Step Into the Swell

When I was picking out Bible stories for this sermon series on the unraveling of our lives, I was torn over whether to include this morning’s lesson.

It’s the story of Jesus successfully walking on water and Peter’s failed attempt to follow in Jesus’s watery footsteps.

On one hand, the story works well. Getting caught in stormy seas certainly stirs up feelings that winds and waves might just unravel life as you know it. And Peter’s sudden drop into the ocean’s deep is a pretty sure sign that your safety and security are becoming undone and unglued.

What I don’t so much like about this story is the way most of us have probably heard it preached over the years.

Too many well-intentioned preachers and kindhearted Sunday school teachers frame the moral of the story something like the children’s classic “The Little Engine That Could.” Or in this case, “The Little Engine That Could Have.”

Thus, the take-away life application goes something like this:

When the curtain rises, Peter is the shining star. He steps out of the boat and somehow musters up what it takes to walk on water. And, apparently, what it takes is faith. Boatloads of faith.

Because, with enough faith, you can walk on water all the way to Jesus.

And if you, too, just had enough faith, or more faith – or the right kind of faith, then you, too, could do the impossible – maybe even doing it better than Peter did.

Because Peter’s only mistake is taking his eyes off Jesus, and that’s why he sinks like a box of rocks.

So, the moral of the story is that, if you just have “enough Jesus” in your life, then you’ll prosper financially, overcome all your failings and brokenness, defy the forces of nature, and walk on the water.

If you’re not “blessed” with days of wine-and-roses living, then your basic “problem” is that you simply don’t have enough faith. And your simple “solution” is to marshal up some more faith, because more faith is all you need to find your way to Jesus.

Therefore, don’t be afraid. Get out of the boat.

But do it better than poor ol’ Peter.

Don’t take your eyes off Jesus and have no doubt.

You can do it if you really try.

End of sermon.

If that’s your take-away for the morning, OK, fine.

I still love you; God still loves you, and you won’t be cast into hell for that alone. But, as you head out the door, I’ll wish you a heartfelt “good luck with that” and a sincere “let me know how that works out for you.”

That’s sounds snarky, I know.

But having someone tell me that the solutions to my problems and the answers to my questions are found in simply having more faith so I can find my way to Jesus just doesn’t ring in my ears as the fullness of Good News that is the Gospel.

Encouragement to get-me-some-more-Jesus is as amusing as the episode of TV’s “The Simpson’s” in which one of its cartoon characters makes a series of motivational tapes that he calls “Get Confident, Stupid!”

In the end, I just don’t know how helpful it is to tell someone to “get more faith.” It just doesn’t work that way – at least not in my personal and pastoral experience.

So, as we turn to chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, I invite you to hear this all-too-familiar story and its classic threadbare moral in a fresh and different way. May the Holy Spirit unravel your assumptions and clear space in your heart for the Weaver of Unending Surprises to re-stitch some new, whole cloth.

Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

Early in the morning, he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Who are you in this story? You shouldn’t have to break much a sweat finding yourself somewhere among the characters.

Maybe you’re trembling in confusion and fear like the ones in the boat.

Maybe you’re so paralyzed by confusion – and fear of making the wrong decision – that you can’t make any decisions at all.

Or, maybe you’re the one feeling the thrill of taking a risk and stepping into the unknown – ending a bad relationship or starting a new relationship, leaving an old job and beginning a new career, or getting ready to head off to college and saying goodbye to the comfort of the familiar.

You’re steady on your feet for the first few steps. But then the going gets tough, and you’re not among the tough who get going. Fear creeps into your heart, and doubt messes with your mind.

Or maybe you or the person next to you is the one sinking in debt, or drowning in depression, or waterlogged with endless weeks and months of doctoring for some ailment that’s slow to heal or long to cure.

Or maybe you feel like you’re sinking – maybe even going down for the last time – because the challenges you last month handled with assurance and composure this week seem insurmountable and overwhelming.

Or maybe you’re the one who thinks that you’re doomed, the one who knows that all your own efforts have failed miserably. You’re pleading with and crying out to God to save you, and you’re the one to whom Jesus has reached down to rescue. And you’re holding on for dear life to the sweet hand of Jesus with every ounce of the meager strength that you’ve got.

Or maybe you’re the one in the boat, taking in all the wonder and amazement that you’ve just witnessed. You’re the one who bears witness to the danger and miracle of it all. You’ve just confirmed that, indeed, the hand of God reaches down and pulls us up when we’re going under. You see it all; you understand it all, and you can’t help but proclaim, “Truly this is God in our midst.”

At various times, you likely have been all of the above. And that gives you a remarkably powerful story to tell.

Yet, a lot of what we hear from the Church – both with this story and with so many others – is not who I am, but who I should be.

I should be the one with enough faith to walk on water.

I should be the one whose eyes are always fixed Jesus.

I should be the one who makes my way to Jesus.

And if things aren’t working out to my pleasure and satisfaction, then I should just rustle up more Jesus. God then will love me more, and God then will give me more.

But here’s the problem with that line of thinking.

All the characters in this story – the weak-kneed ones cowering in the boat, the bravehearted one who walks briefly on water, the same one whose evaporating courage triggers a downward descent and a 9-1-1 call for help, and the ones who saw it all and proclaimed that Jesus is the son of God – all these many ones are all equal in the eyes of God!

That’s because all of them – and all of us – share the same common blessing. By grace, we all are the ones to whom Jesus draws near with Good News: “It is I, do not be afraid.”

Peter’s water-walking is the eye-catching, head-turning, jaw-dropping part of this tale, and yes, that’s certainly something to write home about. And maybe he did almost have “enough Jesus” to make his way to the Lord.

What gets lost in all the seafaring razzle-dazzle is what bookends Peter’s soggy stroll.

Before and after, Jesus comes toward Peter.

In the storm, Jesus walks toward the boat.

When Peter sinks, Jesus reaches toward Peter and comes so close to all of them that he finally just swings his leg over the gunwale and climbs into the darn boat.

That’s about as “with” Peter and company as Jesus can get!

All eyes always turn to Peter walking toward Jesus when the whole story is about how much Jesus walks toward Peter and everyone else there that stormy morning.

So, go on believing, if you must, that moral of the story is “you should have so much faith that you can walk on water toward Jesus.” But do so at your own peril, because you’re missing out on the real Good News:

Jesus walks toward you, toward me, toward every blessed one of us when we’re going down for the count, when we’re the paralyzed deer caught in the headlights, when our lives and everything that gives purpose and meaning to our days unravel into a heap of loose tread and every fiber of our being is stretched to the breaking point.

Abundance of faith – or lack thereof – in no way affects God’s desire or ability to draw close to our side with a hand of rescue and a promise of resurrection. Even when you’re scared to death over this or that, real or perceived, you can say “Lord, save me!” And the hand of God will find you even in the darkest, most violent of stormy swells.

This is a story not of morals but of movement.

A story not of heroes to emulate and having enough faith to find Jesus, but rather a story of affirmation that Christ always and forever draws near to you in the midst of fear no matter what.

This is not a storied fable of the skeptic who habitually doubts, but instead everyday reality for the faithful follower who becomes overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him or her, who begins to lose his or her nerve when the odds stacked against him or her, but who nevertheless from Jesus finds a steady hand that centers the rudder and corrects the course.

You have been sent to tell the story of who you are and who God is. It is your story to tell, so that you and others might call out Lord for rescue, as we ever die and rise in the waters of our baptism.

Do not be afraid to share your story in both word and deed – your story of this God who created all that is, who spoke through prophets, who came to us in Jesus, who ate with sinners and scoffed at the powerful, who suffered and died and rose again, and who calls us out of our own graves to new life.

Sometimes a story can tell us what to do, but when we hear who we are, and whose we are, then knowing what to do comes easy.

So, fear not – even if your faith is but the size of a tiny mustard seed.

For the Lord, the very Son of God, is always near.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message from the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33) during worship on Sunday, August 2, 2020. It is the second sermon of his series “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary and reflection by Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, and Nadia Bolz-Weber inform the message. (Artwork: David Mach, Walking on Water)

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