Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 9, 2020
“Waiting for Normal or Creating It”
Matthew 14: 22-33 – Common English Bible
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. 33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
The weather started getting rough,
the tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
the Minnow would be lost.
The Minnow would be lost.
With Thaddeus, and Bartholomew
With Matthew, James, and John
and all the rest
Were scared right out of their minds
Our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday suggested that’s how I should begin!
This is one of those “love it or leave it” texts. If the idea of walking on water is implausible, like all the luggage Mr. and Mrs. Howell brought with them for a three hour cruise; if the idea of walking on water is implausible, we may choose to walk away. But this text is so full of things that are plausible, I choose to love it.
I do want to acknowledge the difficulty of texts that involve miracles. I don’t want to offer suggestions that Jesus just walked out on a sandbar, exposed by the blowing wind. The faith of progressive Christians doesn’t depend on denying science. But neither should the faith of progressive Christians depend on denying mysteries that are deeper than we can understand with logic.
There is much to love in this story. And so, I asked our group on Thursday which parts of the text spoke to them. Jon liked how Jesus needed to go away by himself to recharge. Laura liked the question, “Is it really you?” Kat liked how when Peter lost his nerve, he began to sink. That’s real. But Pam noted that while Jesus didn’t prevent Peter from trying, he didn’t let him sink either. Which led Bob to ask, “Will you drown without faith?” While Marlene got to the point. “What’s this got to do with anything today?”
So, among the relatable parts: First, there’s fear in this story and the ever-present message in the Bible of “Don’t be afraid. Be encouraged.” Although, since I can’t swim, telling me not to be afraid while in a boat tossing from side to side seems unlikely. More like absurd, but I appreciate the message, especially in times like these.
Secondly, haven’t you ever been ready to do something and then lost your nerve? Ready, but can’t step forward. Although, in this case, Peter lost his nerve while he was successfully doing it.
And third, there are times when all we can do is cry out, “Help me.” Crying out for help is not a lack of faith. Crying out for help is an act of faith that means we know there is help.
There really are so many things going on in this text that I need to choose one focus that I find relevant today. As Marlene would say, “Get to the point!” And that’s Peter stepping out onto stormy water.
I’m not usually a big fan of Peter, among other things, the one who denied Jesus three times. I can forgive him for that, as Jesus did, and yet this isn’t the only time he’s acted like a show-off searching for attention. Impulsive. Hot-headed at times. But Paul Garret suggested, perhaps he truly just wanted to be near Jesus. I honestly don’t know his motivation. But I do know that, despite what I can only imagine were pleas from the other disciples to not rock the boat, Peter refused to stay in his place. And I like that.
I’ll never forget the sermon we watched together a few weeks ago by Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC. One of the lines that still sticks with me is “stay in your place.” Lynching was a message to African Americans to “stay in your place.” Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white supremacists because they thought a young Black jogger didn’t belong in that place. Stay in your place, boy. Just like that was the message to Sandra Bland who was pulled over for not using a blinker. Stay in your place, girl. Fire hoses and dogs were used on children so they would learn their place in the world. Like 12-year-old Tamir Rice should have known while playing in a park by himself in Cleveland.
When John Lewis stepped out of place, Alabama State Troopers cracked his skull. Lewis and Annie Lee Cooper and Hosea Williams and Diane Nash and thousands of other nameless women and men stepped out of their place onto a bridge named for a Confederate soldier and Grand Dragon of the KKK to cross over the river used to transport slaves to auction in Montgomery. But don’t forget, the first time they tried, they failed to get across. And that failure became a successful turning point for the nation.
Peter didn’t stay in his place, either. And then he failed. Peter should have known better and stayed in the boat. The storm hadn’t yet calmed. The tiny ship was tossed in a violent storm. That’s not when you get out of a boat, right. Shouldn’t we wait until the time is right? Until the sea is calm? But in the midst of a raging storm, that’s when Peter walked onto stormy waters.
Impulsive, a show off, or whatever… he was doing it. But while he was walking on the water, he became afraid of walking on the water. He was doing it and then doubted whether, or why, he could do it. And that’s when he began to sink. He failed to make it. But, you may say, Jesus saved him. Yes, and Peter still failed to make it to Jesus on his own. But Peter’s failure was not the end of Peter’s story.
The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, "Do not depend on the hope of results. When you’re doing the sort of work you’ve taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if even not result in the opposite of what you expect. But as you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
Merton doesn’t identify what that work is. That’s a good thing because each of us has our own stormy water to walk out onto. Times when we are successful, until we doubt our success and start to sink. Times when we are blessed, and then doubt that we are worthy to be blessed.
It’s kind of hokey but true to say that “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Let’s look at this pandemic through which we are living. I know we all can’t wait for a vaccine. The result? Everything will return to normal and be OK again. It will? Are we waiting for normal, or trying to create it? What about all we are learning each day right now? We’ve been practicing patience. We’ve been learning to let go. We’ve been learning new ways to work and spend time with our families. You don’t want to simply wait for a vaccine, do you? I know that’s not what we’re trying to do as a church.
Some of you heard me share this week about how I felt when our pandemic separation first began. I felt like I’d been thrown in a river full of rapids. As I said, I can’t swim. I struggled to stay above water, grabbing onto one rock after another to avoid being swept down the river before drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I had to be reminded to breathe. Eventually I started to let go and made it to the next rock in the river. And the next. It wasn’t until later I looked back and realized we’re sailing on this river together. Now, if while sailing down the river, if I were to doubt and ask, how can I be sailing down a river, I might begin to sink. But with the Spirit as our guide, we won’t settle for what we’ve always accepted as normal. We will create a more open and inclusive reality.
However, of course, along this “Spirit guided adventure,” is the sobering fact that over 160,000 Americans, tragically, unnecessarily have died; 5 million are infected, and frightful millions more may become infected; doctors and nurses are exhausted caring for people who still think this is a hoax or demand it is a matter of personal privilege to infect others; businesses are closing… This adventure metaphor has serious limits.
And so, with all due respect, I pause to recognize the effects of this dreadful disease and willfully incompetant administration. And stop to thank scientists working around the clock, first responders serving at their own risk every day, grocery clerks and delivery drivers showing up to work. And to pray for children, teachers, parents, bus drivers, food servers, counselors, and administrators trying to make decisions about what is best for themselves and their communities.
Of course, unlike Peter, we’ve been dumped into stormy waters. We didn’t have the same choice, although we still have choices.
Whether to stay in our place or risk creating a better world for ourselves and others.
Whether to wait for calm or become calm.
And whether fear and self-doubt will cause us to fall back toward what we knew, to sit back down, to stay in your place. Or we can take our first water-slogged step toward Jesus to fulfill the command of love and compassion he taught. He’s there to help if we fail. In fact, we will fail. But the miraculous and implausible part of the story is that that’s when we’ll finally break free of what has always held us back.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world