Fear of Getting Out of the Boat (Genesis 37:1-4; Matthew 14:22-33 )
In a few minutes we will sing a hymn called “O God, Unseen, Yet Ever Near,” written many years ago by the English hymn writer Edward Osler. The title speaks of a way in which I, at least, experience God in the world – unseen, unobtrusive, under the surface, and even, sometimes, unrecognized by me; yet, whom I sense as ever near, and so, vitally real!
The Bible has a reputation for always speaking of God as acting openly in the world, but, if we actually take time for a long read of the Bible and the world, we will find that this is not exactly so. For example, today’s Old Testament Lesson witnesses to that unseen but ever near God of the hymn. The Lesson is the first scene of the Joseph story, which takes up most of Genesis 37-50. These chapters contain the story of Joseph, his family, and the empire of Egypt, and how this man came to dominate the empire for a brief time, but whose “extended family,” so to speak, fell into the subjugation of slavery leading, in due course, to that liberation that is storied in the Book of Exodus. Unlike the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that preceded it, the story of Joseph and his offspring, is not one in which God appears and acts for all to see. In fact, God doesn’t appear at all through most of the story. Israel’s God (by any name) is only mentioned 19 times in the 449 verses of this story. Even where God is mentioned it is usually as a religious or cultural assumption, rather than as a doer of deeds in the drama. The narrator allows events to unfold naturally. Although the narrator attributes Joseph’s success in Egypt in one or two stories to the work of God, it is only at the end of the story that Joseph himself grasps and shares with his brothers the insight that God has been at work in all these ordinary happenings to fulfill the divine promise. The author uses two techniques to tell the story of how God works here. First, as I said, events in the world simply unfold, and seem to swirl around Joseph, sometimes for his well-being, and sometimes for his detriment. Life’s like that.
Second, although the narrator doesn’t put it on the surface, there is no doubt that deep within the narrative God is at work, sometimes with the characters’ help, sometimes without it. God works even when people don’t. That, again, rings true not only in this story but in my life as well. It is only occasionally that I realize how active God has been, sometimes when I most thought that God was absent, God was at work.
Let’s move to the story. Most family therapists today would call Joseph’s family dysfunctional. His father Jacob made the colossal error of giving preferential treatment to Joseph over the others – and it worked out about as it might today. Can you imagine how you’d have felt as one of Joseph’s older brothers? (A side point for a different day, how about one of his older sisters, who aren’t considered important enough to be mentioned in the story?)
I read a little slice of chapter 37 to show us that Joseph himself, especially here, is insufferable. He insisted on inflicting his family with accounts of his dreams, most of which were verbal “selfies” that insisted on how much more important he was than they were. Even his parents wouldn’t tolerate these, although, in a sense, they encouraged them by their favouritism. Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him and lie to their father about it, with but a twinge of conscience that only went as far as dumping him in a waterless pit in the desert, which would only bring death more slowly. A further twinge of conscience went as far as not leaving him in a pit, but selling him to some passing traders (so as to get rid of him and make a little profit from it) and still lying to their father. Where’s God in all that? No matter which character’s actions you choose to think about, you can ask: “Where’s God?” They’re all a wreck. It’s probably intentional (and a good thing) that God isn’t mentioned in chapter 37 at all.
The question “Where’s God?” persists as the story unfolds. Joseph arrives in Egypt, and has many experiences, some bad, some good, but lands on his feet and ends up in a high position of power there. But, as before, where’s God? When Joseph is thrown in prison, where’s God? When the cupbearer is restored to power and the baker is executed, where’s God? It seems as if events simply go on. How unlike the Bible, we may think. But, how like our world today. For us things just pile up as event leads to event. Where’s God now in Syria, in Afghanistan (again), in North Korea? Or in many other places!
Joseph is famous for his dreams. His dreams sometimes grate on his family (e.g., the dream of his family bowing down to him), or seem to be a little unpredictable, (e.g., the fates of the cup bearer and the baker who share his prison cell in Egypt). But, bit by bit, we realize that Joseph’s dreams are coming true. At the end of the story, when Joseph is in charge of Egypt’s food supply and famine has taken its toll on all the countries round about Egypt, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for a hand out from this man they didn’t recognize. As we readers know, and the brothers finally figure out, their fate is in the hands of the brother they tried to kill. And they wonder what he will do to them. But the point is in what Joseph says: “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as is so today” (50:19-20). How much before the brothers “got it” do you think Joseph did? God is and has been there, working in the everyday processes of life to bring the dream to fruition. But it turns out not to be Joseph’s dream that comes true, but God’s. It is only in the long view, and, then, only at times that we get the privilege of seeing the meaning and direction of things. That’s where faith in that unseen God comes into the picture; to hope that God is working even when we cannot see it, or even recognize the God that is at work, and to act on the basis of that hope.
And that’s where we’ll move from the first book of the Old Testament to the first book of the New. Our Gospel is another familiar story from Matthew: the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the sea; or, better, of Jesus walking and Peter sinking. By the time Matthew told his version of Jesus on the sea, it had been at least a half century since the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and quite a number of years since Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in the mid 60’s. Although Matthew shares the story of Jesus walking on the sea with Mark and John, it is only Matthew that includes this little bit about Peter and Jesus. The purpose of this story is not just to hold out that Jesus walked on the sea once in history and so did another miracle. The point is not that Peter sunk when he tried to get out of the boat. Why should this story be told?
Let me suggest that when Matthew wrote, the early church was struggling to find its identity in the world, more and more as a new expression of faith in God, separate from the synagogue. Such was unimaginable to some. Everything was over. How can God be in any of that? I think the story tells us what it’s like to be followers of Jesus who exist between faith and doubt, in a world in which things just seem to happen, and storms come up, and Jesus isn’t in our boat, and we don’t even recognize Jesus. The story tells what it is like to meet Jesus in a storm, whatever it may be, in our life.
There is no doubt that Peter, whether he stands for all followers of Jesus or leaders of communities of faith, discovered the difference between belief and faith here. It was fine to believe that Jesus was walking out there on the sea. But having faith meant taking the risk to get out of the boat. And that’s scary.
I think the story of Peter is about conquering our fear. We saw a couple of minutes ago that Joseph counseled his brothers to let go of fear. Peter’s story is the fourth of seven significant times in Matthew that Jesus says, “Stop being afraid.” Here it comes just as the disciples in the story are being torn apart both by the sea and by fear. Then they see a figure they don’t recognize on the sea. They think it’s a ghost, which, in that day, would have meant it intended them harm. And they’re even more terrified But Jesus said, “Take courage (right now), it is I, so stop being afraid (right now).” You know who this is. Jesus offers help from the God of the Joseph story who sometimes operates under the radar and yet says stop fearing.
I suppose that the church has always been afraid of something. Many times it is about survival. What we often mean is survival in the way we think things ought to be. As churches, we sometimes try to steer ourselves to what’s ahead while keeping our hands fiercely grasping the steering wheel so as not to turn to the right or the left with our eyes fixed on the rear view mirror. We found a time in the past that we treasure and think of as the golden age of the church and we are afraid it’s going to change. It is. The church has existed in many forms and modes, most all of them nothing like our mythical golden age. Do you think that the fear of Matthew’s congregation was of standing apart from the synagogue and how the God of Abraham could honour that? Was that their golden age? The church exists in many forms now, more every day. We need to hear Jesus saying, “Take courage, I am here, so stop letting fear control you.” The church will change, but it’s Jesus’ church not ours. Therefore, we need have no fear of future change. And I don’t mean anything so unimportant as mere worship style. Is Jesus saying to us (and I mean us), “Get out of the boat”? (What do you think the boat is?) And we’re afraid. And, even if we do exercise our courage a little and venture out of the boat, it’s almost impossible not to begin to look around at what we’ve done. “Who can walk on the sea?” The Hebrews hated the sea. It was one of their favourite images of chaos. When one of them imagined perfect union with God, he wrote, “There was no more sea” (Rev. 21:1). And we sink in worry and lack of focus. It’s impossible to walk on the sea. It’s impossible to leave the golden age behind. And, then, there’s the hand of Jesus that pulls us up and deposits us back in the boat. And the storm stops. And he says, not, “what stupid lack of faith,” but “You almost had it.” “Next time exercise focus on one thing not two (Jesus and the storm).” The word “doubt” that Jesus used here means trying to focus on two things not one. Jesus is the one who comes walking on the sea of chaos and fear to aid disciples whose boat is being, literally, “tortured” by winds and waves. Jesus called Peter one of “little faith” here, but he only used that name for disciples, and little faith is a start. He knew that, although there are things that are beyond us, there is much that we can do as we learn to exercise our “little faith” in the love and grace of God, you guessed it, out of the boat, in the storm.
To end where we began with some of Paul’s words from Romans 8:
We know that in all things God is working for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose…Since God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.