After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."
One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
When I was at the Washington Island Forum in Door County a few weeks ago, I got to listen to a series of lectures by the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The lectures were based on her recent book, Rehearsing Scripture. Florence outlined and illustrated for us a way of reading Scripture in a group, as opposed to reading it all by your lonesome.
Rehearsing Scripture, she told us, is a lot like rehearsing a play. The actors are assigned parts, they gather in a circle and then they read. Sometimes they switch parts or read their character’s words from a different perspective. They read to understand, so they can say out loud what the playwright wants to have said.
Florence told us she learned this way of reading from her theater teacher in college. He divided her class into small groups, assigned them scenes from a play and sent them off to rehearse. “And don’t come back”, he told them, “until you find something true”.
Finding the truth in a Bible story, and particularly where the story is speaking truth to you, the reader, is what rehearsing Scripture is all about.
I’m telling you all this for two reasons. First, as a heads up for everyone who attends Ruth Dobson’s adult Bible Study downstairs during the school year (and those of you who think you might join us in September). We are going to be following Anna Carter Florence’s “Rehearsing Scripture” format this year and I think you will enjoy it.
The second reason for this introduction is that I’m going to show you how it works, starting right now with today’s story. Keep in mind, though, this is a much abbreviated version of rehearsing Scripture. What I am giving you in the next 10 minutes took me about 10 hours this week to figure out.
The Bible exists, you know, to tell us something true about God. Our job as readers and rehearsers is to find that truth and speak it out loud. Anna Carter Florence suggests there are 6 questions we need to ask of any text if we are to really listen to it and understand it. The first 3 questions take us in to the story to find what is true there—especially the truth that is speaking to us. The last 3 bring us out of the story with something to say; some way of speaking the truth we have found.
Here’s the 1st question: What’s the place in the story that grabs you?
Anna told us to pay attention to that place because, she said, it isn’t the story that’s grabbing you. It’s the Holy Spirit using that part of the story to grab you.
The first time I read the story this week I got grabbed by the last 3 verses: “When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted (were eager) to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”
The 2nd question is—Why does this part of the story grab you?
Well, did you catch that “immediately” part? “At once!” is how another translation phrases it. The Sea of Galilee is 8 miles wide. The disciples have rowed, against a heavy wind, 3 or 4 miles out. They have 4 or 5 miles to go. Jesus steps into the boat and “at once!” they are at the other shore.
This is, of course, impossible. Things take time. Everything takes time. Nothing gets from here to there “at once”, especially if “there” is 5 miles away. That would be a kind of time travel; which is, of course, impossible.
And so I wondered, Why John would write this story with this impossible detail so prominently on display? I found this very puzzling.
Here’s question #3: What do you know about God from this moment in the story?
So I started thinking about other places in the Bible where time is an important detail. Pretty quickly, my mind went back to the 1st chapter of Genesis—you know, back to the beginning of time where, in the 1st 5 verses, God separates the light from the darkness; God calls the light day and the darkness night. There is evening and morning—the first day. God creates time. God is Lord of space and time.
We live in time. God uses time. That is to say, God controls time.
Then I remembered something else I learned—a long time ago: the whole purpose of John’s gospel, as John himself said, is to convince us that Jesus is “the Son of God”. That is to say, John wants to convince us that God has put Divinity on display in the life and person of Jesus; that what God is can be seen in who Jesus is.
And because God is the master of time, this apparently includes the ability to step into a boat and immediately, instantaneously, arrive at your destination.
So what do we know about God from this moment? Nothing we can understand, it seems to me; but much we can trust. Things that are impossible to us are child’s play to God, John is saying; freshman physics to God. We don’t know how. We don’t get to know how. We just get to trust that when Jesus steps into our little boat in the middle of very big lake in the middle of a very big storm—everything is going to be alright.
Question #4: Why does your community need to hear this today?
This almost certainly goes without saying, so I’ll say it anyway: We are living in a storm; a cultural, social, political, climatic and very importantly to us, a theological storm of biblical proportions. And we’re a long ways from safe harbor and dry land. We’re not even half way there yet and we’re making no headway against the winds.
We need to hear this today because the story tells us that our storm, as bad as it is, is not the biggest thing in the universe.
Question #5: What do you want to say about this?
I want to say this: if John is telling the truth when he says Jesus is the manifestation of God on earth, and I believe he is, then not much has really changed since the beginning. Since that beginning when God tamed the watery chaos and God said let there be light and let there be day and let there be night.
Nothing has changed.
The storms still rage and the winds still blow and people are as mean and nasty and violent as people are wont to be and we are in the middle of all that, vainly rowing against the wind but—
That isn’t the whole story or the best part of the story or the end of the story.
The best part of the story, I want to say, is that the God who “trampled the back of the sea”, as Job says in our Old Testament, is walking above our storm; still coming to us when the winds are beating us back; still climbing into our boat and guiding us to safe harbor—in a flash, it seems to us; in “the twinkling of an eye”, as St Paul said in our New Testament.
The storm is not the story, you see. The Lord of Time—in Genesis and in the gospel, is the story. That’s what I want to say.
And question # 6: What do you hope these words will do?
Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it? What difference can words make? Really, what can words do?
Much, I believe.
If John’s words are true—and I believe they are, if God is greater than storms and winds, greater even than time and space, and Jesus still comes to us in our distress and guides us over the waves—then I think these words can do three things:
First, they can calm me down and help me to breathe again. They can take away the fear that defines so much of my life these days. They can give me reason to hope.
Second, these words can create communities, neighborhoods of people who breathe together; who live without fear (or at least with much less fear); these words can give birth to people who hope together.
And third, if these words are true, and I believe they are, they will project our fearlessness out to people from whom we might otherwise try to protect ourselves. If the storm can’t scare us, you see, then people whose skin tone is darker than ours won’t scare us and people whose language carries an accent different from ours won’t scare us and people whose religion includes beliefs strange to us won’t scare us.
“It is I”, Jesus says, standing above the waves. “Do not be afraid”. The words that calmed fears then can calm fears today. That’s what these words can do.
If these words are true and God is with us—always, and we are never alone—ever; if in life and in death and in life beyond death we belong to our Creator, then we can gratefully say, Thanks be to God. Amen.
on summer hiatus