Get Out of the Boat
TEXT: Matthew 14:22-33
The story of Jesus walking on the water occurs in three of the four gospels. But it is only in Matthew that we have the addition of the part about Peter asking Jesus to call him and Peter’s subsequent swimming lesson.
Most of the sermons I’ve heard on the passage about Jesus walking on water have focused on Peter, who finds himself sinking into stormy seas when he begins to doubt Jesus. But if we only focus on the moment that Peter sinks, we will have missed the most wonderful and promising part of the story. We can focus on Peter sinking if we want to, and it seems like most of the church does. But that’s not the whole story. I want to encourage us to put the failure aside for a time and look at the promise.
Peter walks on the water. He walks on the water just like Jesus. He sinks after a few steps, yes. But for a brief moment, Peter walked on water. Peter showed great faith in getting out of the boat and going to Jesus. The reason he sinks is not because it was wrong to get out of the boat. Peter only sinks when that faith waivers. The greatest failure in this story is not Peter but the rest of the disciples, who sat huddled in the boat, still wondering if they were seeing a ghost.
Peter’s faith may have been weak, but it was much stronger than the rest of the bunch. Peter had boldness. All of the disciples got safely to the other shore, but only Peter walked on water. How much we have missed if we only remember that Peter sank. This is a passage of promise: If you respond in faith to the call of God, you can walk on water. The lesson? If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.
We talk about wanting to work miracles, wanting to do great things for Christ. But yet we don’t want to compromise the comfort and safety of the boat. It can’t happen. Miracles, just by definition, are risky--they defy what we believe to be the usual order of things. We can’t walk on water without getting out of the boat, without taking the risk.
Miracles are not a result of practical living and common sense. Miracles make no sense at all. In fact, none of our faith makes sense to the folks still sitting in the boat. Babies born to virgins don’t make sense. Empty tombs don’t make sense. Choosing death in order to live doesn’t make sense. Ruling by serving doesn’t make sense. Being first by bringing up the rear doesn’t make sense. And it sure doesn’t make sense to step out of a perfectly good boat at the height of a storm.
But there stands Jesus, outside the boat, making no sense by standing on top of water that should be sending him to Davy Jones’ Locker. He doesn’t come to us in the way we would expect...rowing up in another boat. He’s walking on the water. And instead of leaping into the boat with us and saying, “How’s it going, guys?” he stops outside of the boat, standing on the water, and calls us to come. Jesus doesn’t chide the others for staying in the boat, but later it is Peter to whom Jesus says, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.” The church is founded on the one who dared to get out of the boat.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that New England folks are not known for risk taking. My father’s ancestors came from Scotland and were much more likely to bury their talent than invest it in risky endeavors. My mother’s family was all Swamp Yankee fishermen who had enough horse sense to stay in the boat during a storm. So I want to be clear before I go much farther, that I’m not talking about taking risks just for the sake of adventure. That was the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness when Satan tried to get him to jump off the temple and have the angels dash to his rescue. You are not going to find me bungee jumping, cliff diving, participating in extreme sports, or taking any vacation without a better than 50/50 shot at coming home again. This is not about putting what God has given to us in jeopardy as an invitation for God to strut His stuff.
Peter does take an incredible risk in getting out of a boat on a dark and stormy night. But the key here is, he doesn’t put out the first toe until Jesus has said to him, “Come.” If Jesus is not anywhere near our boat, we would be crazy to get out and try to walk on water. We can’t do that on our own. But when God appears on the scene, new possibilities open before us and we listen for the guidance of God. And if God says it’s OK, you can take that to the bank. We are not called to be reckless, but we are called to trust.
The problem is--our world does not live by trust. Our watchwords today are words like “protection,” “security,” “safe.” Whether it is the government, law enforcement, health care, social programs or financial investment we hear those words as organizations describe their goals and objectives. We must protect our children, make sure social security funding is protected; we have safe schools and want to guard our investments. We have a whole branch of government now devoted to Homeland Security. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But when we let our concern for security and safety spill over into our faith, our faith vanishes and we sink into the sea.
Faith means nothing if it does not mean risk. Faith and trust go hand in hand, and that means so do faith and risk because trust is a risky business. You can tell me that you trust me to hold your money until you’re blue in the face, but until you have actually put the money into my hands, you haven’t really trusted. It’s the same with faith. You can say, “Oh, I have faith in God” all you want, but until you get out of the boat, it’s only so much hot air.
“There is nothing more important than God,” we say. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” we quote. “With God all things are possible.” We shout it again and again as we sit comfortably in our boats, calling the ones who talk of getting out “foolish” and “impractical.” And we look at those who do get out of the boat and we condemn their lack of faith if they start to sink, completely unaware that even as they sink to the bottom of the sea, their faith is greater than ours. We have no business claiming we have any faith whatsoever until we have been willing to get out of the boat when Jesus calls.
The call of God to all of us is the same now as it ever was, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That commission is represented in the story we’ve just read, which begins with the note that the disciples (and later Jesus with them) are headed to “the other side” of the lake. Back in March I was in Israel and I learned there that the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee is in Gentile territory. Every time that Jesus goes to “the other side of the lake,” he is going to be with Gentiles. The church exists to make disciples and in the day we forget that we cease to be a church and become a cruise liner, trying to make sure that the passengers are comfortable and have a good time.
As each area of your church leadership examines their own role in making disciples, I invite you to consider how Jesus might be calling you, both individually and as a church, to get out of the boat. I understand that as a church you have wrestled with the issue of whether or not to have a church building of your own. Getting out of the boat might mean a financial leap to acquire property and a building. But it also might mean braving the road less traveled and following the example of many churches, both small and large, who do highly successful ministry free of the constraints and costs of property. God might be calling you to either possibility. It is your job to pray and listen for God’s voice. It is only when it is Jesus calling you out of the boat that you can successfully walk on water. Otherwise it’s just another hair-brained idea and you’ll sink like a rock.
Maybe the kind of risk you are called to has more to do with how you do ministry rather than where you do ministry. Would anyone in Shrewsbury feel comfortable walking in these doors? Sometimes we think we welcome all people but have subtle clues about who is acceptable and who is not. The new motto of the Massachusetts Bible Society is “one book, many voices.” That represents the many voices of the Biblical writers, the many voices they write about, the many voices they refused to hear and the many voices we often ignore or shut out. It represents the many voices that interpret Scripture as well as the many ways the biblical stories are told—the voices of drama, music, graphic art, poetry and fiction. I think it is helpful for every church to think about what voices might not be getting the hearing they deserve.
Maybe Jesus is standing there outside the boat and calling to you, personally. On Easter Sunday I finally stepped out of the comfortable boat of pastoral ministry and became the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society. It was an incredibly scary step, but so far, I’m still on top of the water. Maybe God is calling you to a new ministry within the church, or a new job, or a new attitude. I hate it when Jesus asks me to risk a new attitude. I like my old ones! Maybe God is calling you to better stewardship of your time or your money or the environment. Stewardship always seems risky because we believe that if we give more there won’t be enough left for ourselves, but I have found that when God directs me to give, there is always enough left over.
Actually, the reality of God’s supply is what made a Christian out of my father. Back in the late 70’s we were not making ends meet as a family. My mother ran the finances and she and my father sat down to talk about it. “I think we should start tithing,” she said, and my father looked at her like she had three heads. “No,” he explained, “The problem is that we have too little money, not too much. Giving more to the church will make our problems worse.”
To this day I don’t know how she did it, but my mother convinced my father to try tithing for one month. At the end of the month, they were in the black. My father went over the books again and again. Their income had not changed. They gave more away. And they had eliminated the red ink. He was up all night. Finally, somewhere around 3-4 in the morning, he called a faith-filled man at our church, waking him from sleep, saying “I want what you have.” His heart was changed, his life was changed, our family was changed. If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.
Maybe God is calling you to take what many in New England feel is the scariest step of all—to share your faith with someone else. Has God ever helped you? Has prayer ever made life a little more bearable? Have you ever found real comfort in your faith? This week, real people here in Shrewsbury and in the surrounding towns will get frightening calls from their doctors. Some will learn they’ve lost a job, some might realize their family is breaking up or might recognize the early signs of Alzheimer’s in themselves or a loved one. Some might ignore their children or exchange hurtful words with a friend and wonder how to make it right. Is it really fair to keep that good news hidden inside church walls and hope that whoever needs it will happen to wander in?
I am not one to bang people on the head with Bibles or threaten those made in God’s image with the fires of hell. But I am one who believes that there is no better way to live life than with God, and my heart breaks for those who haven’t figured that out yet. To make disciples is my calling, it is also the calling of this church and of every church that bears the name of Jesus Christ. If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.
A quote I love says, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” God calls us to set sail. And once we’re out on the raging sea, we see God and some new possibilities. Jesus is on the water and bids us come. Do we dare? God is patient with us when we can’t seem to leave the comfort of the boat. But the church was built on Peter, not the others. Can you hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Come?” If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson