Stop Trying to Walk on Water: Sermon for Proper 14 A

Sermon for Proper 14 A
August 13, 2017
Michael Coffey

What do we do about all the fear?
People of faith live with fear that diminishes their faith
       and their capacity to love others.
People facing trials and racism and waking up
         to the reality of a loved one mowed down
        by an angry white supremacist live with fear.
People who live with such hatred and animosity
      toward the non-white world live with a deep,
        dangerous fear of the other.
These fears are not all the same.
            They do not deserve the same response.
            But they do all feel like winds and waves
                        that are about to capsize and drown us.
            They all need a transforming word to change hearts.

The disciples in the boat on the sea
            experienced a fear that felt like they might die.
But their fear is not simply because of the wind and the waves.
            Their fear is because Jesus is not with them.
            He left them to go be alone for a while
                        because he was constantly in demand
                        and needed time to pray and recoup.
The disciples experience a deep fear we might call
separation anxiety, the sense that the one person they count on
            to guide and help them is not there.
It’s similar to the feeling that children experience
            when they are first separated from their parents
                        for an overnight stay, or a week at camp.
            It’s something like the feeling that military families know
                        when their loved one is sent off to overseas trouble spots.
It feels lonely, dangerous, and unpredictable.
            I wonder what times in life
                        you have known this kind of fear,
                        when you felt left alone, maybe even abandoned.
            Have you ever known moments
                        when it seemed like God was completely gone?
It’s a deep kind of fear.

Peter decided to address his fear of being abandoned by Jesus
            out on the rough sea in a questionable boat.
The disciples see Jesus coming to them
            but that seems impossible so they are afraid
            it’s a ghost come to haunt them.
But Jesus reassures them it is him.

Then Peter sees his chance.
            It’s Jesus! We’re not alone anymore!
            And look! He’s walking on water! That’s cool!
            Get me out of this boat! Get me doing something amazing like Jesus!
And he gets out. And then he freaks out. And he sinks.
            And Jesus rescues him.

Now, I know the kind of sermon I’m supposed to preach on this text.
            I know the sermons I have often preached
                        and you have often heard.
Peter should have had more faith, or deeper faith,
            and he should have stepped out of the boat fearless
            and walked on that water like an Olympic figure skater on ice.
But this time reading this story,
            I realized something I hadn’t before.
Jesus never wanted Peter to get out of that boat
            and try to walk on water.
Peter wanted it, because of fear and because of misunderstanding.
            Jesus, the text says, ordered the disciples into the boat.
            That’s exactly where they were supposed to be.
Peter is the one who said to Jesus: Command me to come to you on the water.
            And Jesus says, ugh, come!

Now, there are three ways you can try to walk on water,
            if you’re not Jesus, and you’re not, which is kind of the point.
            1. Get really wide Styrofoam water shoes
            2. hide a plexiglass platform just below the surface
            3. run really fast and don’t look down, like cartoon characters do
                        when they run off a cliff and only fall when they look down.

The thing is, nowhere does Jesus tell his disciples:
            Look at how good I am at walking on water!
            You should do it, too! Just have enough faith!
The whole point of Jesus walking on the water
            in the midst of a scary storm out on the sea
            is to show that he is the embodiment of God’s love and power
                        and with him, the disciples have nothing to fear.
            Nothing can separate them from his love and care.
            It was not a double dog dare from Jesus to Peter.

So when Jesus says: You of little faith, why did you doubt?
            He just might have meant:
            Why did you doubt when I made you get in the boat
                        that the boat was where you belonged?
            Why did you doubt when I sent you out on the sea
                        that I would watch over and be with you?
            Why did you doubt that who you are as ordinary folks
                        was enough for living a life of profound and loving faith?

What I’ve been pondering all week about this text
            and even as I watched Charlottesville unfold that past two days
            is whether we have the faith to trust
                        that this ship we are sailing on in Christ
                        will keep us afloat, even in rough, choppy waters?
            Do we trust that we are on a voyage watched over
                        and made buoyant by our merciful and powerful God?
            Or do we keep thinking we are supposed to find some
                        miracle or spectacle or other-worldly power
                        and be Jesus instead of following Jesus in faith?

I think the text is telling us we are supposed to be in the boat.
            We are supposed to be sailing along the way Jesus told us to,
                        in faith, by love, with deep trust,
                        facing calm waters and scary storms
                        knowing we are not and never will be abandoned.
            We are not and never will be separated from the love of God
                        in Christ Jesus, and that changes how we sail along.
We’re always trying to figure out how to get where Jesus is,
or where God is,
and we often assume that is somewhere else,
and somewhere louder and more impressive than here and now. 
But Jesus is always trying to get where we are,
like walking on water to the boat, and in fact does.
Jesus is constantly breaking through all our fear and doubt and resistance,
and residing in some quiet word, some still voice,
some ordinary moment, some bit of bread and sip of wine,
and then we know it: fear not. God is with us. Here. Now. Always.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a concern
            that somehow, even though Jesus was great and God is powerful,
            somehow we are going to be left all alone.
There is anxiety in the disciples that once this Jesus thing ends at the cross,
            we will somehow be left to figure it out on our own.
So we have to find other ways than what Jesus taught,
            not the ways of risky love, and welcoming the outsider,
            and loving the enemy, and letting go of fear and anxiety
                        because of God’s abiding love for us.
We have to grab onto power, look for phenomenal events,
            turn faith into a religious trick,
            or just get out of the boat and swim back to shore.
When all Jesus would have us do
            is trust his resurrected presence in our little boat.

There is a long history of the church thinking of itself
            as a boat on a storm-tossed sea.
It is an image of faith facing reality:
            The voyage of life can be rough,
                        but God in Christ by the Spirit is with us,
                        abiding, protecting, guiding all along the way.
It is such an important metaphor for the church
            that the space you are sitting in is called the nave,
            as in navy, or naval, or navigate,
                        or things having to do with boats and sailing.
The church knows itself to be a community both called and blessed.
            Called to live out the love of Christ in this stormy world.
                        It’s a love that can transform others to have faith.
                        It’s also a love that can lead to rejection and persecution
                                    and the cross.
            The church also knows itself to be blessed.
                        Blessed by Christ’s mysterious and trustworthy presence.
                        Blessed by font of acceptance, word of hope,
                        meal of transformation, spirit of power,
                        community of shared love for each other and the world.
The question the church always faces is:
            Do we trust this boat Jesus has put us in?
            Do we trust the ordinary life we live is the place
                        where God calls us to live with bold love
and confront ugly and deadly hate?
                        Or are we trying to get to shore alone on our own terms?

There was a frightening scene Friday night in Charlottesville
            that seemed to come out of either an old movie
                        or old news reels from Germany in the 1930’s.
A group of white nationalists and Nazis and Klan members
            marched through the city with torches.
I confess I do love the fact that they were using Tiki Torches
            they probably brought from Home Depot
            and filled with citronella oil,
                        and that the internet is appropriately mocking
                        these Tiki Torch Nationalists.
We saw on television angry white men afraid of change,
afraid of the other, afraid of opening up to the way of love,
afraid of losing something that while it feels safe and familiar,
is destructive and harmful to all, even themselves.

Their march through town, which looked like a scene
            from Frankenstein or the Third Reich,
            moved toward a church where people of faith
                        were meeting to plan a counter demonstration the next day.
These torch-bearing, fearful boys we should not even call men,
            surrounded the church as if they could intimidate them,
            as if they were a tidal wave of hate,
            as if they were a stormy gust of vitriol
                        that could take down the ship that Christ put those people in.
Now, I can imagine it was very frightening to be in that church
            knowing they couldn’t leave or they might face violence
            or maybe vandalism or arson.
But I can also imagine that those faithful, struggling disciples
            knew that Jesus was not far off,
            that the Spirit was the only wind they need pay attention to,
                        and the font the only waters that mattered.
And they stayed calm, or at least calm enough
            to act faithfully and boldly against hatred.

There is something so frighteningly ordinary about our lives,
about our struggles, our fears, our work…
It feels like we might get swallowed up
in the course of human history and time and entropy…
But the good news of God in Christ says something else:
this very ordinary life, this small place where we reside,
this boat of God’s love and mercy named Christ that carries us through… this is where we are meant to be.
Right here. Right now. Because this is where Christ is.
            In this struggle. With these hard questions.
With us. In love. In self-giving. In promise. In song.
In the neighbor who will shortly bless you with peace.

Faith isn’t really about walking on water. Leave that to Jesus.
It’s about floating on the water in the boat Jesus put us in,
trusting that we aren’t alone on this voyage,
even when the waters get rough and the winds get crazy.
We have Jesus and we have each other for encouragement.
The ship of faith in the community of Christ will get us there,
the voyage does have a purpose and a goal
and it is guided and watched over by the spirit of love and mercy.


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