(a sermon for October 15, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 14:22-33)
And “immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat” and said to them (in essence, at least), “You go on ahead… I’ll catch up later.”
If you read Matthew’s account leading up to our text for this morning, you can understand why: Jesus, after all, had spent a very long day curing the sick; they’d all been involved in feeding a multitude of people with nothing more than loaves and fishes; and even now, there was the matter of getting this crowd over 5,000-plus to disperse. And moreover, Jesus had been seeking to withdraw from there so that he could be alone to pray; so it just sort of followed that he would send his disciples on ahead to cross the Sea of Galilee.
For the disciples, however, it was a strange and uncertain experience! They had not really spent all that much time apart from Jesus since they’d begun to follow him, and they were unsure as to exactly where they were supposed to go, or what they were to do when they got there; and, by the way, what if Jesus didn’t catch up with them; what if he “missed the boat,” so to speak… what then? And if that weren’t enough, now it’s well into the night, the wind’s picking up and “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.” And so now here we have all these disciples crowded together in a flimsy little boat; trembling and fearful for their lives and no doubt crying out, “OK, Jesus… you sent us out here… what do we do now?”
Every fall about this time, I’m filled with memories of days spent with my father walking through the northern Maine woods hunting for partridge; and later on as November came around, looking for signs of white-tailed deer. When I was very young, of course, it was always about following close behind Dad as we worked our way through acres of hardwood ridges and black growth knolls; at that point, I wasn’t old enough to be out hunting on my own, and besides, I really didn’t know those woods all that well and most certainly would have gotten myself hopelessly lost! But finally, the day came my father said, “Why don’t you go on ahead… I’ll catch up with you later.” He made sure I had a compass, of course, and reminded me of some of the landmarks I ought to be looking out for; but finally Dad said, “You’ll be fine… just make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp before dark.”
And with that, my father headed off in one direction and I started out on the other. And I’ve got to tell you that even now I still remember that sense of adventure in setting out into the wilderness, on my own, for the very first time; and that incredible feeling of great anticipation mingled with… abject fear! Now, I’ve told you stories from this pulpit of those few times when I got myself turned around out in those woods, even long after dark; what I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about are all those many occasions when I almost got turned around, lost, or worse! These were times when I used my compass and still didn’t know where I was; when I didn’t recognize any landmark and every tree looked the same; when I kept an eye toward the western sky as the daylight grew dim and the air became damp and cold. More than once, I remember saying to myself, “OK… now what I do?” and thinking how utterly mistaken my father was to believe I knew what I was doing!
But… and here’s the thing… I always (or almost always, anyway!) found my way back to camp; and along the way, I learned something… about how to calmly find my way through the wilderness; about that which my father and his friends always referred to as “woods savvy;” and also about how to be bold, because that’s where the adventure – and its opportunity – begins.
So here we have these disciples, in a boat far out from shore and in the midst of stormy weather. You can imagine the scene: it’s the wee hours of the morning, and still very dark, but the wind’s howling; the rain’s coming down in sheets, and water’s swelling up the side of the boat and washing inside. And even though most of them are fishermen (maybe because most of them are fishermen and know what kind of mortal danger the sea brings forth), they are… terrified, and moreover, wondering why Jesus would ever send them on a night like this!
But that’s when it happens: something unexpected; something miraculous. The disciples look out beyond their boat into the raging storm and they see him – they see Jesus – walking toward them on the sea; walking on water! And of course, their first response is to cry out in fear, assuming that what they’re seeing is a ghost; some kind of grim reaper or representative from Leviathan himself, the sea monster of biblical legend come to pull them into the deep and their sure and certain death. But no… it’s Jesus, who immediately speaks to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
It’s unexpected because by now the disciples are sure their lives are done; and it’s a miracle because everyone knows you can’t walk on water! But here’s Jesus, doing just that; walking on water beyond all human capability and overcoming the utter chaos of deep, turbulent waters, all to let these fearful and panic-stricken followers of his know that “it is well,” and that the seas, while stormy now, would soon be calm for the journey ahead. That, in and of itself is a powerful word; and it’s no wonder that at the end of all the disciples, “exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed… make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’” (Rev. Canon Michael Rusk) This is a story that serves to remind us that in all of life’s chaos and confusion we can take heart, because are never alone; but in the presence of one who can and does calm our fears and promises, as the song goes, that we’ll be “safe and secure from all alarms.” And that’s important to know, because life is filled with storms; the kind of chaos that threatens to undo us: disasters, natural and otherwise, descend; jobs disappear; relationships disintegrate; we lose touch with people, values and practices; death rips us apart. It’s times like these when you and need to know that we have the Lord at our side to help us weather the storm until, quoting Ronald J. Allen here, “the water of chaos” is transformed “into the water of life.”
And that’s what happens here in the gospel… but that’s not the end of the story. What also happens is that Peter – bold, impetuous, Peter – sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out, “Lord, if it is you,” (notice there’s a big “if” there) “command me to come to you on the water.” And what does Jesus do? He calls back to Peter, perhaps with a bit of a smile on his face, “Come… come!” And Peter – God bless him (!) – with the storm still raging all around them, gets out of the boat! He doesn’t get very far, mind you, before fear takes over and he loses heart, sinking like a stone, that is, until Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter by the tunic and brings him to safety. A few words about Peter’s lack of faith notwithstanding, it’s another powerful example of how, even in the worst of the storm – whatever kind of storm we’re talking about – and regardless of the depth of our despair in the midst of it all, the presence of the divine will ever be our safety and our salvation. That is one “sure and certain” promise of our God; that God will be with us and stay with us in our need; giving us strength and hope until the seas calm, the chaos subsides, and the way ahead – with all its opportunity and purpose – opens up before us.
Because, yes, that’s the other piece of this story, one that quite honestly, I hadn’t thought too much about until recently. There was, after all, a reason that Jesus sent those disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; it was so that they could reach Gennesaret, where, if you read on in Matthew, there were more people who needed the presence and the touch of Jesus. Likewise there was a reason, as unlikely as it may have seemed to them or to us, that Jesus invited Peter to step out on the open sea so that he could walk on water… it was because it was an opportunity; a chance for Peter to leave his fear behind, get out of the boat and live a truly “whole-hearted” life of courage and hope, with eyes and heart wholly fixed on Jesus and his kingdom.
And so should it be for you and for me, friends. No, I’m not suggesting you head up to Winnipesaukee to try your and at a little surface sprinting (not to shatter any hopes, but that would likely be a fruitless endeavor… and cold!); but I would suggest to you that some faith-fueled boldness might well be in order for us; both as persons and a people of faith, even as a church, because ours is a God who encourages us “to cross rough waters and even step out of the boat in faith.” But the thing is that this always comes with a promise. I love what David Lose says about this: God calls us to “more adventuresome lives of faith… God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting [as we do so] that God is always with us,” that God will grab us by the hand when we lose our focus or when fear overtakes us. The journey may not always be easy, but once you’ve moved forward and the way ahead is clear; once you’ve caught sight of your destination and know the reason that you were so bold, won’t you be glad that you decided not to stay in the boat?
Well… even now the journey looms before us, and in many, many ways. Even now, Jesus is calling us “o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea” to come; to be bold and come out of the safety of our boats so that we might participate more fully as Jesus’ disciples and on behalf of the Kingdom of God; so that we can know the possibilities and the adventure of following God’s Spirit where it leads.
And that’s especially true, I believe, when it comes to our life together here at East Church.
As you know, we’re just about to move into our annual Stewardship Campaign here at East Church, a time when together as a church, not only do we reflect on our support of this shared ministry in the coming year, but also a time when we should pause a moment to seek and affirm God’s vision for our future. It is, as this year’s stewardship theme suggests, a “Journey to Generosity” that has its pathway in the way of Jesus; truly, everything we do here as part of our stewardship is in response to the one who is always with us; who stands out there in the midst of our own storms; who seeks to calm our fears until the chaos subsides; who lifts us up when we feel ourselves sinking like a stone.
Beloved, I believe that right here and right now our Lord is there calling us to boldness; to come out of our complacency and be disciples in new and creative and adventuresome ways; to move into our 176th year with faithful optimism and hearts for Jesus Christ. I have said this to you often in recent weeks, and very intentionally: there is no limit to what this “little church” can do with faith, and in the love and joy that we have here in such abundance; but for these things to happen, first we have to get out of the boat!
“Come.” That’s how Jesus is calling you, and you, and me; that’s how Jesus calls us all. So how will you respond? I hope that we’ll all give that some thought and prayer in the days to come…
…and with our thanks unto God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry