“A Gospel Ghost Story”

                                                                October 26, 2014


Exodus 14:19-31

Matthew 14:22-33


There is a different kind of light as this month ends—October Light is the name that University of Iowa alumnus, John Gardner, gave it in the title of one of his novels. It makes the afternoons and sunsets so spectacular. The path of the sun is lower. The leaves are dropping off the trees so the blue sky is more visible, more vivid—as are the shadows of bare branches on the ground. The vacuum truck came through my neighborhood this past week, sucking up all the leaves that had been raked. In some places leaves are still gathered into burning piles that send smoke billowing up like an autumnal sacrifice to the heavens.

We know there's not much time left for color or flowers, and the fall gardens of kale and cabbage have a charm different from those of July. The early darkness gathers around us and we put out jack-o-lanterns to light up the encroaching night.

The light tricks us. What we think we see might not be there. Figures in the misty, smoky twilight can seem ghostly. And who knows what strange creatures might arrive at our doors on Friday night!

Halloween—and the days leading up to it—suggest a time of danger and risk, a time when all hell breaks loose, when death and evil seem rampant. That is to say, it suggests a time much like our own.

Alarms about ISIS, the most recent American idea of evil, are sounded on our TV screens nightly. There is the threat of Ebola—and even greater, the fear of Ebola. And, of course, here in the United States we continue to deal with the ongoing evils of hunger, of homelessness, of greed.

“This world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,” is how Martin Luther put it in that great Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Luther’s hymn is based on Psalm 43, which begins with that glorious affirmation: “God is our refuge and our strength.” Sometimes these words are a solid conclusion. Most of the time we speak them as words of hope, as a statement of faith in what is neither fully known nor fully seen.

Which is why we need Halloween and why that day can give us hope.

There are some conservative Christians who are so worried by this day that they would avoid it entirely. They want to offer alternatives to trick or treating. They will tell you, mistakenly, about Halloween’s so-called “pagan” roots.

But we need Halloween for what it does—and for what we do on it. What we do on Halloween is to mock evil rather than to acknowledge its control over our lives and our world. Yes, it is a small thing, really, in the face of the great evils that we face. But if an eight year old can dress up as death, well, maybe, death has lost its sting. If a child can be a ghost, then, maybe, all that haunts us isn’t as scary as we think.

On Halloween all that threatens comes knocking at our doors and we find that we can handle it.

The Bible, of course, has nothing to say about Halloween—and very little to say about ghosts.

A strange exception is found in that story of Peter and the other disciples huddled together in that boat, battered by the waves, far from the land, with the wind against them. Look at them in the boat.

Here, I think, the Bible gets it right in describing the human situation.

Throughout the Bible, the image of the sea carries with it connotations of the chaos that always threatens us, the chaos that is held at bay only by the grace of God. “To the biblical mind, being on the sea is itself a threat. To be at sea evokes images of death. And here, of course, it is the sea that separates the disciples from Jesus, who represents the presence of God.”[i]

I’m willing to bet that you’ve felt like that—alone in the boat, buffeted by the storm and the waves. There have probably been times when you’ve questioned the presence or the love of God. Maybe now is one of those times for you.

Our green paraments in this long season after Pentecost show a boat and an anchor—reflecting one of our stained glass windows. Almost every year someone will ask me, “What’s the deal with the boat?” It happened again earlier this year.

The boat is an ancient symbol of the church, often storm-tossed. It was a symbol taken up by the World Council of Churches to represent the ecumenical movement—different Christian traditions all in one boat as it were, with Christ as our anchor.

The boat also echoes the story of Noah and the ark. And it has been said of the church as well as the ark that if it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.

Look at the people in the boat. You’ll probably recognize yourself on board as well.

After enduring the storm for some time, the passengers see a figure walking toward them. It looks a little like, yes, like Jesus, their leader. But since he is walking on water they are terrified. One translation of this story tells of their response: “‘It’s a ghost!’ they said, and screamed with fear.”

Is this a vision, a hallucination—or is it indeed a ghost coming near?

This ghost story is an exception. And I’m always more interested in the exceptions than the rules. Matthew wasn’t exactly an ancient Stephen King, so why would this gospel tell of disciples who thought they’d seen a ghost?

Think of those who first heard this story, some years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was not physically present. Could it be that the early Christians, trying to live faithful lives in a perilous world at times experienced Jesus as not very real? They had placed their faith and their lives in this Jesus. In the face of persecution and ostracism, did they worry that he was not going to come through for them—that he would be no more than a wisp of smoke?

It would be a terrifying thought for those disciples out in that storm tossed boat.

It would be a terrifying thought for those early Christians.

It’s also frightening for us in the today.

Doubt nags us. Even as people pray and seek to live faithful lives at home, at work, at school, I know there is the worry that God is not around. Or at least that is my fear at times. Reynolds Price said that “Few believers known to me have survived midlife without the sense of occasional, or frequent, desertions by God or absences of God’s interest or—hardest of all—God’s intentional silences.”[ii]

Have we been fooled by the light into seeing what isn’t there? Is it a ghost or is it the living Christ?

Matthew always gives more weight to what can be heard than to what can be seen. So listen. In the midst of the storm Jesus says: “It's all right! It’s I myself. Don’t be afraid!”

Our modern minds hear this story and start thinking in terms of the law of gravity. The biblical mind was more concerned with the One who overcomes the power of chaos, represented by the sea. “Walking on water” is a phrase that speaks of the conquest of chaos. In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea.

Here, in the middle of this story, Jesus does what only God can do. Jesus speaks as only God can speak. The disciples, the early church, and we today discover God with us in Christ, speaking those incredible words: “Take courage. Do not be afraid.”

There is something real here, after all. Even in the face of God’s absence, Reynolds Price affirms, “I know I believe God loves God’s creation . . . So surely God works and watches, in some sense—no doubt many senses—from love . . . I don’t claim certainty for much else I’ve said. But that claim feels like firm ground to me.”[iii]

Faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ has a firm foundation.

Even so, is anybody willing to get out of the boat and start walking toward this figure? Would you do that?

We remember the story of Peter, who, listening, was able to recognize more than a ghostly voice. We remember, and hope that his hearing is better than our own sometimes seems to be.

At this point Peter begins to think this is no ghost, but is actually the One he has chosen to follow. “Lord,” Peter calls out over the wind, “If it's really you tell me to come to you on the water.”

At Peter's request, Jesus says to him: “Come on, then,” and Peter takes his first tentative steps out onto the sea.

Learning to walk is never easy. It takes time and practice. We see toddlers talking those first hesitant steps, arms out, looking a little like Frankenstein’s monster. And, let’s be honest, we don’t come to walking on water naturally. It’s hard to negotiate the waves without starting to sink. We don’t come to walking through chaotic times naturally. But Jesus calls us to learn to walk in a new way. And we learn by practice out in the world.

The world is chaotic. Bad things happen. Innocent people are hurt. Hunger, racism, violence, homophobia, greed, and sexism are very real evils that we face—even in Iowa City. Walk out our doors and look. God alone conquers the chaos. But we are invited to walk on those waves as well. We are called to take courageous stands for what is right, what is loving, even as the winds and waves rage.

You know, I’m actually glad to hear that Peter began to sink once he went a couple of steps. To me the story would have been scarier if he stayed on top of the water. At least this way we know what happens when we start to go under.

It is not a ghost, but the living Christ who comes toward us.

It is not a ghost, but the One who commands even the wind and the sea who reaches out to catch us when the waves are high, the waters deep.

This is a ghost story that ends with “Don't be afraid—God is near.”

So perhaps our Halloween celebrations are a little different—and not as scary.

After all, Protestants also mark Halloween as Reformation Day. It was on October 31 in 1517 that Martin Luther publicly protested some of the abuses he saw in the Church during his time. The reformation of the church had been smoldering for some time. With this act it caught fire.

This day gives us not only a chance to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” but also the opportunity to think about how God might still be at work in the church and the world.

This morning we affirmed with the Psalmist: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear. . .though the waters roar and foam.”

As I said, most of the time we speak these words as words of hope, as a statement of faith in what is neither fully known nor fully seen.

There is someone greater than the storms that rage.

There is someone greater than the tumult of the nations.

There is someone greater even than us and our problems.

John Calvin told us that the human mind is a factory of idols. Again and again, we opt for something of our own making, something that we think is more concrete, and we end up with the sinking feeling that the water around us is rising.

And still God reaches out toward us.

If we open our eyes, if we listen closely, the ghost we think we see, all that frightens us, all that leads us to give up hope—the ghost may actually be Jesus—God moving toward us, giving us faith enough to walk even on stormy seas, there to catch us when we fall.

[i] NIB, Matthew, pg. 327

[ii] Reynolds Price, Letter to a Man in the Fire, pg. 36.

[iii] Ibid, pg. 84-85.