As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Out of the Cave, Out of the Boat
I was delighted when I saw the two primary readings that the lectionary suggested for today.
In the first, we have that familiar story of Elijah, hiding in a cave in fear for his life, terrified that he’s going to be killed by the king. God summons him out of the cave and we see that very familiar story as the prophet faces all these noisy, terrifying, impressive events only to learn that God is not to be found in them: instead he had to learn to listen for God in a still, small voice.
It’s a massive shift in perspective for Elijah, teaching him to look deeper; not to assume that God does things in ways that meet human expectations of power and grandeur.
In Matthew’s gospel we have that familiar lesson of Jesus walking on the water. Peter tries to do the same, and briefly succeeds until he is overwhelmed by the size of the waves and his fear causes him to start sinking.
That story catches the imagination and causes all kinds of hang-ups for people. In the more educated parts of the church we are tempted to dismiss this story as something physically impossible and therefore an addition tacked on by the early church rather than something Jesus actually did. We treat it as a story for the children – a great comic book type of event.
Even outside the church it stimulates the imagination. I remember a news article in the 1970s showing a man wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, surrounded by cameras and boats walking on the water in oversized Styrofoam shoes that looked really awkward and impractical.
The point is, we don’t take this seriously as adults in a rational age. Too bad, because we can learn a lot of spiritual truth from this lesson.
The two events have parallels: in both cases, the men involved had to get out of their comfort zones to learn anything. Elijah had to get out of the cave in order to experience what God was showing him. Peter had to get out of the boat to discover how it felt to walk on water and then how it felt to start sinking and be rescued.
In both cases, stepping out required courage. Facing the threatening conditions outside was an issue for each of them. In both cases, their vision of what was possible was expanded. Their understanding of the world, of God, was changed profoundly.
But there is a contrast too: Elijah was hiding out of fear. God had to summon Elijah with a clear call or he would have stayed in the cave, trembling. Peter was in a safe place too: in a boat on the water. As someone who fished for a living, this was like home. He wasn’t hiding and Jesus didn’t summon him out of the boat. Peter saw what was possible, got excited, and volunteered. So, Jesus invited him to step out on the water – to take that leap of faith.
I don’t want to over-generalize and use this contrast to distinguish between God’s approach in the Hebrew scriptures versus the new approach Jesus shows in the gospels. That would be too simplistic, too stereotyped.
I’d rather consider this a good example of the way that God can deal with different circumstances, different people and personalities to great effect and accomplish what needs to happen.
This is a good thing to keep in mind right now because our situation during this pandemic has created a lot of Elijahs and Peters.
Some of us are hiding in our safe caves for good reason. Elijah, remember, had a good reason too. He wasn’t being paranoid: people really were out to get him. Caves aren’t the most comfortable of places but they are good shelters and leaving them can be dangerous.
Others of us are like Peter, staying in the boat because it is familiar. Maybe it’s the only option we can imagine: working hard to make headway against the wind, but bursting with enthusiasm to get out to try something new, to test the limits and see what is possible. Maybe even to leap before looking, because the vision of walking on water is compelling and details like the size of the waves can wait for later.
Different personalities, similar circumstances. What does God want us to do?
This week a committee of Knox will be talking about the possibility of re-starting some of our activities: such as gathering for worship, or meetings or groups, or having events like meals. We have already heard from people who want to wait, who are concerned about a second wave of pandemic infections after schools re-open in September.
And we have heard from other people who acknowledge the dangers but who feel strongly about the need to be together, to find a way to let people be less isolated somehow.
To me, this speaks of Elijahs and Peters at Knox; faithful people with different personalities and approaches. Our committee will have to consider how to go forward, taking all our people into consideration. Please keep us in your prayers.
And let me be clear, I see nothing in these scriptures that is a call to be reckless or stupid. God has given us an understanding of this disease and we have things we can do to reduce its spread. The image of stepping over the edge of the boat to walk on water may look like a call to throw all caution to the winds, but it is not. After all, Peter could see what Jesus was doing. He could see it was possible but he just hadn’t yet figured out how it worked.
And let us also consider that both Elijah and Peter were called to step out of their comfort zones: which is a reminder that sometimes our comfort zones can become traps. It’s a reminder that we can’t make progress when we huddle and hide.
The balance to the fear we face as we consider stepping out is the message that is consistent in both stories: we are not alone as we face our situation. Peter had Jesus to lend him a hand, to pull him to safety when things became overwhelming. And Elijah not only learned that God was there, but that thousands of other faithful Israelites were in it together with him.
We can be forced out of our comfort zones in some terrible ways: the current disaster in Beirut, Lebanon, comes to mind as they try to deal with an awful explosion, closed hospitals and destroyed food, while the pandemic rages on.
What a privilege and opportunity we have now to take the time to do it deliberately; to consider what’s best, to examine our options, to use the wisdom that is being shared and updated each week as we make choices about how to move forward.
Whether this feels like the summons to the threatened Elijah or the invitation to an over-exuberant Peter, either way we must step out of our comfort zones if we want to be part of what God is doing.
May God grant us wisdom and courage as we make choices about how to step out.
And may we never forget that as we face the future, God has promised that we are not alone.