“Sinking Steps” Preached by Keith. 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time. 8.7.11

Texts: Romans 10:5-15 and Matthew 14:22-33

This had been one of those incredible days with Jesus. They had been with Jesus when the great crowds had come from the surrounding towns to out in the middle of no where along the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus preach and heal their sick. And then Jesus fed them, thousands of them, with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The disciples started handing the food out, figuring things would run out in the first group, but they just kept handing it out, to the next group, and then another, and then another, until all were fed. Then they collected the leftovers, twelve baskets in all.
They hadn’t even had time to have a bite when Jesus sends them off in their boat without him, so he can say goodbye to those he had healed. But the fishermen know that this is not the best time to go out on the water. Evening would be the time to come off the water from a long day of fishing to take care of that day’s catch. You can’t see much out there at night, maybe the lights of a few villages that surround the shores, the stars, and the moon. But they go, headed to the far shore that cannot be seen. They can see the crowds dispersing as they leave the shore, headed further out in the lake, with the light of the sunset slowly fading.
And then about midnight, it hits. Just a few moments before, James and John realize that some of the stars have become hidden behind the clouds. First the wind slams the front of the boat and a few minutes later, the waves grow from a few inches to white caps. Their elation turns to exhaustion. They shouldn’t be out there, but there they are, together, rowing for all their might on a stormy night. It seems they are getting nowhere. Finally, the storm clouds begin that faint graying of pre-morning light. If you have been out in the water, it’s the time of day when the waves on the horizon meld into the sky because they are all the same color. And that is when they see something. James stops rowing and points. Soon, everyone has stopped. Because of the waves, one moment they see it, the next they don’t. Then they realize it is a man. Where’s his boat? He has no boat! They become totally freaked out! It must be a ghost, a water spirit, a something! These churning waters represent chaos, and only those things that destroy and wreak havoc would be found out here in the midst of the storm.
Then comes a familiar voice from the figure, the voice of Jesus, “Take heart, ego eimi; It is I, do not be afraid.” Ego eimi? Peter’s mind jumps to a familiar story that he has heard from his rabbis since he was a child. Aren’t those the words of God from the burning bush when Moses asked God his name? Peter’s response shows just unsure he is of all this, the figure on the waves, and who he thinks it might be. Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” When Jesus answers, “Come” all eyes turn toward Peter. He sets down his oar, with his eyes fixed on Jesus, and steps over the wale and on to the water.
He steps toward Jesus. At first he takes small steps, but slowly gets his stride. His focus stays fixed on Jesus. He doesn’t even really feel the water on his toes and his feet. And then the wave rolls in between them. At one moment, Peter can see Jesus from head to toe, in the next, Jesus is out of sight, with only a whitecap wave in front of him. Peter looks down and feeling the water and the wind, slips down into the water. In fear he shouts, “Lord, save me!” Jesus’ hand grabs Peter’s and keeps him from slipping beneath the waves. “Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Here is where I want us to stop for a moment. Keep that image of Jesus reaching down holding Peter’s hand as Peter is about waist deep in the water in your mind. This scene has become so multifaceted and rich with meaning, especially what it means to walk a life of Christian discipleship. On one side, we see the image of personal salvation, of calling out to the Lord for help and finding Christ’s grace lifting us up. We can also see the image of a risk taker, of one stepping out of their comfort zone on faith to follow the voice of Jesus out into the world. It also speaks to how doubt is an important and real part of our faith and discipleship and how our faith is always in tension with our doubts. These and the other truths this passage speaks to make it one of the most often used and useful images in the life of a disciple.
Now, I want you to remember the scene of Jesus standing on the water reaching down and holding Peter up as he is half sunk in the water. The thing to realize and see in this scene is the storm still rages around them. When Jesus reaches out and saves him, the waters do not calm and the sun does not shine. The waves still come crashing down and the wind still blows at a gale. Peter still had fear, even though he was in the firm grip of Jesus.
I want to add something to this image, something that is easily overlooked at we get wrapped up in the excitement and the fear that Peter must be experiencing. Back behind Peter as he is holding on to Christ’s hand, I want you to add the boat. And in that boat, I want you see those eleven other disciples all gripping the edge of the boat, leaning out so far watching that the boat is about to tip. Their words are not recorded, but I can guess they went something like this: “Peter, what are you doing?” “Look, he’s walking on the water!” “I can’t believe it!” “You’re about to him Peter!” “No, what’s happening? Peter, you’re slipping! Go up! Go up! Don’t stop believing!”
See, these are Peter’s friends, his companions, those who made up his community. They probably though Peter was crazy at times, they knew his likes, his dislikes, his good and bad habits. They knew he liked to exaggerate a story a bit, he was a fisherman, it was in his blood to do that. But they are also the ones who had faith in Peter even when he didn’t have faith in himself.
Then another miracle happens that involves Jesus, Peter, and all the other disciples. Jesus and Peter get back into the boat. That is when the storm stops. It was when Peter was back with the other disciples and their teacher, it was when he was back with his community, and they worship Jesus, that the winds die down and the waves cease to crash against the boat.
What does this say to us, the church, Christ’s community? It points to the fact that our faith is not our own. Our faith as individuals is shared among the community. It is between us and God and at the same time involves everyone around us. Here, we don’t have to hide our faults because God already knows them and probably everyone else does, too. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to walk on water, to come in the doors of the church. This is the place we worship God, even in our brokenness and with our doubts. This is the place we can come to on those days when we just don’t know if we believe, when there appear to be more clouds than sun. We can come here because we know God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit reaches out and saves us, but we also come here because that person sitting next to us, the one whose faith is imperfect, is in the same boat as us. It takes all of us, each with our imperfect faith, to venture out together, having faith in each other as we witness the Holy Spirit working in and through us. And it is because of and in spite of these imperfections that we heed the call of the one who is perfect, the one who has perfect faith in us.
We cannot live out our faith by ourselves. There are no single seat kayaks in the life of faith. The life of faith becomes “It’s just you and me Jesus” if we try to go it alone. In doing so, it affects how we hear Jesus’ words, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” There is a school of thought out there that says, If you believe enough, have a strong enough faith, everything will be ok. You will be blessed with a stable family, large bank account, nice home, and great health. It’s all up to you and your faith. Then disaster hits, say cancer, or divorce. Jesus words chastise. They belittle. “Ok, I’ll hold on to you, but just enough you don’t drown. You have to muster up enough faith to get to the surface and start walking.” Your faith, or lack of it, rests solidly on your own shoulders. There is no one else to turn to.
But when you have a community to turn to, Jesus’ words become an invitation, not a condemnation. “Let’s go back, start over, and build on what faith you already have and we’ll do it with everyone in the boat.” Christ pulls us out of the water and leads us back. We get the opportunity to grow in our faith with each other. We have the joy of praying with and for each other. We get the honor of rowing that boat together in the direction that Christ would have it go. And most importantly, we get to worship God in Christ together, experiencing his love and salvation as the Holy Spirit molds us into the people of faith Christ would have us be.
Friends, the good news of this passage is that God in Christ takes hold of our doubt filled lives and saves us. There can be no greater news than that. But he gives us even more. He gives us a community to live out that life. Last week, Barbara reminded us of this church’s mission statement while talking about the Friday Backpack Program. About how “we are individuals called together to worship a loving God in response to the saving grace of Jesus Christ” and the things we are called to be and do. Sounds a lot like what happened on that boat that day. Thanks be to God, that when Jesus pulls us by our hand out of the consuming waves, he never lets go. But in never letting go, he also places us in the hands of one another. Amen.


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