My sermon today has in mind those who could be called "active Christians." These are strange times for those who have taken to heart Jesus' call to serve the poor and the outcast. In these times of quarantine and social distancing, how are those called to active service to be the liberating and healing presence God calls them to be? How do we meet Jesus when we cannot find him in the face of another?
Encountering Jesus in another - and being the face of Jesus others can encounter - is a vital part of Christian ministry. One of the books that I recommend to new clergy has the old-fashioned advice to visit people in their homes. "The priest is to visit parishioners," we were taught, "to see them in their natural environment, away from their Sunday-best behavior." A home visit lets you get to know people in a way that you might not just from seeing them at the door on Sunday morning. There is the polished public face that you see in church on Sunday, but there is something a little less crafted, a little less self-conscious, a little more honest about the person you meet in their homes, even when the home is only the background of a virtual, online conference call. You see them more fully. You get to know who they really are, what they are really like.
I think that is probably why the gospel writers tell us so many little side stories about Jesus. They are the background of his life. The gospel writers tell stories about Jesus to people who were already members of the church, who already knew the basic outlines of the good news of what God had done in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Peter, speaking to Cornelius in Acts 10, assumes some knowledge of the basic story: "You know the events that have taken place," he says, "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth, how he went about doing good and healing," and that "God raised him on the third day and permitted him to be seen." This is the basic outline of the life of Jesus that everyone in the church would have known, the story of what he did and what was done to him.
But the stories we are told in the gospel are aimed at telling us more than just what happened. They want us to know the person of Jesus, what he was really like, what in him is lovely and loveable. I think that's why Luke tells us so many stories of Jesus' interaction with the weak and the powerless, why Mark tells us the stories of Jesus' struggles with religious authorities with such vigor, why John lets us overhear the private prayers Jesus offers the one he called Father.
Sometimes, the story of what happened is so vivid that we get focused on the account, on the details and probability of the narrative's truth, on what Jesus does, that we can miss the subtle answer to the question of what Jesus is really like, of who Jesus really is.
Matthew tells the story of two boat rides and a meal in between. The story starts with the death of John the Baptist, imprisoned and beheaded by the wicked king, Herod Antipas. When Jesus heard the news of the death of John and that Herod was afraid that Jesus was the confrontational John risen from the dead, Jesus withdrew from Herod's territory of Judea and went by boat to the region of Galilee, the mountainous northern country where he had grown up. Matthew says that Jesus went to a lonely place, a deserted place, an isolated place, as he often did to pray. This is the start of a new phase in Jesus' ministry, so maybe Matthew is reminding us of the time of prayer and fasting in the desert right after his baptism.
Whatever the reason, Jesus doesn't get much quiet time that day. The people from the surrounding villages hear about his journey and follow him on foot. Jesus, compassionate as always, heals their sick. When evening comes, the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food for themselves, but Jesus feeds them himself, using five small loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish. You know the story, don't you, of what Jesus did on that day?
When the miraculous meal is over, Jesus sends the disciples away. Matthew uses very vigorous language. Jesus "forces the disciples to get into the boat." Then, Jesus dismisses the crowd and spends some time in quiet prayer. And he catches up to the disciples, not walking around the lake as the crowds did, but walking on the water towards them.
By now, it is dark and the waves are high and the wind is strong. The disciples, like many ancient people, thought the sea was a spiritual and even haunted place, a thin place between the living and the dead, the natural and supernatural, and they fear the approaching Jesus, not recognizing him." "Take heart. It is I," he says in that familiar voice, "Do not be afraid."
The words of Jesus echo out over the nighttime sea, and they echo through the history of God's speaking to his people. They echo in the story of the burning bush - "I am who I am" - and in the song Moses sings looking out over the promised land - "See now that I myself am he. There is no god besides me." They ring in harmony with the words of Isaiah - "When you pass through waters, I will be with you. Do not fear. I am he."
These words tell us something about the character of Jesus, and they tell us something about his nature. They remind us that Jesus is more than a compassionate preacher. He is the Word, the living Word made flesh for us and for our salvation. "Word of the Father," the hymn calls him, "now in flesh appearing," or, as another hymn says, he is "the Lord, the great I am."
Throughout the gospels, Jesus says amazing things and does astounding things, and he says those things and does those things because of who he is, not the other way around. That's true of you too.
If you are an active Christian, one with an expressive and action-oriented life in the world, now may be a great time for you to remember that you do those things because of who you are, not the other way around. The words of compassion and the works of mercy don't make you a Christian. They reveal the Christian you already are.
Jesus says the things he says and does the things he does because of who he is, because of his relationship to God the Father, and you have been invited into that relationship.
For those of us who find Jesus in the work and in the crowds, being quiet can be hard, hard to want and hard to do, but sometimes Jesus is in the deserted place, loving and being loved. So maybe those of us who follow him can follow him there and find our own deserted place, hear him say he is there and we should not be afraid, and just let ourselves be loved.
Now "to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." (Revelation 1:5-6)