Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
July 26, 2009
Most jokes about religion fall into just two or three categories. There are the ones that begin “a minister, a priest and a rabbi…” or “a lawyer, a doctor, and a minister…” There are religious jokes that have to do with the gates of heaven in which St. Peter plays a starring role. And there are jokes about walking on water. In this walking on water category comes my favorite. A woman minister is awakened by an insistent pounding on her door at 5 am on her first Monday off in her new parish. Bleary-eyed, she goes to the door and finds there the president of the Board of Elders. “For forty years, I’ve been taking the pastor out fishing on Monday mornings, rain or shine. I don’t see why I shouldn’t take you fishing, just ‘cause you’re one of them lady preachers.” Well, she thinks to herself, I better do this if I want to be accepted in this parish. So she gets dressed and out they go before dawn in an aluminum rowboat on a cold lake in a cold drizzling rain. The old church president never says a word. The minutes tick by with no nibbles on the line and no sound. Pretty soon it’s been a half-hour, then an hour. The woman minister starts to get mad. I hate fishing, she thinks to herself. I’m cold and wet and I want to be back in bed with coffee and the newspaper. I don’t need to prove myself to this guy. To heck with this! So she stands up, throws down her fishing pole, climbs out of the boat and walks to shore. Later that afternoon, the church president is at the local coffee shop with his buddies, and they all ask him how the fishing went that morning with that new lady preacher. “Ah” he said, shaking his head. “I shoulda known it would be bad. These lady preachers – they don’t fish and they can’t swim!”
There are only a few stories about Jesus walking over the waters, seen by his disciples, but they are memorable. Most often, the disciples were afraid, or they were very, very tired. Whatever the circumstances, when Jesus appeared to them walking across the water, it was as a result of their need for reassurance. The gospels do not tell us Jesus walked over the water because it was the faster mode of transportation or because he wanted to demonstrate his magical abilities to his disciples. In fact, there’s scarcely any explanation. Whenever it happened however, it always rattled the disciples. In the story I just read from John’s gospel, Jesus was responding to several needs. He had just performed the miracle of feeding a mass of people from the meager five loaves of bread and two fish, a story replete with symbolic meaning and reassurance. Following that miracle, Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself to avoid public acclaim. But then it was evening and the disciples, alone, were on their way to Capernaum by boat. They had gone several miles but it was now dark and very windy. And Jesus appeared to them, walking to them over the waves and they were, as one would imagine they would be, terrified. But then, suddenly, they were at the shore.
Lots of people I know have had mystical visions, experiences that could not be explained by rational disciplines. For some, it was the appearance of someone who had died. For others, it was an overwhelming, completely irrational experience of serenity in the midst of horrific circumstances – escaping from a fire, being in the middle of an urban war zone, facing down an act of violence. Some people have experienced what they can only describe as a direct answer to prayer, a vision of the way to go when it seemed there was only darkness before them. In all these persons, there was a well-developed receptivity to vision. In other words, the ground of their imaginations was tilled and fertile. They were meditators. They were accustomed to being in long periods of quiet, their minds open and ready to receive information. It could be said, and probably some of you are thinking, that the visions were the result of their own imaginations. After all, children imagine friends, unseen by everyone but they themselves. Anyone can make up a vision. That’s true, of course. But I have said to you before that I believe that faith and prayer and spiritual discernment and understanding rely heavily upon human imagination. Might that not be the very vehicle God uses to speak to us? We have only to read any of the four gospel accounts to find visionary experiences in our Christian tradition.
In northern Wisconsin, along the shores of Lake Superior, where I spent my early, formative years, the Chippewa tribe speaks readily of vision quests and even, on rare occasions, invite the uninitiated into sweat lodges to participate in purification rituals, hear the ancient wisdom stories and prepare to receive a vision. A vision quest, in tribal traditions, is often a rite of passage, a step taken before puberty to find spiritual and life direction. It may include long walks in uninhabited areas, fasting, sleep deprivation, being closed in a small room like a sweat lodge or an igloo. The quest itself is usually a journey alone into the wilderness seeking personal growth and guidance from the spirit. But vision quests are not only for the young. In the Lakota tradition, vision quests are one of seven regularly practiced rituals. Sometimes a vision quest is practiced in preparation for a great ordeal. I recently read that in the tribes of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, vision quests have now become common rituals to prepare National Guard soldiers before they are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though vision quests are mostly associated with Native American traditions, they are practiced all over the world and in many religious traditions. As an expression of the archetypical “Heroic Journey,” the vision quest has been enacted in religious pilgrimages, mythological tales, including the story of the search for the Holy Grail, and in the Christian tradition at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he retreated to the wilderness for 40 days, the reenactment of which we now call Lent. Our 21st century, progressive Christian sensibilities too often resist these disciplined searches for a vision. And that is our loss, and it is our barrier to God and the receptivity to God’s will.
Let’s go back for a moment to the story from John, focusing on the layers of human emotion. Crowds of people were following Jesus, having seen and heard how he healed the sick. Were they curious? skeptical? anxious? excited? The crowds of people, about 5,000 in all, followed Jesus to a hill, John telling us that it was the time of Passover. Somehow, Jesus fed them all with so little. Jesus realized that they wanted to exalt him, force him to be a king – how else should they honor such a miracle-worker? So Jesus left them to be alone. Imagine then, the disciples left with 5,000 people and Jesus no longer with them. They left the scene in a boat, intending to go to Capernaum but it was dark and windy and Jesus had not come back to them, so they rowed, three or four miles, John tells us, and then they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near to them and they were terrified.
Religious visions are not for the faint of heart. They’re a little bit wild. They make you feel as if you’ve lost your mind. They don’t come with Cliff notes or a thesaurus but, if left uninterpreted, they are useless emotional ecstasies. And yet, visions are as essential to the religious life as prayer.
Do not be afraid, Jesus told the disciples. There is nothing to fear. That is still true, don’t you think? Haven’t you ever asked, what does God want for my life? What should we be doing next? Where is the next opportunity for justice? How shall I summon up what is needed to ask forgiveness? Have I lived as I should? As my faith recommends? As God hopes? Where should I be? These are all vision questions and however you seek answers is the way you go on your own vision quest. Perhaps you won’t encounter anything as dramatic as Jesus walking across the waves toward you. Perhaps you will experience wisdom. And you too will reach the land to which you are going. Amen.