A Ghost Story: Sermon for August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-31
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When I was about six years old, I went to a haunted house at camp. And looking back now, it was probably way too scary for a six year old, but none on the counselors were stopping us. And thought I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, it did. The ghosts and the people scaring you and the spooky scenes in the graveyards stuck with me.

2011082816icon_water_2_insideThis was especially true once it got dark at night, and it was time to go to bed. And just about every night I was convinced that there must be a ghost in the house somewhere. I’d hear a noise and get scared. Or I’d see something move and be convinced something was there.

I think my parents wanted to find those camp counselors. But they were also sensible, and decided the best way to help me face my fears was to help me to find more reasonable explanations for what I thought I saw or heard. The hissing noise outside of my window was just the sprinkler coming on. The figure I saw moving in the hallway was just my mom’s shadow as she turned off the lights. The thump I heard in the early morning was just the paper being delivered and hitting the front walk.

For everything, there was an explanation. And after a little while I wasn’t quite so scared of the dark anymore. And I learned that when it came to bumps in the night, ghosts were the least likely explanation.

I was thinking about that while reading this week’s text, which is a ghost story of a different kind. Like me, the disciples saw something in the night that they didn’t understand. But it’s a little different with them because what they saw was so unexplainable that they couldn’t just say it twas shadows. No, they looked out and they saw something so unbelievable that the most plausible, most reasonable, most likely explanation they could think of was “it must be a ghost”.

To set the stage, this morning’s story falls right after last week’s story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. After he feeds them Jesus sends the disciples on and ahead of him in a boat while he stays behind to pray. And the disciples are out on the sea, being tossed in the boat all night. But early in the morning they look out and they see Jesus walking on water, coming across the sea to them.

And this is when they decide that they’ve seen a ghost.

Now, that might sound ridiculous to us now, but when you think of it, that was no more ridiculous than a man walking on water. In their mind a ghost was far more likely. So when Jesus calls to them and says, “it’s me…don’t be afraid,” they don’t believe him. And they do what six year old me would not recommend; they decide to talk to the ghost.

Peter, who is probably my favorite disciple, goes first. And Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He runs away from Jesus on the night before he dies. He denies he knows him three times. He gets overly-excited and reacts quickly when people challenge Jesus. And he’s sort of the one we look at when we think about the disciples and think to ourselves, “boy they really got it wrong sometimes”.

But here’s the other thing about Peter. He was the one who was always willing to take the chance, and to take the first steps, stumbling though they may have been. And so he decides to test the ghostly Jesus in front of him and he says, “Jesus, if that’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come on”. And so he does. He gets out of the boat, and somehow he walks on the water, and towards Jesus.

So, if the story ended here, it would be pretty amazing. Not only could Jesus walk on water, but his disciples could too. It would be proof that Jesus not only was who he said he was, but that just a word from Jesus could ensure that anything we put our mind to, even the most crazy of things, would be successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Because suddenly Peter realizes what he is doing. He sees the water under his feet, and he feels the wind picking up, and suddenly it clicks that he is doing something he’s not supposed to be able to do. And that’s when it all comes crashing in. He falls into the water. He starts drowning. And he calls to Jesus to save him.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to do something like riding a bike? I’m always struck by how quickly kids “get it”. They practice peddling with their parents holding on to the back of their seat and running, and then one day the parents let go, and the kid keeps going.

And have you ever watched what happens when they suddenly realize that the parents aren’t holding on anymore? Sometimes the kid is fine and they keep happily peddling away. But others times they realize they are there, doing it on their own. And what happens? They panic. And they ride into the grass or stop as fast as they can. And everyone else is cheering, “you were doing it…you got it.” But in the moment, the kid is not so sure.

I picture Peter on the sea as being a little like that. He was walking on water. He was doing it. But when he realized what was happening, and that what he was doing was unbelievable, that’s when it all went off the rails. It’s not until he panics that he starts to sink. It’s not until he thinks he can’t, that he can’t.

And Jesus pulls him up from the water, and all he says to him is this: “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

I think a lot of us can relate to Peter here. Because sometimes our fears and our anxiety mean that even when we are doing things well, we panic. Sometimes especially when we are doing something new, and something we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Call it self-sabotage. Call it lack of faith. Call it what you want. The reality is that ghost stories might scare us, but sometimes finding out we can do things we never imagined scares us more.

Peter found that out that day, and it terrified him. He took a step out in faith and then he nearly drowned. Because even though he trusted Christ enough to get out of that boat, he didn’t trust himself when Christ called him.

I think that happens to those of us who are people of faith more than we realize. And it starts when Jesus calls us out of the boat. You might remember that all twelve of them were in there together, and I’m sure the boat was fine. Maybe a little crowded. Maybe a little sea-swamped. But fine. It was getting the job done.

But Jesus had bigger plans for the disciples than what could be accomplished in a small boat. And as much as Peter looks like a cautionary tale in this passage, he’s the one who has the courage to take the first steps. He gets out of what is comfortable and familiar, and he enters what is tumultuous and ever-changing. And as long as he trusts that even when the ground is shifting, Christ will remain the solid foundation, he does just fine. In fact, he does what is unimaginable.

That’s good news and bad news for us. Because those of us who are Christ-followers have for a long time had a pretty comfortable boat. It’s gotten the job done. And it’s seen us through some stormy sea. And everyone just sort of knew who we were, and where we were, and they wanted to get on board.

But now the world is different. Church isn’t a place everyone goes on Sunday anymore. Faith is not a given. Our friends might not understand why we are here on Sunday mornings, instead of out at brunch. And maybe it feels like the once solid ground we felt below our feet has given way to waves of change. Now our friends, our community, and our world, have to be engaged in new ways if we want to remain relevant, and share why exactly we believe this Jesus guy is worth following, and why we come to this place, and why we do what we do to love our neighbors and our world.

So, there are two options. First, stay in the boat, a perfectly fine boat, and hunker down. Or, look out across the water and find that Christ is already out there in the unknown, somehow standing in the midst of it, calling us to him.

I don’t know about you, but I want to follow Jesus. It’s great when things are familiar and comfortable, but in the end there’s not much that’s inspiring or life-giving about it. But when we step out in faith, and we trust that Christ will be our solid ground, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined. And when we refuse to let our fears and doubts drown us, we find out that the world outside the boat isn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, it can be amazing.

I’ll close with this. Like I said earlier, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He feels like the punch line in a bunch of Gospel stories. But the thing is he was also Jesus’ go-to guy. Remember, Jesus named him Peter, or “rock”, and said “you are the rock upon which I will build my church”.

This is the guy Christ chose. The one who sinks like a rock, and the one who comes up sputtering from the ocean after doubting. I think that’s good news for you and me. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to have fears and doubts. But in the end we just might find that our solid ground has been in Christ all along, and that even when what we are called to do sounds more scary than a good ghost story, Christ can still use us to do something amazing.


Cruise Ship or Christ’s Ship? – Sermon for June 24, 2012

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A few years ago a friend of mine who lived in Boston decided to take a quick trip to the outer tip of Cape Cod. The two aren’t that far apart, of course. At least not as the crow flies. But if you drive you have to go down the South Shore, over the backed-up bridge, and over and up the Cape again. Several hours later you’ll get there.

So my friend decided to go by boat. When they got on the ferry, the day looked pretty nice. The sea was calm. It was sunny. They’d be there soon. But once they got out in open water, things changed. The swells came up the side of the boat. It lunged through the water, dipping up and down, and her friends told her she was literally turning green.

She made it safely to the other shore, but she resolved that next time she would drive.

If they had had cars in Biblical times I’ll bet the disciples in today’s passage would have gotten to the other shore, turned around to look at Jesus, and said “next time we’re driving.”

Jesus is teaching the crowds and when he gets done he tells them that they are going to the other side. And part way across a storm kicks up. The water swamps the boat, the waves beat against it, and the disciples are not just seasick; they’re pretty sure they’re going to die.

Times like this, you want Jesus to be awake. But they look over at him, and he’s sleeping. And I’m sure they were thinking, “How can you sleep through this, Jesus?” They call out to him, “don’t you realize we are about to die? Don’t you care?”

And then Jesus wakes up. And he looks around. And he says, “Peace…be still.”

The storm goes ends. And the winds die down. And they are safe again. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The Scripture tells us that the disciples were filled with awe, and started to ask each other, “Who is this guy? Even the wind and sea obey him?”

Had I been there, I might not have been filled with awe about Jesus. It might have gone more like this: “Hey, buddy…while you’re asleep the rest of us are about to die, so maybe you could wake up and help us keep the water out of the boat?”

To be honest, a lot of us have moments we feel that way about Jesus. The sea gets rough, the waters of life overwhelm us, and we call out to a God who it sometimes seems might as well be sleeping. Sometimes we might feel like we are all alone on a sea, shouting, “Jesus, don’t you care?”

This passage gives me hope in times like that. Not because Jesus stilled the storm, though I’m glad he did. But because it shows me that even the disciples felt that way at times.

But more importantly, it shows me this. Even the disciples were put in situations that they didn’t know how to get out of. It shows me that Jesus sometimes does lead us to places that aren’t all the great in the moment.

I think sometimes we think that if we really believe, if we really try to be a good Christian, nothing bad will ever happen to us. I wish that that were true. The saints of the faith have lived holy lives, and yet they, like we, have often found themselves on choppy seas. And the people in our lives who most exemplify “good” sometimes are the ones who face the situations we just don’t understand.

It doesn’t feel fair. It makes us want to call out to Jesus, “Why is this happening? Are you asleep at the helm?”

But then I think again about today’s passage, about Jesus telling the disciples to get in the boat and cross the sea, and I wonder if maybe he knew what was coming. I wonder if he was preparing them for what was about to happen.

Jesus was a teacher. He used parables and metaphors and whatever was handy to teach his disciples about God and the life of faith. And I wonder if that’s what he was doing that day. He knew that life for the disciples would be full of stormy seas, and that at times they would be about to lose everything. And maybe he knew that in those moments they’d need to draw on faith from somewhere.

Have you ever noticed where Jesus is in this passage? That’s what always strikes me. Jesus isn’t back on the shore. And he’s not standing over on the opposite shore. He’s not high and dry and safe.

He’s in the boat. He’s going through the storm with the ones he loves. And in the end, being in the same boat with Jesus is what saves them.

In art work, the church is often represented metaphorically by a boat. The World Council of Churches, and international body made up of denominations from all over the world, chose not a cross, but a boat as their symbol. And during World War II the Confessing Church, the churches that opposed Hitler in Germany, used a boat as a symbol.

The boat symbolizes the church and its people being carried by God through the sometimes choppy waters of life. Even this place you’re sitting in now, this part of the sanctuary, is also called the “nave”, from the same root as naval or navy. If you think of the steep roof of a church, it looks a little like an upside down boat. There’s a reason for that. Even church architecture reminds us that we are called to journey together in the same boat as Jesus.

That’s both a blessing, and a warning. When my friend got on the boat in Boston, she knew she was going to make it to the Cape. Even when the waters got bad and she wanted to just be on dry land, she knew that by night fall she’d be eating a lobster roll and sitting by the beach.

But getting in the boat with Jesus is different. It’s not a luxury cruise ship. It’s not a quick ferry. It’s a boat that goes to places that sometimes we might not want to go. Because it’s Jesus boat. And sometimes Jesus goes into the heart of the storm. That’s his job. To be there in the roughest of waters, with the ones who need him the most. And if we want to be in the same boat as he is, that means that sometimes we will end up there with him too.

Sometimes Christians, especially in this country where we are rather comfortable, fall into the trap of thinking that the church is more of a club than anything else. We go to church on Sundays, but it doesn’t really affect us much. Or, we don’t go to church at all. We figure we can just follow Jesus as an individual, and we don’t need the community of faith. Christian belief becomes something that doesn’t really challenge us much.

But if your Christianity is not inconveniencing you a little, if you are not at times finding yourself on choppy seas because of what your faith calls you to do, you might want to check to make sure you are in the right boat back at the docks. If your faith makes no demands on your life, if it doesn’t make you make the hard choices sometimes, chances are good that you may have accidentally boarded the cruise ship, not the Christ ship.

It’s okay. God allows you to change your travel plans mid-trip.

I talked earlier about the Confessing Church in Germany. These were the Christians who refused to be a part of the puppet Reich church that Hitler had set up and instead decided that they were going to follow the Gospel. The fact they chose a ship as their symbol is a reminder to me of the sometimes very high price of being in the same boat as Jesus. Some of them died for their beliefs, and their refusal to collude with Naziism. They could have chosen smooth waters in a safe ship by simply cooperating with Hitler. But they didn’t. And the storm got bad.

But they called out. They remained faithful to the Gospel as they knew it, and, they called out to Jesus at the worst of the storm, when it must have most felt like God was asleep at the helm. And finally, the winds stopped, and the waves receded. And not only they, but nation and a world was saved. They did not do it alone, but they did it perhaps more faithfully, and with greater stakes, than any other Christians. And, ironically, all the ones who had chosen the boat with the easier waters, found that in the end their ship was the one that was destroyed.

I have no doubt that Jesus was in the boat of those confessing Christians. And I have no doubt that Jesus is in the boats of all of those who would follow Christ’s call no matter where it takes them, even if it’s into the storm. We are often tempted to pray for smooth waters and an easy passage. I can’t deny that I want that sometimes. But ironically, in the end it’s being in the boat that sails the hardest seas, the one with God at the helm, that will truly bring us peace.

May this small boat that we all now sit in find the other shore safely, but may the seas be just choppy enough that we know we are on the right boat. Amen.