DOGGY PADDLE IF YOU MUST

A lot of stuff doesn’t follow the script. What you foresaw and believed
would happen doesn’t materialize. Your best friend is no longer your best
friend. That job that was going to make the difference doesn’t come close.
Your partner is less partner than antagonist. We depend on something
zigging and it ends up zagging. Sometimes you can’t believe what gets
thrown at you or what’s yours to handle. What falls in your lap and gets
hoisted on your shoulders feels like the wrong thing at the wrong time. Yet,
there it is. It’s not meant to sink you but it sure feels heavy. You won’t sink
but doggy paddle if you must.
As Isaiah says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am
your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with
My righteous right hand.”
When I bike, I like it when the wind is with me on the way out because
then I don’t feel how much help I’m getting and by the time I turn around
I’m way far from home. See, if it was the other way and the wind was against
me on the way out, then I’d quit earlier and have an easier ride home. Sounds
good, but I go biking for the exercise. So, when I’m out there and I make the
turn to come home, that’s often when I feel the wind hit me and feel how
much harder it is to make the same distance I was just making. I can tell you,
at least from my experience, you can get a desperate feeling creep into your
gut at that moment. A little wave of panic tilts your mind, throwing you off
your rails. “This is a little crazy,” I’ve thought to myself during those times.
But you know what I tell myself when I’m ten or more miles away
from home, my legs are tired already, and I’m starting to breathe heavier
even though I haven’t gone far at all? I say, “Just keep moving the pedals.
Time keeps going and I will get home.” It’s because it’s just a matter of time.
If I keep pedaling, I will make it home. It may be later than I thought it
would be, than I planned it would be, but I’ll get home. I always do, in fact.
Doggy paddle if you must, but you will get home.
It’s important to keep pedaling. Get the wheel to turn over again. The
Lord can say a new word into even an old ear if it’s still willing to listen a
bit.
When you look at our scripture, you sort of feel sorry for the disciples.
I mean, if you’re being honest, that is. Because, well, how could anyone keep
up with Jesus? They couldn’t, and it’s painfully obvious this morning. They
don’t have a clue what’s coming next. One moment, they’re on a nice grassy
lawn, best friends with this amazing guy who’s teaching and healing
hundreds and hundreds of people, maybe even thousands. They have it made.
The dreams they’re dreaming. The plans they’re planning. The thoughts
they’re thinking! How things have started to go their way. They bet on the
top horse in the race, which of course must mean they’re as smart as they’ve
always thought they were, and he’s way out in front.
Then they start to act the part they’ve written for themselves in their
new drama titled All the Messiah’s Men. Like they’re Jesus’ handlers, his
agents, those who know what’s best for him and their fellowship of thirteen.
Can’t you hear their helpful hints? “Jesus, Rabbi, (‘we’re hungry’—left
unsaid) how about we call it a wrap tonight, OK? Have all those others go
their way. That way we can go have a nice relaxing dinner, hang out, and
enjoy our cozy little band of brothers.”
Man, I’d love to have seen Jesus’ face as these know-nothings tried
their schmooze and dance number on him. Did he roll his eyes? Did his
mouth slowly grow into a smile until he opened it to speak? Did he sigh or
say a prayer? Just to have some hint of Jesus’ personality would be so
wonderful, but not a single writer thought that was the thing to do.
Now don’t get me wrong. We would have all done the same thing. It
was time for all those people to depart into their little worlds. The show was
over. We have ours and they have theirs, probably. Yeah, that would have
been us, too. We all love our groups, our carving the world into me and
mine, and those and whoever and whatever. We have delineations of what’s
mine, how far I need to go, and what I am to do. Anything more is unfair, not
in my notes, outside my margins, belongs to someone else. These are my
plans and those aren’t. Well, now, if you don’t mind me asking—how well is
that working for you? Keeping things colored inside the lines is like
demanding God to appear or the sun to stop shining or the earth spinning.
It’s so easy to grow resentful or pick up your pieces and skedaddle. To
quit, but of course to call it something else, something much nobler. But each
escape from what you didn’t ask for and don’t want to take leaves us with a
little less. We don’t get by getting away. We lose by not lasting long
enough—by not turning the wheel another time. Doggy paddle if you must
but stay in it—you’re not sinking. Think more wisely. See possibilities
further down the line. Pray more often or more deeply. Talk or hum or sing
to the Lord and call for help.
This is when Jesus takes the disciples prepared scripts into his hands,
turns them lengthwise and rips them. Then pulls out new scripts and hands
them out. In this new scene, the disciples don’t get to dismiss the people
hungry. In this act, the people aren’t looked on by the disciples as the setting
around which Jesus and his band of merry men shower them with attention
for awhile, speak fine words of great import—nodding wisely in
agreement—and then exit stage left. Jesus’ script writes in this multitude as
essential, not extras, as the equal to—not different from. When he tells the
disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” the
disciples’ world as planned shattered.
Can you imagine the looks on those guys’ faces?! Gob-smacked!
Dumbfounded. Incredulous.
Christ hands off to you matters of intense importance. We just have a
tough time reading it. The Lord gives you people who we don’t think belong,
or they ask too much, or we’re not fit for the task, or we’re too busy doing
our own thing, but they’re still ours. It’s up to us to grow into the role of
feeding them and not us. Don’t dismiss others; that is, don’t dismiss God’s
word spoken to you: “You give them something to eat!” We here should
make it our mission, our focus, our animating principle as a church to feed
the world with the goodness and glory of this faith, of Church on the Hill.
I don’t know if God has a good sense of humor or can’t help but see
how far you can stretch. We get pushed in life. We try to be the lead actor at
home or at work, but nope, that role has already been cast for a few others.
We try to get a romantic lead in a romantic comedy and turns out it’s more of
a bit part in an infomercial. We’re clearly not executive producers nor are we
directors. You know what we are? We’re the people who make the coffee or
we go get the coffee for the star. We’re the ones who tighten the tie, help
someone with their lines. We’re the ones behind the scenes. That’s because
we’re the ones who make it all happen. More than that, we’re the glue when
the world is coming apart. We’re the rock someone drowning needs. We’re
the goodness in goodness’s sakes!
I’m aware that we think there’s got to be someone else to do that type
of stuff. So did the disciples until they were shown a better way, Christ’s
way. And that’s when they got to witness the miracle of feeding the
multitude.
After feeding the masses, Jesus sent his disciples ahead by boat to the
other side of the Sea of Galilee. He stays because, well, I guess he still hadn’t
gotten any alone time. But in the early morning hours, a storm rolls
in. There’s a strong wind and waves batter the boat. The disciples are soaked,
watching the horizon, looking for land, when a shadowy figure comes
walking across the water. Now they’re terrified of the “ghost.”
Three Gospels tell this story, but only Matthew includes Peter walking
on water. The disciples are scared when the figure walking across the water
speaks, but they hear words of comfort. “It’s me,” says Jesus. “Take
heart. Do not be afraid.” Then Peter opens his mouth, as he’s prone to do. “If
it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is the only time I
recall someone asking Jesus to command them to do something, and it’s also
odd because what a weird way to ask for proof of Jesus’ identity. Why not,
“If it is you, tell us what town Bartholomew is from.” Or “Tell us what we all
had for supper last night.” Or better yet and more to the point, “If it is you,
make this storm stop!” Given the circumstances, that’s the only request that
makes sense.
There’s a dividing line here for us the reader, onlookers to this holy
drama. The dividing line runs between what it was like then vs. what it is like
now. We read the Bible, the Gospel stories about Jesus, with an eye and a
heart to hear something about what it was like then with Jesus. We want to
know what he did and how amazing he was. Of course, we do. The Gospels
want to show that. But the authors also want to reveal in these stories what it
is like now. What I mean by what it is like now is what it is like post Jesus’
resurrection and departure. The “now” means all time from when Christ was
no longer present personally leading his disciples until now—and into the
future, of course. Since every single portion of the New Testament was
written in that after Christ’ departure, they all have in mind and express in
their own way, “What it is like now” and not just what it was like then with
Jesus.
Our biblical stories are not raw reporting of the event as it happened,
what it was like then, because Christian faith is not just about what Jesus did
or what happened back then. It also has to be about what it is like now. The
Gospels, through their stories, are educating what it means to be Christian
and what it means to be the Church, using stories about Jesus Christ to teach
us. Showing us what Jesus did or said is great, but it wasn’t and still isn’t
enough because there was a Church created in his name that tries to endure
through time and place. An author can write a biography of Abraham
Lincoln or Marie Curie, what she did and said, and leave it at that. But that’s
because there’s no community of people living in her name and with her
teachings and trying to reflect her actions the next year or the next two or
three millenia.
When Peter asks an apparently strange question, it’s because it’s an
important question. It’s not necessarily however a historically accurate one.
It may not be what happened, but it may be what’s required, in the sense that
the Gospel writer believed the question was necessary in order to have an
opening to teach the meaning of the Christian faith for his present church and
the future Church and to show the reality Christians face, that is, what it’s
like to be Christian “now.”
Because Christians, Matthew’s Christians especially, had to learn how
to be faithful amid ostracization and persecution, experiences likened in this
story to a storm that wasn’t stopping apparently, Matthew can’t have Peter
request the storm to stop. It would have been glaringly inauthentic to his
community and all Christian communities under such duress to ask Christ to
stop the storm, no matter how much we always want the storm to stop.
We may not want the storm—nobody does. We don’t want anything
but smooth sailing, our plans to be God’s plans, our dreams to be the
dreams—just like Peter. But what is now is many times not what is sought.
Peter was so brave and faithful, a bit like us when we ask God to show
us what to do, what choice is right. “I’m ready, Lord. If you’re out there, then
count me in. Command me to come out there. Just tell me to do it and I’ll do
it. Just show me your will, what I’m supposed to do, and I’ll do it.” Isn’t that
a thought and a prayer we’ve all had? Out Peter goes, up for a moment, then
down and back into the boat with all the disciples. Peter the brave becomes
Peter one brother among many.
There is no “I” in team, or boat, or church. Sisters and brothers, we are,
one with another, braving storms, afraid together and faithful together. But,
you know, it’s a good boat; she’s a fair sea-going vessel. And it’s a boat that
has room, space for others, a multitude of others. If need be, we’ll build more
space; we’ll make room, so that Christ’s command that we feed them comes
true among us, all of Christ’s “us.”
Can the church say Amen?

Tags: