Proper 14a, August 13, 2017

August 14, 2017


Matthew 14:22-33


22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”


It’s interesting the way different things stand out to you at different times. What struck me when I read this passage this week was the fact that Peter didn’t lose his nerve when he realized he was walking on water – it was the strong wind that freaked him out. He had been battling that wind all night – as he had on many other nights, but this was the first time he had ever walked on water, and yet it was the wind that scared him.


I don’t guess fear is ever a rational thing. We don’t get to decide what’s going to frighten us, and we are all frightened by different things. And the thing that frightens us on one day may not touch us on another day. And if you are like me, there are some things that are terrifying when you wake up at 2am and start thinking about them, but they are of no consequence at 2 in the afternoon. Of course there are things that are just as frightening in the light of day as they are in the middle of the night. There are terrifying realities that come our way.


Jesus was dealing with one in his life. One of the reasons Jesus had dismissed the crowd and gone up the mountain to pray was because the most righteous man in all of Israel had just been beheaded by Herod. A bad thing had occurred, and Jesus needed to spend some time in prayer. This wasn’t an unusual event – Jesus is reported to have often gone off to be alone with God. I think this is something we are supposed to notice about Jesus, and the message is that this is something we are to incorporate in to our own lives.


Things go differently when we pray. Things may not go exactly the way we want them to, but when we proceed through life with God our fears are diminished and opportunities for new life appear. Spending time alone with God in prayer isn’t a formula for getting what we want, but it does change the dynamics of our circumstances.


Things certainly things got different after Jesus had spent some time in prayer. Now the disciples had done as Jesus had instructed them to do, and they had headed out across the lake, but the weather had deteriorated and they were not doing well. They were probably wondering why they had done what Jesus had told them to do. The wind and the waves were battering against them, they weren’t near the shore, and it was dark. They were in a very threatening situation, and then they saw a ghost. At least they saw what they thought was a ghost, and it’s probably accurate to say that they had moved from fear to terror.


The people of Jesus’ day didn’t really see large bodies of water the same way we do. While most of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen and people who were familiar with working on water, they didn’t consider the water to be a friendly environment. It provided them with livelihood, but it was also very threatening to them. They didn’t see the water as a playground. They saw it as a form of chaos that God often had to contend with.


Of course we all know how dangerous water can be, but we know how to play in the water. Boating and fishing are recreational activities for us. We often go to the lake when want to spend some time alone with God. Honestly we probably go to the lake in order to do more playing than praying, and that’s ok as long as we don’t confuse playing with praying. Of course sometimes those things run together.


I’ll never forget this story that my wife’s cousin told me about an evening he spent on Greer’s Ferry Lake. He lives in Conway, and there was a period of time when he and his friend would do a lot of night fishing on Greer’s Ferry. He said there had been a lot of flooding one spring. The lake was still really high, and they were out late one night. The lake is usually really calm at night, and you can hear things really well under those circumstances. They were totally wrapped up in the serenity of the moment when all of a sudden this huge thing boiled up from the depths of the lake and broke the calm of the lake and of their minds. They were terrified and mystified until they came to see that it was a big bloated cow.


It unfortunately had drowned during the heavy rains and been washed in to the lake. It apparently had been resting on the bottom of that relatively deep lake until the bacteria started working and generated some buoyancy. Sharla’s cousin said it had generated some pretty good momentum by the time it reached the surface, and I’m thinking the level of their terror might have rivaled that of the disciples who saw Jesus approaching them on foot in a storm in the dark on the lake. The breeching cow event probably wasn’t as life-changing for those unsuspecting fishermen on Greer’s Ferry Lake as it was for the disciples, but I’m guessing it was an experience that moved them to a new place in their relationship with Jesus.


This story of Jesus walking on water is a bizarre tale to say the least, but this isn’t a story that’s supposed to leave us stupefied. Just as those guys figured out what had happened on Greers Ferry Lake, we are to understand what was going on between Jesus and the disciples in the storm on that lake. We are to see that Jesus was so intimately bound with God that he wasn’t bound by the normal constraints of this world. You might say that Jesus was so intimately familiar with God and this world that he could play with it in unusual ways.


I’m reminded of what I’ve seen people do on wakeboards on the lake. A wakeboard is sort of like a skateboard that people ride behind a boat, and I’ve seen people do unfathomable jumps and flips and turns on wakeboards. I can get up on a wakeboard and that sensitizes me to the mind-boggling nature of what other people can do on a wakeboard. Now what they do is not on the level of miraculous behavior, but they are able to do what they do because they have intimate knowledge of how to work with the rope, the wake, the board, and their body to do certain things. Their willingness to spend the time and to take the risks to learn those tricks is somewhat miraculous, but what they do doesn’t defy actual physical laws.


And while I don’t think the lesson we are to extract from this story is that we can defy physical laws if we spend enough time in prayer with God, I do think we are to take comfort in knowing that regardless of what may be occurring in life we can experience profound peace if we will be diligent in developing our relationship with God.


What I see in this story of Jesus walking on the water is affirmation that there isn’t anything more powerful than spiritual depth. And there isn’t anything we can’t face when we look to Jesus for help.


It’s really nice to have this moment in our church when we celebrate the decision these young people have made to look to Jesus for guidance and help. This is a good thing for them to do and for us to witness, but as we all know, they aren’t signing up for an easy life. I think it’s worth noting that it was Jesus who told the disciples to get in that boat and to go to the other side. Jesus might not have known it was going to storm, but he generally knew what was going on. It’s not unreasonable to assume he knew what was going to arise, and he told them to head in that direction.


I don’t think we went over that in any of our confirmation classes. There’s a number of things we didn’t cover – the danger of discipleship, that’s probably a session that I should add to the curriculum, but that’s not what we like to think about. And I don’t believe Jesus arbitrarily sends us in to harm’s way in order to extract new levels of devotion, but I do believe our faith can move us to step in to hard places. Jesus doesn’t just want us to live safe lives. Jesus want us to live rich lives, and such spiritual richness is often cultivated under distressing circumstances. We aren’t to flee from dangerous places and difficult relationships, but we aren’t alone in our work. We are to face whatever comes our way by praying to God and looking to Jesus.


These are mystical things – praying to God and looking to Jesus, and as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t the formula for producing what we need, but scripture and experience leads me to believe that these spiritual exercises enable us to face whatever we encounter with grace and peace. Jesus may not come walking to us on the water, but he may well show up in the presence of a new friend or in a familiar face that we see in a new way. God doesn’t leave us stranded in any situation – God can help us get through anything.


And this is the good news about choosing to follow Jesus. It’s a decision that puts you in good company on earth, and with support from heaven. This world is a difficult place. You never know when a dead, bloated cow might come boiling up from the depths of the lake. The times are always precarious in some new way, and we are all in need of help from ordinary people on earth and our extraordinary savior in heaven. We aren’t going to avoid suffering, but we aren’t going to be overwhelmed by it if we will learn to trust in the source of true life.


It’s easy to think that the most powerful forces on earth are winds and waves, armies and bombs, disease and death – but this passage of scripture tells a different story. This story tells us that there’s nothing more significant for us to do than to give ourselves to God and to trust in Jesus.


This is a nice moment for our church and for those of you who have said you want to follow Jesus. It’s a good reminder for us all to continue to engage life with prayer and hope. We’re in good company on earth and in heaven. Let us proceed with prayer, with trust, and without fear! Onward!


Thanks be to God.



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