The scripture for this sermon is Matthew 14:22-31.
Like last week, we have another familiar scripture from Matthew for our gospel. I thought we would read it carefully this morning to hear anything we might have missed because of our familiarity. Let’s start, at the beginning.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. This story follows immediately after the miracle feeding of the 5000. The disciples and Jesus had just fed this hungry group and Jesus wants the disciples to leave, so he can be alone with the crowd and dismiss them himself. The disciples don’t want to leave, so scripture tells us that Jesus made them, forced them into the boat. Keep in mind, too, that whenever boats show up in Matthew, and they do in a few places, the story is usually about the church. The ancient image of the church is a ship, full of God’s people, moving together through the waters of life. This is why the inside of our sanctuary looks like it does. The disciples and the church’s comfort zone is right here, in this place, next to Jesus so to speak. Maybe, every now and then, we all need to be pushed out into the world, the chaotic sea.
23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. Like a parent luxuriating in the quiet without their kids, before they pick them up at the babysitter, Jesus took advantage of his aloneness to have some quiet time with the Father. In Matthew as in most of the Old Testament, when someone want’s to talk with God they go up a mountain. If hell is here, we’re here and heaven is here, it only makes sense that a mountain gets you closer to God. While Jesus is praying on the mountain, a storm starts on the Sea of Galilee. This sea is still known for these quick but powerful wind storms that can kick up. The point of telling us about the storm here in the story might be that if the disciples were still within earshot he could have called out to them to come back and pick him up. The storm has made this impossible. It is still evening. The crowds are gone, Jesus is done praying and he can’t get a hold of the disciples. Maybe, he just finds a place to sleep out of the way of the storm.
25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. Now, this is what got interesting for me as I reread this story carefully. Jesus was done praying in the evening, but it wasn’t until almost six in the morning that he decides to go to the disciples on the boat. The disciples still have not made it across the lake. They are still out there struggling. Yet, it does not say they are terrified of the storm. It certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus was that worried about them or else he would have come to them hours ago. There is a similar story in chapter 8. The disciples are out on a boat and a storm happens but Jesus is asleep in the stern, not on shore. In that story, the disciples are terrified. Here, their terror is not mentioned. Maybe, they grew from that last experience. Jesus won’t let anything happen to us, in the boat, God’s people in the church, even if he is not right next to us, he is surely aware of what is going on.
However, brave they were during the storm, they end up getting spooked about the ghost they see on the water. A first century person would have seen any powerful storm as the work of evil. So, it would only make sense that you would see an evil ghost in the midst of the storm. It is the ghost not the storm that scares them.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ When I read this line this week, it made me think of when you startle someone from behind. Poor Erni will be playing the organ in our sanctuary with all the lights off by herself and I will come out of the dark and say, “Hey, Erni.” You can only imagine how far I can get her to jump every time. After I laugh, because it is kind of funny, I always feel bad about it. This is what I heard from Jesus, this time. “Hey, whoa, guys it’s me, don’t wet your pants.” Interesting, Jesus still does not stop the storm.
The book of Mark and the book of John tell nearly the identical story. But they end here. If the story ends here, I think the meaning for us in the church might be that Jesus will send us out, force us out if necessary to do the work we have been prepared to do. The work will be hard, a struggle even, but Jesus has got his eye on us. He will show up when we tire, to encourage us and give us strength.
The work of the church can be like entering a storm. We are called to feed, clothe and care for the people that surround us. This can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. This week I worked with many Messiah volunteers at the produce market we sponsored on Tuesday where we served 187 families and the First English meal that we cooked and served on Thursday for over 100 clients on Main Street near Parsons. Both days, I went home and sat, tired physically because let’s face it, I don’t do a lot of physical work in my job and troubled emotionally by all the people that need so much and how little we have to offer them.
Serving the least the lost and least is not just about handing out food. We are to tell the story of Jesus, his grace and forgiveness for all people, even when that message might be unpopular. This can be stormy, too. Presiding Bishop Liz Eaton has been outspoken this last month that we need to give shelter and safety to immigrant children arriving alone from Central America. Regardless of what we believe about the policies or politics that surround them, they are vulnerable and in need of our care. This is not a popular stance in many communities across the country, but it is the storm we are called to enter.
Two close pastor friends entered the storm of controversy last week by travelling to Cincinnati to be visible symbols of the church. They wore their clerical collars in a large demonstration outside a courthouse in support of the legal right to marry the person one chooses regardless of gender. They thought it important to counter another demonstration that day by Christian groups opposed to expanding the legal understanding of marriage. They wanted it known that Christians do not speak with one voice on this issue.
Don’t expect life in a church to be quiet and easy. There will be storms if we are loving passionately the least and the lost and those the world has turned their back on. A quiet church is a dead church. A church that is not serving and engaging their world has stopped being the church. It is like those fake boats you find in tourist areas that are always docked. They look like boats but because they cannot leave the shore, they have stopped being a boat.
In struggle and stormy seas, we are not alone. Jesus is watching us and will come to us. We can count on that presence of Jesus every week, when we gather in this church, this sanctuary built to look like a boat, to worship. This is how this scene in Matthew ends, with all on board kneeling to worship Jesus. Notice, it was when they worshipped Jesus, the storm stopped. Though our work is hard throughout the week, we can count on peace in the midst of worship together. Amen
This next part was not preached, but was prepared.
Matthew doesn’t end the story here, but adds this scene with Peter. 28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ It appears that Peter isn’t sure whether Jesus is Jesus or if that is truly a ghost outside their boat in the midst of the storm. So what does Peter do? He tests Jesus. In fact, he uses nearly the identical language that Satan uses in the when he tests Jesus. Peter is sounding like Satan. We know right here that this is not going to go well.
29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Jesus doesn’t rebuke him, yell at him, or correct him. I picture him shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Come.” If you have kids, sometimes you say, hey it’s your mistake to make. Dad, I want to take out a loan to buy that expensive, fancy car even though I am just working at Burger King. Dad, I want to change my major from Chemical Engineering to Medieval English Literature, I think there are great jobs I can do with that degree. Dad, I am going camping all weekend with my friends, but don’t worry about my exams on Monday, I will just pull an all nighter. You can’t stop your kids from these dumb decisions, so you let them fail, hoping to catch them before their mistake drowns them.
The only one that can walk on water is God. There are tons of biblical references of seeing God on the water like that. None of people. God walks on water and since Jesus is full of God in a whole and special way, then he could walk on water, too. You, me, Peter, probably not. I hear Jesus saying, Hey, you are the one that didn’t trust that I would show up while you were struggling in the boat. So, come. maybe getting a little wet will be a learning experience. And Peter, sinks, pretty much right after he steps out. Think of those Road Runner, Coyote cartoons where the coyote is about four feet off of the cliff and realizes, uh, oh. Peter yells save me.
31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’And Jesus reaches out and saves him. Why? Because that is what Jesus does. Jesus is the good shepherd, who is watching God’s sheep, as they struggle in the work they should be about, the storm the church is called to not just endure but to enter. Even when they take foolish actions, like getting out of a perfectly good boat in the midst of a storm, Jesus saves.
Jesus tells Peter that he has little faith and asks why he doubted. He didn’t tell Peter he had no faith, just a faith like all of us that ebbs and flows. It is hard to trust Jesus with our life, especially when it sometimes feels like we are fighting these storms all by ourselves. It is hard to trust Jesus when so many people say the most vile things claiming to be speaking for Jesus. It is hard, even when we are staring Jesus right in the face, to trust that it is really him.
I have preached on this text a few times that Peter sinks because he does not trust Jesus enough to walk on water. I have said if only we keep our eyes on Jesus,we can do anything. This week, that is not what I heard. Maybe, at fifty now, humility tells me that I am not likely ever to walk on water. I will leave that to God.