“After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake…”
-from Matthew 14
We’re working through the book of Mark together, this winter and spring, but I pulled today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew instead. I suppose that’s cheating, but I just like this version of the story so much better that I couldn’t resist.
Picture the scene with me. The wind is frothing the waters and whistling in their sails, and the disciples have been rowing against it all night. They’re tired. Their shoulders and arms are sore. They’re straining to see land, but instead they see a ghostlike figure walking across the water.
Wouldn’t you be terrified?
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
The rest of the disciples are apparently dumbstruck, but that never happens to Peter! “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
The wind is still whipping. The waves are still crashing into the boat. But Peter swings one leg over the edge, and then the other, stepping out onto fluid ground that should not have held him.
Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
This story raises an interesting question, for those of us who are currently learning to be disciples, which I assume is all of us: where did Peter go wrong? Jesus calls him one of little faith, but surely it takes a good amount of faith to swing over the edge of the boat and onto the water.
That’s more faith than I have, most days.
Peter launched himself onto the wine-dark sea, one sandaled foot after another, and whether that was courage or foolishness I don’t really know. Consider this, though: You aren’t called to do anything that you aren’t equipped to do.
I think this is a very hopeful point, for you and me. Because look, God gives a church the gifts that the church needs to do their work in the world. That’s part of the promise of the Gospel. We’re given teachers and caretakers and visionaries as we need them.
So it would follow, then, that if God wanted you to be able to walk on water, then you’d have legs and feet like a water bug. You don’t, to the best of my knowledge, so you can safely assume that walking on water isn’t your calling. If it were, God would have equipped you for the task.
Peter, likewise, was never called to be a water bug. What good is that, to the kingdom of God? So consider this, as well: had Peter trusted the voice that he heard, he wouldn’t have left the boat in the first place.
Think about it. This isn’t a story about the Ice Capades, or a floating ballet, or some other water-based performance art. The disciples are in a boat.
A boat is a mode of transportation, like a bicycle or a truck. The whole point of being in a boat is that you’re going somewhere.
Jesus sent the disciples, in the boat, to travel across the sea. He stayed around on the mountain awhile to pray, then set out over the sea after them. He gets in the boat with them, they reach the shore, and they go on with the work of ministry. That’s the story.
That’s the story, in fact, as we have it in the Gospels of Mark and John. Only Matthew includes this interlude with Peter. That’s why I like it.
Peter doesn’t get out of the boat because he’s stepping out on faith. He gets out of the boat because he has forgotten the story, because he’s lost the plot, because he can’t hear the narrator clearly.
Jesus appears in the storm, overtaking the boat by foot, and immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
And here’s Peter’s moment of doubt: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
Lord, if it’s you… if. There’s the doubt. If.
Let’s not come down too hard on Peter. The wind is howling. The boat is creaking. He’s scared, and his friends are scared, and a big act of faith is being asked of him.
But the act of faith being asked of Peter is not the courage to get out of the boat and walk on water! It’s, more simply, to listen for – to recognize – the voice of Christ.
One of the biggest challenges we have, as faithful disciples, is to center ourselves in the midst of a storm and truly listen. Charles Hummel calls this the tyranny of the urgent. We’re ruled, if we’re not diligent, by the whipping wind and the waves sloshing overboard – by all that seems urgent in the moment – and, in attending to each urgent detail, we lose the larger picture.
We’re too busy mopping the deck, adjusting the sails, hatching an escape plan, to lay aside the urgent in favor of the truly important. And so Peter hears the Savior’s voice and offers a test – if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water – rather than stopping and asking the Savior what ought to come next.
It’s an easy mistake to make. We’ve all done it, and we’ll probably all do it again, and when we start to sink the hand of the Savior will be as quick to grab us as it was to grab Peter. Mercy is not a finite resource.
But: it takes practice, though, and discipline, and more courage than you might have thought that you had, to sit tight in a storm and listen for the voice that you recognize in the deepest part of your soul. When your heart is pounding, when your brain is screaming for a plan, any plan, however reckless, just for goodness’ sake give me something to do…
… it’s the hardest thing in the world, perhaps, to simply sit and listen.
This is a short sermon, Friends, because we have business to attend to. We’ll be gathering in the Thorne Room after worship for a called business meeting to prayerfully consider our budget for the year. We need all of you who are able to attend, to come with hearts held open to God and to one another.
I won’t presume to tell you, from the pulpit, what sort of budget we should adopt. Instead, let me offer two pieces of advice from this morning’s story: listen courageously, and stay in the boat. These advices are relevant in so many areas of life – our families, our schools, our workplaces, and so on – but since I’m thinking about our business meeting to follow, let me apply them here.
Listen courageously. God may be doing something unexpected. Center your soul and listen to those leadings. When other Friends are speaking, open your heart to the wisdom that they bring to the discussion.
It’s hard work. You’ll need a snack afterward. But it’s so beautiful, when you do it, and so worthwhile. Don’t let fear plug your ears. Listen courageously.
And stay in the boat. This one’s a bit more tricky, but it’s true. We have here, in Matthew, the story of a pack of disciples in the middle of a storm, and Jesus coming to travel with them. Peter jumps out of the boat and messes up the story, but Jesus hauls him back inside so they can all get to the shore.
Boats, in the Bible, are images of the church. They’re communal transport, like a bus or a plane. Getting to our destination means all of us getting there together. That’s how a boat is like a church.
So, let me address a practical point as I’m wrapping up. I’ve heard some of you give reasons as to why your voice doesn’t matter in business meeting. Maybe you’re not formally members of the meeting. Maybe you feel like you don’t donate enough. Maybe you’re too young, or too old. Maybe you’re too conservative, or too liberal. Maybe you haven’t been here long enough, or maybe you’ve been here too long.
I’ve heard all of those reasons given. Let me just say, here, that they’re all nonsense.
If you’re worshiping with us, this morning, then you’re part of the body. If you chopped off my pinky finger, I wouldn’t rustle around for documents to prove that it’s part of my body, nor would I verify its age or its youth, nor would I list off all the work that my pinky does for me.
No. I’d just say that I was hurt, that I was bleeding, that I had lost a piece of my body. And so it would be, Friends, if any one of your voices were lost. Every one of you matters. No one’s voice is unnecessary.
We have work to do, Disciples, when we reach the shore. You’re not called to the shallow courage of escaping the boat by jumping out onto the water, tempting as that might seem. You’re called to the deeper courage of staying in the boat, together, and listening to the voice of Christ.
Listen hard, Friends, to the Spirit of Christ in your own heart and in the voices of your Friends. Listen deeply, listen carefully, listen together, and listen with love.