Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
SERMON A Life of Trust August 9, 2020
Years ago my son and I went to Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland for a week of fishing and canoeing. I confess I had more experience fishing than canoing. Matthew, about 11 at the time, looked at me and the canoe we had rented with great suspicion as to whether I really knew what I was doing.
I poo-pooed Matthew’s concern – insisted he had nothing to be afraid of – got irritated when he said he still wasn’t sure – believe I started to raise my voice – firmly, even adamantly assured him that I could be trusted – commanded him to get in the boat – suggested that there might not be ice cream that night if he didn’t get in immediately – and though he was only about 11 at the time I believe I started to question his manhood. It was not one of my better parental moments.
But eventually Matthew did get in the canoe with me and we paddled off a bit, wobbly, but moving forward nevertheless. I believe I then offered a few comments to remind him that there really hadn’t been any reason to be afraid, that I told him everything was going to be all right. OK, it was more like “I told you so,” and we paddled around for awhile before heading back in, me with my righteous indignation that my son hadn’t trusted me and he still not completely convinced that he should have.
We got back to the dock from which we had departed. We were only about 6 feet from shore. I shifted my weight to get out of the canoe. Unfortunately Matthew shifted his at the same moment and then, sure enough, we tipped over and tumbled into the water.
I thought it was hilarious. We were, after all, only 6 feet from shore and it was shallow enough for us to stand. Matthew didn’t think it was funny at all. In fact, for him it only confirmed that fact that I was never to be trusted again.
Today’s story from the gospel of Matthew is about trust and our willingness to take risks. This is one of many wonderful stories about Peter…Up and down Peter….one moment right on target and the next falling flat on his face.
I love this guy. There’s something about his willingness to be out there, often rushing into things, saying what others are thinking but are too afraid to say, doing what others want to do but are too scared. And even though these are exactly the things that got him into trouble I respect this man for being like that. He loves Jesus and he lets Jesus down. And while he is often scolded by Jesus, he is also beloved by him. In today’s story Peter once again reveals his true colors.
According to the story, this all takes place right after Jesus has fed the 5,000. After that it says that Jesus sent the disciples on ahead into a boat while he headed up the mountain…presumably for a little rest and self-care after such a busy day.
Of course no sooner are the disciples off on their own than they are in trouble. The winds are strong that night on the Sea of Gallilee. If you’ve ever been on a big lake in a small boat when the winds picked up you know that it really can be terrifying, particularly so once night falls. They would have clung to one another in fear through a long cold night. But then, according to the story, at the very first sign of dawn, those terrified disciples see a figure walking toward them…walking toward them right on the water…which, of course makes them even more terrified. But Jesus says the very same words that the angel who first announced the birth of Jesus said to Mary and later to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.”
In face of holy mysteries these are the words we always need to hear: “Do not be afraid.” In face of holy mysteries we are invited to trust.
And Peter does. Unlike all the rest of them who stay huddled in the boat Peter is ready to jump right on in. “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus tells him to go for it Peter immediately throws his legs over the side of the boat and prepares to join Jesus on the water.
Now one thing I never noticed about this story before is that this is BEFORE Jesus had calmed those waters. That doesn’t happen until the very end of the story, which means that Peter stepped right out into the tumult of wind and white caps. And Jesus let him! In fact Jesus encouraged him.
Did Jesus have too much faith in Peter at that moment? Perhaps, but he encouraged him to try and he didn’t abandon him. Like a parent who lets go of their child when they are learning to swim or ride a bike or even to walk, Jesus lets Peter go, but he watches and when Peter starts to sink it says that Jesus IMMEDIATELY grabbed him….recognized that Peter wasn’t ready yet…but he let him try. Come on Peter. Let’s see how you do.
Because Jesus knows that at some point we are all going to have to learn how to navigate our way upon life’s darkest and most tumultuous waters. . .that yes we will face days when the sun is shining and the seas are calm, but if we really want to follow in his way then we need to be willing to leave behind a life in the shallows, where we can stand up when the canoe tips over and head out into the deeps, into a world filled with rough waters.
Oh sure, that’s not where we begin our journeys of faith. You don’t throw children into the deep end of the pool when they haven’t learned to swim yet. We start in the shallow end. We make sure they know how to float first. But Jesus was willing to let Peter try. Knowing that Peter might well fail, he let him give it a go nevertheless.
It seems to me that too often we don’t allow children to fail. We sometimes think it’s our job to protect them from failure, but maybe the opposite is true. Maybe we need to let them fail, but be there to pick them up when they do. And maybe we need to let ourselves fail more often too.
I wonder if they laughed at Peter when he got back in the boat. I bet there was a snicker or two. But at least Peter tried, while they all just sat there being scared. At least he tried.
Too often we are afraid to take risks, aren’t we? There is something in us that seeks to avoid failure at all costs. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves….hear the snickers of our buddies in the boat. And yet to fail and then be able to get up again and keep trying, and then fail again, and then maybe one day get it right….isn’t that what a real life journey looks like…what a real faith journey looks like? We come up short, but we keep on trying.
Now one of the few things I remember from my Yale Divinity School education a million years ago is that whenever Matthew has disciples in a boat he’s talking about the church. Disciples in a boat….That’s us. Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ, we’re a little group of disciples in a boat together. Following his unsuccessful attempt to walk on the water Jesus places Peter back in the boat. He sends him back to church. Maybe there he might become better equipped to one day handle the rough seas of life.
Have you ever considered that the community of church is our training ground for a life of faith out on the tumultuous waters of this world…that it is within an imperfect gathering of people trying to learn how to follow in the way of Jesus that we get to practice loving one another, forgiving one another, walking humbly together, doing the work of justice together.
Dr. King spoke about this so brilliantly, always challenging his people about whether they were really ready to face what they were going to have to face in this world in order to change it. He lifted up the notion of Beloved Community for church, suggesting that here, right here is where it starts….that Christian community is the training ground.
Do we come up short, even here, even in the shallow waters of life with a pretty small group of fairly likeminded people who are trying to walk the same walk we are? Absolutely. We offend, we step on toes, we hurt one another’s feelings, we annoy each another, we are less than gracious with one another, but hopefully this is where we also learn to ask for and extend forgiveness, to love the unlovable….where we can find people who are a step or two ahead of us in learning what it takes to follow in the way of Jesus.
It starts here…learning how to love and respect one another…and learning to be humble about what we think we know as a fact. Here we can learn not to be embarrassed when we mess up because here we recognize that all come up short. Failure is definitely an option here. Here is where we learn about trust…and what trust can sometimes cost us.
Because let’s be honest. Being a follower of Jesus requires great discipline and it takes a lot of practice. And yes, like Peter, we will often come up short. But Jesus invites us to get out of the safety of our boat to take on the tumultuous waters of our day…to give it a go…to try as best as we are able to be agents of healing in face of hate, to be willing to sometimes fail, and (dare I say it), maybe even drown.
At the end of this story it says that the winds finally calmed down. In the midst of a storm it’s hard to trust that they ever will. These days I know a lot of us are starting to feel like the storm might never end, but we must not lose hope, friends. We need to keep trying to step out of the boat and who knows. One day we just might be amazed to find ourselves walking on water.