One of my all-time favorite “quotable quotes;” something that was actually quite influential to me as a young Christian, comes from the writings of a man named Phil Edwards: “There is a need in all of us,” he writes, “for controlled danger, that is, there is a need for an activity that puts us on the edge of life. [And] there are uncounted millions of people right now who are going through life without any sort of real, vibrant kick – I call them the legions of the unjazzed.”
Now, Phil Edwards, as it turns out, is neither a theologian nor a philosopher in the traditional sense; he is, in fact, a legendary, world class surfer of the 1950’s and 60’s; and what he’s talking about there is surfing, which he says offers up a thrill and rush unlike anything else in the world. As an example of this, Edwards goes on to describe what surfers refer to as “riding the curl:” which is when you’re on your surfboard riding the crest of the wave; at the point where the water is literally arching over you. In this singular moment, Edwards says, you’ll hear the ocean roar behind you, you’ll feel the board trembling at your feet, and you’ll start to sense this tremendous power surging up from beneath you; while all around you there’s this huge hiss that sounds like “10,000 yards of tearing silk!”
It’s loud, it’s powerful, it’s utterly dangerous, and those who have been there will tell you it’s magnificent! But they’ll also tell you that in order to have that experience you’ve first got to be bold and impulsive enough to go out there and embrace the big waves, and then be willing to risk yourself to the current! And the truth is that there are countless people who’ll never have that experience because they’ve never been quite bold enough to make it happen. These are the ones that Phil Edwards refers to as “the legions of the unjazzed.”
Now like I said before, I’ve always loved that quote; but not because I’ve ever been any kind of “surfer dude” (trust me, friends, floating around on our lake on a boogie board is as close as I’m ever going to get!), but rather because whether Phil Edwards realized it or not, his words about the “real, vibrant kick” of surfing end up saying everything about truly “riding the curl” – that is, living the life – of faith!
It is my belief, you see, that when you and I are truly living out of our Christian faith, it ought to be a life that is exciting and vital and significant; that each of our days should be filled with dynamic power. Faith is never meant to be some dull, tepid, lifeless expression of our existence; it’s what should be moving us to live lives that are thrilling to behold, exciting to watch, ennobling, enkindling, enabling and enthusiastic; so that in everything we do, God’s glory is revealed and others around us get warmed by our faith in Jesus Christ! To be Christian, you see, is to be truly alive and vibrant and… jazzed!
However, such a faith also requires us to live life on the edge: on the edge of what the world and the predominant culture deems as acceptable, mainstream and even, dare we say, “normal.” Our faith is supposed to be far above and beyond that; to be Christian means being bold enough to follow our Lord into the real adventure of life, even if that means embracing its highest waves or roughest seas; in a very real sense, you see, it is to “ride the curl” with Christ. And that requires more than a little risk on our part, and true commitment; but it’s only in riding that curl that we come to know the fullness of living in faith; only when we “dare to dance the tide” with our Lord that you and I begin to truly experience its power and thrill.
Our reading for this morning, I think, actually gives us a good example of what I’m talking here. You know the story: the disciples are all together in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus is not with them; he’s sent them on ahead to Gennesaret while he goes “up the mountain by himself to pray.” And in the dark of the night a sudden storm moves across the water; a storm so violent that, as at least one translation puts it, it “torments” their boat to the point where it’s in real danger of sinking, and the disciples along with it! It’s by any reckoning a hopeless situation; and these disciples are crying out for all they’re worth; but the good news is in the midst of this raging storm, here comes Jesus, “walking toward them on the sea” and bringing them the fullness of God’s power and presence closer with every step. Of course, at first these frightened disciples think they’ve seen a ghost; and even after Jesus reassures them by saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” they’re still not really sure what to make of this!
But it’s something, alright, really something; and here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. Because even as the disciples are still trying to process what they’re seeing – and remember, the storm is still raging – one of them suddenly decides to do something about it; to respond, somehow, to this incredible display of divine presence. Peter gets out of the boat.
In his book, “If You Want to Walk On Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat;” John Ortberg describes this moment beautifully: how Peter “puts one foot over the side, carefully gripping the edge of the boat. Then the other foot. [And how] he’s holding on with grim determination and white knuckles.” But then, Ortberg goes on to say, Peter “does something religious. He lets go. He abandons himself utterly to the power of Jesus. And suddenly, for the first time in history, an ordinary human being is walking on the water.”
Of course, a couple of steps out, Peter “notice[s] the strong wind,” reality, fear and doubt sets in, and he sinks like a stone; but in the end, that’s not what really matters. Yes, Peter failed – his doubts were stronger than his faith, he took his eyes off of where they should have been, and so he sunk; that’s what we always seem to take from this story – but here’s the thing: as Ortberg puts it, Peter may have failed but “there were eleven bigger failures sitting in the boat,” because Peter was the only one who dared to try! Because he dared to step out of that boat, “only Peter knew the glory of walking on the water. [Only Peter] knew what it was to attempt to do what he was not capable of doing on his own, then feeling the euphoria of being empowered by God to actually do it.” And, by the way, even though he nearly drowned in the attempt, only Peter knew the glory of being lifted up by Jesus in that moment of desperate need. And none of this would have come about if Peter had not first been bold and impulsive enough to strike out into that raging current and risk its danger!
It was an act of faith, pure and simple (but not so simple!); and, as the gospel always seems to do, it begs the question of what we might have done under similar circumstances. Because while we might not have the opportunity to walk on water anytime soon, nonetheless we do have moments, each one of us, in which we have to decide whether or not to act on faith; especially in those moments when faith seems to us to be the unlikely response! I mean, how do we stay strong amidst the storms of life when it appears that everything in sight is about to be blown away? How do we dare take a stand that we absolutely know is the right and righteous one when we also know full well it’ll be the unpopular one, and will cost us? How can we possibly take the chance, follow the call, and step out on the new and heretofore untrodden pathway when we’ve already felt the swell of the tide working against us?
Faith enters into every dimension of our lives, beloved; so the question always comes down to how willing are we to risk ourselves for sake of what and who we believe in. Will we be as the disciples who clung to the dubious safety of their boat, or will we be bold enough to get out of that boat, to “dance the tide” with Jesus and let the waves can carry us forward?
Let’s be clear; what Peter did in the midst of that storm was pretty risky behavior, and likewise, there’s likely to be some danger in choosing to ride the surf to that place where God is leading us in life. There’s always the risk of losing that which is familiar and comfortable along the way; sometimes it’s going to feel like those waves are relentless in the way they come at you; and you might even get taken somewhere you never expected and maybe aren’t so sure you wanted! There might just be moments you’ll wish you were back on the boat; better yet, that you’d stayed on dry land to begin with! But here’s the thing: if you choose to play around on the shore all your life, if you never take the chance to step out on the ocean and be bold in your faith, then you can never, ever know what it is to hear 10,000 yards of tearing silk as the curl literally presses around you.
If you don’t dare, in faith, to dance the tide, you’ll never know what incredible experience God has in mind for you!
Some years ago, some friends were telling Lisa and I about a white-water rafting trip they’d recently been on; and how the best part of the whole experience for them was when it was over! They explained how they’d spent this long day coursing the rapids; how that had commanded every bit of their attention and stamina; how they’d been thrown and tossed about the whole way; and how, especially at the end of it all, when the current finally calmed down, they were utterly exhausted, with literally every muscle in their body aching from the experience. They’d had enough; and all they wanted at that moment was to get off that raft, find a soft bed somewhere, and never even think about touching a paddle ever, ever again!
But then they realized where they were: quietly floating now on a placid pool in the middle of a mighty, silent forest as the sun began to dip behind the tops of the trees; their reflections stretching long against the water. It was, they explained, a truly “religious experience,” and immediately they knew it had been worth all the effort, exhaustion (and risk) to have had that singular moment of grace and beauty!
And therein kind of sums up the whole experience of the Christian life! If you are going to move faithfully and boldly on the ever-changing tides of human life, it’s not always going to be easy; the way will sometimes be difficult (that’s what it means when we say there’s a cost as well as a joy in discipleship). But at the end of the day, when the wind and the waves have subsided; when you realize not only where you’ve been with the Lord but where you are now; then you know it’s been worth it; for it’s been this experience of living unto God’s divine power and God’s purpose that’s made it all worthwhile.
And who knows where the tide will carry us next? You know, every year about this time as we have this “Homecoming Sunday” and we welcome back “our kids” to Sunday School, I think about that; about the opportunities that each one of us here has before us to nurture within our children a faith in Jesus Christ that is bold and vibrant and alive. Beloved, we want these kids to grow up to have the kind of life that is full of joy, of purpose and which proclaims God’s glory in each and every experience that comes their way; we never want them to dwell among the “legions of the unjazzed,” but to ever and always have the kind of relationship with the divine that creates a real and vibrant kick! A life of faith — their life of faith — ought to be one of vitality and purpose; but understand me when I tell you that the nurture of that kind of faith in our children starts with each one of us — we are the ones who set the example — and it starts when we “choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide,” risking ourselves to God and the greatness of his power. When that’s the example we can set for the next generation; then there’s no telling the amazing things that will happen for them and for the Kingdom of God!
So what’s left to say except… Surf’s Up!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c, 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry