|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:9-15a
|Sermon audio unavailable|
Some of you know that I grew up in northern Minnesota, in Lake Country. I sometimes tell people I grew up where everyone else spends their vacations. It was a pretty good life. I was born into a family of avid outdoorsmen. To this day, most family gatherings are really just cleverly disguised opportunities for cousins to gather and share stories about their most recent fishing trips, the new duck decoys they can’t wait to use, their upcoming pheasant hunting expeditions to South Dakota, their plans for deer hunting opener.
I’m not much of an outdoorsman anymore, but when I was little I went on more than a few family fishing trips. One particular trip stands out in my memory because on this trip I was pretty sure I was going die.
We were on Lake of the Woods, the huge lake way up on the Canadian border. We were several miles from shore in my grandpa’s fishing boat enjoying some pretty good fishing. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, a storm whipped up over the lake. We were caught completely off guard. We reeled in our lines as fast as we could and made a run for it.
I remember the rain was pouring so hard it was tough to keep our eyes open to see where we were going. And the lightning was something else. We were motoring along at full clip toward shore when a crash sent all of us flying forward, out of our seats. Apparently we were in a shallow part of the lake, and we had hit a rock. My dad and grandpa took a few minutes in the pouring rain to assess the situation. The motor seemed to be ok but we had lost our steering. So we started up again, this time with my dad sitting at the back of the boat, wrestling with the motor to keep us going in the right direction, while my grandpa sat in the driver’s seat controlling the throttle.
For most of that boat ride I sat with my head between my legs, hoping we would get to shore soon, or that the storm would blow past as quickly as it had come upon us. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted it over.
So today’s gospel lesson is puzzling to me. The disciples are by themselves in a boat, and they are being tossed about by a storm. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, and tells them to take heart, not to be afraid. Oh, what we would give to have Jesus come to us in the midst of our own storms, speak words of comfort, and bring peace to our troubled world.
But Peter. Peter isn’t content just to have Jesus calm the storm and send them on their way. While the rest of the disciples are sitting with their heads between their legs wanting it to be over, Peter stands up and asks Jesus to command him to come out into the storm, to join Jesus out on the water.
Why did Peter feel this need to get out of the boat, anyway? Would you have gotten out of the boat, stepped out into the storm, onto the water?
As a little kid in Sunday School, I remember being amazed by this story. People don’t walk on water. It’s just not possible. People who try to walk on water go under. The story taps into a reality that even the youngest children understand: walking on water isn’t something humans can do. And the fact that Jesus can is a miracle.
Reading the story today, as people living in the 21st century, that’s the miracle we hear in the story: Jesus defies the laws of nature by walking on water. But the gospel writer’s original audience—early Christians living in the decades immediately after Jesus’ death—would have heard this story very differently.
In biblical times, water represented the forces of chaos, all that we can’t control, all that threatens our well-being. Whether it’s the creation story where God puts boundaries around the waters and makes dry land where creation can thrive, or the story of Noah’s arc providing shelter from the great flood, or the story of the Exodus when Moses parts the red sea to make a safe path for the Israelites, or this story about the disciples in a boat on a storm-tossed sea, in biblical times, the waters were a symbol of all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten our very existence. For those living in the time of Jesus, the sea evoked images of death, the powers that threaten the goodness of life.
In this context, the story about Jesus walking on water takes on a deeper meaning. It’s not a story about Jesus defying the laws of nature—though that would have been an amazing story in itself. This is a story about Jesus defying the powers of chaos and death. Walking on water, Jesus literally tramples on the forces that threaten our livelihood. He has the power to conquer all that would do us in. Jesus’ words to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” become more than just words of comfort. They are the promise of the one who alone has the power to remedy our brokenness and pain, to calm the storms in our lives.
Let’s talk a bit about the storms in our lives. I’ve only been here at Gloria Dei since Tuesday, and already I’ve taken part in two funerals, both for people who died long before we were ready to let them go. At least two others in the Gloria Dei community lost a loved one this week. In the past few days, I’ve heard about Gloria Dei members struggling in the hospital as they wait for a heart transplant, about elderly parents whose mental faculties are failing. I’ve been visited in the office by strangers off the street looking for even a few dollars to buy food for their families. And those are only the storms that I know about, that people have shared with me. Since Tuesday.
Halfway around the world, the storms of chaos and destruction are sweeping across Israel and Palestine, across Iraq and Syria, across Russia and Ukraine. The storms of disease are plaguing western Africa.
The storms in our lives, the storms around the world, threaten to overwhelm us and do us in completely. The promise of the gospel is that there is one who is on our side, one who has the power to face those storms and bring about transformation. The good news we hear today is that the storms don’t have the final word. The God who meets us in the chaos and destruction speaks a word of comfort and restores us to peace and calm.
But none of that explains why Peter got out of the boat! Why wasn’t he content to let Jesus calm the storm so he and the other disciples could continue on their way in safety? Why did he ask Jesus to invite him out, into the storm, to join Jesus on the water?
It was a bold request. Peter sees Jesus coming to the disciples on the water, swirling sea underfoot, defying the forces of brokenness and death, of chaos and anxiety—the very forces that are so real to many of us gathered here today. He sees Jesus coming to them in the midst of the storm. And Peter wants a taste of that power, the power to bring peace where there is tumult, calm where there is anxiety, life where there is death. Peter asks Jesus to invite him out onto the water, into the storm—to give him some of that power to conquer the forces that threaten our very existence.
Jesus grants it. And for a moment, Peter succeeds. He stands with Jesus on the raging sea. But soon he loses focus and remembers what he’s up against, how strong are the forces that seek to do him in. Peter falters. He goes under. He cries to Jesus, who reaches into the waters to save him.
Maybe we aren’t so different from Peter. Like him, we strive to follow Jesus bravely into the storm. Like him, as we face our storms, we falter. Like him, we ask for help and experience rescue. And like him, in our experience of being rescued, we recognize Jesus for who he is: the one who alone can save us from our storms.
I like what William Willimon, a United Methodist bishop and theologian, writes about this story. “I wonder,” he says, “if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises.”
As I begin my ministry at Gloria Dei, these are some of the questions on my mind: Where are we merely splashing about in the safe shallows, staying in our boats waiting for Jesus to calm the storms? And where are there opportunities for us to step out into troubled waters, to test and deepen our faith, to take risks together, to stretch and grow as the Body of Christ?
As I get to know you and have conversations with you, these are questions I want us to explore together. Gloria Dei is a congregation with a remarkable history and a reputation for leading the wider church and society boldly into a new kind of future. I am humbled to know that I preach today from a pulpit where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in 1957, and where countless others have inspired this community to dream big dreams and take risks for the sake of the gospel. So I’m curious to hear who you believe the Spirit is calling this community of faith to be today, where the Spirit might be calling us out of our boats and into the storm.
If I don’t find you first, drop by my office and introduce yourself. Or give me a call, send me an email, find me on Facebook, tweet me on Twitter. I look forward to journeying with you into the future as we discover together where God is leading us.
May God bless our shared ministry as we seek to be a community boldly stepping out into the storm. Amen.