has had to be crossed. It was 1979, the year of the Erebus disaster and Iranian takeover of the US embassy that ultimately brought the disastrous policies of Ronald Reagan to power. It was only five years after the first women were illegally ordained in Philadelphia. It was the year a new controversial prayerbook in the American church was introduced. My seminary still dismissed students who were found to be in same-sex relationships. Using inclusive language was considered subversive. Since then troubled waters have been before us year after year as a church. I think it will always be thus. What issues need to be crossed will change but not the need to cross them.
Today the turbulent waters are how we as a church will address climate change, income inequality and child poverty as we complete the task of full inclusion for the LGBTI community. Yet as challenging as it will be to cross to the other side of those swirling waters, there is one more that will determine our fate as an institution. Can we re-imagine God? If we can’t understand that the divine name is a metaphor that shapes our spirituality, we are trapped on this side of the sea.
In November Lloyd Geering will be releasing a new book entitled “Reimaging God”. He lays out the task before us, “It is important not to disown the cultural past that has enabled us to be what we are, but as Nietzsche said, ‘One repays a teacher badly by remaining only a pupil’. We need to exercise a critical acceptance of our cultural heritage. Much of its spirituality will have to be abandoned: its authoritarianism, its exclusivism, its patriarchal character, its otherworldliness, its sexism, its slave mentality and its condemnation of individuality. But we can draw upon and develop its basic concern with our common humanity, its focus on fellowship and hospitality, its goals for a nobler future and the human values that permeate its message.”
How we navigate these waters will determine whether the heart of the Gospel will remain relevant for future generations. I only hope a nonanxious Jesus will be out there pointing the way and urging us on.
So now it is time for you and for me to get into our separate boats and set sail. I wish you bon voyage and look forward to seeing you on the other side.