Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Ken Powell


1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Walk on Water or Stay in the Boat?

Deacon Ken Powell, Grace Memorial, August 13, 2017

            Some years ago, while my wife Karen and I were in Rome we spent a lot of time visiting the magnificent churches that seemed to be just around every corner. On one occasion, we happened to enter as a worship service was beginning so we took a seat and tried to participate as best we could. The liturgy was familiar enough to us to have a general idea about what was happening but the language was a barrier- Latin in some places I think and Italian in others. So, I suppose it was natural to begin looking about at the enormous and exquisite paintings that adorned the walls of the church and it occurred to me that perhaps that was their very purpose- when the language is foreign or incomprehensible try experiencing the biblical story in another way.

            As it happened, the image that I still recall is that of Peter leaping out of the boat one or two steps from Jesus. His feet just beginning to slip beneath the waters, his hands reaching out to grasp Jesus’ hand, his ardent desire to be with Jesus evident as he launched his whole body and being forward…and a look of panic and fear on his face as he realizes the risk he has taken.

            Sometimes today’s gospel lesson has been interpreted as if to say- “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” The thinking is that Peter had the right idea when he stepped out in faith to be with Jesus amid the turbulent waters of life and that if we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus on him we will not sink despite the battering we might take from the wind and waves.

            No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt he wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission.  No doubt he wants us to have the gift of faith but I am not so sure we have to walk on water to do so especially if it means leaving behind the only friends and support we have.

            So, I wonder when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt” the meaning isn’t simply “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith”’ but also asks him, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

            From the earliest days of the Christian community the boat has been a symbol of the church and the seas a symbol of chaos- and it is upon those waters and in the safety of that vessel that Jesus sent his disciples “to the other side”- yet another deeply meaningful symbol of our hope in the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But when a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to arrive at the other side before he came to their aid. Like the holy ghost he moved over the face of the waters to come to them in their distress saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”.

            Most of this scene I saw beautifully depicted in the painting in Rome but something was missing I realize now, something a painting can’t say, a small word that weighed so heavily on Peter body and soul that it nearly sank him. A whole universe of possibilities seems to cram itself into Peter’s single, simple word – “if”. “Lord, if it is you…”  is an open question for Peter as it is for many of us much of the time.  Like Peter in this instance or later like Mary at the tomb we would love to cling to Jesus when we have doubts. It drove Peter to a reckless act of desperate faith that Jesus permitted but thankfully doesn’t require.

            There are only a few times in the gospel when anyone addresses Jesus with an “if” statement but they are core statements upon which our understanding of Jesus turns. Three times Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with” if you are the Son of God” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. And during the crucifixion “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

            The curious thing is that the statements are meant to elicit proof of an identity that can’t be revealed when we are seeking answers to questions we aren’t ready and willing to receive. It reminds me of Rilke’s advice to a young poet “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were…written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them…and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”.

            It is almost a proverbial term in our culture these days to say of someone who has done the seemingly impossible that they can “walk on water”. Someone who has been brought in to save a floundering business, for instance, or maybe the superstar athlete who appears to defy gravity and the laws of motion but it is a rare moment when people are thinking of Peter or Jesus when the phrase is used. For them it is just a trivial “figure of speech” cut off from its biblical foundation. But for us it is a story that shows us something essential to the way of life that Jesus sees for us.

            Jesus doesn’t expect us to walk on water…he expects us to stay in the boat! To stay with our companions in the faith, to keep rowing, to trust that he is with us and will even get into the boat himself to save us from our fear and lack of faith.  When the wind ceases and we approach the far shore, we will also know Jesus as the Son of God if we ride out the storm together. In the meantime, take heart and do not be afraid but leave the walking on water to him!







Standing with the People of Standing Rock – A Personal Reflection by Deacon Ken Powell

Dear friends in Christ,

            As most of you know a call for clergy to support the community of Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota by Rev. John Floberg for the purpose of resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline received an enormous response from well over five hundred faith leaders of virtually every spiritual tradition. Many of the facts and disputes regarding the project are circulating in the media for your own discernment but I would like to share with you a few personal reflections of my experience there which depart from the standard narrative.

            As a deacon called to stand with the vulnerable, to work for justice and to interpret to the church “the needs, hopes and concerns of the world” the rationale for making the long journey from Portland, OR. was self-evident. But given the immense challenges we are facing at every turn I wondered what it was about this situation that was so compelling? I soon realized that land and water anciently understood and experienced as a sacred gift of the Creator is such a rare and precious gift in our time and place that I could not imagine being silent and remote while it was threatened with desecration if it was at all in my power to be vocal and present. In that spirit, I made plans to attend the November 3rd gathering,  knowing that many like-minded souls were also to be my companions and prayer partners.

            Almost immediately the journey became a pilgrimage, and had the fullness of a sacramental immersion. I was aware of a deep need for a ritual of repentance and a gratitude to the native people for preserving a living memory of a spirituality that cherished the earth and all its creatures. I was struck again and again by the terrible dilemma of traveling roughly the same distance by automobile from my home as the proposed oil pipeline from the Bakken Oil Fields to Standing Rock along roadways that followed the Columbia, Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers– already crosshatched with pipelines and powerlines and dams. Was it hypocrisy to proceed in this way, an unavoidable entanglement, or maybe simply time to say to myself and to the world this is too much, the last straw for me? We have to find a better way!

            It needs to be told that the people of Standing Rock were spectacularly hospitable, generous in spirit, gravely committed and deeply moved by the clergy’s honoring of their dignity and right to self- determination, just as we were moved by their many tokens of acceptance and forgiveness.

            The guiding principles of our participation were simple but profound. We were guests of the governing Council and as such were required to act “prayerfully, peacefully, non-violently, and legally.” Our purpose was to “bear witness” to the truth of the circumstances and the residents right to protest in light of the invasive presence of overwhelming corporate power and an intimidating police posture. The tension was palpable on all sides. Our hope to be a calming voice was achieved, I believe, during our relatively short time at the site. Others– we hope– will continue to carry the banner of peaceful resistance.

It also needs to be told that among the mass of “protectors” –as they refer to themselves– there are those who believe that more aggressive and perhaps provocative methods may be necessary. In their readiness to expose themselves and others to a high risk of injury and potential property damage their values do not align with those of the residents to the best of my knowledge.  Our hosts emphasized, on the contrary, that they must remain behind when all is said and done and they were unequivocal in their desire to keep the peace as best they might.

            In closing I would like to highlight what I took to be the deepest and potentially most meaningful feature of the encounter between the leaders of the gathered tribes and the hundreds of Christian faith leaders who spoke on behalf of their own communities of faith from both the personal and the national level.

            In the simplest of terms this was enacted ritually by members of the universal Church of Christ repudiating the 15th century papal bull known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which provided the “religious” justification for claiming any land in the “new world” not already claimed by a “Christian monarch”.

           If anyone needs assurance that this doctrine is still relevant just travel anywhere along the course of the Missouri or Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean and you will see signs extolling the “Corps of Discovery”– otherwise known as the Lewis and Clark– expedition into the lands purchased at a pittance from France, who claimed it for themselves simply because they could.

            By witnessing and burning  a copy of that document as a sign of repudiation– for the first time ever in the presence of tribal elder’s– in a sacred fire maintained by those elders on their sacred land while encircled in solidarity by those who knew the doctrine to be a part of the cross which they had been carrying, the flames to be the presence of the Holy Spirit and the ascending smoke a prayer of repentance for harm done in Christ’s name… we have hope of Christ’s forgiveness and reconciliation with our native sisters and brothers.