Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sermon, Proper 14A, Matthew 14:22-33

How many times have we heard this story? How many times have we seen it portrayed in movies? The disciples are in the boat, struggling against the storm, when Jesus appears walking on the water. And Peter, seeking confirmation that it is indeed Jesus says, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus says, "Come," and Peter becomes the only other person to walk on water.

How many times have we heard this story, and how many times have we heard sermons on faith or trust or boldness? How many times have we heard, "If only we had the boldness of Peter, we too could walk on water;" or, "If you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat?"

And this is all true. If we want to do great things, like walk on water, we must get out of the boat. We can't sit here in our little boat and be complacent about how things are going. We must get out. We must step out in boldness if we are going to do great things.

However, if that's all there is to this story, why bother? If the only thing this story had to offer was a life lesson on faith and boldness, I could stop preaching right now. We've all heard the story so often, and we've all heard the sermons about it, I might as well take this Sunday off. But I won't.

One of the fun things for me is to find something in the passage that I've not seen before, or hear something I've not heard before, and then preach on it. Nothing like a little surprise to make for an interesting sermon. You may or may not remember that back in April I took a little trip to Salt Lake City for a preaching conference. While there, I heard a sermon by Kristin Saldine, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, on this very passage. It was in that sermon that I heard something new and different.

What if the story isn't about getting out of the boat? What if the story isn't about having the boldness to walk on water? What if the story is about staying in the boat with your fellow disciples? What if the story is about staying in the struggle?

"But by this time the boat, battered by waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them."

Here are the twelve disciples crossing the lake and struggling against a strong wind. Suddenly Jesus appears walking on the water towards them. Peter sees Jesus and asks him to command him to get out of the boat. Jesus does, and Peter walks on water. But here's where this gets interesting.

What if Jesus didn't actually command Peter to get out of the boat? What if that was all Peter's idea? You might argue that that interpretation is wrong. After all, Peter said, "Command me to come . . ." and Jesus said, "Come." But notice something here. In that answer, "Come," Jesus never said, "Get out of the boat." Could it not be that Jesus' answer of "Come," was to be taken in the context of turning the boat towards Jesus so that all the disciples were brought to him?

In this context, Peter heard what he wanted to hear. Peter's call of, "Command me to come," was Peter's way of asking for permission to abandon ship. He was asking permission to leave his friends behind in their struggle. He was asking for permission to go his own way. He was asking for the easy way out. He was looking for a way to leave that would allow him to say, "Jesus told me to go this way."

So Peter gets out of the boat and walks on water . . . for awhile. He looked good . . . for awhile. He seemed to be better than everyone else . . . for awhile. He grabbed all the attention . . . for awhile. And then he began to sink. Jesus reaches out and saves him saying, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Why did you doubt the others who were in the boat with you? Why did you doubt their ability to help you? Why did you doubt their ability to work with you? Why did you doubt their commitment and feel the need to set off on your own?

Football season is almost here and the natural order of the universe will shortly be restored. I have been officiating high school football for a long time. I learned a valuable lesson early on in that hobby: you can't sink one end of a boat. You can't say, "I think the guys at the other end of the boat are nuts -- I think I'll sink their side." You can't say, "I have no need of you, I'll set out on my own." It doesn't work because you'll all go down.

As disciples in the same boat, we can't sink one end of the boat because we don't like what the other side is doing. As disciples together in one boat, struggling against the waves and the wind and other worldly issues that batter us, it doesn't do any good to abandon ship. Because, as Peter showed, if you set off on your own simply because you think Jesus is calling you out, you are sure to sink. Not only that, but it depletes the rest of the body and creates an extra burden for those left behind. In short, we need everybody in this boat working together.

Look at this place for a minute. The architecture is that of an inverted ship. We are all disciples on this journey. We are all part o the ship's crew. And this ship needs every one of you. There is enough to keep us all busy. And when things get rough, that is not the time to be abandoning ship.

The fallacy of Peter is that he left the communion of his fellow disciples in an effort to attain Jesus on his own. In today's world, the fallacy of certain people is that they are abandoning the communion of their fellow disciples because they believe Jesus has called them out of the boat. Add to that the tendency of those abandoning ship to believe that those who choose to remain with the ship aren't really following Jesus at all.

We are all in this together. When our ship seems battered and tossed about by the struggles of the world, the worst thing we can do is abandon ship. Are we not better off if we work with each other, knowing that we are all following Jesus the best we can?

The message today isn't about having the boldness to get out of the boat and walk on water. The message of today is that we need to remember who our crew is and work with them, even when we think things are too rough. If we all decided to get out of the boat, the only thing we'd have is a bunch of sinking people and a derelict ship. I'm fairly certain that is not what Jesus had in mind when he said, "Come."

The message today is this: Stay In The Boat.


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