(A sermon for Proper 14A August 14, 2011 Matthew 14:22-33)
Some of you laughed at the idea that I would leave Maine to take a beach vacation, but for me, going to the Jersey shore brought back childhood vacations at Virginia Beach and Nags Head, North Carolina, in climates where – forgive me – it’s warm enough to actually swim in the water. This is funny, really, because as a youngster, I always went in; no matter how early in the season, no matter how rough or cold the water, those Spong children, Martha and Tommy, were in the waves. I had no idea what cold meant until my first summer in Maine! And for my Maine-born daughter, Lucy, this was an entirely new thing. Oh, she’s been to Crescent Beach and Pine Point. She may have dabbled her toes in the ocean or gone in to her shins to cool off on a hot day. But this was her first opportunity to plunge into the water and let it wash over her.
Not that she did it readily.
It’s been a long time since I confronted a wave above about knee-high. Oh, I went out into the ocean on the first day of vacation, and I enjoyed bobbing over the waves when they were none-too-fierce. But when it came time to teach Lucy how to manage herself in the water, I turned her over to my more athletic friend, Kathryn, who has annual beach experience. Kathryn got her going over the waves and sometimes under them, while I looked on…from a beach chair.
And after they had been, for a time, bobbing up and down on those waves, Kathryn presented Lucy with a boogie board.
And I continued to watch, from that safe distance.
I’m sure it didn’t seem very safe in the boat at dawn after a stormy night. I watched my child from the comfort of a beach chair, caressed by an ocean breeze. They spent the night clinging to the sides of a boat battered by the waves and lashed by the wind. And as morning came, the storm still not settled, they saw something unimaginable. Jesus was walking to them, across the water. No wonder they thought he was a ghost!
“Take heart,” Jesus said. “It is I; do not be afraid.”
No worries, my friends, you know me.
But they didn’t believe him.
Fortunately for the disciples, they had Peter among them. It was Peter who called out, saying, “If it’s really you, Lord, call me to come out there to you!” That was a great way to test whatever was on the water, right? Come and get me, I’m ready! If you’re a ghost, I’ll slobber-knocker you!
Yes, it was a great idea, except that it was actually Jesus, and he simply said, “Come on, then.”
Now what I love about this story is that Peter actually walks on the water. He gets out there and goes! He is walking on the water right until he notices the wind is still blowing, and then he falters. “Save me, Lord!! Save me!”
Lucy made a courageous first attempt on that boogie board, riding the wave in, lifting her head above the surf and balancing naturally. Then she stood up to talk to her coach, and the next wave ran her over. Slobber-knockered. Just like Peter.
And we know from the story that Jesus put a hand out for him, but I want us to pause a moment in the midst of being roiled by the wave or unbalanced by the wind. Let’s wait right there and survey the scene, as if we were sitting in the boat ourselves. It was easy for me to sit in the beach chair and trust that even if Lucy should happen to be slobber-knockered by a wave, she had a trusted person right there to get her upright and encourage her to try again.
It was not so easy for the disciples to believe what they saw on the water was really a man, and actually Jesus.
And so amid the sound effects of wind and wave and storm, I imagine more cries of fear in that crucial moment. Oh, what is going to happen to Peter?!?!!! My, why did he ever get out of the boat?!?!!! Whoa, is he really going to sink into the lake?!?!!!
Their fear shakes the boat harder than the storm could.
When we’re sitting on the sidelines, watching someone else take a risk, we don’t always do it with the calm I felt about Lucy’s adventures in the ocean.
- We might ask, “What’s going to happen to me?” If this person I know answers a call to do something that pushes the boundaries, maybe it will come back on me somehow! Maybe I’ll be the next one trying to stand up on water, the next one sinking down, the next one in trouble.
- Or we might assure ourselves, “That could *never* happen to me!” Why, I’m far too sensible to step out of the boat onto water. That makes no sense! Only a fool would do something like that.
- Or we might realize that it really is Jesus calling, and say, “I want to get out there, too!” If that’s what it takes to follow him, step aside and let me get out of the boat!
In case you’re wondering where I came down on the question of risk-taking, after a hiatus of almost thirty years, I body-surfed. And Sisters and Brothers, I got slobber-knockered.
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:29b-31, NRSV)
It’s a phrase we hear used chidingly, “you of little faith.” But I want to suggest another tone today. The gospels suggest a special relationship between Jesus and Peter, great trust and absolute forthrightness. So I hear this fondly, somehow. Because for Pete’s – er, Peter’s – sake, he got out of the boat! Peter got out of the boat, which must have seemed absolutely ridiculous if not maniacal, and he got slobber-knockered by the wind, and he took Jesus’ hand and got back in the boat, all in one piece. It would have been easier if he had trusted, certainly. Maybe they would have walked back to shore together, arm-in-arm. That’s what he missed, maybe, “oh, he of little faith.”
Instead they got back in the boat, and all the disciples worshipped Jesus.
And I imagine Peter tried to get the breath back in his body.
Now, after a major slobber-knockering, you’re a mess. You have sand in your hair and other places we won’t discuss. You may have scraped your knees on the floor of the ocean. You wonder if that salt water you swallowed will actually make you sick.
Life will do this to us. And being faithful will do this to us. We will step out and be knocked down. We will step out and be bowled over. We will step out and lose track of which way is up.
But take heart. Do not be afraid.
It’s Jesus who will get our feet back under us, because he’s the one who called us to take the risk in the first place. How else would we ever learn anything new? How else would we become fully the people God wants us to be? How else will we, together, be the church God needs in this time and place?
May we, with Peter, take a chance on getting slobber-knockered. Amen.
(In case you’re wondering whether I’m planning to use this gospel lesson every week forever, I had originally intended to use last week’s drama in my church this week, but the readers I wanted to use are on vacation. Thus, this new creation, since I gave this week’s lections to last week’s preacher!)