Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Matthew 14:22-33
In the sweltering days of August 1993, prior to the beginning of my senior year of high school in Birmingham, Alabama, which I was extremely excited about, my parents went through a messy divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent a couple of days doing nothing more than watching TV and reading comic books, although neither brought me much joy. They were just distractions from the chaos swirling around me.
One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I got up to open the door and there were two of my dearest friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey, standing on the front stoop, grinning from ear to ear. Before I could say “Hello” or “What are you doing here?” they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”
A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. We never talked about the storm that was swirling around my family, the great unraveling that was happening in my life. Comforting words and advice weren’t necessary. There love and care for me was evident in how they reached out to me when I felt like I was drowning at home.
Fast forward eight years to Friday, September 7, 2001. I’m bidding farewell to my co-workers at The Birmingham Post-Herald where I had been a reporter and assistant metro editor for three years. I had decided after a lot of prayer and conversation with family and friends that I was being called to be an ordained minister. And my home church of Shades Valley Presbyterian had offered me a part-time temporary job as the co-youth director so that I could make plans to go to seminary the following summer.
But a few days after I drove away from the newspaper office for the last time, the events of 9/11 occurred. It was quite a convicting moment for me because I realized I had no desire to be in a news room covering the most devastating story of the new century. All I could concentrate on was ministering to the middle and high school youth who would soon be gathering at their first Sunday youth group meeting of the year.
Five days after 9/11, the other co-youth director and I gathered on the red carpeted chancel steps of Shades Valley Presbyterian with about 20 distraught youth (some of whom had parents serving in the National Guard or stuck in airports) to have an open, honest and grace-filled conversation about the attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In an effort to ensure all voices would be heard and to illustrate the value of being in community, I required that each person could only talk if they were holding a ball of yarn. Whenever they finished speaking, they had to hold onto a string while tossing the rest to the next person who wanted to speak.
At the end of an hour-long discussion, we were all holding on to this beautiful, intricate web. In the midst of a colossal storm that was unraveling our lives and our perception of the world, we were reminded that God reaches out and binds us together in love.
Life is so fascinating and unpredictable, isn’t it? One minute, you are full of confidence and certainty, so much so that it feels like you’re walking on water. But then something beyond your control happens and you become inundated by uncertainty and doubt and fear, so much so that it feels like you’re drowning. And it doesn’t have to be a major incident like 9/11. Most of the time it’s smaller, more common circumstances.
Like a parents’ divorce. Or your car breaking down while you’re traveling along a mostly empty highway at night.
Or maybe it’s that project idea you feel great about because you’ve toiled on it for weeks and it has the potential to change the world. But then you walk into the board room and you see all those serious business people in their serious business suits looking at you with solemn faces. So, you panic and start stumbling over your words and sweating around your collar. Eventually, you manage your way through the presentation and then later you collapse in your chair, feeling humiliated and rejected, believing it will be impossible to rebound from such a #epicfail.
Or perhaps you’ve had a wonderful visit with a long-time neighbor, and you go to bed with gratitude and joy for the day and the friendship. But then two days later, you learn the news that they were in a car accident or had a heart attack. Your once strong and sturdy legs stop working and you crumble onto the floor. Suddenly you are convinced that life can’t be done without them, which both scares and saddens you to your very core.
When you find yourself unraveling at the seams and sinking into the abyss, you might wonder if you lack the faith in God to push through the unexpected circumstance. If you can just keep your eyes on Jesus, you will be able to walk on water and not drown. That’s the meaning we’re supposed to glean from this story about Peter and Jesus, according to many preachers who’ve delivered a sermon on this text, right?
Well, not so much. Lutheran minister and author Nadia Bolz-Weber sums up that no-so-good news with this analysis of how the story is often reduced to a “moral about having more faith”:
If you in your life are not God-like in your ability to financially prosper or overcome all your failings as a human or defy the forces of nature and walk on water then the problem is that you don’t have enough faith and you should really muster up some more because the thing is, it’s all up to you to make your way to Jesus. So, don’t be afraid. Get out of the boat but be better at it than St Peter and don’t take your eyes off of Jesus. You can do it if you really try. End of sermon. And good luck with that. OK, this is a cynical view even for me, but it’s honest. Yet I know that having a preacher tell me that the solution to my problems is to just try and have more faith – so I can make my way to Jesus never sounds like good news to me. It reminds me of The Simpson’s episode where square jawed newscaster Ken Brockman made a set of motivational tapes called “get confident stupid!”. In the end, I just don’t know how helpful it is to say “get faith sinner”. It doesn’t work.
It’s just not realistic or practical to presume that we just need more faith in God to “walk on water,” make it through life’s challenges without a scratch and receive favor from God. And that kind of thinking also misses the point of the story. A preaching commentary on the passage says this:
Peter walks, becomes frightened by the wind, begins to sink, cries out to Jesus, and is rescued. This familiar sequence of actions needs to be understood in light of the obedient act that put Peter on the water in the first place. It is not the story of the skeptic who habitually doubts, but the story of the faithful follower who becomes overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him, who begins to lose his nerve when he discovers the odds stacked against him, but who from Jesus finds a steadying, delivering hand.”
Peter has the courage to step into the swell, to try something different and daring and out of the ordinary in the midst of the chaos. The winds are simply too much for him and he sinks like any human being would.
Even though we are faithful and courageous, we can still be afraid and uncertain. Afraid of the circumstances surrounding us because there are definitely a lot of terrible things happening whenever you scan the daily headlines. Uncertain about the gifts and abilities we’ve been given to live out our calling; and whether we will survive the winds of life that knock us down. As a result, we can and will stumble, fall and sink. Even if we have all the faith and courage there is in the world.
But despite the fear, uncertainty and despair, Jesus walks toward us and reaches out a steady hand like he did to the disciples and Peter. Usually in ways we least expect.
This past Tuesday, the Perches Funeral Home in El Paso, Texas posted on Facebook a photo of a man kneeling next to a large arrangement of flowers and the following words:
This is Antonio Basco.
His wife of 22 years, Margie, was murdered in El Paso.
Mr. Basco says he has no other family so he’s inviting anyone, who wants to come, to attend his wife’s services in El Paso:
Friday, August 16th
Perches Funeral Home
Antonio Basco has been drowning in grief. The life he had known for 22 years came unraveled when his wife Margie left the house for her job at the Wal-mart in El Paso on a Saturday morning earlier this month. And last week, he wasn’t sure anyone would come to Margie’s visitation.
Not long after the Facebook post was created, the director of the funeral home learned that attendance might exceed its 250-person capacity so arrangements were made to move the service to the larger La Paz Faith Memorial and Spiritual Center.
When Basco walked into the sanctuary on Friday, he was greeted by more than 400 mourners. The La Paz building was at capacity and another 700 waited outside in the 100-degree heat to pay their respects. People from different faiths and cities walked toward Basco and reached out their hands to him when he was at his absolute lowest. After the service, Basco told reporters:
“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I love El Paso and [I’m] glad to be your family. Thank you very much. I got the world’s largest family.”
When life is unraveling, Jesus walks toward us and says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Despite what little faith we have in ourselves and how life will turn out, Jesus walks toward us. In the midst of the raging storm, Jesus reaches down and pulls us up from the deep. Then he returns us safely to the boat where together as a community we hold onto one another, and we give praise to the God who never forsakes us and who always meet us, wherever we may be.
Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995. 441-2.