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Beneath the Surface: What difference does it make how we interpret this little story?

A sermon for Pentecost 10A – Matthew 14:22-33 and 1 Kings19:9-18

 

After a splendid month-long vacation, I have returned to work as two mad men toss rhetoric into the ether that is designed to to strike fear of a nuclear holocaust into the hearts of people everywhere. Looking at Sunday’s readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18 in which Elijah hears the still small voice of God and Matthew 14:22-33 in which Jesus walks on water. Somehow, this sermon that I preached three years ago seems appropriate to repost so as to encourage us all to look beneath the surface of what we see, hear, and read! Shalom…

Listen to the sermon here:

There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks, who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he too walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks he too returned striding upon the water. The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not! I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”

Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the Gospel according to Matthew’s story of walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter we too have precious little faith that we or even Jesus for that matter can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we nor Jesus are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, many more monks than simply two to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us were the stones are so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come. One of those many monks is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254 and who left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To put a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lay a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning. For centuries, the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as the mysteries. While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries eventually creating a church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story that goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture that relies on symbols, myth, illusion and most important of all, allegory.

Origen and generations of theologian who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world. Sadly, perhaps in the beginning out for expediency’s sake, but eventually to preserve its own power over the masses the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures. The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by humanity regarding the natural world. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds and you and I live in a world where information is at our finger tips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices can now unlock the deeper mysteries that the church once kept hidden for the initiated. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy which once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture every jot and tittle have been carefully examined and re-examined and we know have so many interpretations that no-one of us can claim to be an expert in the field. We are all once again simply seekers of meaning. But there are a few of us who have dedicated their lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we here at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be know the as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world and it is Dom Crossan who I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface that might just enable us to find our way upon the sea so that we too might walk on water toward this character Jesus.

Dom is a wise revealer of mysteries, who insist that we must bring all our faculties of reason to bear upon our interpretations of scripture, while he warns against the dangers of relying upon literal interpretations. Dom insists that, when it comes to reading scripture the important thing to remember is that it: “is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” So, when it comes to this story about Jesus walking upon the water and of Peter’s lack of faith impeding his ability to follow Jesus, we do not have to check our brains at the door and believe that Jesus literally walked upon the water in order to follow Jesus. Indeed, in order to follow Jesus, we must look beyond the literal toward the symbolic and the allegorical if we are to begin to grasp the mysteries that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew was trying to reveal. We must begin with reason, and reason tells us that humans cannot walk upon water. This story may appear on the surface to be about a miracle, but hidden beneath the surface are stones that can enable us to follow Jesus.

The author of this particular story was writing some 50 to 70 years after Jesus walked the earth. The author whose name we don’t know, but whom tradition calls Matthew was writing to a fledging community which was struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus; a fledging community that lived in the midst of chaos. The Romans had only just destroyed their world and in addition to living under a brutal military occupation, this fledging little community was singled out by their oppresses for special persecution because many of them were Jewish and they aspired to follow the teachings of a Jew who had been executed by the Romans as an enemy of Rome. Chaos was all around them, their leaders where being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions. Peter and Paul had long since been executed by the State. In the ancient world chaos was represented by the sea. Storms on the sea represented a particularly fatal kind of chaos which threatened to destroy the fledgling little community of followers of the Way. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew works with the symbols his readers would have had no difficulty recognizing. The author of the Gospel wrote to encourage his battered and abused little community so that they might have the courage to continue to follow the Way, which Jesus taught, lived and died for.

The listeners of this particular allegory would have understood well that even in the midst of chaos, no storm could defeat them if only they kept their eyes firmly on Jesus. Have faith continue in the Way and the storm will cease and even you of meager means will not sink. So, with those stones revealed, mindful of the symbolic meaning of this story, what depth of understanding can we come to on our own particular journey across our stormy seas? What difference does it make how we interpret this little story?

Well as long as we continue to argue over whether or not it is possible for a man to walk upon the surface of the water or to calm a storm, Jesus remains but a mythical character. either Jesus remains a mythical character or we suspend our understanding of reality. What a choice? As a mythical character, we can admire Jesus, but can we actually emulate Jesus? Can we embody Jesus? I mean we are after all only human. So, if Jesus remains some sort of super-human, how are we supposed to embody Jesus? How do we live into the teachings of a super-hero? It is impossible to live as Jesus lived as long as our image of Jesus is one that insists that Jesus had super-powers. If we are to take Jesus teachings seriously, we must look beyond the literal to the deeper symbolic meaning. In the midst of the many storms that are raging; Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, (and the nucleolar rhetoric of madmen like Trump and Kim Jong-un) far too many wars and rumors of wars continue to rage and no super-hero is going to save us from our madness. How can we embody the peace to which Jesus points if we don’t even believe that Jesus was fully human? How is it possible for we mere mortals to aspire to be all that we are created to be, if we actually believe that it takes abilities beyond the natural order to save us from ourselves?

The storms that are raging, war, poverty, disease can only be quelled by a concerted effort from those who earnestly seek justice and peace in this world. If we are to do that as followers of the Way we are going to need to know where the stones are so that we can point them out to others yes, but more importantly so that we can lay them along side the stones which followers of other ways have found. If humanity has any hope of evolving into a species that can sustain life on this planet we need to look deeper into the sea, and begin to reflect what we see hidden beneath the surface of our seas. Let the chaos reveal what is there. Creation is sufficient to all our needs, we have the resources and the means to walk upon the waters of this life in the midst of any storm that comes our way. It is time for us to learn from our elders, it is time for us to look into the riches of all our traditions and to learn from our mistakes, as well as our triumphs.

It is time for us to have the courage to trust the wisdom that has been handed down to us and to reject the nonsense. It is time for us to dig deeper into the meaning of everything. It is time for us to stop looking to the heavens for salvation. It is time for us to have the courage of Elijah, who in the story handed down to us by our ancestors; a story rife with deeper meaning than we have yet to discover, a story in which Elijah a mere mortal dared to hope that the chaos of his time might be navigated. A story in which the ancient symbol of a mountaintop was used to reveal the place where Divine presence might appear. A story in which it is revealed that God comes not in the rush of a mighty wind, not in the power of an earth-quake, not in the devastation of a fire, but in the sound of a gentle whisper.

The ancient Hebrew words Bat Qol, which can be translated as gentle whisper, or still small voice or literally as “the daughter of a sound.” As much as we long to hear the mighty sound of a super-hero come to save us from ourselves. The truth is that the Divine One, the One we call God, the One who lies at the very heart of reality, that One: lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us, and speaks as a gentle whisper, a still small voice, the daughter of a sound.

So, standing upon our stones, we must begin to listen as we look to the One who lives in with, through, and beyond us. When I was a child, I remember being handed a large seashell. I was told that if I put the seashell up against my ear I would hear the sound of the ocean. As I grew up, I learned that the sound that I was hearing was not actually the ocean. I learned this the day that I cupped my hand over my ear and heard the very same sound. I learned that it was a sound that emanated from deep inside of me. While I still love the notion that I might be able to hear the ocean, I am even more intrigued that I can hear a sound that emanates from deep within. Sometimes when the seas of chaos threaten to sink me and I can’t for the life of me, hear the Bat Cole, when the still small, daughter of a sound eludes me no matter how hard I’ve been trying to listen, and like Peter I too have little faith, I will cup my hands over my ears, and then that sound that emanates from deep within will help me to hear the Bat Qol.

Standing upon the stones that have been revealed just beneath the surface, I encourage you to cup your hands over your ears if you need to be reminded of the sound that emanates form deep within you. Listen to your life. Listen to the deeper meanings that lie beneath the surface the stones which will enable you to walk upon the waters, to face the storms that rage around you, following the Way that has been revealed to us by our brother Jesus, so that together we can lay our stones alongside those who follow other ways of wisdom. Listen, to the Daughter of a Sound. Listen to the wisdom that lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us, so that together we can walk upon the water, and quell the raging storm. So, that all can live in the peace for which we all long to achieve. Let it be so. Amen.

Visit Rev. Dawn Hutchings’ website

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