I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.
The Gospel story of Jesus walking on water is one of the best-known lessons in the New Testament. We know this story well because we hear it often. Jesus’ account of walking on water is in three of the four Gospels, and in each account, Jesus alleviates the fears of those in the boat by saying “it is I; do not be afraid.”
In relation to this story, I have often heard the message preached that Jesus calms the storms of lives and through Him we should not be afraid. That’s lovely, and I think that’s true, but especially when looking at Matthew’s account of this story, I believe there is an additional message.
Matthew’s telling of the story is unique because of the additional narrative involving Peter and the disciples. The story we know well is in the first half of this Gospel when we hear of the disciples in the boat being battered by waves and the wind being against them, but we don’t hear of their fear, there being “terrified,” until they see Jesus walking toward them on the water. This would make sense…because most the disciples are fishermen—they are used to the strong winds and battering waves, but not ghost-like figures coming toward them. For them, the boat is what they know and where they feel safe and secure. The difference in this story is when we see a shift in Peter’s feelings—a change in perspective from seeing the figure on the water as a ghost to the divine savior, from a stranger to a well-known friend. In that instance, Peter forgets of everything else—all his fears, doubts, and even his own security—and he simply gets out of the boat after Jesus’ simple invitation… “come.”
This story of water, and fear and doubt reminds me of the many years I worked as a lifeguard. I was a lifeguard all through high school and college—all in all, for about eight years and in those eight years there was only one time each season that I actually ever had to jump in the water and save someone. For the most part, people know their own abilities and will gravitate to where they are comfortable—the deep end if they are an experienced swimmer, or the shallow end for the inexperienced. But the times in which I consistently had to jump in and save people was at the beginning of the swim season, during the infamous swim test. The swim test was when the kids had to prove to the lifeguard that they were able to swim from one side of the pool to the other. Simple. The swim test was not required. You only had to take part if you wanted to swim past a certain depth in the pool. Having made these expectations perfectly clear, there would always be at least one child who would jump in and then immediately start to sink like a rock—flailing and waving their arms—yelling “help me.” I would jump in and bring them back to the side of the pool safely, and they would always thank me profusely for saving their life. When I would ask them why they jumped in and even attempt the swim test knowing they couldn’t actually swim, the answer was always the same— “I knew you were there.” There was something about the presence of the lifeguard that had the ability of taking their fears and doubts away, and just trusting that whatever was going to happen, I was going to be there.
I am in no way saying that Jesus will protect you from anything bad happening to you, but I am saying that whenever we are faced with a fear, or filled with doubt, often, those times are God-given invitations for us to move toward those fears—to get out of the boat—but only with the confidence that whatever happens, Jesus will be right there.
In this Gospel lesson, seeing Jesus performing such a Divine act, basically proving himself to be Godly, all of the previous teachings Peter had heard and miracles he had seen suddenly made sense…for Peter, putting his past experiences of Jesus together with this present situation ignited something within him that allowed his eye to clearly see Christ and gave him the courage to face this unthinkable fear. It ignited the spark of faith within Peter…and as we hear from Jesus, it was “little faith” but faith, none the less. This is my favorite part of the story because for me, someone who often stays in the boat out of fear of failure, that even if there is even a smidge of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, God can use us for a greater work.
Even the disciples, through no action on their part, were changed by Peter’s display of faith. It was Peter’s movement toward Jesus, his so-called failure when noticing the distracting winds around him, and subsequent saving performed by Jesus that helped the disciples to see Jesus the way Peter had just seen him—so much so they were finally able to look at Jesus and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” For me, I think this recognition is the beginning of the disciples’ budding faith, a faith that will be infectious. This faith is a showing of vulnerability that others sometimes need to see, in order for them to feel safe stepping out of the boat. It was Peter’s getting out of the boat that ignited the faith of those who saw.
All Saints’ is no stranger to stepping out of the boat, and we have a long tradition of igniting the faith of those who witness the risky, good troublemaking steps we take over and over. From marching on Washington, to feeding our neighbors, to raising over a quarter of a million dollars in four weeks to combat the effects of redlining, WE, as a community, are strong enough together to face any storm and answer Jesus’ audacious request of “come towards me.”
I’m telling you this—things you already know—to remind you of how Jesus has been with us…Jesus has been with you, every step of the way, no matter what. I’m reminding you of this especially now as we begin a new phase of this pandemic. With rising numbers of COVID cases, our world continues to be turned upside down—it feels like, again and again. Continued separation from the life we used to know, cancelled vacations, mandatory quarantines, limited access and delayed testing, people dying alone, and most recently, the decision for Chicago Public Schools to begin the school year with total remote learning. So many are left wondering “what are we going to do? How is this even possible? What are the long-term effects going to be for my children? I’m concerned for my child’s well-being, but I’m also concerned about the well-being of others.” The world in which we live today is filled with uncertainty, tension, fear, doubt, and anger… “how could this have happened? Is this the best plan for moving forward? Sorry many lives lost…and for what? Why wasn’t this handled differently?”
Let me be perfectly clear—your faith is compatible with the outrage and frustration that you and I are feeling today.
But my prayer is that we don’t let this despair keep us in the boat. With Jesus—with each other—like all the difficult and uncertain times in our past, the more we move toward the uncertainty of challenging times, the more we allow God and the God that resides in all of us to help guide us.
“Do not be afraid.” If you don’t know what to do once you’re out of the boat—if you’re concerned that what you’re doing is not enough or even worse, you don’t feel worthy of making a difference—taking action with Jesus’ help and doing God’s work is what matters. All it takes is just a little faith…just a spark to get us out. And just like all the amazing things this parish as done in the past, the courage and faith that is displayed, just like the disciples in the boat, ignites others to step out and experience the transformative and life-giving love of God.
Like the child who jumps in during the swim test, may we always have the sense that the lifeguard will be there—whether it be Jesus on the water, or the Jesus within all of us.
Along with always having to save at least one kid during those swim tests years ago, there was also something else that inevitably happened. There was always a kid that was too shy or too scared to take part in the swim test, but after they had witnessed the brave soul who went before them, they then would find the confidence in themselves to take the leap into the water.
I’m not going to tell you if they made it across or if I had to save them too…it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they too, without fear, if only for a moment, “got out of the boat.”
When in doubt, when feeling helpless, when nothing seems to make sense, let today’s lesson be a reminder to dry on your faith, even if it is “little faith,” and continue get out of the boat.