Out of the Boat

Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon delivered on 8/7/11 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Portland

When I was about twelve years old, my family lived near Dale Hollow Lake, in North Carolina. It was a beautiful, deep, mysterious body of water.

One memory that stands out was the summer that friends convinced me that I should try water-skiing. It looked thrilling!

The people I watched water-ski made it look so effortless.   They glided along smooth water, with the wind breezing by. Sure, I’d give it a try! Even though I was a strong swimmer, when I climbed out of the boat into the lake (with life-vest, of course), my legs got a bit wobbly with fear.

The water was so deep that it was noticeably much colder than the water at the edge where we swam. The lake seemed bottomless. I followed directions, and took hold of the tow-rope. The motorboat slowly picked up speed, and I miraculously began to rise out of the water. Just as I was on my feet, on top of the water, I quickly fell forward, my mouth open. I was skimming, like a piece of bait on a fish line, across the lake-top. I clung to the tow-rope with all my might.

White water was loudly churning around my face. The wind was whipping around my head, just above the water, and kept me from hearing what the people on the boat were shouting to me. Finally, I realized they were saying: “Let go of the rope!”

Once I understood, it took a few moments longer to work up the courage to let go. And then, as I watched the boat jet away, for a few long, terrifying minutes, it was just me, in the cold, deep, dark lake.

When have you stepped out of the boat? When have you felt alone and cold, with the taste of failure and fear in your mouth? When have you felt that just what you had planned fell through—and it was chaos—all around?

We often focus on the passage for today as a miracle: the wonder of Jesus walking on water. But what if the real miracle is that in the middle of our fears, small and large, in the midst of our loneliness and sometimes even chaos, Jesus comes to us?

Even in strong winds and stormy times, God is with us. For the early hearers of this word, the description of the strong wind across the waves, and the disciples’ terror, would have reminded them of the chaos before creation. The waters over the deep that threatened to be out of control. The word “tsunami” that we are now too familiar with, may evoke the same kind of serious peril that Jesus’ friends felt, as their boat was far from land, and the wind so strong, they were unable to get to solid ground. Creation from chaos.

A friend told me about a person he used to write articles with. My friend would painstakingly labor to get it all just so. Then he’d pass the manuscript on to his partner. The paper would be returned to him the next day, marked up in a sea of red ink, with suggestions on major changes all around. To my friend, it was chaos! Who are the people, what are the situations in your life that bring your chaos?

This week, 4000 workers from Cisco lost their jobs. Fears of economic catastrophe; about losing retirement savings; about a cross-country move, or into another type of residence; a broken marriage; a lost child; a terminal diagnosis; taking the first step to giving up an addiction; the death of a loved one. . .Even adjusting to the joy of a newborn baby—it is lovely, but chaotic! All of these are part of our life together, and for many of us, there are times when it feels that our very worlds are crumbling. . .and chaos threatens. Living this life, caring and loving in this life, brings real fear and real dangers.

The latest New Yorker had a very clever piece entitled “God’s Blog”. After dividing water from land and light from darkness, and laboring the six days of creation, the Creator invites suggestions and criticism on God’s Blog. One entry said this: “Unfocussed. Seems like a mish-mash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart, but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak, but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, than mission accomplished. . .

Who and what in your life brings chaos? This story is in three gospels: Matthew, Mark and John. Interestingly, it is only in our Matthew version that Peter is a central character. From early on, at least since the time of St. Augustine, Peter, and the disciples in the boat, were interpreted as the early church. They are trying to follow the way of Jesus, but unable to reach the shore because of the strong winds, blowing against them. The message, I think, for the church then, and now, is that when Jesus knows the fear. He knows the struggle. He comes through the chaos waters, to meet us. “Take heart. I am here. Don’t be afraid.”

Peter stepped out of the boat, for a few shining moments, did the impossible, and then began to sink. Jesus was already there. He immediately reached out to take Peter’s hand. Poet and theologian, Amy P. Hunter suggested that “. . . the early church soon came to understand Jesus as the one through whom the cosmos came into being. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). . . More than this, it is the Spirit of Christ who calls us to continue to be creators with God in ways that that move the church and the world ever closer to the Kingdom of God. Stepping out of the boat toward Jesus means that the church is called not sit fearfully by, in the hope that the storm may eventually pass, but to take an initial leap of faith into the very waters that threaten us.

What would step out of the boat look like for us? What would it look like for you? Last Sunday, the Rev. Gregg Neel told the story of another Westminster Church in the mid-West, one that closed its doors recently. He recounted their story that their elders chose to close rather than make any big changes. I suspect that we’re not facing anything so radical as that at this Westminster. But if we take a broader view, and look around at congregations, small and large, not just Presbyterian, but across many denominations, it’s clear that many of us feel that we are in a boat on a perilous, maybe even chaotic sea, struggling to reach dry land. Stepping out of the boat takes courage. But more than courage, it takes trust. Trust that Jesus is already with us. Already reaching out a hand to help us up. Already there, cheering us on, when we are willing to out: “Look at you, you’re doing it! You had it! Don’t give up!”

Have you ever watched a child first learning how to walk? After months of rolling, scooting and crawling, and clinging to skirts and legs and furniture, there is finally strength and coordination to let go and to take a few wobbly steps. There is fierce concentration on the step, and when the child realizes he’s walking on his own, a delighted smile, and then, often, a nervous plop to the ground, when the realization fully hits. And if a child has the good fortune of loving, attentive parents, he or she will often swoop down and catch the toddler before she hits ground.

I think of Jesus reaching Peter, of reaching out, when we the church, step out of the boat: “You had it!! Keep on! Don’t give up!”

There was a time in my life when I felt like everything was up for grabs. What I had hoped and thought God was calling me to, wasn’t the right direction. Everything: home, family, work, identity: all of it suddenly felt murky and chaotic. But in the midst of all that watery uncertainty, as I was praying, comforting words came to me. Words that lifted me out of the depths. These words came in a song. Words for me, and for you: You are my beloved

Though the way is unclear, I am with you;

When the road seems long I am there.

In the dark of your doubts, I am with you;

When the sun breaks through, I am there.

I have loved you from the beginning.

I will love you as others come and go.

You are indeed my beloved, so rest, be still and know.

When your heart truly aches with its longing;

When your mind is too tired to care.

When despair clouds your thoughts, I am with you.

When the sun breaks through, I am there.

I have loved you from the beginning.

I will love you as others come and go.

You are indeed my beloved, so rest, be still and know.

When you struggle with hope disappointed.

When judgment of others makes dim.

It’s the place where the heart has been broken

that makes space for light to come in. I have loved you from the beginning.

I will love you as others come and go.

You are indeed my beloved,

so rest, be still and know.

( words by Laurie Miller Vischer;   tune: Traditional Irish, “Down by the Sallie Gardens”)


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