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Step Out of the Boat

August 9, 2020

For our outside scripture passage this morning we stay in Matthew’s gospel. Last week we read the story of the feeding of the five thousand… including those women and children. That’s where our reading today begins with the word, “immediately”. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning.

READ Matthew 14:22-33

So there are two strong images from these verses. The first is of Jesus going off alone to pray… to be by himself. And I bet there will be many sermons today that will focus on our need to go away and find that peace of praying by ourselves… that Jesus shows us an important faith discipline to follow. Considering everything that is swirling around us… the pandemic, economic uncertainty, civil unrest and gross tribalism… hurricanes and now earthquakes… I can see the value of that message. Get away from the chaos of life for awhile. Go and be alone with God. That weight on your shoulders… put it into prayer. Ask God for guidance and focus… and peace. Peace of mind. Peace of heart. Peace of spirit.

Ask and seek... because the rest of these verses… like the rest of life… is filled with chaos.

The chaos starts when Jesus first tries to get away… after hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus tries to be alone… but the crowds follow him. He can’t escape their chaos… their pressing in on him as he seeks a moment’s peace. Yet, instead of trying harder to slip off away from large crowd, Jesus is moved by compassion… and Jesus enters into their chaos. He takes the time to bring healing. Later, when there is the threat of more chaos as evening comes and the anxiety of the hungry belly starts to rumble… Jesus again enters into their chaos and the crowd gets fed.

Finally… after all that… putting the disciples in the boat and dismissing the crowds, only then does Jesus finally get time to go away and pray. But it isn’t for long. Then again… does it have to be long? Maybe time with God can be like a spiritual power nap in a way. Sometimes, I think, just that moment or two of inviting God in… or taking that spiritual deep breath… sometimes just that can renew and refresh… or at least refocus us to face again the swirling chaos that awaits.

There is this innate longing in us to get away from the chaos. To remove ourselves from troubles and find peace… to create that safe space. But again… in the story, Jesus only gets a short break from the chaos… the disciples in the boat… are having a time of it while Jesus is off praying.

The boat with the disciples is being tossed about by wind and waves. This boat, which is supposed to keep them safe, is being threatened and may soon fail them by being swamped and sunk. I mean, if I were there in that boat, I know that’s what I would be afraid of. And rightly so I would think. I am not a big fan of drowning.

At this point in the sermon, though… let’s take a step back and look at this watery part of the passage with different eyes. If we were Matthew’s original audience of Jewish Christians reading… or more likely, hearing this story back in the first century… we would symbolically be hearing more than a story about a boat on a choppy sea. And we would symbolically hear more than a man miraculously walking on the water. Water in scripture is a symbol for chaos. In scripture, the watery deep is the embodiment of chaos. Think back to Genesis… right at the beginning in the first creation story there is the deep. In that story God doesn’t create out of nothing… he brings order to the dark, watery chaos. God brings light. And then God separates the waters. The watery deep is an old, old symbol. What might the chaos be that is threatening the disciples at this point? Maybe it is their own self-doubt. When faced with the five thousand, Jesus had turned to them… telling them to feed the crowd… but they couldn’t conceive of that… they couldn’t imagine themselves doing that… the task was too big… too overwhelming.

You see… the disciples are not just in a boat about to be swamped… they are in the midst of the watery deep of chaos and the boat at this moment is the only thing keeping them safe. They are gripping that boat tightly… knowing that if they leave the boat the chaos will overtake them. Jesus approaching them on the water is the wind from God… or the very spirit of God… what we might even call the Word of God… moving over the face of the water bringing order to chaos. It’s all straight of Genesis. Do you see it? Even in his response to the fearful disciples, in our translation Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But the more literal translation there is Jesus telling them not that “it is I”, but saying to them “I am”… the name of God from the Old Testament. Take heart, I am; do not be afraid. Take heart… God is here… God reigns over chaos… God does not fear the chaos… do not be afraid.

And that’s when Peter strangely asks Jesus to command him to get out of the boat. At that moment… remember… there is only one thing that is keeping Peter from drowning in the chaos… and it is that boat. And Peter asks to be commanded to let go of that one thing he believes is keeping him safe from the chaos. Peter is asking to be commanded to enter into the chaos. Then Peter steps out of the boat. It is mindboggling. It goes against every instinct we possess. Peter steps out of the boat… and he walks on the water. He doesn’t sink into the watery chaos.

Somewhere in the back of the cloudy memories of my childhood, I remember a lesson where I was taught that the church is like a boat. And you could even see it in the architecture of many church sanctuaries if you looked up… the ribs of an upside down boat. I still look for that when I visit different sanctuaries to see if I can see the boat. Over the years, I’ve also heard people describe the church as Noah’s ark, saving people from the waters of the flood… that time when God took away control over the waters of the deep in a reverse of creation. The church is the ark… able to save from the chaos. I can see the comfort of that teaching and why people would want to put their focus there. But Peter… the rock on which Jesus will build his church… a strange idea… the rock on the water… Peter asks to be commanded to step out of the boat. And only once he is out of the boat can Peter walk on the water. Peter cannot walk on water while he is safely in the boat. He can only be afraid that the water will swamp and sink the boat that he is in. He has to take the ultimate risk… a real leap of faith to leave the safety of the boat behind. He has to step out of the boat in order to join Jesus on the water.

So maybe the real question is why… why would Peter even want to walk on the water in the first place? Especially when he has a boat that maybe wasn’t going to sink. The disciples within the boat were filled with fear… being battered by the waves, far from land, and the wind being against them. But the boat wasn’t sinking at that moment. It would make more sense for Peter to step out of a sinking boat. What would he have to lose if he was going to end up in the water anyway?

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus coming into the world… you could say was God entering into the chaos of our humanity. Jesus came and healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He reached out and associated with the lowly and the outcast. Jesus walked on the watery chaos of our humanity. So far in the story of this gospel, his disciples are looking to Jesus to take them out of the chaos. They are hoping that he will give them the power to rise above the chaos. They may even go so far as to one day and try to build a boat out of Jesus. But Jesus keeps pointing them toward the chaos saying, “I am there. Come and follow me here.” I am willing to bet you that next time Jesus is confronted with a hungry crowd of thousands in this gospel, he will again turn to his disciples and he will tell them to feed the crowd. I’ve read ahead… so I know it is true.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Can you imagine saying that? Can you imagine stepping out of this boat that has been constructed around you? Stepping out of this boat that fits you… that is comfortable to you… that bears the marks of your handiwork and craftsmanship? Can you imagine stepping out of this boat that has kept you safe from the battering waves and the winds that blow against you? This boat serves you well. But perhaps it is time to step out into the watery chaos… taking the risk of not knowing what tomorrow may bring because tomorrow isn’t like yesterday anymore… or even the yesterday before that. Peter steps out. And he walks on the water. He walks toward Jesus… each step taking him out further from the safety of the boat in order to join Jesus standing on the watery chaos of the deep. But when Peter notices the strong wind, he becomes frightened, and beginning to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

Jesus saves a sinking Peter… but don’t let that deter you from stepping out onto the water. Jesus saving Peter doesn’t mean Peter was a fool to step out of the boat in the first place. It doesn’t mean Peter should have safely stayed in the boat and not tried to walk on water… he of little and failing faith. It doesn’t mean that Peter can’t walk on water… because he did. Peter did walk on the water. Even though he was afraid in the boat. Even though he was afraid of the wind and of the waves while he was in the boat. Peter still stepped out. He threw his foot over the side and he stepped out. For me that’s the real lesson of this passage of scripture… throwing that foot over the side… trying to take that first step onto that water. That’s the lesson I’m taking this morning… and maybe… maybe that’s the lesson for this church to take in this chaotic time as well. Amen.

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