Scripture Introduction: Hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 14, and verses 22 through 33.
Scripture Reading: 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,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night 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,[b] 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.”
These are Holy Words. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Please pray with me. “Now, O God, take my lips and speak through them; Take our minds and think through them; Take our hearts and set them on fire with your love. Amen.”
Sermon: When have you been afraid? Last summer, my family and I attempted to spend a day at Sesame Place. For those of you that have never been, Sesame Place might be best described as a minor league Disney World. All the Sesame Street Characters can be found there, along with rides, shows, parades, a water park, character dinners and more.
Kelley and I thought we would take the kids for a short walk around the park before making a firm decision on what we wanted to do first. Soon after we began our walk, I saw out of the corner of my eye the water park area, and at the top of the tallest slide, a giant bucket shaped like the Sesame Street character The Count.
As I looked more closely, I saw two smaller buckets filling up the larger Count bucket with water, and as they did The Count bucket leaned ever more forward from the weight of the water. Then, all of a sudden, The Count laughed with his – “ha ha ha ha” – and began counting backward from ten – 10, 9, 8, 7 – and when he hit 0 all the water spilled out on a surprised and screaming crowd of kids below.
The Count had been Asher’s favorite Sesame Street character. I was sure Asher was going to think this was one of the coolest things he had ever seen. When I looked over at him, however, I saw giant tears forming in his eyes. He pointed his finger towards the exit of the park and yelled, “I want to go home, I want to go home!”
The Count dumping water onto the unsuspecting crowd scared Asher so much so that it became all we could do to keep him in the park that day. Even now, a full year later, Asher still has a fear of The Count. When The Count makes an appearance in the middle of an episode of Sesame Street, Asher goes and hides in a different room of the house, only to make his way back again when The Count is finished and it’s safe to return. We hope he grows out of it by college.
What were you afraid of as a kid? The dark? Monsters under your bed? Snakes? Going to summer camp? The first day of school?
The disciples had been with Jesus among the 5,000 when the crowd grew hungry and Jesus fed them with five loaves and two fish. Jesus, in need of some rest, sent his disciples off in a boat across the Sea of Galilee before going up to the mountain to pray.
As the story goes, a storm breaks out on the Sea. Jesus comes down from the mountain and walks across the water to the boat that is being battered and beaten by the wind and the waves. Initially, the disciples think a ghost is approaching them, but Jesus calls out, “Do not be afraid, for it is I.”
Can you imagine what this must have been like? There they are, on a boat in the middle of a terrible storm, and some guy approaches them, not in another boat, not in a life raft, but walking on the water? I mean, of course they are afraid!
When have you been afraid? I mean really afraid? A close call when driving, or maybe an actual accident? Anticipating a doctor’s appointment? A health scare with a loved one? These situations are fearful for us personally, but as we know, there are also scary and anxious times for us as a community and as a nation.
Quite frankly, as this past week moved along, I found myself fearful for the state of our nation in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. Earlier in the week it was the escalation of rhetoric around nuclear war with North Korea that had me anxious, and I couldn’t help but wonder how scary all the tough talk must have been for those in South Korea or Guam.
And then, over the past two days, both on Friday night and yesterday afternoon, it was white supremacists coming out from under the dark side of the internet to protest the removal of a the Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia that appalled me. Using tiki torches and military gear to instill fear, so proud of what they were doing that they didn’t even bother to wear something over their heads…with one of them implementing actual ISIS tactics by running into a crowd of counter protesters with his car.
As a middle aged white dude I was scared. I can’t imagine witnessing what went down this weekend as a person of color. Of course, people of color negotiate both subtle and overt forms of racism each and every day, but such blatant hate as this?
When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, for it is I,” Peter wasn’t satisfied. He needed more proof that it was actually Jesus coming towards the boat. And so Peter shouted back, “Jesus if it is you, allow me to walk on water also.”
We can relate to Peter. We’ve all done this. We’ve all tested God in this way. “Jesus, if you’re there, make this happen or that possible…if you’re really there, make me get an “A” on the test, make me win the race. Make me get the job or the pay raise or whatever. We can all relate to Peter.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is sometimes ambiguous when it comes to answering questions, but not this time. Jesus is as straightforward as can be in his response to Peter saying to him simply, “Come.” And with that, Peter stands up, steps out of the boat and on to the water. But as Peter begins to make his way towards Jesus, he only makes it a few steps before he begins to sink.
The most common interpretation of this passage is that Peter starts sinking because he lacks faith in Jesus. Author Rob Bell has wondered instead if Peter’s sinking was a result of a lack of faith not in Jesus, but in himself. You see, it seems Peter begins his water-walking expedition with all the confidence in the world, but once Peter gets going and realizes what he is actually doing, walking on water, he begins to sink.
So there we were this week, you and I, our church and community, our nation as a whole, in the chaos of a storm with the threat of nuclear war and an ugly demonstration by white supremacists. That’s a lot to be afraid of. Can there be any hope that we’ll find our way out of the storm and onto the shore?
While it’s hard to see good news in times such as these, our Gospel lesson tells us that there is some. You see, Jesus didn’t just make his way through the wind and over the waves to his disciples one time all those years ago, Jesus makes his way through the wind and over the waves whenever there is trouble. And when he does, he comes with an invitation. “Come.”
You see, Jesus didn’t only invite Peter, Jesus is inviting us, too. Jesus is calling us to come, to stand up and get out of the boat and into the chaos of the storm. He is calling us come, even as we are afraid, to reject heightened rhetoric of nuclear war and marches for white supremacy.
Jesus is calling us to come, to get out of the boat and promote nonviolence. Jesus is calling us to come, to get out of the boat and denounce bigotry.
Jesus is calling us to come, to get out of the boat. To look in the mirror and see that racism is imbedded in each one of us – even you and me – because racism has been in the water of this great country for a long, long time, and we can’t help that we have all drank that water and are thereby infected by it.
Jesus is inviting us to come and get out of the boat and fight hate with love with all of our being.
Jesus is inviting us to come and get out of the boat and stop our coworker or relative or friend when they make a racist comment.
Jesus is inviting us to get out of the boat and acknowledge the inequality of our school systems and how the very educational structure that benefits us here in Simsbury – including my own kids – hurts those in Hartford and other places throughout our state. And we are called to ask, how can we make it so all kids receive the same kind of education our kids receive?
Jesus is calling us to come, to seek to understand the ways in which the segregation of our schools helps to breed young men like those who participated in that march yesterday.
Jesus is especially calling white people to come, come and get out of the boat because people of color can’t, nor should, do the work alone.
Jesus is inviting us to come, to get out of the boat and read books about the holocaust and racial justice in an effort to educate our children and ourselves.
Jesus is calling us to come, to step out of the boat to make our top priority teaching our children love for all people, so that they grow up never to participate in a march such as the one we saw yesterday.
Now, there is no denying, stepping out of the boat in this way is frightening. It may even seem unrealistic, as unrealistic as walking on water. And, like Peter, we may even get going a few steps and, once we start to realize what we’ve gotten ourselves into, begin to sink…we may be tempted to get right back in that boat.
But here’s the thing. In the story of Peter out on the water, Jesus doesn’t give up on Peter, even when he begins to sink. Instead, Jesus reaches out his arm and immediately helps Peter along. Then, after Jesus gets Peter back up on his feet, Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, how could you doubt?” In the same way, when we inevitably lose faith that we are up to the task, Jesus reaches out to us, encourages us, and gives us the strength to keep going.
May we never forget that Jesus is right there with us, helping us along, as we follow his lead in making the world a more fair and just place. And may we never doubt that love will have last word.