I may have made a colossal mistake in ministry. My first sermon at 2nd Pres 11 years ago was great. Hard to top, in fact. It was perfect for that specific time and largely unrepeatable. I am touched that people still tell me that they reread it or pass it on to friends, that it still speaks to them.
Yesterday was my last Sunday at 2nd Pres. Thank you to my 2nd Pres family for being the hand that reached out and invited me into your boat. It has been a great journey.
So here’s that sermon from almost exactly 11 years ago.
Genesis 28:13-17, Matthew 14:22-33
August 10, 2003
When the Waves Rise Up
I remember the first time I studied this passage in seminary. We spent time translating the Greek and comparing different manuscripts. Then we started to do what many budding Biblical scholars start to do when they encounter a miracle story… we tore it to pieces. How could Jesus walk on water? That’s a big enough problem there, but then Peter walks on water too?! I don’t think so. So we argued over the physics and the facts. One scholar we read believes that because it was dark out, the disciples couldn’t see that they were actually very close to the shore. So Jesus and Peter were just walking on some rocks and it only looked like they were walking on water. That makes much more sense, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t take seriously the fact that God is sovereign and often works in ways that we do not understand.
Now my father loves to tell stories. Most of them are true and some of them actually happened. The line he likes to use is “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!” Now there are times and places when this is a very bad rule to follow, but in looking at this story of Peter it serves us well. Whether or not the facts make any sense, this is a good story because there is a truth in it that we need to hear.
When I first studied this in seminary I was surprised to find how much I identified with Peter. Now, almost three years later, I identify with Peter in a whole new way.
Peter is a good disciple and he’s trying to do his best to follow Jesus. He and the other disciples had been with Jesus pretty much non-stop and now they are out in the boat without him and the waves are getting higher. They are scared and Jesus walks out to them on the sea. Now they are even more terrified, but Jesus speaks and says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Ha! Easier said than done, but Peter speaks up and says “Okay, since that’s you Lord, call me out there on the water with you.” And Jesus said “come” and Peter did! That’s pretty incredible right there- that he was able to step out of the boat in the first place. But he got out there, took a few steps, and looked around and noticed the wind and the waves. He became frightened and started to sink and then he cried out “SAVE ME!” and Jesus IMMEDIATELY reached out his hand and caught Peter!! Jesus said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
It’s a little strange for me to talk about myself in a sermon, but if ya’ll are going to be my new church family, you need to know who I am. So, let me tell you a little bit about myself so that you can understand how I relate to Peter. This is stuff that doesn’t get put into the nice bios and brochures that you see when a new pastor comes to your church. Here’s what you need to know about me- I’m a planner. If you’re familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator- I am “J”- a strong “J”. I’ve always known what was coming next in my life. Sure, I’ve been surprised along the way, and things haven’t always gone as planned, but I’ve always been pretty sure of my direction. I went straight from high school to college. During that time I claimed my call to ministry, though what that ministry would look like has changed over time. I spent my summers as a camp counselor and in church jobs. I went straight from college to seminary. I had it all mapped out that I would do my summer internships in a certain order, take my classes in a certain order. I knew when I’d take my ordination exams and get approved so seek a call. I was all set to start in my first call right after graduation. God called- I answered, what else do you need? So far, so good. I was going along pretty sure of God’s presence and direction in my life. But then Spring Break came and no job. Classes ended and no job. Graduation and no job. I interviewed all over the country and for one reason or another nothing was right. I moved in with my parents and continued the search. They moved away and my sense of failure grew. I was house sitting and living off of my savings. This was terrible. I had saved for a rainy day, and guess what? It was raining- hard. After years of such confidence I found myself alone, and scared and starting to sink. I was out of my boat- my family, my friends, my classmates, my church family, my house and my stuff were all so far away. I looked around and noticed the strong wind. I saw the waves rising and the boat seemed so far away. If I was really called to ministry, then why had no church called me? What, then, does this mean for who I understand myself to be? What does that mean for who I understand God to be? I was frightened and I started to sink. And I cried out “Lord, save me!”
I did not drown. I experienced the hand of God reach out and save me in the people of my home church- praying for me, feeding me, and even giving me a place to live. I experienced that hand in a phone call from my friend, Bob Tuttle, inviting me to work with him in Montreat until the right call came. I experienced that hand in the people along the way who prayed for me, fed me home cooked meals, and helped me stay in touch with who I am and who God is. And I experienced that hand when you all, the members of Second Presbyterian Church, extended a call for me to be your pastor. When I got into the boat, the wind ceased. I heard the voice of Jesus saying to me, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And I worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!”
There are times when I am pleased to admit that I can relate to a certain character in a Bible story. There are other times, like this one, when I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it. Jesus says to Peter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Uhh… I don’t want to be accused of having “little” faith, but I do, I doubt. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who can get overwhelmed by what surrounds me and begin to doubt. It’s really not fair, though, to psychologize Peter and call him “impetuous” and a “failure.” Rather, as one commentator has said, we should look at Peter as portraying what discipleship is all about. “Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, take their first steps in confidence that he is able to sustain them, and then forget to keep their gaze fixed on him instead of on the towering waves that threaten to engulf them. In the depth of crisis, when all seems lost, they remember to call on the Savior, and find his grace sufficient for their needs, whose power is made perfect in weakness.”
In the depth of crisis it is hard to remember that God is with us. This became very real, in the summer of 2000 when I was part of a Clinical Pastoral Education program at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. During that time I served as a chaplain to the patients and families in the Hematology and Oncology unit. If you want to talk about towering waves, talk to the mother who just lost her six-year-old daughter to Leukemia. While I was there, I was blessed to get to know a young man by the name of Daniel. He was sixteen years old and had Ewings Sarcoma. One afternoon I went to visit him and he told me that he had just been praying for T’Shonda, a girl about his age with Leukemia. He was very concerned about her, as her health had taken a turn for the worse. During our conversation he said “You know, sometimes it’s really hard to believe in God in a place like this, but if you remember that God is in control of everything it helps.”
When I shared these words with a colleague he said it reminded him of the passage from Genesis that we read, when Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” It is hard to believe in God when the waves get bigger and the wind gets stronger. It is hard to believe in God when the cancer comes back and the dreams of recovery are shattered. It is hard to believe in God when our lives don’t work out as planned and we lose hope for the future. But the Lord is in those places with us, whether we remember or not. No one promised that having faith through the good times and the bad would be easy, but we do have the promise that we will never be alone.
Faith is not about being able to walk on water, because we all know that only God can do that. Faith is “daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, analyzes Peter’s response. Considering Peter’s actions and faith, he states “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith… The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if people imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics… For faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience” (p.63-4).
The biggest step in faith that I have had to take was not to accept Jesus as my savior, to claim my call to ministry or go to seminary. The biggest step I have had to take was to trust God. I know that seems elementary, but it’s a tough one for me. What my own experience of sinking in the storm taught me is that I thought I was in control, but that was just a myth of control. I like to say that God is in control, but I don’t like experiencing it. I found that, in trusting God, when all my instruments of control failed, I did not drown. I started to sink and it was scary, but I did not drown. I am under no delusions that this is the last time I will feel like I am sinking. Sometimes I feel like I take that step again everyday, but I hope that the next time I feel like I am sinking I will remember that I will not drown. My hope is that when any of us feel like the waves are too much, we will trust God all the way.
You see, I don’t think any of us really want to walk on water or have some other supernatural power. What we really need, and what Peter was really asking for, is to recognize that whatever Jesus commands, Jesus makes possible. That is the good news that we find in this story of Jesus and the disciples out on the sea. The good news is not that we will never encounter storms in our lives or feel like we are sinking. The good news is that we are never left alone and helpless. Saint Francis of Assisi said “All my life Thou hast been at the helm though very secretly.” I pray that this will not remain a secret for us. That when the waves rise up and it all becomes too much, you can rest in the assurance that Christ makes it possible to follow even with little faith, and that God is present in the midst of the storms we face.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
August 3, 2003
September 7, 2014
We may (will) encounter storms ahead, but… The good news is that we are never left alone and helpless. I pray that when the waves rise up and it all becomes too much, you can rest in the assurance that Christ makes it possible to follow even with little faith, and that God is present in the midst of the storms we face.