Like many of you, I first encountered the Bible as a child. My superheroes were Moses, David, Sampson, and Paul. I took the stories literally because the folks that taught them to me took them literally. Through the years I believe I have come to love the Bible even more by daring to wrestle with the symbolism that is to be gained from stories about arks, ladders, big fish and folks walking on water.
What a marvelous story we read this morning in the Book of Matthew. You remember Matthew. He is the gospel writer that begins each parable with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a lost coin, or a mustard seed, or any number of ordinary things.” Actually what he was saying was the church of Jesus Christ can be best seen in the ordinary. Matthew’s entire gospel is about the church and how we are to represent the mindset of God. But sometimes the church can become a place which responds to dark moments by either disappearing or walking around on eggshells hoping the crisis of the day will disappear.
Matthew the storyteller records an incredible moment in the life of Peter. But Matthew the church builder dares us to look beyond Peter and think of the church as a boat. Think of the water as the chaos in which the boat attempts to float. Think of church members trying to navigate this complicated thing called life when evil winds begin to blow.
Jesus had a long day of preaching and teaching and wanted to get away from the crowds. It was his habit to go up into the mountains and spend time in prayer. But the disciples were fishermen. Often they would hop in a boat, cast off, in order to be isolated from the disturbances of the day. I imagine that is why most of us come to church. We want to get away from all the noise and bedlam that seems to emerge with each step we take. When we come to church we don’t have to listen to the talking heads that seem to be everywhere. When we come to church we get to listen to music that promises God will take care of us. For one hour a week we are isolated from the world. And even if we don’t like the sermon, we can shut our eyes and everyone will assume we are just praying. What could be more peaceful than Church? It’s like a boat, rocking in perfect harmony to the rhythm of gentle waves.
The disciples found a cove on the edge of the lake. They believed it to be a safe place. Once the anchor was secure, the disciples laid down in the bottom of the boat. Ever spent a relaxing night on the water? The lapping of the waves against hull becomes melodious. One by one the disciples fell asleep. But after midnight the wind began to freshen. Peter was the first to take notice of the sudden change in the weather.
Have you ever had the misfortune of being out on the water when a storm unexpectedly arrives? I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. Deb’s dad had a boat and often went fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. I had no interest in the water but I was madly in love with Deb so I often accompanied them on their quest to catch Moby Flounder. More than once we were chased back to shore when the sky turned deadly.
Peter had no gas powered engine. It was too dark to hoist the sails and head home. The waves and rocks left the disciples with little options but to ride out the storm.
Sometimes that is the way it is in the church. While we desire the church to be a safe place, sometimes the waves of life make our journey difficult. Last year Sarah, Ann, Ralph, Frankie and others died. Each played a pivotal role in our church. Their deaths placed us in a storm not of our own making. Sarah’s death was particularly hard on our music program. We are still trying to figure out what we must do to replace her gifts.
This fall the Nevill’s, Turnbull’s, Beddow’s and Jefferson’s will be moving to new pastures. They have each given us such great joy and while we understand their reasons for moving to flatter ground, they will be sorely missed. Think of all the years Nancy ministered to the sick. She will be hard to replace. Our boat will certainly rock a little precariously when these good folks depart.
And let’s be honest. Sometimes folks in church just get those noses a little out of joint. Paul did not write First Corinthians 13 as a meditation for a wedding. The church in Corinth was one rocky ship. No sooner had Paul dealt with one problem than another appeared. Paul preferred to write about faith and hope but when it came to the squabbles in Corinth he begged them to remember, “Faith and hope are important, but if you don’t have love, nothing else matters.”
I suspect there were moments in Matthew’s church when everything wasn’t perfect. I have spent my whole life in churches and just the fact that churches are filled with people usually guarantees not everyone is going to be on the same page. Boats get rocked by our everyday storms.
I think the greatest difficulties in a church stem from our persistent worrying about tomorrow. Sometimes the journey just seems too much and we just aren’t sure if we are up to the task. We get so worried about our future we fail to see the hand of God at work. This week Sam Alexander alerted the wood ministry team that there were a couple trees at Doug Wood’s house that were ready to be hauled away. Doug lives above the intersection of Black Walnut and Stoney Creek West. I rode my bike to Doug’s house once and thought I was going to die. There is not an inch of flat ground on Doug’s property. Wednesday I got there early to survey the land. The first tree was stacked up just off the driveway. This was easy pickings. But the rest of the wood was in the back yard. Our wood ministry team has big hearts and a lot of determination but we are best known for our age and bad backs. As I climbed the hill back to Doug’s house I knew we could not possibly harvest this generous gift. Then Dane and Scott arrived. Their combined ages are less than 55. Chaos turned to triumph as within two hours six loads of wood found a new home on our church wood pile. Sometimes we fail to see beyond the obvious.
But sometimes the crisis is bigger than us. Peter knew he was going to die. It was only a matter of minutes before the storm would capsize the boat and leave the disciples helpless victims in the water. Just as they were about to give up all hope the disciples saw a figure approaching the boat. They thought it was a ghost, a certain sign they were about to die. But Jesus spoke, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
It is easy to believe in the love of God when you are sitting in a pew with your family singing, “Amazing Grace.”
It is easy to believe that God is good when you are eating chocolate chips cookies with your grandchildren.
When no one is rocking to boat, where else would we want to be but in the arms of Jesus? But when the storms of life arise and it seems our ship might capsize, what is the first thing we do? We panic. We forget faith demands more than just sitting on our backsides. We become like eleven of the twelve disciples who took out pen and paper and wrote their last will and testament. But Peter hoped over the side and started walking toward Jesus.
This was Peter’s finest hour. When everyone else hid Peter called out, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Come.”
We usually only remember the part where Peter started to sink and Jesus rescued him. We forget Peter stepped out of the boat and took a few steps. Sure he became overwhelmed by the winds. Sure he sank into the waves like a rock. But before he sank, he walked.
Remember when you took the training wheels off the bike of your son or daughter. Remember running behind them with your hand steadying the bike. Remember letting the bike go and your child precariously wobbled down the road. Remember when they looked around, lost their nerve, and fell. How did you respond? Did you scream at them for messing up? No! You celebrated the moment. You helped them back on the bike. And the rest is history.
Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you think you could walk on water?” What Jesus said was, “Peter, why did you ever doubt that you couldn’t walk on water.” Yes, Peter sank, but he was the only one brave enough to get out of the boat. Yes, Peter sank, but not while his eyes were on Jesus. Are we looking to Jesus or will we cling to bottom of our boat petrified by fear?
Chaos descended on Charlottesville yesterday. Three people died because of this chaos. One died because she made the choice to stand against an ideology she believed to be evil. Two Virginia State Troopers died on a day they certainly would have preferred to have been home with their families. Chaos seldom cares who dies.
I know many, maybe most of you would prefer I not speak about this. After all, the crisis is over. Most of our visitors have gotten back in their vehicles and headed home. But the stench of their presence lingers. In 1933 the German National Church recognized the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler as their new chancellor. I mention this because so many of the young men who visited our city wore swastikas. But not all German Christians fell silent. Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller gathered Lutheran and Reform ministers together to declare that the church’s freedom is in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. Their statement was published as The Theological Declaration of Barmen. It begins with this premise:
Jesus Christ is our righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Jesus Christ is the one we obey and trust in life and death. We reject false doctrines which suggest there are areas of life where we do not belong to Jesus.
Barth was forced to flee Germany. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed. But their eyes never left Jesus. May we courageously maintain a similar vision. Amen.