Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” 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?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
My inbox is full of emails with articles and links to webinars about how I should be doing my job these days. Every person who calls themselves a church expert has advice for pastors during this time. I try to listen to as much as I can. I like to learn and I want to do my best to meet your worship needs. But sometimes it all gets to be too much, especially when I start comparing myself to what others are doing. Someone sent me a link of a pastor delivering his whole sermon while biking through Edinburgh. Other pastors I know include a dance break at the end of the sermon. Neither of those images of me are really conducive to worship. Another pastor online said her worship numbers were increasing every week and she thinks it’s because she is now including a cooking segment. I guess I could share my cooking with you, but I think most of you already know how to add pasta to boiling water. Experts say I should involve all the senses, including touch, so I thought about my theme right now, Unraveled, and I thought maybe I should crochet while I preach, so I could be making and unraveling. But I crochet really slowly and evidently I hold my hook all wrong. I once had a complete stranger in an airport take my crocheting out of my hands without asking because she just had to show me I was doing it wrong. I think the best advice I’ve seen for pastors is to stop comparing yourself to others, be yourself, and do what you do best. I think what I do best is talk, connect the scriptures to real life, and be authentic. So I’m afraid you will not be given a cooking lesson this morning, although you are free to dance whenever the spirit moves!
As you heard, our scripture for today is about Peter, who is arguably one of the most interesting disciples. Peter is brash, impetuous, quick to speak and act, but not always able to live up to his bravado. When Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the one who answers, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” When Jesus goes to wash the disciples’ feet, Peter is the one who says, “No, I should be washing yours,” and when Jesus explains why he’s doing it, Peter does a 180 and says, “Then not just my feet, but my head and hands also.” Peter is also the one who promised he would never betray Jesus—and denied him just a few hours later.
In today’s passage we have Peter at his impetuous best. Let’s look at the scene. Jesus has just fed 5000 men plus women and children from just five loaves of bread and two fish. Then he tells the disciples to get into the boat and head to the other side while he stays to disperse the crowd. “Tells the disciples to get into the boat” is a little bit of an understatement. The proper translation is that he compels them, forces them to get into the boat and leave. So they head out into the sea, and no sooner are they out there then a storm comes up. Now some of the disciples were fishermen and were well acquainted with how bad storms could get on the Sea of Galilee. I’m not sure if that information helped them stay calmer than the non-fishermen, or if such knowledge made it worse. But either way, the storm was bad enough that they were being battered by the waves throughout the dark night. In the early morning hours, sometime between 3 and 6 a.m., Jesus comes walking out to them. And of course they freak out! What else would they do, seeing Jesus actually walking on the water, walking out to them in the middle of the sea.
Yes, they were terrified because nobody can walk on water so it must be a ghost. But also at issue is what water represented to them as Jews. Many scholars and translators say that the correct way to translate the beginning of the creation story in Genesis 1 is not that God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void. They say the correct understanding is that when God began to create, there was already formless void. It was chaos, and what God did was to create order out of the chaos, to make space for order. Genesis 1 says that God separated the waters above from the waters below. The sky was a dome that held back the waters above, and the dome had holes in it that let through the rain. And the earth was a plate on pillars, and the rivers came up through holes in the ground. So God separate the waters above from the waters below, creating space within the chaos for life.
The waters represent the chaos which threatens to break through into the order of God’s creation. So the sea was many things to Jesus’ audience. It was a source of life and food, and it was a place of danger and even death because of frequent storms, AND its mysteries represented the chaos that threatens to break in upon us at any time. So in our story, when Jesus came walking out to them, he wasn’t only walking on the water. Jesus was coming to them in their chaos, walking on top of chaos.
Can you feel this story? Can you feel the spray on your face as the waves crash against the boat? Can you feel the motion sickness? Can you feel the fear as this figure comes walking out to you when you’re in a place nobody can walk? Can you feel this story in your heart, in your bones? We’re in a time of chaos, and we are surrounded by it, above and below and all around. And Jesus comes to us—not above and beyond the chaos, not outside the chaos, but right in the middle of the chaos with us—and says to us “Take heart! It is I!” Or the literal translation: “Take heart! I am!” We can take heart because God is.
If the story ended right here, it would be powerful enough. But instead we have Peter saying, “Lord, if it’s you (or possibly since it’s you), command me to come to you on the water.” What in the world would possess him to do such a thing? Had anything in his life prepared him for walking on water? Had Jesus ever said anything to imply that he would bestow this ability? And exactly what are his fellow disciples thinking in response? What is wrong with you, Peter? Sit down and close your mouth for once, or just help Jesus climb into the boat because maybe Jesus will calm this storm like the one he calmed six chapters ago. Why in the world would you get out of the boat?
But maybe Peter was looking at his fellow disciples thinking, “Guys, you’re missing out! This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience! You get to be close to Jesus. And he said ‘Come!’ Why in the world would you stay in the boat?”
I wonder which you are. Are you a wave-walker or a boat-stayer? Neither one is “right.” It’s just a different way of being. Peter wasn’t loved more by Jesus because he was audacious, and the others weren’t loved more by Jesus because they were cautious. We respond to chaos in different ways.
Many times in the last few weeks I have heard it said, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.” This is definitely true from a justice perspective in terms of privilege. A priest in Missouri put it this way: “For some, the boat with which we ride through this storm is like a yacht; for some a fishing boat; and some feel like they’re going through a series of class-five rapids hanging on for dear life to an overturned canoe. We are NOT in the same boat and we need to say that out loud.
Some are excited about binge-watching their favorite shows on Netflix, while others are working two jobs AND trying to home school their kids.
Some don’t think all of this is that big of a deal. Others have already buried loved ones or . . . are fighting for their lives.
Some are angry; some are bored; some are terrified, and some are trapped inside with someone who is abusive.
There are folks without work but who still have lots of money in their retirement savings; and others who are worried about having enough food for their family even for this weekend.
It is a storm like most of us have never seen, and it affects us all. But we are not in the same boat as we face it.”
This is very true, and something we need to keep in mind especially if our boat is safe and dry. We need to remember to lend a hand, or a paddle. And we need to be gracious when people are not showing the best of who they are. We respond to chaos differently, and we respond differently on different dates. We are individuals and comparing ourselves to others isn’t helpful. As a preacher, I don’t have to be a great cyclist or a great chef. I can just be me—a talking head who admits that sometimes I am brave and strong and can step out in faith, and other times I’m hanging over the side of the boat getting sick.
To all of us God says, “Take heart! It is I!” Or better yet, “Take heart! I am!” And because God IS, I know that I am not alone in the storm. Still, it can be hard to have faith.
Jan Richardson, one of my favorite spiritual poets, wrote these words eight months after her husband died.
“I can tell you that I know what it means to be borne up when the waters overwhelm. I know the grace of hands that reach out to carry and console and give courage. I am learning—again, anew—what faith is, how this word that we sometimes toss around so casually holds depths within depths that will draw us beyond nearly everything we once believed.
This is some of what I know right now about faith: That faith is not something I can summon by a sheer act of will. That it lives and breathes in the community that encompasses us. That I cannot force faith but can ask for it, can pray that it will make its way to me and bear me up over the next wave, and the next. That it comes. That I can lean into it. That it will propel me not only toward the Christ who calls me, but also back toward the boat that holds my life, incomprehensible in both its pain and its grace.
What are you knowing about faith right now? Where is it bearing you?”
There may be chaos all around us. There may be chaos within us. But there is peace all around us, too.