Over the last week, I spent four days serving as a spiritual director at a BadgerTEC (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend in Wisconsin, then five days in Atlanta for the first ever ELCA Rostered Minister’s Gathering. This sermon from the weekend of August 12-13 is closely based on the sermon ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached at the closing worship of the gathering.
The text this week is Matthew 14:22-33, the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water.
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s good to be back with you today. I’ve been in Atlanta for the last week at the ELCA’s first ever rostered ministers gathering. We had nearly a thousand Lutheran pastors and deacons from together for worship, learning, encouragement, and fellowship.
I had conversations with pastors serving all over the country, everywhere from south Florida to Maine to the pastor I met from Shishmaref Lutheran Church in Shishmesref, Alaska.
He and I were sharing about how our first calls are going, and he said the island of Shishmaref is so isolated that in addition to being the only pastor on the island, he also doubles as the mortician. I’m adding that to the list of things I didn’t learn in seminary!
We had some wonderful speakers and workshop leaders from across our church, and of course, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton spoke as well about some of the things our church is working on. God is doing some amazing things through our church.
For example, over 90% of ELCA congregations have some kind of food ministry, whether it’s a soup kitchen, shelter, or a food pantry like we have here in Greene.
Bishop Eaton also preached at closing worship in Thursday, and because we have smart leaders, she preached on today’s text from Matthew 14:22-33 on Jesus walking on the water.
So, to give proper credit, a lot of my sermon today comes from what she preached on. Oh, and I also have video on my phone of our presiding bishop in a conga line, so let me know if you want to see that.
Bishop Eaton started by mentioning that when we read miracle stories like we’ve had these last two weeks, we as modern, skeptical readers sometimes try to explain them away. Maybe Jesus didn’t really use five loaves and two fish to feed a crowd, maybe when he said it was time to eat everyone in the crowd realized they had some food with them and got inspired to share it with their neighbor and that was the real miracle.
Maybe the disciples thought they saw Jesus walking on water, but really, he just knew where the rocks were. Seriously, these interpretations are out there. Or maybe Jesus was really on the shore the whole time but there was a weird trick of the light because there was a storm and it was just before dawn and Jesus just looked much closer than he was.
That would be the opposite of normal, because usually we think Jesus is much farther away than he really is. Or, maybe there was a sandbar next to the boat.
I’ll give you the same reation to those ideas that Bishop Eaton did: No.
These are mysteries and we don’t need to try to explain or even exactly comprehend how God was working. Not having all the answers is ok.
Anyway, the usual point of this story is Peter’s willingness to get out of the boat and take the step of faith to walk out to Jesus on the water. There’s a great book title – I haven’t read the book, but I’d like to – the title is “If You Want to Walk in Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.” Isn’t that a great title?
And Peter is a great example of faith. Sometimes, we do need to get out of the boat. Sometimes we need to get out of our safe spaces, go beyond our walls.
A boat is a cool image to use, because a boat is this suspension over the deep, over the water, over who knows what’s down there. In the Bible, water is often an image of danger and chaos. It’s the home of the sea monsters, a place of fear. It’s mysterious.
It’s the void at creation to which God’s Spirit gives order, but we know that because of sin, the order God designed is broken and threatening. Above all that, we trust this fragile thing will keep us afloat, this piece of fiberglass (or wood for the disciples) will hold us safely above the danger.
Sometimes, though, God calls us to take a step of faith out into the dangerous waters and when we take that step, as long as we keep our focus on Jesus, as long as we don’t look away in fear like Peter did, then we’ll be ok. There’s a powerful lesson there for us about keeping our focus on Jesus, where it needs to be.
We need to take risks, to be willing to stand up for peace and justice, to use our power and our voices for the sake of those who are silenced. As we’ve seen this week, there’s plenty of opportunity for us to take a stand against racism, and against violent threats, to work together so all people are treated as beloved children of God whom Jesus died for. As followers of Christ, we need to be willing to condemn hate. Sometimes God leads us out of our safe boats and we need to follow.
And of course, there’s my favorite part of this way of looking at the story: Jesus is there to catch us. When Peter gets afraid and overwhelmed and begins to sink, Jesus lets him flail for a minute so he’ll learn his lesson, right?
No, Jesus immediately reaches out and catches him. That’s a beautiful reminder for when you feel like you’re sinking. Jesus is there to grab hold of you.
But the problem with reading the story this way, focusing on Peter and his bold step of faith, is it really focuses on human agency. It becomes a story about us, about whether we are strong enough to walk on water and focus on Jesus all the time.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t always step out of the boat. I can’t do that all the time. Actually, I do know about you – you can’t do it all the time either. We can try and try, but we’re not going to be able to walk on the water. This story sets an impossible standard for us to meet.
So what is the point? Well, look again at the story. The disciples are in the boat on the sea, and it’s night, and they’re frightened because there’s a storm, and these are mostly fishermen, so it must have been quite the storm, and in their fear, they see Jesus walking towards them.
Somehow, they don’t seem very comforted by seeing Jesus coming towards them, probably because he’s walking in the water, and that’s not normal. I’d be pretty scared.
Where I get stuck, and I mentioned this to council when we looked at this story as a devotional last week, the part I get stuck on is when Peter asks what he thinks might be a ghost, “Hey, if that’s you, Jesus, ask me to come out there to you on the water.” And the person on the water says, “Ok, come on out.”
That’s not proof! I’m sorry, but the “ghost” doing exactly what you tell it to do is not a good enough reason to step out of a perfectly good boat!
But they’re in the boat, and Peter is willing to step out. The way Bishop Eaton described it was Peter saying, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out there.” And Jesus says, “Well, ok, if that’s what you want to do. Not sure you know what you’re doing, but if you want to come out here, go ahead, I’m here.”
Peter comes out, does all right, and then he tries to walk on his own, and of course, he sinks. Jesus says, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
We often read that like it’s a condemnation. Shame on you for not believing well enough. Shame on you for sinking. Shame on you for not doing enough. But what if it’s more like a kid on the side of the swimming pool saying, “Catch me, catch me, I’m gonna jump in the pool, catch me!”
And whoever’s going to catch them says, “Come in, I got you.” Imagine Jesus asking Peter, “What are you so worried about? I told you I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
The goal is not for us to have magical powers to walk on water. The goal isn’t even for us to have this super faith so we never look away from Jesus. The point isn’t about us at all. When we try to take things into our own hands, when we think it’s up to us instead of Jesus, that’s when we get into trouble.
The point of this story is not for you to test God by trying to do things you were never created to do like walking on water, but to trust God. The point is to trust that in the storms, we don’t need to rely on ourselves alone, but that we can rely on Jesus.
Us having magical powers might be nice, but wouldn’t you rather have Jesus in the boat with you?
The good news in this story is not just Peter stepping out, or even that Jesus grabbed Peter when he was sinking. The point is that we see in this story God doing exactly what God always does: coming to us, toward the disciples in their boat.
Did you catch what happened to the storm? It doesn’t stop when Peter steps out towards Jesus, or even when Jesus catches him. The wind and the waves stop when Jesus climbs into the boat with his disciples.
The movement of God is always toward us. It’s the same in baptism – God comes to us in the water. Our faith comes after, in response to God. The promise that matters is God’s promise to us. God always comes to us, even if it means walking across the water through a storm.
Jesus took on our limited, mortal flesh, became incarnate as a person like us, so he’s in the same boat we are.
And because Jesus is in the boat with us, we have the freedom to jump into the pool, into the messiness of the world. We have the freedom to trust God, rather than trying to save ourselves.
Knowing we are saved by God, we have the freedom to take a stand, to work for God’s kingdom. We’re in this boat together, we’re here as a community of faith in a rough, sometimes fearful world, but we’re not in this alone.
No matter what happens, Jesus is in the boat with us and will bring us safely home. Thanks be to God. Amen!