Prepared for and delivered at Woodbury Pres on March 29, 2009
Readings for the day: Exodus 7:1-7 & Matthew 14:22-33
I have concluded that seminary classes come in two types: the ones that feel like I’m trying to sip water from a fire hose and the ones where we have the opportunity to dig deep into a single subject or book. Last fall, I had one of each. We raced through the first 15 centuries of church history in 12 weeks. Thankfully, that was balanced out by spending the same 12 weeks working through Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, I wrote four different papers on the very passage we just read!
Oh fear not, my friends, I brought neither the papers nor the notebooks today. I actually bring this up because even as familiar as I have become with this passage, each time I re-read it to prepare for today, it spoke to me in a fresh way. That is the miracle of the Scriptures- the living Word of God speaks to us across time and space.
It’s easy to see how that might look foolish to skeptics. After all, how can you and I possible relate to a story about a dozen men in a culture separated from ours by thousands of years and miles, not to mention myriad layers of technology? And yet, the wind-tossed boat, the disciple of little faith and his rescue, and their witness to the reality of their rescuer – all of these things resonate deeply. Why?
Perhaps we can relate because for so much of our own lives, we seem to be in the midst of one storm or another. Some storms are bigger than others- a life-threatening illness, the loss of a job, or simply a horrible no-good day. And these storms seem to come upon us so quickly. One moment you’re cruising along and then BAM it’s as dark as midnight and the wind is howling. Your world – your entire universe has been rocked. You look around in a panic, or maybe you hold it together out of pride or for the comfort of another. Regardless, you hope for a rescue. You cry out, “Lord, help!”
Perhaps today you relate to Peter’s impulsiveness- to his faith that seems so strong one moment but disappears the next. Or maybe this story resonates because you have seen the Lord reach out His hand and pull you up from the water. You have been comforted by God’s presence. You have seen the waters stilled and the clouds lifted. You have experienced healing, reconciliation, provision, release or relief.
Yes, it’s very easy to take this story and personalize it- make it all about “me”. After all, you and I are each disciples, and we each have a relationship directly with God through Jesus. We each answer God’s call to follow, to walk with God as we grow in faith and help others to do the same. We have the opportunity to hear and respond to the Teacher’s voice, just as Peter heard Jesus say, “Come and I will make you fishers of men” or simply, “Come” as he invited Peter to walk out onto the water.
I’ve heard many sermons and read books about this passage being a metaphor for faith… our faith. It’s used as an encouragement to get out of the boat. To not be afraid. To go for it, no matter the odds or storms in your way. But I can’t preach that sermon for you today. You see, I don’t think that’s why the Holy Spirit prompted Matthew to include the story of Peter’s little walk. I mean really—Peter failed! Even Jesus called him out on it. He had little faith.
There are so many better examples of people who display great faith. Abraham, ready to go through with the sacrifice of his own long-awaited son? That’s faith. Noah kept building his boat, even as the sun shone brightly. Mary offered herself up as the God’s servant and trusted that God would provide for an unwed pregnant young woman. And the woman who had bled for years reached out in faith that touching Jesus’ garment would heal her. These people had some serious faith.
No – I think we’re meant to see something else in this story. Something much more incredible and encouraging than a disciple who climbs out of the boat and sinks. When Jesus sends those disciples across the lake on their own, they should have been able to handle it. After all, several of them were more than passing familiar with water. As they climb in and start the journey, the story starts with obedience. Jesus said “Go” and they went. Now, at that darkest point of the night, when a storm blew in, could they have made it across without Jesus calming the storm? Maybe. And they still would have had quite the story to tell when they met up on the other side.
But he didn’t leave them out there alone; Jesus came to them. He calmed the storm. Nor did he leave Peter to sink to the bottom of the lake. Now the story turns into one about God’s faithfulness as revealed through the Son. In Mark’s gospel, the account ends as Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat and the storm stops. Mark says that the disciples were amazed. – I always imagine them with mouths agape, hands dangling. But in Matthew, they all worship Jesus, saying “Truly you are the Son of God”. When the disciples recognized Jesus as God’s Son, they understood that his work was a continuation of the work of God. Jesus, too, is sovereign over the wind and the waves.
They had experienced God in their midst. What a gift that experience must have been in the years to come, as they started a new way of living, faced persecution, and dealt with all the frustrations and confusions that growing enterprises endure. They knew that whatever storms they faced, Jesus would be there, just as the psalmist declared of the Father, “His faithfulness endures forever” (Psalm 117:2).
God provided this tiny band with a moment they could draw on together when times got tough. Can’t you hear those conversations? “Remember how we were freaking out and looked up and He was right there? Remember, Peter, how Jesus just reached out and pulled you up? Wasn’t it amazing to watch the water become as still as glass? How could we keep from worshipping Him right then and there?”
In the end, this story, like the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt isn’t about the people at all. It’s about God and God’s faithfulness. It’s about God using people whose faith is as fleeting as their strength, so that God’s glory is revealed in the end. God even hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that when the Israelites were freed, it could only be attributed to God. Over and over, God chooses the most unlikely of people to lead, preach to, and care for his people.
God calls us, and we respond. God calls us to something even greater, and we can trust that our efforts, combined with God’s faithfulness and God’s power with bring God glory.
So let’s back up and look at this episode in the boat again, this time considering what it has to say to us, here at Woodbury Presbyterian in Central Florida in 2009. Like the disciples we have heard a command to “go”. We have heard that it is time to transform this small body of believers into a welcoming church home for our surrounding community- providing even more people an opportunity to see their lives transformed as well. In obedience, we are climbing into the boat together, beginning a journey toward the other side of the lake, where we expect to be a vibrant congregation growing into its new building.
We’ve been sent on a mission to gather even more people to walk with us. Jesus commissioned us when He told the eleven to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. See, that isn’t just a lovely way to end a service. Those verbs are imperatives, commands. He didn’t just tell Peter. Not just the sons of Zebedee. He said it to all of them… all of us.
Chances are that there will be some dark times during this journey. After all, we’re pushing away from shore during a recession, and many of the neighborhoods around us are changing. We’ll likely continue to have active members move away and the Lord may even call some of us home. This will leave gaps that will seem impossible to fill. As we travel farther from what we are now- the safety of the known will seem awfully far away. Will the ghost of that more comfortable past come back to haunt us?
It is at this moment of doubt and confusion that we can count on hearing a familiar voice. God’s voice saying, “Don’t be afraid. It is me.” And, if we dare to ask, He will invite us out to that place that seems even wilder and more dangerous, out there on the waves.
Imagine the exhilaration of climbing out there, going for it… seeing the choir loft full every week; engaging more students from UCF and Valencia; taking the wall out of the portable every Wednesday so that all the youth can gather to study God’s Word; breaking ground on that new building; starting new ministries we’ve dreamed about. Oh yeah, let’s go on that walk!
The trouble is, we really are like Peter, who was so very human. There will come a point when the winds of change are no longer exciting. The inevitable miscommunications run the risk of turning into mistrust and dissension; doubt and fear creep in. Suddenly the loudest voice is the one hissing, “What in the world were you thinking? What made you think that you could take all this on now?”
It is in times of distress that we are most apt to lose sight of the fact that Jesus is Emmanuel all year round, not just during Advent. God is with us. God, whose Spirit hovered over the waters at the moment of creation and who separated the land from the water. God, who sent His son not to condemn us, but to save us. That God, our God is with us, in Jesus, to whom “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given” and who will be with us “to the very end of the age”. Because God is with us, before us and behind us, we need not be afraid.
The danger of walking on the waves isn’t that we don’t have enough faith to do it. It is that we will put our faith in ourselves and in the waves. You see, if we get too focused on a building plan, a strategic vision or the work we are doing to make those happen, we lose sight of God and the larger mission we’ve been given. It then becomes all too easy to lose heart and find ourselves running low on faith. Just like the disciples’, our crises of faith can all too easily become crises of trust. And when we stop trusting, we stop walking. We are no longer going anywhere, much less making disciples.
Now I want to be careful here so that you hear me correctly. I’m NOT saying that we should stop talking and thinking and dreaming about those visions and goals. After all they are God-given. I AM saying that they are given by the God who is our primary vision. God alone will make all of this possible. We cannot do it on our own power.
As we each follow God’s call on our own lives, we have been placed in this church – this boat- together for a reason. Look at the people around you and think about the resources they bring to the mission- what has God given them that only they can provide among this group of followers? Turn that vision inward; consider your own time and expertise, your financial contributions, your influence among others, and your prayers. Brought together in the service of the King, our gifts become so much more than the sum of their parts.
Brought together into a faith community, our lives are so much more than we can ever be alone. Yes, we will see storms in our personal lives, and likely in the life of this church. And when they hit, we will have stories to tell, helping us to remember the ways that God has been with us and will always be with us.
I can hear the conversations… Remember when we thought Mike Richard would never lick cancer? Remember how clearly we heard God speaking to us, saying that there dreams yet to be discovered? Wasn’t it amazing to see that initial matching campaign come together? God was with us then. God is with us now. How can we possibly keep from worshipping God together with our prayers, our songs, our gifts, and our lives. Let’s go on a walk.