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Walking on Water

jesuspeterwaterMatthew 14: 22-33
Introduction to the reading
Today we read the last installment of the sermon series for this summer of 2017. Jesus has been instructing his disciples on becoming apostles, sent out to spread the Word of God, the good news of the kingdom of heaven, to everyone and anyone, as Jesus says, “to anyone with ears.”

We have seen that these new apostles will be up against some tough odds: inhospitable environments, ignorance, ridicule, rejection, hostility, even persecution. But also they will be empowered, empowered by the Holy Spirit working from within them to do what they never thought, asked or imagined they could do. Last week, for example, feeding a crowd of over 5000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

Now, today, we hear another tale of divine empowerment. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen…

Look up at the ceiling of this sanctuary. Notice how it is angled up along a central spine that runs front to back and also how the decorative wooden supports spaced along the ceiling follow the same line. Imagine this sanctuary turned upside down to rest upon the roof. You can see that it would be like a huge boat and the wooden supports would suggest the ribs of the boat’s hull.

Many churches were designed just this way on purpose. The long central section of a church or cathedral is called the nave, which comes from the Latin navis meaning ‘ship’ (from which we also get our English words ‘navy’ and ‘navigate’). The design calls to mind Noah’s ark, the ship that saved humanity from the Flood in the book of Genesis. In the church that I served on Cape Cod, the Federated Church of Orleans, which was founded in 1646, the sense of being in an upside down boat was even more pronounced. The ‘ribs’ were not suggestions; there were more wooden pieces that curved up along the ceiling and met at the spine, and the ceiling was stained brown, not painted.. I’m sure the builders of that church were recalling not only Noah’s ark but also the Mayflower, on which their relatives had so recently traveled across the ocean to arrive in America.

We can think of the ship of God – the sanctuary, the church – as a safety zone. The hull that cradled life and preserved it from destruction becomes the roof of protection. The church still sails through the watery chaos, though, chaos being the ancient symbol for evil. The church still braves the storms of human life, beating against headwinds of poverty and injustice, battered by tumultuous seas of spiritual apathy and decline.

The disciples in today’s gospel reading are, of course, symbolic of the church, and their situation is a foretaste of what the church will struggle through in the coming generations, when Jesus is no longer present in the flesh. [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side…And after he had dismissed the crowds, [Jesus] went up the mountain by himself to pray. Again a foreshadowing of the separation that is to come. 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.

But the ship of God does not capsize. The boat does not come apart. The disciples are not washed overboard and they do not drown. The boat remains their safe place. And Jesus comes back to them, walking across the water. “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus did not abandon those disciples and Jesus has not abandoned us, the church, either.

But Jesus does encourage us to be daring disciples, not disciples who cling to the safety of the boat.
When Jesus came walking toward them on the water, the disciples thought they had seen a ghost. Peter, the disciple who in Matthew’s writing often represents all disciples, is bold enough to say, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus told him to come. So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water toward Jesus.

Peter’s demand of Jesus is often interpreted as a sign of his doubt that the person walking across the water to them is really Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself expresses that to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter wants proof. But he also desperately wants reassurance of his faith: “Jesus, if it is you, I know that you can call to me and I, too, will be able to walk on water.”

And he does, for a time. …Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. Peter dared to follow what Jesus told him to do. Jesus wants us to be daring disciples like Peter. But if you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.

This last sentence is actually the title of a book by John Ortberg, the pastor of the evangelical Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, and a prolific writer. Ortberg is concerned with spiritual formation, that is, how people can become more like Jesus. In this book he asks the reader: What is your boat? What keeps you so comfortable that you don’t want to give it up even when it keeps you from joining Jesus on the water? The advertising blurb for the book says: “Ortberg shows you how to experience the power of God in your life to do the things you wouldn’t be capable of doing on your own.”

Well, sometimes it is comfort and security that hold us in a boat, a boat named “Do Not Disturb.” This is the way we have always done it, so don’t rock the boat with some new idea.

Sometimes it’s fear. I haven’t signed up cook at the Bound Brook soup kitchen. I don’t have time; it doesn’t fit in my schedule; I’m needed here. But also, I’ll admit to being fearful – of going there, of seeing those needy people. Fear keeps us in the boat.
Sometimes circumstance pushes us out of the boat and we must look around for Jesus. He’s there, standing on the water…. Right next to the new stove in our own church kitchen.

Or take those who are forced out of a comfortable boat. Some of us have had to change our lifestyles or even move because of job loss or increases in living expenses. We can either take Jesus by the hand and walk on the turbulent waters or sink into our own selves, laden with the heavy stones of anger, despair or depression.

Peter did walk on water for a time. But then he noticed the strong wind and he got scared. He started to sink. It’s as if when his focus shifted away from the power of Jesus to hold him up and moved to his own limitations, he faltered.

But he knew what to do because his faith was well placed. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. Even when we start to lose our courage, when our strength begins to flag, we remember that Jesus does not abandon us. When things don’t seem to be working out according to plan, or when we don’t have a plan, Jesus comes up with a solution. In his very real presence, Jesus enables us to confront and survive all manner of storms.

Today we have once again had the great joy of celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. And once again we see images of water in Scripture:

In the beginning of creation
the Spirit of God moved over the watery chaos.
In the waters of the Flood God destroyed evil.
God led the children of Israel through the sea
into the freedom of the promised land.
In the river Jordan, John baptized our Lord Jesus
and the Spirit of God the Father anointed him.

And today, the apostle Peter walked on water, enabled and empowered by one word from Jesus: “Come.”

I believe that this is what the Sacrament of Baptism does for us. Charlie is only nine months old, but today he has been given an extraordinary power by the simple gentle pouring of water upon his head. In the months and years to come, when troubles and problems arise; when he faces disappointments and failures; when sadness or anxiety come over him, may he remember that as of today, the day of his baptism, Jesus reaches out his strong hand to catch him.

May you all remember that, so when gale force winds come up and heavy seas threaten to sink you, Jesus reaches out to save you. Because … you were made to walk on water, not go under.

And now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do abundantly far more than anything we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory forever and forever. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
August 13, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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