We Have To Step Out Of The Boat

Basil, lettuce, leeks and carrots in my garden.  Thankfully I’m past the point where my winter meals depend on harvesting and preserving everything the garden has to offer during the summer.  It feels good to work the earth and watch as the seeds sprout and develop.  Nothing compares with tomatoes, cucumbers and melons fresh from the garden directly to the table.  No grocery store produce counter can offer the same quality and flavor.

Basil, lettuce, leeks and carrots in my garden.  Thankfully I’m past the point where my winter meals depend on harvesting and preserving everything the garden has to offer during the summer.  It feels good to work the earth and watch as the seeds sprout and develop.  Nothing compares with tomatoes, cucumbers and melons fresh from the garden directly to the table.  No grocery store produce counter can offer the same quality and flavor.

God wants us to live rich full lives, but we have to be willing to step out of the boat.

It is what our scriptures are talking about this morning.  We’ll take a quick look at the scriptures.  The come from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 14, verses 22-33 and it is the miracle of Jesus walking on the water.

Jesus is well into his ministry at this point. He has been traveling throughout the area of Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing and in the process he has developed a significant following.

Chapter 14 begins with the death of John the Baptist.  Chapter 14 is a turning point in Matthew’s story of Jesus.  Here we see Jesus start to turn from Galilee where he has spent the last two years and begin a slow migration toward Jerusalem where he will eventually become the sacrifice for all mankind.

But at this point in time he is probably at home in Capernaum and is upset as he learns about Herod providing the head of John the Baptist as the reward for a dance performed by his step daughter Salome.

We do not know the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.  (In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and John are cousins, but this isn’t the Gospel of Luke and we have to look at each Gospel as a stand-alone story.)  We know John is the person who baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17) so we know there was some kind of relationship. We can be sure Jesus was a follower.  Possibly Jesus and John were in a mentor/protégé relationship.  We do know that the news of John’s death hit Jesus very hard, and is probably part of the reason Jesus turned his ministry more from a pastoral type ministry to a teaching ministry and started his journey to Jerusalem.

We know Jesus needed to escape the crowds and process John’s death.

Jesus uses a boat to escape the crowds to reach the secluded hills along the north edge of the Sea of Galilee.  The problem with the Sea of Galilee is its size.  Only about 8 miles wide and 20 miles long Jesus and the boat are visible from the shore.  As Jesus starts off across the Sea of Galilee to find a place where he can be by himself the crowd simply follows along on the shore.

The boat reaches the shore and the people are waiting.  When Jesus sees them scripture tells us his heart went out to them.  Jesus spends the day healing their sick and infirm.  As evening is drawing near the disciples come to Jesus reminding him that they are in a remote area and for him to tell the crowds to disperse and go back to the villages where they will be able to find food and prepare for the coming night.

Jesus tells the disciples no, and for the disciples to feed the people.  The disciples explain they have only 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus has them bring the food to him, he blesses it and has the disciples pass it out to the people.

According to our scriptures nearly 5,000 men were fed that evening, no including the women and children.

Which brings us to this morning scriptures. 

Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him using the boat.  Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up into the mountains to pray.  Meanwhile the disciples are caught in one of the storms for which the Sea of Galilee is famous.

These storms come up suddenly when the atmospheric conditions are just right. 

The Sea of Galilee is 21 miles long and 8 miles wide and about 35 miles inland from the Mediterranean Ocean.  It sits approximately 700 feet below sea level.  Its depth is about 140 feet.  It is the lowest fresh water lake on earth, and second to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest body of water on earth.  The surrounding mountains are 3,600 feet above sea level.   The climate at the Sea of Galilee is semi-tropical and humid.  The climate on the surrounding mountaintops is cool and dry.  The extreme differences in temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure between the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains tops, and the Sea of Galilee create the violent storms.  A larger body of water would be able to absorb much of the storm’s energy but because the Sea of Galilee is so shallow the result is sudden, violent storms with large whipping waves.

These whipping waves have the disciples caught.  After navigating all night no matter what they did the waves simply tossed them around and it was impossible to make any progress. 

We can imagine the disciples frightened, cold, exhausted, and drenched after a night on the water.  In the fourth hour of the night (3 to 6 AM) with dawn approaching, they see Jesus walking across the water toward them. 

They believe they have seen a ghost and are terrified.  They cry out in fear but Jesus tells them to “Take courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”

Peter, who tries his best to emulate Jesus, asks, “If it is you, Lord, tell me to come to you on the water.”

And Jesus tells him to come.

Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus.  The combination of the wind and waves and the sudden realization he is doing the impossible make him lose his focus and he begins to sink.

Jesus reaches out to him, takes his hand, lifts him up,  “You of little faith,” Jesus tells Peter and asks, “Why did you doubt?”

Jesus and Peter climb into the boat.  Immediately the wind dies down, and the disciples worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.

There is so much going on in this passage.  Starting with the execution of John the Baptist, we see a change in Jesus’ manner. 

First we have Jesus trying to escape form the crowds and ending with one of great miracles of scripture, the feeding of the 5,000.

Next we have the unique miracle of Jesus walking on the water.  Next the miracle which is often overlooked, that of Peter walking on the water as he comes to Jesus.  And finally we have the miracle of Jesus calming the waves.

The miracles of Jesus can be placed into one of two categories.  The first category are the miracles of healing people as told when Jesus healed the people who followed him along the shore.  They wanted to be with him, because they knew he would be able to help them.  The second category are the miracles over nature, such as multiplying the fish and bread to feed 5,000+ or walking on the water to the stranded disciples.

Why perform miracles?  There are a couple of reasons.   One reason is that it demonstrates the power of God.  By demonstrating God working through him, Jesus drew people to him and identified himself as the one chosen by God.  Another reason, and my personal favorite is Jesus cared.  It did not matter who you were, or what your problem was, if you were hurting, Jesus cared, and wanted to help.

To me this is the most telling thing about God, whether working through Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.  God cares about us on an individual level.

Which brings us to the question I see in our scriptures today.  We know God works in our lives, lifting and carrying us, but sometimes we have to participate.  Are we ready to do what God needs to be done?   Think about that for the next few minutes and while you do that, let me tell you a story.

It has been hot and humid back in northwest Iowa where my family lives out on the farm.  I talked to my Mom the other day and she says the temperatures have been in the high 90’s, cooling off into the 70’s at night.  Which might not sound so bad except the humidity has been hovering around the 90% range.

I remember those days well.  If you stopped and just looked off to the horizon, not focusing on anything in particular, you could see the moisture hanging in the air shimmering in the sunlight.  A breeze, no matter how faint was simply a blessing.

I also remember that it was canning season.  August is the height of tomato canning.   What better way to spend your August afternoons than in a stuffy farmhouse kitchen with boiling pots of water and an assembly line of prepping jars.  By mid afternoon you were wishing for earlier in the day, when you were stooped over in the sun picking tomatoes for the days canning.

We usually started canning in late June or early July with the string beans.  This was not so bad, and considerably cooler.  Picking baskets of beans and sitting in the shade under the giant elm tree snipping the ends.  Give the beans a bath in the sink and a quick blanch in boiling water.  Clean the jars in the dishwasher, fill them with beans, attach the covers and then plunge the jars into the cooker to boil the air out.  Let the jars of beans cool on the kitchen table and then carry them to the shelves in the basement.  Be careful to separate them from what was left of last season.  At the most, the bean canning lasted a couple of weeks.

Corn was a mess.  Picking the corn in the field, shucking it, washing the ears, cutting it off the cob and blanching the corn.  It became so much nicer when we purchased the deep freeze.  This did away with the whole canning part and we filled freezer bags with the cut corn and dropped them into the freezer.  It got even better when we made the deal with the Fairway Store to buy our ears of corn out of the field for $.50 per dozen.  The stores would hold the money for us, and let us buy canned string beans and corn in exchange for the money. 

The good thing about the sweet corn season, it only lasted a couple of weeks at most.

Where were we?  I got sidetracked, ah yes tomatoes.  Canning tomatoes has to be the worst.

I think what made tomatoes so bad was the time of year.  August is simply hot and miserable, especially with no air conditioning.  We would open all the doors and windows in the house to try and encourage air movement through the boot room, kitchen, dining room and out the front porch.  With strategically placed fans, at least we were always standing in a breeze, even if it was a hot damp breeze. 

Tomato canning season never ends.  Once the tomatoes start ripening they continue ripening until the first hard freeze usually in September or October.  The canning goes on and on because you cannot afford to waste what nature has provided.

After picking the tomatoes you need to dip them in boiling water so you can peel them.  If we were lucky we canned whole tomatoes.  If there was chopping and additional preparation involved, it just got messier.

After the jars were cleaned and ready, they were filled and dipped into a boiling water bath for sealing.  The process repeats itself and went on and on and on.  We usually had around 50 tomato plants generating fruits we used for everything from whole tomatoes to sauces.  

Our garden provided canned goods for aunts, uncles and grandparents representing four households. In a typical year we canned up to 200 quarts of tomatoes.

We would do anything to take our minds off the robotic work we were doing.  Aunt Hattie liked to sing, and we learned hymns when she helped us with the canning.  My Mom liked to tell stories and lecture about history.  We did math and logic problems in our heads.  Anything was relief from the boring task.

I remember getting so board I stopped to stretch.  My Mom looked over and said I needed to do this properly.  She stretched her hands above her head.  She touched her toes a couple of times.  She held her arms out to her side and rotated them.   She held her arm straight in front of her shoulder high and kicked the palm of her hand.   

“That,’ Mom said, “is getting the kinks out.”

Aunt Hattie started laughing and told us about the time Aunt Delphine, my Mom’s oldest sister got in contest with Aunt Doris, the second oldest, and tried to kick the top of the back door.  She might have done it if she hadn’t been holding two buckets of tomato peelings she was carrying out back to the chickens.   She fell, spilling  both buckets of tomatoes peelings.  The buckets ended up on top of her and the peelings spread across the kitchen. 

I know I make it sound miserable, and it was, but the flip side is that in December when the snow is whistling around the corner of the house and the temperature is in that zero range walking down into the basement and lifting a quart of bright red tomatoes from the shelf is like bringing summer sunshine into the room.

Looking back, I see we were a subsistence farming family.  Our lives were very reminiscent of the depression era my family had weathered only about 30 years before.  We lived from our garden, eating what was in season, and saving the rest for when the garden no longer produced.

Eventually our ways changed, like selling the sweet corn and using the money to buy the canned goods.  But the one thing which never changed, was the tomato canning.  Tomatoes purchased in a tin can from the store do not measure up to the tomatoes you can in glass jars yourself. 

In fact today, my Mom still cans a few jars of tomatoes every week.  She says it is just to keep in practice.  Besides, they taste better.  I think it’s also to remind her of a time when she could kick her outstretched palm, when the family worked at a production line in the kitchen.  I think she likes the “pop” and aroma which fills the room when she breaks the seal.

We have a God who has given us so much, but we have a part to play.  We have been told that “works” alone will not save us.  Some people do nothing but sit on a bench and really believe with all their hearts that salvation has been offered through Christ.  That person is saved, no doubt about it.

But the person who participates in the world God has given to us, even something as simple as canning the produce of the fields.  That person sees growth, and life, and joy, and will reap the benefits of their labors.  God wants us to live full, active, abundant lives.