A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on June 21, 2015, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.
I said last week that I did not choose the readings for these last two weeks but I couldn’t have chosen much better. Last week we had some thoughts about choosing leadership. This week, more on a very similar subject. I looked up the readings for today weeks ago and when I came back to work on them it turned out that I had misremembered what the gospel was about and thought it was about Jesus walking on water. So I’d been thinking what a great opportunity that made to talk about what you should look for in a priest. It’s actually a pretty standard thing to say when parishes start thinking about what they want in a priest and walking on water is a pretty good summary.
But, in fact, that is not today’s Gospel: today’s Gospel is a simpler matter of stilling the storm – but it may be even more relevant. I mean, is it useful to have a priest who can walk on water? Under what circumstances would it be helpful? Maybe if you were in Texas or Oklahoma this last week it would be a useful skill. But not here. Here’s there’s not enough water to walk on even if somebody could. But stilling storms . . . that I can see would have value. We can pray that our next President can do it; he or she will need to. And most parishes also will find themselves needing a good storm-stiller from time to time. And maybe we have our own storms to face and need to remember the Lord who asked the storm-tossed disciples, “Why are you afraid?
So let’s think about what’s going on here and what relevance it has for us. I think the first question a lot of people want to ask about stories like these – stilling a storm, walking on water, whatever – the question we ask in the scientific age is what are the facts? What really happened? And the problem we have is that there’s no one who can answer that question. Well, there are people out there who will say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But Episcopalians aren’t usually that easily satisfied. We like to talk about “Scripture, tradition, and reason” as our sources of authority, how we settle things.
It’s easy for Roman Catholics: they have the pope to settle things or maybe unsettle things when he starts to talk about climate change. And it’s easy for fundamentalists: they can look it up in the Bible. But we’re Anglicans and we’re not satisfied with just the pope and not just the Bible, and not just tradition, and not just reason, but “Scripture, and tradition, and reason.” Is it in the Bible is always the first question. That counts for a lot, but for us it’s not the whole story. There’s also tradition: is it something that comes from long tradition like worshiping on Sunday? That’s not in the Bible, but it’s a pretty strong tradition. We should pay attention to such traditions. But there’s still a third question: is it reasonable? Most churches ask only one of these questions: if it’s in the Bible, that’s all that matters, or if the Pope said so, that’s all that matters, or if it’s reasonable, that’s all that matters. But we want it all: Scripture, and tradition, and reason.
So when we come to a story of Jesus walking on water or stilling a storm, the fact that it’s in the Bible counts for a lot but we still need to weigh in with reason. Is it really likely that this happened? Is it reasonable? Part of our problem then is that they didn’t ask those questions in the first century when they were writing these stories down. It was what we call a “pre-scientific world.” Some events were more unusual than others, but there was no dividing line between natural and supernatural. So the idea that Jesus could walk on water or still a storm didn’t particularly surprise them. Yes, it was unusual, but unusual things happened all the time. Lightening flashed and thunder rolled and the stable earth quaked and no one knew why so they blamed it on God and if God created storms, God could certainly still storms. So they told this story because it showed Jesus doing one of the things that God does. In particular, it showed Jesus fulfilling scripture which spoke of God stilling storms.
Take Psalm 107, for example, a hymn of praise for a God revealed in nature. That psalm talks about a storm at sea and the fears of those involved, and it says:
28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper * and quieted the waves of the sea.
30 Then were they glad because of the calm, * and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy * and the wonders he does for his children.
God can still storms. The Jews were a desert people and a storm at sea was a fearful display of God’s power. What could be more wonderful than the quieting of such a storm? And, you see, that’s exactly what the story shows Jesus doing: doing what God does, ruling over nature. So if Jesus was doing what God does, what does that tell you about Jesus? That’s the point of the story. That’s what interested people in the first century – and, actually, most centuries until we got scientific.