Getting out of the boat

August 7, 2011

Emmaus House Episcopal Chapel, Atlanta, GA
Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Proper 14 – Year A (RCL) Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Several weeks ago, in anticipation of preaching, I took a look at the Lectionary for this Sunday. When I saw that it was the story of Jesus walking on water, I had more than a little trepidation. You see, I’m a pretty straight-forward thinker – any of you who know me, have probably noticed that about me. I like facts whenever possible… I take a very left-brain approach to situations.

Now, had the gospel lesson been a parable that Jesus was telling, that would be no problem. He taught using metaphors and storied illustrations all the time, but today’s lesson is a story pointing to something Jesus did, not something Jesus said. I like for those types of stories to be “fact-based” – told more from an historical perspective, or told in a way that makes it fairly easy to understand what happened.

You can image that with this bias, approaching scripture can be a real challenge and specifically this walking on water thing … If the story is being told by one of Jesus’ apostles, and if it isn’t factually accurate, how do we believe anything else written in the gospel of Matthew? Or any of the other gospels for that matter?

Some have even felt compelled to try to explain these types of biblical events.

In 2006, just five years ago, Doron Nof, a Professor of Oceanography at Florida State University, led a study that performed extensive and highly complex water and weather condition models to see if the Sea of Galilee could in fact have had a layer of ice under the water surface that would explain the phenomenon of Jesus’ ability to walk on the water. And although the study’s conclusion asserted that it was scientifically possible, although exceedingly rare, it also found that in the time of Jesus, this weather phenomenon may have occurred more frequently, perhaps once every 100 or so years (1)… well, I don’t know about you, but that still sounds like a miracle to me…

And there are countless stories in the Bible that cannot be proven, but we know that this doesn’t make the truth that these stories reveal any less valuable to our lives. So, I let go of my apprehension, and embracing the mystery, I moved forward to search for what this story might reveal to us today…

Now, any of us who grew up in the church have probably heard the story of Jesus walking on water many, many times. It appears in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Mark. But, Matthew’s gospel is the only one that includes this bit about Peter getting out of the boat and trying it himself.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. He’s a very enthusiastic follower of Jesus. He’s always jumping ahead, and often ends up being the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the New Testament. He gets no respect… He’s the fall guy… the one used by the gospel writers to make the point of what not to do, or so it seems…

Today’s story comes immediately after the story about Jesus and the disciples feeding five thousand people. Immediately after this, Jesus tells the disciples to get in their boat and cross to the other side of the sea. Jesus stayed behind, going up into the mountains by himself to pray.

As the disciples head off across the water, they face a strong head-wind all night long. So, they’re working hard, rowing against the winds and by the early morning hours, they still haven’t reached the shore. [Some Bible translations call this time of night the “fourth watch.” This would be between 3 and 6 a.m.… the darkest part of the night.]

The disciples see something that looks like a ghost coming across the water toward them. They cry out in fear, but Jesus says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

So Peter steps up, as he usually does, and says, if it’s you Jesus, allow me to walk on this water. So, Jesus simply says, “Come.” Peter bravely climbs out of the boat, but then gets frightened by the strong wind, and he panics and starts sinking. He cries out to Jesus for help, and as we’ve come to expect, Jesus catches him.

Now, what Jesus says next doesn’t seem too encouraging to me … He says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

First off, in Peter’s defense, Peter was doing a really risky thing… he’s a fisherman that knows these waters, so by just stepping out of the boat, from my perspective he seems to show a lot of faith… fear seems pretty natural… doubt seems realistic, expected even.

And even though the words of Jesus sound a little harsh, it doesn’t say that Jesus rebuked Peter. In fact, I like to think that Jesus said this with a little grin on his face as he was helping Peter back into the boat.

Considering the early church would have heard the entire gospel read together, this phrase appears several other times in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is teaching the disciples… “You of little faith (dot, dot, dot).”

This recurring theme may be in part a way to challenge them, but later Jesus says that you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. So, having just a little faith is all you need… but you have to be willing to act on it. Peter is the one who consistently shows us his willingness to respond to Jesus when called.

But what about the other disciples who were in the boat? The story doesn’t tell us much about them. Presumably they’ve been watching the whole thing, yet no one else got out of the boat with Peter. The closing passage says “When they [that’s Jesus and Peter] got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

So, if they hadn’t already been believers from the miracles they had witnessed and the recent feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ ability to bring calm in a storm seems to have convinced the disciples of Jesus’ spiritual authority and they worship him.

Even so, when I consider these “quiet disciples” in the story, I can’t help but recall words from Larry Jones’ sermon here at Emmaus House a couple of weeks ago. He said “don’t be quiet about your faith.” We see that Peter certainly wasn’t! But these other disciples hadn’t found their voice yet.

Now, I can’t be too hard on them. I personally, spent a lot of years being fairly quiet about my faith. Not silent… others knew that I’m a Christian… but I wasn’t stepping out to do much about it. I stayed in the boat, and was worshipping and believing in God in the safety of that boat.

The hardest thing I’ve done is to follow the path I’m currently on, not fully knowing where it will lead. I left all that was familiar some eighteen months ago and came to a new place on my own. There were times, especially in those early months, when the strong winds threatened my balance. In hindsight, I’ll tell you that facing those winds and letting Jesus help me stand, has made me stronger. And also, having this Emmaus House community has helped me when I felt I might be sinking.

As baptized Christians, we are all called to ministry in one form or another. Jesus says to each of us, just as he did to Peter, “Come.” The hope is that each of us will respond by getting out of the boat.

We don’t have to have a mountain of faith… just the smallest amount of faith will allow us to climb out of that boat. And there, we find Jesus holding us and helping us.

—  Our voice is heard most clearly when we get out of the boat.
—  The ministry of our life becomes richer when we get out of the boat.
—  Our assurance of God’s love and care for us becomes more acute when we get out of the boat.

That doesn’t mean we don’t still get scared. But how can we know the feeling of Jesus lifting us up if we never take the risk of sinking.

In Katharine Jefferts Schori’s book “A Wing and a Prayer,” our Presiding Bishop shares a sermon on this same gospel story and in it she reminds us that

“The ability to proclaim truth, even when you’re scared to death, is probably the most critical gift of Christian leadership. It is a gift given to many, not just ordained leaders. The saints we remember are the ones who have lived courageously holy lives – Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr… Desmund Tutu,” and her list went on. (2)

When we live our faith, there will be times when we have to face the fear that comes in the fourth watch… in the darkest time of the night.

But when we think that what is approaching is something to fear, we can trust that it is actually Jesus walking toward us, and we can be comforted in knowing that he is saying:

“Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

(1) Libby Fairhurst, “Jesus Walked on Ice, Study Says,” Source: Florida State University, © PhysOrg.com™ 2003-2011,  http://www.physorg.com/news63367761.html, accessed July 4, 2011.

(2) Katharine Jeffert Schori, “Walking on Water” in A Wing and a Prayer: A Message of Faith and Hope, (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2007), 66.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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