Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
August 13, 2023
Our story picks up where we left off last Sunday. 5,000 men plus women and children have just finished eating their fill of a meal produced from just two fish and five loaves of bread. They have portioned out the leftovers into twelve full baskets. Jesus has dismissed them all and made the disciples get into the boat. He says goodbye to the crowds and sent the disciples sailing to the other side of the sea of Galilee. Then Jesus resumes his search for solitude.
Remember, the news has only just reached him about the tragically stupid death of his cousin and forerunner in ministry, John the Baptist. So, he sent them all away and walked off by himself. Scripture says, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. (Matthew 14:23). This is a recurring theme in all four gospels. Jesus felt the need to withdraw to a quiet place for prayer on a regular basis.
So, maybe you have the same question that I do. Why would Jesus, the Son of God, the second person the Trinity, need to go anywhere to pray? Why retreat into the wilderness or go up a mountain by himself? What? He needs a better cell connection?
The answer to this question points at two things: 1) first, Jesus’ human nature; and 2) the purpose of prayer. As his reputation continued to grow and large crowds gathered to hear him and to have their sickness cured, it is instructive that Jesus felt the need to withdraw to a quiet place for prayer on a regular basis. There seems to be a rhythm in his life between the times of active ministry and the times of prayer-filled solitude. Of course, prayer is possible in any place and at any time. There is no place we can travel that is outside the bounds of God’s abiding presence. And yet, like us, Jesus is human. He must be intentional about prayer to re-center himself in God. He needs to step away from his routines and the everyday demands on his attention to renew his mind and spirit by resting in the cleansing bath of the living presence of God. He needs to find his solid center again by becoming other-centered in God’s grace.
The purpose of prayer is not to manipulate God and to procure something for ourselves or to produce some psychic peace in our depths. “Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a life stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence [of God], and even of enjoying the Presence” and giving thanks (Richard Rohr, “A Prayerful Stance, Daily Meditations, 2/13/22).
The Word and Sacrament we find here in worship finds its healing purpose by opening again us once again to what Saints have called this the “sacrament of the present moment.” Following the example of our Lord Jesus, we come here, to this place which is our mountaintop at Immanuel to pray and be re-centered, renewed, and to be accountable.
Sometimes, like the prophet Elijah, when we go to God in prayer what we learn is that we are full of it. I love our story from first Kings. Elijah’s triumphant victory over the prophets of Baal has won him a death threat from Queen Jezebel. Scared for his life and feeling that no one cares, Elijah has run one day’s journey into the wilderness to sit and brood and sleep under a broom tree (just like another complaining prophet Jonah), Despite his grumbling, Elijah is awakened twice by angels who provide him food and drink. On the strength of that nourishment Elijah then journeys another forty days and forty nights to mount Horeb where God had given Moses the ten Commandments. After all that, what was the message Elijah heard? God asked him, ’What are you doing here Elijah?’ God says to him, ‘you’re fired’ and gave him the task of going to anoint his successor, Elisha. (But don’t feel too bad for Elijah, later God will still send chariots to carry him straight into heaven.) The power of prayer is an antidote to navel gazing and narcissism. Prayer brings accountability and repentance as much as healing and wisdom. When our mind and hearts are re-centered in prayer something surprising happens. It occurs to us that maybe we can add to our happiness and joy, not by holding on to life’s treasures, but by giving them away. Together, we thrive.
I’d like to draw your attention to verse 32. “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” After praying, Jesus caught up to the disciples at daybreak. They are still struggling to cross the sea. Matthew’s gospel says literally the boat was “being tortured or tormented” (basanizo) by the wind (v. 24). Adding to their fear, as Jesus approached, the disciples think they are seeing a ghost. The disciples seem afraid of their own shadow.
We miss the boat in reading this famous gospel as a story about defying the law of gravity –Jesus and Peter walk on water. People of faith in Jesus’ time understood it better. They told and retold this story and shared its astonishing promise: Christ has power to still life’s storm—to cancel out the threat of chaos through the power of his cross. This story rekindled their courage when it seemed chaos and disarray everywhere threatened to swamp them.
The episode involving Jesus and Peter is less important than what happened after they returned to the boat. The wind ceased! The antidote to the anxiety, self-doubt, and fear that plagues us today could be to stop trying to go it alone. Clinical psychology seems to agree, mature people “…weave their stable selves out of their commitments to and attachments with others. Their identities are forged as they fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens” (David Brooks, “Hey, America, Grow Up!” NYT, 8/10/23). We might add participating in a church community to this list.
They go on, ‘Maturity is achieved by getting out of your own selfish point of view and developing the ability to absorb, understand and inhabit the views of others.’ “Mature people are calm amid the storm because their perception lets them see the present challenges from a long-term vantage. They know that feeling crappy about yourself sometimes is a normal part of life. They are considerate to and gracious toward others because they can see situations from multiple perspectives. They can withstand the setbacks because they have pointed their life toward some concrete moral goal” (Brooks).
Jesus, Savior, pilot me to traverse the boundary between strangers, to forge authentic bonds of peace and stability, to uncover our common connections, and our God-given gifts to calm the storm. Do not be afraid dear church. The area where you are seated is called the Nave. It takes its name from the same Latin word navis, which means, “ship.” The church is built to travel. It’s built to traverse, tempest-tossed, upon the turbulent seas that separate God’s people from one another. Jesus invites us with the disciples, to cross over to the other side.
“Many of us were taught that it is more blessed to give than receive, but the truth is that we must first receive in order to give” (Diana Butler Bass, Gratitude, Prologue p. XXV). Here in prayer and worship we hear again Jesus’ invitation to find our solid center in the other-centered love of God to be a living sanctuary of love and hope.