When Walking on Water isn’t the Goal: Sermon for August 13, 2017

You’ve listened to enough of my sermons by now to know the general way I preach. I usually start with a story, and then I talk about the Scripture, and then I tie it back to the first story, and then say something about how it matters for our life now. I’m predictable. So, I wanted to say upfront that today I’m doing something different. I’m starting my sermon by diving right in to the Scripture. I’ll explain why this week was a little different, but first, the story.

The disciples were in a boat together. They had gone on ahead of Jesus who had stayed in their last place to pray. And they look out and see this figure coming towards them, and they think it’s a ghost, because that’s actually probably more likely than what it really was. Jesus was walking on water; walking out to them.

Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid…it’s me.” And Peter, who is just so earnest in times like this, says to him, “Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water over to you.” So Jesus says, “come on”. And Peter does it. He starts walking on water too, and he even makes it a few steps, and then he seems to realize what he is doing. And then a strong wind picks up all around him, and he panics.

He falls into the water, and starts to sink, calling out for Jesus to help him. Jesus pulls him up, and says to him, “you of little faith…why did you doubt?” Jesus takes him back to the boat, the wind dies down, and the disciples start to understand, just a little more clearly, who Jesus is.

I knew that was the Scripture for this morning when I went on vacation two weeks ago. I was sort of kicking it around in the back of my mind as I swam in Gosport Harbor, or looked out at the ocean. And I was going to preach a sermon today about how everything had been fine for Peter until he got too afraid. I was going to talk about how our faith lifts us up, and helps us to do impossible things, but our fear drowns us.

And then, I saw the news. Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that Christians are supposed to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. In other words, we have to watch what is happening in our world, and we have to figure out how to faithfully respond. And yesterday I was thinking about a story I heard recently.

John Martin had stopped in for his music for today. Some of you know that John’s father, Paul, was the pastor here for twenty years, including the time during World War II. John was telling me about how during the war his father had a civil defense assignment, which was to climb to the top of the old Robinson Seminary just down the street, and scan the night skies for German aircraft. He never saw one, but if he had, his job would then have been to warn the people in town that the Nazis were coming.

I was thinking of that story, and of my predecessor, this weekend. I was thinking about what it means to watch out for the people you love, and to sound a warning to them when something dangerous is coming. I was thinking about that because I’ve spent most of the last day watching and reading the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve been reading about a mob of angry people surrounding a church with torches – literal torches – and intimidating the people inside of it who were praying before a peaceful protest. I’ve watched a video I didn’t want to see of a car speeding down a street and plowing into a crowd. I’ve heard angry mobs shouting their hatred of anyone who is black, Jewish, gay, and…well…in any way not like them.

These were people proudly carrying flags with swasticas. They were using slogans like “blood and soil”, an actual phrase from Nazi Germany. They were sharing the words of Adolf Hitler as though they were the Gospel. And I thought back to Paul Martin’s task, to stand on the roof and warn his neighbors that the Nazis were coming, and all I could think of is standing in the same pulpit today, the one where he once stood, and how my duty is to say to you, “I’ve scanned the horizons, and the Nazis are here.”

The people who gathered in Virginia yesterday, they were literal Nazis. Like, you could call them that to their face and they would agree with you. And it’s tempting to dismiss them as the fringe. It’s more comforting to think, “well, that’s happening down there…things are different here.” But, these people who gathered in Charlottesville had come from all over the country including, I am sure, New Hampshire, and they don’t see themselves as the fringe. They think they are just the first wave of a movement that will not be stopped.

I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the story of Peter. I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith. And I began to wonder if it the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.

I say that because, more and more, I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry. I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath.

Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to do something special, something that keeps him above the abyss. He wants Jesus to do something for him. He wants a power the others don’t have. But the point of being a Christian is not getting something from Jesus. The point is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even into the deepest waters.

As I thought about what to say today, I struggled with the temptation to stay in the boat, the way most of the disciples did. We have a baptism this morning, and that is always a joyful occasion, and we could have just talked about that. Or, I could have preached the sermon I was going to preach today, about trusting Jesus, and staying dry.

But then I remembered Paul Martin, and how he would climb up to that roof because he loved his neighbors enough to warn them about the dangers he saw, and I knew I needed to say this today, because the point of Christian faith is not to stay safe and dry, but to dare to get into the deep end and swim. And that means telling the truth when the winds are howling around us.

What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was evil, and it was sin. The things they were saying were idolatrous, and contrary to every part of the Gospel. White people are not superior to any other of God’s children. Jewish people are not the enemy of Christians. LGBTQ people are not a threat to this country. Immigrants do not destroy us. Muslims are not terrorists. Women are not inferior to men.

And people of integrity, people who truly love this country and every one of our neighbors in it, will not be silent and allow this to happen.

We think that walking on water is the hard part. It’s not. Walking on water is nothing to

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Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

aspire to. It’s just one more way to avoid the real work. Instead, we have be willing to risk jumping in, and diving in to face what scares us. We have to learn to trust that even in the deep waters, especially in the deep waters, God will be with us, making sure we do not drown.

The good news is that others have been in these waters before us. I make it a point to go down into our vault every so often, where we keep all of our church history. This church has been around longer than this country, and there is a lot down there, and just before vacation I spent time reading some worship bulletins from the 1940’s.

I found one in particular from June 4, 1944. It was two days before D-Day, when thousands of Allied soldiers would storm the beaches of Normandy, and begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The people gathered that morning didn’t know when the invasion would begin, but they knew it would be soon. And so printed in the bulletin are these words:

“With all our fellow countrymen we wait the invasion of Europe from England. On the day when that announcement is made, this church will remain open in prayer from noontime until 9 o’clock in the evening.”

I thought about the people who sat in the sanctuary that day, waiting for news and praying for loved ones, and I thought about what they would think had they awakened to the news that we did this weekend. What would they think of young men in Nazi armbands marching triumphantly on American soil? And what would they think of us, if we said nothing?

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Some of the crowd who turned out to support their neighbors in Exeter. Photo by Susan Cole Ross. 

I refuse to try to walk on water anymore, staying safe and dry. Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form. This morning we will baptize the newest member of the body of Christ into these same waters. Make no mistake; we are not baptizing her into safety. We are not baptizing her so that she can stay in a boat. We are baptizing her into a life of following a savior who calls us out of silence and apathy, and into the deep end, that we might tell the truth, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As we make these promises to swim these waters with her, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of staying in the living waters, and proclaiming the goodness of Christ over any ideology that would teach us to hate what God has called good.

 

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.

Amen.