Thursday, August 14, 2008

Infinite Steps Upon Water

The Gospel for this Sunday was Matthew 14:22-33

Six hundred-plus Anglican bishops have packed their rochets and chimeres and headed home, leaving a quieter cathedral at Canterbury, but neither leaving nor returning to a quieter Church. They began their two weeks with three days of silent retreat together, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a brilliant new way to start the Lambeth Conference, speaking well for his instincts: silence those bishops for three days, and get your word in first!

Much of their time was devoted to sitting together in groups large enough to mix the continents and cultures, small enough to share airtime between extroverts and introverts, between eloquent high-profile prelates and humbler frontier types. The chief goal of this once-in-a-decade conference was for our bishops to know Christ in one another and to make known to one another the Christ who emerges from more than six hundred mission fields, each bishop’s missionary story different from the next, the Christ of his or her journey an equally brilliant ray of the one light.

I wonder if the unplanned, unchoreographed moments didn’t carry their own unique discoveries. One was reported in the press: a very early-morning false fire alarm emptied the dorms where many bishops and spouses were sleeping, and out they poured, in their nighties, to wait for the all-clear. And I’ll guess that a lot is clear at that hour, in that state of unreadiness and undress…

And there were well-rehearsed moments, too. Solange De Santis reports in this month’s Episcopal Life that the opening eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral started with a brass fanfare greeting Archbishop Williams, who was clad in white and gold mitre and vestments bearing the ancient cross of Canterbury… Bongo drummers accompanied the choristers… One Bible reading was in Korean and the Gospel was in French. The intercessions were in English, Hindi, Portuguese, Japanese, and French.

The Gospel Book was borne to the center of the cathedral by a procession from the order of Melanesian Brothers and Sisters, from the South Pacific Solomon Islands. The men were barefoot and bare-chested and dressed in grass skirts, the women in colorful shifts. Several held the book on a little wooden boat and danced with it down the aisle, while others played a sweet silvery melody on wooden flutes.

In a document of reflection issued by the bishops, an observation is made: in an age of globalization, why would anyone ever want to lose this precious gift we have as Anglicans, spanning the earth in a heritage of longstanding mutual respect? That risk is in the air, though the Gospel that deserves to be borne in a little boat teaches us to embrace the opportunity that waits within the risk. No risk/no growth is a law of the spirit, not just a maxim of investment advisors.

Peter seems to know it, as he answers Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Why would anyone want to name a child Peter?” I heard a trusted friend ask, as we were unpacking this Gospel together. I thought it best to stay very still at that, and just taste the moment rather than take it as personal affront. My trusting this friend helped me keep silence, even as I saw no smile to soften the blow, even as my impulse was high to react.

“He’s so impulsive,” this person explained. I quietly thanked God that I hadn’t proven the point.

Yes, Peter’s story is full of impulses: he is remembered for having swung hard from enthusiastic pledging of loyalty to pathetically anxious betrayal. Quicksilver as he is, he is the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Christian faith is rich in paradox.

Peter is the first to have seen who Jesus is. So in this encounter today he sees that he has to take risk if he is to step into the kingdom that Jesus has introduced to the disciples on that hillside we sat on last Sunday. There economic necessity became an opportunity. When five thousand-plus hungry people stared at those twelve disciples at supper time, twelve empty-handed men urged their teacher to depend on the power of buying and selling (“Send them into the villages so they can buy something to eat! Now!”) But he depended on the power of sharing, he depended on the calculus of grace, and answered them, “You give them something to eat. Now.” And, as we know, a child produced his lunchpail and the rest is mystery.

However you understand the power demonstrated on that hillside, Peter and his companions were intimately part of it. So he knows that he’s on the right track assuming that he must be part of the power being shown on the sea. He must choose in to be in.

Except, well—and here Peter oscillates—he instinctively knows this, but impulsively resists. So he hedges his bets, patron saint of Anglicanism, and blurts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. If I’m right down deep, call me to do what you do.”

“I do. Come.”

So what is this, if not the early Church employing imagination to teach and evangelize a fearful world. What water are we all called to walk on, to be in Christ? The waters of baptism. That sacrament of full inclusion calls us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Waters don’t get deeper than that. The early Church’s practice of Baptism was to fully immerse the adult believer, three times in the name of the Trinity lowering and raising the person in the living water of river, lake or sea, causing him or her to feel the mystery of being joined to Christ in a death like his so as to be joined to Christ in a resurrection life like his.

More often now, infants and children are candidates for baptism. All the stronger is the message that the first steps are really God’s steps: we walk on the waters of baptism because God makes firm the love that includes us, approaches us before we know how to approach, makes of faith a miracle that leaves behind no footprint, “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water.” And a community wades in with each of us at the font, promising to walk with us as we learn how to be part of the power of Christ.

It was not hard for the early Christians to see themselves in Peter, to let his story make sense of theirs. That still works.

Let Peter be the Olympic gymnast who walks on air, or a swimmer who rides the water, or a pole vaulter becoming herself the catapult. What does Peter’s story teach? Embrace the opportunity within the risk. Get distracted by a strong wind and sink.

Are those examples too unrelated to ordinary life? Let Peter be a first-year student leaving all that is familiar and daring to step across to an unknown future. Or imagine him an aging homeowner realizing it’s time she lives more simply. And Peter teaches? No risk, no growth. Choosing into new life takes a whole heart.

At a time of environmental crisis, let Peter be everyperson, facing urgent evidence that we are called to be one with our fragile world, treasuring life rather than exploiting it. He teaches us to make choices out of deep instinct, not anxious impulse. And to anchor the instinct, and surrender the impulse, to the one who is always within reach of us, who promises, “Take heart, it is I; do not fear.”

(The phrase “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water” is lifted from James Dickey’s poem “Walking on Water”, worth finding in Robert Atwan’s and Laurance Wieder’s anthology “Chapters Into Verse”, Volume II, page 108.)