Matthew 14:22-33, Proper 14A, Sermons


(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!)

Genesis 37:1-, Matthew 14:22-33, Proper 14A

Stepping Out

(A worship drama for Proper 14A   August 7, 2011 Genesis 37:1-4; Matthew 14:22-33. This was written for kathrynzj’s congregation, and it was a privilege to present it in their worship service this morning. The bulletin cover included a quote from this post by St. Casserole.)

Joseph: This is the story of the family of Jacob, living as aliens in the land of Canaan.

Narrator: Joseph, being seventeen years old, was caring for the flocks with his brothers.

Joseph: I was so young then. My father loved me, more than all the others. He gave me gifts and they hated me for it. He trusted my judgment, and that made it even worse. I had a way of looking at a situation and understanding what it meant. I told my father what I saw. What else could I do?

Peter: This is the story of the apostle, Peter, a fisher of people.

Narrator: Peter, being a follower of Jesus, got into the boat when Jesus said so.

Peter: I got into the boat when he told me, just the way I left my nets the day I met him. You can’t imagine what it was like to talk to him. I never understood why everybody didn’t love him. When he called, I followed. What else could I do?

Martha: This is the story of Martha, a minister from Maine.

Narrator: Martha, being a servant of God, was following the news about Hurricane Katrina and praying.

Martha: I watched and wondered how I could help. Unlike some people I know, even other pastors, I’m not good at plumbing or wiring or carpentry or even demolishing things. But I knew I had to go. What else could I do?

Joseph, Peter and Martha: What else could we do?

Narrator: Let’s see about that. To begin with, the trouble with Joseph was a coat.

Joseph: It was a robe. It was long. And it had sleeves. I know you think it had many colors, fine purples and reds and blues and greens, a sort of rainbow cloak. But really, I promise you. It was just a long robe with sleeves.

Narrator: I don’t think your brothers cared about what color it was.

Joseph: No. They only cared that it was a sign of my father’s favor.

Narrator: *Your* father’s favor?

Joseph: (grudgingly) *Our* father’s favor.

Narrator: You realize that may have been part of the problem. (to the congregation) But that didn’t stop God from making good use of Joseph and his gift for seeing things clearly.  Now, the trouble with Peter? Was his mouth.

Peter: It’s true. I talk a lot. (Proudly) I’m a good storyteller. People like to listen to me. I can hold the attention of a crowd. But most everything I think comes right out of my mouth, which sometimes gets me into trouble

Narrator: And do you always think first?

Peter: No. Sometimes I just…speak.

Narrator: And you don’t always think before you act.  (to the congregation) But don’t think a little thing like that could stop God from making use of Peter and his gift for telling the story. And…the trouble with Martha was her worry.

Martha: I didn’t think we were going to talk about that.

Narrator: (gives Martha a meaningful look)

Martha: Okay. It’s true. I have highly developed skills in that area. For every good idea I have, I can think of a million possible reasons things could go wrong.

Narrator: Which sometimes stops you from doing those things?

Martha: I’m afraid so. I especially worry about upsetting the people I love, or letting them down. And I worry even more about letting God down. It can be paralyzing.

Narrator: I could recommend a number of possible solutions.

Martha: Now that worries me.

Narrator: I’m not surprised. (to the congregation) But all that worrying could not possibly stop God from making use of Martha and her will to love.  Now Joseph found himself in a predicament brought on by the bad feelings his brothers had for him.

Joseph: It’s a complicated family.

Narrator: That’s putting it mildly.  Joseph’s father, Jacob, had many children with his two wives and his two concubines. To make it worse, his wives were sisters, and the concubines were his wives’ maids, and they all lived together in tents, moving around to graze their flocks.

Martha: So that’s a Biblical marriage?

Narrator: That is not our subject for today.

Joseph: It’s how we lived. We didn’t know any other way. My father worked seven years to marry my mother, but her father switched brides on him. I guess it made sense to him to stay another seven years to get the wife he wanted. Meanwhile, my Aunt Leah couldn’t stop competing for my father’s attention.

Narrator: And your mother, Rachel?

Joseph: Yes, she did it, too.

Narrator: All of this created a climate of tension, and the brothers, all the other brothers, focused their frustration on the beloved little brother, Joseph, with his swanky coat of many colors.

Joseph: I’ve told you. It was a long robe with sleeves.

Narrator: Either way, they were jealous. And they had the fine idea to make your father think you were dead. Only trouble was they either had to kill you or make you disappear.

Joseph: When they threw me down into the pit, I realized I could have avoided trouble if only I had kept my mouth closed.

Narrator: You’re not the only one here who likes to talk.

Peter: I’ve just been standing here quietly, listening!

Narrator: But that’s not your usual approach.

Peter: No. You’re right. It really isn’t. I speak up.

Narrator: You’re impulsive.

Peter: My heart responds. It moves me, and the next thing I know I’m getting out of the boat, leaving my nets behind. I’m walking away from the water that is my livelihood, and I’m on a dusty road with him, just because he said the words, “Follow me.” I didn’t hesitate.

Narrator: As I said, impulsive.

Martha: No, I admire that! It’s brave.

Peter: Thank you. I followed him, and I learned from him. We were close. I told him whatever I thought. And sometimes I said things I wished I could take back. (slight pause) Lots of times.

Narrator: Like that night in the boat?

Peter: It was one of the hardest days we ever had with him, at least before the end. He had just heard John the Baptist was dead, killed by King Herod. He went out in the boat, to get some peace.

Narrator: Jesus needed a break.

Peter: But he didn’t get one. There were many people looking for him, and he came back to the shore and healed them and talked with them. And then he found a way to feed thousands of them with just five loaves and two fishes. After they ate, he sent us out in the boat, to cross to the other side, and while we were crossing, a storm blew up around us. It stormed all night, and just as morning was breaking, we saw him coming, walking on the water.

Joseph: And did you really think it might be a ghost?

Peter: I wish I didn’t have to answer that.

Martha: That’s what it says in the Bible.

Peter: I don’t know if you should take it so literally. We were scared. And we didn’t know who or what it was. Even after he spoke, I cried, “Prove who you are! Ask me to come out to you!” And then he did. And I wondered why I had ever opened my mouth.

Narrator: There’s someone else here who leapt before she looked, I think.

Martha: Oh. That’s me. It all started with a blogger who called herself St. Casserole. She wrote about life as a Presbyterian pastor on the Gulf Coast. Even though I didn’t know exactly where she lived, I knew Hurricane Katrina was threatening her home. After the storm I looked for her updates every day, and just because I knew her, I wanted to go and help.

Narrator: You didn’t exactly know her.

Martha: It’s hard to explain how you can love someone and feel you know them before you’ve even met in person, but it felt that way to me. One day she wrote about how her colleagues needed pastors to come and preach, to give them some time and space to recover. And I knew I could do that.

Narrator: Until the moment you didn’t.

Martha: Exactly. I emailed her right away, and the next thing I knew I had plane tickets and plans for a ten day trip. And then it crossed my mind that I had no idea what to say to people who had been through a disaster. How could I preach the Good News to them?

Joseph: Sometimes we’re called to do the hard things.

Narrator: Amen.

Joseph: Sitting in that pit, waiting to see what my brothers would do, wondering if I would survive that day and go home, or die right there, I never dreamed what the rest of my life would be like. They sold me as a slave, my own brothers. In fetters and an iron collar, I went to Egypt, a slave of no importance. It was no dream to interpret; it was a nightmare.

Narrator: But when your family came for help in a famine, you were there to give it.

Peter: Sometimes our impulses are wrong.

Narrator: Tell us, Peter.

Peter: On another night, as sad as it was dark, I followed the impulse to protect myself, and the words that came out of my mouth were lies. I denied knowing my friend. I denied knowing my Lord. I had given up my life to follow him, but that was just a job and the place I slept at night and the people I knew. When I thought I might lose my life, when I thought I might die, I was afraid.

Narrator: It was just that one night. You did better later.

Martha: Sometimes we can follow, even when we’re scared.

Narrator: That’s right.

Martha: I remember sitting at my computer, trying to write those sermons for Mississippi. The scriptures were awful! God is in the storm, they said, whipping trees out of the ground, ruling over the mighty waters. I would have given anything to back out. But as I read the verses over and over, I knew something truer than my fretting: if the Spirit was driving me to Mississippi, the Spirit would provide the words.

Narrator: And the Spirit did.

Peter: Take heart, Jesus said. Take heart, it is I.

Joseph: Take heart, said the Lord, and the hand that pulled me out of the pit wasn’t really the slaver’s hand at all.

Martha: Take heart, the Spirit whispered, as I looked past the security gates and saw my new old friend, both our faces beaming with love.

Peter: Take heart, he said, and then he said, “Come.” And I walked out onto the water – I stepped out of the boat to go to Jesus. I stepped out, because I couldn’t help doing it, and even though I faltered, we got back into the boat together.

Narrator: And those in the boat worshipped him.

Joseph: They worshipped God, the ones who sold their own brother into slavery, the ones who found him again in a foreign land and also found forgiveness.

Martha: They worshipped God, to my utter amazement, the same people whose world had been swept away by wind and water.

Peter: They worshipped God, those who had left behind their own boats and their nets, their homes and their families, for a crazy night in a terrible storm.

Narrator: Take heart, it is I, he said. Step out, and come to me. Wherever you find yourself, you will not be alone. Step out and take God’s hand.

(After the drama ended there was a significant pause, after which the Narrator — one of the pastors at kathrynzj’s church — called for the congregation to rise and affirm their faith with the Apostle’s creed. For this non-creedal Congregational UCC person, it was a powerful moment.)