Year A, Proper 14: Jonah 2:1-9; Matthew 14:22-33
Sunday, August 1, 1996
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
“You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ ” (Jonah 2:3-4)
This Sunday’s Old Testament lection is a mosaic of psalm texts inserted into the Jonah narrative. Overall, this book is probably best understood as an extended prophetic parable, titled after the principle character in the story. What we hear today is Jonah’s voice from the heart of the storm. He makes no mention of the “great fish.” Oddly enough, his prayer is constructed in the form of a thanksgiving psalm, with progression from lament to praise for deliverance.
The French aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, beginning one of his essays in Wind, Sand and Stars, writes:
“When Joseph Conrad described a typhoon he said very little about towering waves, or darkness, or the whistling of the wind in the shrouds. He knew better. Instead, he took his readers down into the hold of the vessel, packed with emigrant[s],…where the rolling and pitching of the ship had ripped up and scattered their bags and bundles, burst open their boxes, and flung their belongings into a crazy heap. Family treasures painfully collected in a lifetime of poverty, pitiful mementoes so alike that nobody but their owners could have told them apart, had lost their identity and lapsed into chaos, into anonymity… It was this human drama that Conrad described when he painted a typhoon.” (Wind, Sand and Stars, “The Elements”)
In biblical imagery, waters, particularly waters in storm, evoke destruction, return to chaos—the very opposite of human security within creation. Watery tumult threatens our sense of place, proportion, and stability. That these are tremendously important to us often only becomes evident in their absence—and in their absence, our own identity is perhaps no longer clear. Hence, we are creatures with a great hunger for predictability and control. We prefer, at least for much of the time, a stable earth.
I suppose that different cultures and individuals have their own distinct images for threat to the comfortable order of things. I’m reminded of my family’s recent trip out to Glacier National Park. For much of the eastern side of the Rockies, the mountains emerge fairly suddenly from the plains. We had never been to Glacier National. There are two principal gates. Coming from our direction, the west side entrance went through the lower pass and skirted under the park. The east entrance would take us on the scenic route through the heart of matters. Let’s just say that for a couple of hours before we arrived at the mountains, we had a cordial, yet nevertheless “frank and open exchange of views” about which entrance to the park we would take. I got my way. The east gate it would be. I have to tell you, though, that fairly soon into the enterprise I was glad that I wasn’t driving. More significantly, everyone else in the car was glad that I wasn’t driving! Whoever had given the road its name, “Going to the Sun Highway,” was much more of a literalist than I would have previously expected. The experience was tremendously enjoyable. However, I have to confess that to appreciate the journey over the top properly, at a few critical points I found that I had to take my glasses off. The passage was beautiful—indeed, extraordinarily so. I had seen mountains, but never anything like these. There was almost too much beauty to bear, too much expanse of height and depth to comprehend, such as to swamp the imagination—to overcome the usual sense of human place and proportion. It is difficult to know whether such an experience is more intimidating on land or at sea. I was reminded that getting what one thinks is one’s way can be a risky thing.
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from [his entombment in] the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice’.” (Jonah 2:1-2)
God speaks from the midst of the storm. Perhaps we ought to be somewhat more critical of our hunger for security. At least sometimes, it is necessary that militant assurance pass away before the divine word may be heard once again in power and clarity. God remains God. Does not our Lord’s life and ministry have something to say about our pursuit of control? I think, as well, that Saint Paul’s contrast of grace with law has a distinct bearing on human insistence on a constant religious assurance. It is a very human inclination to fill in the blanks, to establish for ourselves a too impervious and constant knowing. However, this is an inclination which needs to be evaluated with great care. The way of grace is a way of openness. Openness leads us to accept the course of our journey of faith, including times of disruption—accepting also times of the absence and silence of God. Better the Absence of the true God than the presence of an idol; better God’s Silence than words we put in God’s mouth. Finally, better the providential storm than an artificial yet merely human peace.
Yet the way of grace is also a way of centeredness. In faith we remain centered on the One who is our “true loyalty,” the One in whom is life, the light of all people. (Jonah 2:8; John 1:3b)
“You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:6-7)
From the midst of the storm, Christ came to the disciples, and bid Peter to step out upon the waters. Times come when our Lord, indeed, calls us to step out from the world that has been. Perhaps it may be that the markers of our life, the components of what we have known as our identity will lay jumbled about for a while. However, for Christians, if such a movement is faithful, it is a Christ-ward movement, centered on him, and in a living continuity with his Body, the church.
It seems clear that in faith, persons and communities are called to be both open and centered. Admittedly, this is a difficult balance to maintain. Working out this challenging balance is a key part of our spiritual growth. An uncentered openness is more likely to be adrift than open. That which is distracted and adrift is all too likely to sink. In the Person of our Incarnate Lord, Crucified and Risen for us, “the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all.” (Titus 2:11, Revised English Bible) Lest we sink into the tumult, we are enjoined to fix our spiritual gaze on the One who is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
However, it might also be questioned if a supposedly unopen centeredness is really centered on Christ in the first place. We are called to step out to our Lord in faith—out of comfortable securities we have known—to a radical newness: a way of ongoing freedom and service. “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Is it consistent with this new life that we would again be consumed with the drawing of human boundaries and the establishment of human control?
As God remains God, so also grace remains grace: all-encompassing, yet ungraspable, inexhaustible. We are led to accept risk: the self-displacing storm, the majesty and beauty which seem too much for our separateness to bear. It may be, after all, that it is precisely in these that we will hear the voice of Christ bidding us draw near. The freedom of the Gospel enables us to receive what is brought to us in both centered and open hearts. Instead of destruction, what we meet in gracious risk is new creation. Our identity, our place, and our entire notion of security are redefined. Mere acceptance isn’t quite a fully adequate response. Rather, we are led in spirit to what must seem now an often enigmatic, yet still transcendent thankfulness. In grace, we are led to eucharistic life.
“The deep surrounded me…at the roots of the mountains. But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.” (Jonah 2:5,9)