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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was a man who wanted to impress his hunting buddies, so he bought the smartest, most expensive hunting dog he could find. He trained this dog to do things no other dog on earth could do—impossible feats that would surely amaze anyone. Then he invited the buddies to go duck hunting with him. After a long patient wait in the boat a group of ducks flew over and the hunters were able to make a few hits. Several ducks fell in the water. “Go get ‘em!” shouted the proud owner to his magnificent dog. The dog leaped out of the boat, walked on the water, and picked up a bird and returned to the boat. As soon as he dropped the duck in the boat he trotted off across the water again and grabbed another duck and brought it back to the boat. The owner beamed with pride as his wonderful dog walked across the water and retrieved each of the birds one by one. Unable to resist a bit of bragging he asked his fellow hunters, “Did you notice anything unusual about my dog?” One of them rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yes,” he finally said. “Come to think of it, I did! That silly dog of yours doesn’t know how to swim does he?”
The story of Peter’s short walk across water one stormy night is well known. It has inspired a whole host of jokes involving golfers or hunters, priests or pastors walking on water (or at least knowing where the stones are). The religious versions are usually told to the embarrassment of the local clergy. In all the stories, the poor innocent Peters, are left floundering in the water. And that’s too bad. After all, Peter was not a man of little faith. True, Peter failed miserably. But he was the only one of the twelve disciples who dared to get out of the boat. He knew the old adage. “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks.” That is Jesus invitation to you and for your life, as well. If you’re going to make any gains in your life, you’ll have to get out of the boat.
My friends, this morning I would like to share with you two convictions. First, No matter how dark it seems, and no matter how alone you feel, Jesus never abandons his own. You may be assured that Jesus will come to you amid the storms of life. At the moment you need him most, he will be with you. And second, remember that it takes the power of God to walk on water. You can’t do it on your own.
Let us begin with the first truth, Jesus never abandons his own. In the lessons we have read over the last Sundays, Saint Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ ministry along the Sea of Galilee. He had just finished feeding 5,000 followers on a lonely hillside, when he sent his disciples by boat ahead of him to the other side of the seas. Meanwhile, Jesus went up a mountain to pray. When evening came, a great storm blew up. The waves on Sea of Galilee battered the disciples’ boat and the winds pushed them further and further away from land. Matthew doesn’t say anything about them being afraid. Most of them were seasoned fishermen who spent their lives on this sea and who figured they’d be okay as long as their boat held together. It is familiar counsel. No water in all the sea can sink a ship, so long as it remains outside. Disaster occurs when the water begins to creep in. So the disciples kept on rowing and bailing through the long, dark night, trying to outlast the storm. Sooner or later, every one of us passes through one storm or another. It may be a storm that batters your marriage and you can’t seem to make any progress against it. Or it may be a storm that blows one your kids far away from where you want him or her to be. It may be a dreaded disease that strikes you or someone you love. It may be the storm of depression that threatens to drown you in its depths. For some people, just opening the morning paper or turning on the evening news makes them want to hunker down as their skies grow dark and the winds start blowing. Maybe you think you’re tough enough to handle it. Or like these disciples, you’ve been through enough storms before and you’ve got yourself a pretty sturdy boat. You tell yourself you’ll be all right as long as you cling to that boat or whatever that sturdy vessel may be.
In the early hours of the morning the disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. Interestingly, that’s when they got scared. It wasn’t the storm that terrified them, though they were certainly growing tired. They were frightened of what they couldn’t explain. They thought they were seeing a ghost. Then Jesus said to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
That, my friends, is a powerful word of comfort and hope. Jesus is out there in the storm, and he is always nearer than you think. No, Jesus may not be in the boat, seated next to you, at least not yet anyway. But he is out there – where the wind is raging and the waves are pounding. Jesus, you see, isn’t simply found in places of safety and security, amidst the green pastures and beside the still waters. Jesus is also to be found in the horrible blast of that terrible storm. He is to be found in that dreaded worst-case scenario, in that one thing you and I most want to avoid.
And yet, sometimes, in the face of the most wonderful news, we simply doubt and question. That’s what Peter did. “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” And, bless his heart, Peter trusting in the adage, “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks,” took that first step out of the boat, and then another. Things were going great. But then Matthew writes “and Peter noticed the strong wind.” He took his eyes off Jesus and saw the next big wave headed for him. And it dawned on him: “I can’t do this! What was I thinking?”
Have you ever walked on water like Peter? I certainly have. I feel like the disciple every time I step out of the safety of my everyday routine. Every time I step off a plane around the world, as I will again this week, and I’m surrounded by men and women, whose language I don’t know, whose lives are so different than mine, and who look at me differently. It’s when I get out of the car in a different part of the city, where the sounds and rhythms are different than my own. It’s when I enter a new setting where people don’t look to church as a source of hope. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s where Jesus wants me to be. After all, I’ve heard him say, “Come” often enough. So I step out of the car and plane, and step across the threshold. I take the first few steps. And that’s when it hits me: “What am I doing here? Who do I think I am? I can’t do this!” And, to be perfectly honest, I feel like Peter every time I get out of the safety of my chair back there on Sunday mornings – and step up into this pulpit to preach. Every Sunday morning is a bit of an exercise in walking on water for me. After all these years, I find the first few steps aren’t very difficult. It’s about now, when I’m pretty well into the sermon, that I notice the strong winds. Or in this case, I notice the stifled yawn, the glazed eyes, the blank expressions. And that’s when I become frightened, and I feel like I’m starting to sink.
I’ll bet some of you have your own version of this story. You too know the old adage, “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks.” So you step out into a new job, but the work isn’t what you thought it would be. The move has been harder on your family than you imagined. The wind and waves hit and you start to sink. Or, you get married, believing with all your heart this is the one, but then the stormy arguments flare up and the icy mistrust sets in. The wind and waves hit and you start to sink. Or, you once looked fondly at your children, but in their more frustrating moments, you discover parenting to be far less enchanting than you once imagined. The wind and waves hit and you start to sink.
And so we turn to the second truth, remember, it takes the power of God to walk on water. You simply can’t do the impossible on your own. In the small hours Jesus went out to his disciples, walking on the water. And Peter came out to Jesus. Peter stepped down from the boat and did walk on the water, making for Jesus. But when he saw the fury of the wind he panicked and began to sink, calling out, ‘Lord save me!’ At once Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little-faith!” Peter failed. Spectacularly. His confidence could not keep him afloat. His own power and will could not keep him afloat. Not even his knowledge of the rocks could keep him above water. He needed God’s strength to do the unthinkable. To forgive the ones who hurt you, to move on when all seems empty, to begin again when there seems to be no other possibilities- – and so do you.
My friends, “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks.” If you don’t risk heartbreak, you will never know love. If you do not risk failure, you will never know success. If you don’t risk loss, you will never experience gain. If you don’t risk an answer when the teacher asks a question, you may save the embarrassment of a wrong answer, but you will also miss the joy of the encouragement that builds healthy self-worth. “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks.” And when you start floundering, God will reach out his hand, and take you and carry you.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you can be assured that some point in your life he will call you to step out. He will invite you to step out of your comfort zone, and to walk on water. That’s the way he works. And sooner or later you’re going to fail. But it’s not really failure as long as Jesus is near. Failure is when we’re too afraid to try.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” My friends, no matter how dark it seems, and no matter how alone you feel, Jesus will never abandon his own. Jesus will come to you amid the storms of life. And at the moment you need him most, he will be with you. Do not be afraid. Have faith to take a step. “If you’re going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks.” For the very faith that uproots trees, moves mountains, calms the sea, extinguishes fire, heals the sick, and raises the dead, will do miracles in your life as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.