Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 10, 2014
In the Name of God, who made and knows us, Jesus, who redeems and befriends us, and the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
Some people just love a good storm. The louder the claps of thunder, the more frequent the streaks of lightening, the heavier the downpour of rain, the happier they are. Not me. I don’t like storms. Never did.
I’ve been at sea once during a January nor’easter. I was on the QE2 and that big ship was bouncing and the whitecaps were huge. The dining rooms were very empty and the bathrooms were very busy. I can only imagine how terrifying it to be caught in a storm while in a small boat hammered by the waves, far from land, the wind beating against you. You would not have found me in that boat. I would have been planted firmly on dry land, safe and sound. Safe and sound –a very comforting state but one that does not allow for much growth.
You may know that a boat or ship is one of the earliest symbols for the church. In fact, the term we use to describe the main seating area of our church building, the nave, comes from the Latin navis which means ship. Many churches like ours have vaulted ceilings that are in the shape of the hull of the ship, but upside down. (You might want to take a look up there and notice that.) So, no matter who we are or what we come here with today, we’re all in the same boat…in more ways than one.
Back to the stormy waters of the Gospel. The twelve have been out in these wild waters all night. They are scarred out of their wits and through the fog and the crashing waves they see this strange figure coming toward them. They imagined that the approaching figure, garments blowing in the wind, was a ghost—an apparition or worse. If we put our imagination to work, we can probably picture this scene. They cried out in fear. Who wouldn’t?
Jesus identifies himself but Peter isn’t convinced and gets out of the boat, thinking he will be able to do what Jesus has done. I suspect that from behind him, Peter heard something like this from his mates: “Are you nuts?”
“Look at him sink. Serves him right.”
“Peter, don’t be a damn fool! Get back in the boat.”
Scholars find this water-walking episode a difficult miracle around which to wrap their heads because its sole purpose seems to demonstrating that Jesus has mastery over all thing. Luke failed to record it in his Gospel and makes no mention of the walking on water or the dismissal of the crowd. Even to some respected commentators this Gospel account seems more story than Gospel. We can easily allow that Jesus walks on water to reveal his person and power even over the wildest forces of nature. But why does Peter attempt to do it if not to totally embarrass himself?
The writers of the Gospels chose the stories they included to teach us lessons about God, about life, and about life in the Kingdom of God. This story might well teach us how God would have us navigate rough waters when they come our way or suggest how to break out of a stifling situation.
We know how this story ends. Between the force of the wind, his fear of drowning, and, no doubt, the disconcerting voices in the background, Peter began to sink…until a hand reached out and caught him and brought him back to safety in the boat.
There aren’t many life circumstances that can’t be seen through the lens of this story. If you are in any way feeling that you are living in the midst of a storm and wondering whether you are going to sink or swim, this Gospel message is for you. If life seems too dormant and you are searching for more adventure, this story is for you. If you sense that God may be calling you into unchartered waters, this story is for you.
Comfort zones are familiar, cozy places but we can’t grow in faith, take risks, and still count on looking good all the time. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he taught us that sometimes we must be willing to take the chance that we may fail or look a bit foolish to some.
Riskless believing—safe, snug believing—stays in the boat or even on the shore. It might be more comfortable there. It might seem the sensible thing to do. It might even seem the responsible thing to do. But it leaves us unchanged. Gospel living means we are willing to at least get our feet wet, if not step out of the boat altogether.
In fairness to Peter, he is the one disciple to try, to go out on a limb—or wave. Yes, Peter quickly discovers that he is in over his head and yet, if we look at similar stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that characters like Noah and Jonah also found themselves in quite a dilemma and that is precisely where they met God. The rest of the disciples may have chided Peter for his stunt but I say “kudos, Peter. You’ve taught us a powerful lesson.”
Jesus does not expect any of us to walk on water. That’s for him to do. He just wants us to trust him enough that we’re willing to get out of the boat—out of our comfort zone—and take a risk, be willing to grow in faith, and maybe even find ourselves transformed. And when we do venture out on those choppy waters, we can be assured that he will tell us where the rocks are.
We may have to ignore the voices—either our own internal critic or the voices of others in the boat—that discourage us from taking the leap. We may falter. We may wish we had never taken that first step. We may wonder where we are headed. Remember, though, that Jesus ribbed Peter a bit – “You of little faith,” he said. But he also rescued him.
Jesus never deserts those who doubt. He will not let us sink. He just wants us to be willing to take that first step. He just wants us to dip our toes in the water. He just wants us to give it our best shot. He’ll take it from there.