Worshipping in a boat

Rev. Paul Escamilla | August 9, 2020

August 9, 2020            Matthew 14:22-33                  Worshiping in a boat                 P. Escamilla

The church has been portrayed with different biblically inspired metaphors through the centuries: a sheepfold, a cultivated vineyard, the building of God, the bride of Christ the body of Christ. And a boat. Church as a boat comes from stories like the one we just read.

And that particular metaphor readily found its way into church architecture. The seam along the vaulted ceiling of many sanctuaries, is, with a little imagination, a ship’s keel. The apse that often protrudes outward is suggestive of the bow of a boat. The central area of a church, where worshipers gather to sing and pray, we call the nave, from the Latin navis, ship. All this time we’ve been worshiping in a boat!

The boat metaphor has three meanings related to the faith journey—life with God in community:

  1. First: the nature of that journey is uncharted; no road signs, mile markers, guard rails; no striping on the road
  2. Second: the journey occurs over water, representing chaos, threat, destruction; with cross currents, storms, confused seas to which even the most seaworthy vessel is vulnerable
  3. Finally, most importantly, the church as a boat reflects the assurance of the God community that in spite of these two things, we are not alone on the voyage: Christ is with us in the boat.

It wasn’t so in this story—not at first. Jesus has the disciples cross the lake without him; in Matthew’s gospel it is their very first time to be separated from him.

An array of uncertainties fills the scene: 1) they are alone; 2) it is dark—the dead of night, Matthew tells us; 3) they are far from the shore. And one more very important thing: it’s stormy, which means not only a tipping and tossing boat, but no coordinates, no bearings; no stars, no moon, no horizon. A precarious situation, even for people accustomed to the water and the boat. Buffeting, battering. Pitching. In Greek the word describing the waves against the boat is “torment,” the same word used to describe demons’ behavior. One translator turns a noun into a verb in translating that word, saying the waves “ordealized” the boat. I appreciate that conversion; I find it a useful way to describe our year—ordealized.

Jesus approaches them on the water and says three things: first, take courage (comfort, courage, cheer); last, Be not afraid. In the middle, It is I. Actually with that middle statement there appears no predicate nominative in the Greek text; Rather than “It is I,” it more accurately reads, “I am . . .” Instantly a deeper, richer, broader set of associations comes to mind. It is God’s self-identifier from long before: I am. And this assertion—that Jesus is mediating the divine—gives deeper, richer meaning to what he has said on either side of that declaration: Take courage; be not afraid. Why? I am . . . God is near.

Peter is not sure; which reveals to us that not just for moderns and post-moderns do moments shift in a heartbeat from brilliant to boring, sublime to suspect. “If it is you . . .” It’s his Doubting Thomas moment. We could say his doubting _________ (your name here) moment. We’ve all had moments, seasons, stretches of years even—wrestling with, wondering about, perhaps totaling dismissing or forgetting the whole question of faith, hope, maybe even love.  

If it is really you, bid me come, Peter says to Jesus. The results are checkered. He steps out, then loses his footing and begins to sink beneath the waves. Peter is everyman; everywoman. Faith . . . or fear, devotion . . . or doubt; these things vie for primacy in our hearts and heads not only when it’s time to walk on water on a lake in the dark during a storm, but even on dry land in broad daylight, happy campers all around. Sometimes it’s on the firmest footing that the deepest questions can afford to come. I live alone in a paradise that makes me think of two.

Fear, or faith; doubt or devotion? Depends on the day, the disposition, the need, the energy level. Lately it depends on what I call the Covid coping quotient.

With Jesus’ help, Peter makes it back into the boat. And then they all make it safely to shore right as the sun is rising, the clouds from the night storm are beginning to clear. They climb out of the boat, and in the dawning light, they kneel on terra firma and worship Jesus.  

Only that’s not what happens. They don’t wait for land, for light, for bearings, for terra firma to recognize the holiness of this figure. Right then and there, in the dark, far from shore, with no bearings or orientation, they worship Jesus in the boat. On the water he had said, “I am.” In the boat they respond, “You are . . .”

Worshiping . . . in a boat. It’s what we’ve always done—we just may not have realized it. Come into this room, acknowledging that we don’t know what the future holds; that there are forces around us, even within us, that are threatening, unsettling, disorienting, discouraging; but that we are not alone. God is with us. And that is all the assurance we need.

It’s just a way of practicing for life, practicing for this year, which has been a time of displacement and disruption like no other, when it’s as though everything we do is in a battered, buffeted boat.

Getting groceries in a boat. Working in a boat. Raising children in a boat. Sending them to school in a boat. Keeping them home in a boat. Celebrating a birthday in a boat. Interviewing for a job in a boat. Conducting a Zoom meeting in a boat. Maintaining a friendship in a boat. Offering caring ministry in a boat. Seeking social justice in a boat. Governing in a boat. Vacationing in a boat. Burying our dead in a boat. Comforting the bereaved in a boat.

And then, of course, back where we started—worshiping in a boat. Preaching into cameras, singing into masks, offering music into an empty room. And yet, not. Reaching you, wherever you are, whoever you are. When Laura reaches her hands up toward children as she speaks, I sense little ones on the other side drawing in a little closer, and maybe some grownups, too. In moments, in ways, we are majoring in the mystical, the metaphysical; we are sensing a connection, a closeness even deeper than before.

We are simply repeating the miracle in this story—the other miracle, I mean: that in spite of the fact that they were in the dark, on the water, without being able to see what was out there, what was ahead, what was beneath them, the disciples worshiped.

The Laurel Heights sanctuary exterior was in need of significant refurbishing. Thanks to a generous church, visionary leadership, and gifted artisans, that project was funded, undertaken, and completed.

What does that accomplishment mean? At least two things. First, it means that a congregation stepped up to the responsibility and privilege of shoring up a beautiful century-old building in infrastructural ways that will be essential to its long-term integrity and viability.

It means something else, too. To paraphrase Jim Laney, every renovated building is a declaration. And ours is this: the Laurel Heights congregation is ready to continue worshiping in this boat; practicing the faith that encourages us to trust that on this uncharted journey across uncharted waters called a Covid 19 life experience—or how about just “life experience” any time—we believe that God is with us. And as Ralph Abernathy once put it, while we are not assured what the future holds; we are assured of who holds the future.

I tend to think it’s nip and tuck in our lives any time, and certainly in this time, between fear and faith, doubt and devotion. But when we gather here, either in person or online, grace being what it is, fear begins a gradual surrender to faith, and doubt can be offered up as though just a part of the heart’s devotion, part of the gift, the mystery, the miracle of worshiping in a boat.