By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
A rabbi, a priest and a pastor went fishing on a lake...
No sooner had they dropped anchor when the priest realized he’d forgotten his favorite lure. So, he hopped out of the boat, walked across the water, drove back to the rectory, grabbed his lure, walked back across the water and rejoined the others in the boat. Shortly thereafter, the pastor realized she’d forgotten her thermos of coffee on the kitchen counter. So, she jumped out of the boat, walked across the water, drove back home, got the thermos and rejoined them. Lunch time came and the rabbi realized he’d forgotten his lunch. So, he looked at the priest and the pastor and said, “Well, if you two can do it, I guess I can, too,” and he stepped out of the boat. Immediately, he started to sink. The priest tossed a life preserver over board, looked at the pastor and said, “Do you think we should have told him where the rocks were?”
No doubt most of you have heard some variation of that joke inspired by today’s Gospel reading. The story of Jesus walking on the water during the storm appears right after the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand in three out of four of our Gospels. It’s a remarkable story because it so powerfully reveals who Jesus is. It does so in two ways: through his actions AND through his words.
First, this story communicates who Jesus is through his miraculous action of walking on the water. You see, in the culture of Jesus’ day, water was greatly feared. The sea, for ancient peoples, was a place where chaos reigned, the power of chaos to threaten and even destroy life. After all, they didn’t have scuba gear or submarines. What lurked beneath those waters was mysterious and intimidating. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, only God was considered able to tame the waters of the deep and all that dwelt within them. And so, frequently, in scripture, God is spoken of as God of the waters. In Genesis, chapter one, the creation story, God has the power to move the water – to put it in its place, so to speak – separating it from dry land. It is God who has the power to control the water when his people, the Israelites, flee from Egypt. God, once again, separates the waters, allowing his chosen people to pass through the Sea on dry ground. Then, God releases the waters and they overwhelm their Egyptian pursuers. God, alone, Hebrew scripture affirms, has the power to walk upon the water as Job affirms when he says that “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” So, we ought to understand the power of this gospel story: this miracle, this action, confirms that, within Jesus, abides the power and authority of the one, true God.
Jesus’ identity is also confirmed by his words. For, when the disciples see this figure walking upon the water, they panic. They think it’s a ghost. But Jesus speaks to reassure them they have nothing to fear when he tells them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Now, that’s good grammar. But, it’s not a very accurate translation of scripture. Because, in Greek, the language of the New Testament, Jesus literally says these words: “I am.” “Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.” “I am.” Perhaps you recognize those words from way back in the biblical book of Exodus when God encounters Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God’s name, God responds by telling him “I am.” Our God is the great “I am.” And so, it can be no accident or mere coincidence that Jesus identifies himself with those exact same words. To his fearful followers, those befuddled disciples, Jesus speaks those words of assurance: “I am.” Again, this miracle confirms that, within Jesus, abides the power and the authority of the one, true God; the great “I am” who stretches out the heavens and tramples the waves of the sea.
But, there’s more to this story because there’s a second character – Peter. Peter, according to Matthew, responds to Jesus’ self-revelation and blurts out: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus says “Come,” off he goes. Now, have you ever wondered why Peter did that? What was he thinking? Was he just caught up in the excitement of this supernatural display? Was he trying to prove something to himself? Was he trying to prove something to Jesus?
Well, obviously none of us can know for sure what Peter’s motivations were. But notice that none of the other disciples were that bold and daring. As soon as Peter hears those words of invitation – that call to discipleship – “Come.” Well, right away, off he goes… until he suddenly becomes distracted by the wind and the waves and he finds himself drowning in fear. When his attention is focused on Jesus, he’s riding high. But, when he focuses his attention on the storm, he starts to sink, to be overwhelmed.
So, the obvious message is this: When the storms of life are raging, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. If we focus on that which threatens us and succumb to our fears, we will find ourselves in deep trouble; up to our necks and gasping for air. But, if we can turn our eyes upon Jesus, even in the midst of threatening storms, Jesus will keep us afloat and protect us from the danger that surrounds us.
We’ll never know for sure Peter’s motivation in getting out of that boat and stepping onto that water. But, whatever the motivation, it doesn’t change the ending because we know how this story ends. Peter starts to sink when he becomes overwhelmed with fear of the storm. So, Peter cries out with a prayer – with a great, spectacular, theologically sound prayer. You know the one. You’ve probably used it yourself once or twice over the years: “Lord, save me!” It’s not very poetic. But it works because that’s what Jesus does. He saves us. He saves us from the storms that threaten us. He saves us from our ignorance and our arrogance. He saves us from our doubt… because that’s who Jesus is. Oh, it’s true. He is Lord of the sea – master over the elements. The great “I am.” But, he’s also my Savior… and yours; the one who grabs us when we’re sinking and lifts us up out of the chaos that threatens to overwhelm and destroy us. And that’s what we need to remember.
Friends, right now, frankly, our world has a lot of chaos in it and a lot of confusion and it can all start to feel pretty overwhelming. As a church, it’s important for us to reach out and help people see the presence of Jesus in their lives when life starts to get choppy or chaotic or even frightening. This fall, Trinity will be launching a new outreach opportunity called Trinity Fusion. It will involve bible stories and stories about our lives and how our lives connect to those sacred stories of scripture. It will involve food and fellowship and building relationships with Christ and with one another. It will involve dialoging together to identity those places in our lives where we might be feeling overwhelmed or uncertain and learning together to see Jesus in the midst of that and to trust him with all of life’s storms and messiness.
Fusion – as the article on the front page of your August newsletter points out (I hope you’ll read it when it arrives) – is an outgrowth of a conference grant process that involved some key community outreach initiatives and monthly community meals here at Trinity. Ruth will talk a little more about those. Fusion has involved a team being trained and equipped to better understand how our culture has changed and how in our current cultural context the church can more effectively reach people with the love of Jesus… how we can reach out, even in the midst of life’s storms. It will meet on the third Monday of each month at 6 p.m. It’ll involve a monthly focus on a biblical story or religious or moral theme. I’ll provide a brief teaching time followed by someone sharing a story or experience from their own life that will connect to that bible theme or topic. Then, there’ll be some brief table talk discussion time followed by a shared meal. That will be followed by opportunities to grow and connect through small groups, support groups, art or spiritual direction, etc. Fusion will be a space to connect, discover and grow that adapts to the changes in how people think about and experience church today. Hard data and research reveal that traditional worship – or even what we might consider a contemporary service – is no longer the primary entry into church. Let me repeat that. Worship – in the format we conceive (whether that involves hymns or praise choruses; pastoral prayers or popcorn prayer) – is no longer the primary path for new people to enter the church. Our congregation’s vision won’t be effective by adhering to a 1970’s format in 2018. Today, spiritual growth is happening organically through spiritual friendships and authentic conversation and dialogue. Fusion will begin as a once a month gathering and, hopefully, evolve over time to a weekly opportunity. But, at least in the early stages, we’re going to need some support and help from you as Fusion fulfills Trinity’s vision – our vision – of growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. This morning, as new members join our church, you’ll reaffirm your own vows… one of which is the promise to support this church with your witness. Fusion is about witnessing to the love and grace of Jesus. Your help and involvement with Fusion is a living out, a fulfilling, of your promise to God to be a witness.
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