By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
August 10, 2008
Read: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-23
The attention grabber in our gospel story today is Jesus saying yes to Peter’s bid to walk on the water with him. You have to love Peter. Then Peter steps out of the boat and onto the water. Now, remember, there’s a storm going on. The wind is still whipping. The lightning is still flashing. The sea is still churning. And here’s Peter stepping out of the boat. The rest of the disciples must have thought that he had completely lost his mind. But in that moment, Peter becomes a model for courage.
The rest of the disciples are still back in the boat, filled with fear. They certainly don’t like where they are. It isn’t a very safe place to be. But they prefer it to heading out onto the water. They are not willing to trade in the certainty of the danger that they are used to for the uncertainty of something else that may prove to be even more dangerous. But Peter steps out into the unknown because Jesus calls him to.
There is a lesson in this for us. We, also, would like to stay huddled down in our places of relative safety. We, also, are fearful of what might happen to us if we go beyond what we know, if we step out of the relatively safe little zones that we have created around ourselves. We may not exactly like where we are, but it still seems better than the alternative.
And, we call this “common sense.” And, absolutely…no doubt, this story is not about taking stupid chances merely for the sake of adventure. But the story illustrates that there are times when Christ comes to us in the midst of tempests and tribulations. And there are times that Christ calls us to take what we see as risks; to step out of the boat as Peter did; to act decisively on the faith we claim to have. And when that happens, we must be ready to recognize God’s presence in the storm. We must be ready to respond to the call of Christ, regardless of the risk. We must be ready to put aside our fear and live by faith.
That is what Peter does, at least for one brief shining moment. But then the fear returns. Peter looks out at wind raging around him. He looks down at the waves swelling under his feet. He probably realizes exactly what he has done and, very understandably, he became frightened. That fear then leaves him vulnerable once again to the storm. It draws him down into the water. What had seemed like the right thing to do a moment earlier suddenly seems instead like a colossally stupid thing to do. And he begins to sink.
Peter is fine until he notices the wind; then he is afraid and sinks. It is not the chaotic power of wind and wave (principalities and powers) that present the danger, but only the fear of them. Jesus’ compassionate action is to catch Peter but not to eliminate the danger by stilling the wind. It seem that we cannot wait for circumstances to be ideal before we step out; it is sufficient to know that Jesus is present and in control of the chaos even if the chaos is allowed, for a time, to rage. Only after the danger is over and everyone is in the boat does the storm stop. The wind grows still. The water turns calm. The danger has passed.
In a sense, Peter has failed. He has taken the first few courageous steps, but then all of the old fears have overtaken him. What begins as an act of courage and bravery ends in terror and embarrassment. But still Jesus acts to save him.
I think a lot of us are like Peter. There are times that we muster up the courage to step out of our usual surroundings and confront our fears. We take a few steps and then panic when things don’t seem to be going quite like we had hoped or planned. But the good news is that God is there to rescue us when we fail. If we have been faithful to God’s call, God will see to it that we are taken care of.
That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily be successful in all that we do. Peter himself couldn’t complete the walk on water that he began. If we are taking risks, even if they are risks that God has called us to take, it is almost inevitable that we will fail from time to time. We are, after all, still human. But God is with us in our failures. God may be disappointed with us, just as we often disappoint ourselves. But God will still love and care for us regardless of whether we sink or swim in our efforts. As long as we learn from our mistakes, and as long as we are faithful to God’s call in taking risks, then there is nothing shameful about failure.
Sometimes failure isn’t really failure after all. Remember that Peter had his eyes, his focus, on Jesus when he stepped out of the boat onto the water. He was fine until he noticed the wind. When he noticed the wind he thought about all those things that could go wrong, instead of focusing on the amazing, new, creative, different experience he was having.
There is an internet story about a farmer and his old mule. The mule has apparently outlived his usefulness, but it was too expensive to have him put down. So the farmer digs a big hole in the ground, throws the donkey in and proceeds to bury the donkey alive. From the donkey’s perspective, however, the story changes. His master digs a big hole and throws him in. He isn’t sure why, but there is no way out of this pit he’s in. Then some dirt falls on him. He shakes off the dirt and steps on up. More dirt comes down. He shakes it off and steps up.
More dirt. More shaking. More stepping. After enough dirt has been thrown into the pit to bury the donkey, the donkey is close enough to the top of the hole to step right on out of the pit.
Yes, we live with many fears. We are afraid of being victims of crime or terrorism. We are afraid of what might happen to us in the future. We are afraid of death. We are afraid of rejection. We are afraid of really being ourselves because if people really knew what we were like then they wouldn’t like us.
But God knows us. God loves us. And God comes to us in the midst of our fears whatever they may be. Our responsibility is to meet God halfway—to step out of the fearful existence in which we so often live and to take risks of faith in response to God’s call. And if and when we fail, we need to learn to graciously accept the loving grace and forgiveness that God offers. He returns us to the boat, where our companions grab us by the scruff of the neck and haul us aboard, where we fall grateful and exhausted onto the slippery deck. All at once the wind ceases, and the waves hush, and in the awesome silence of that night becoming day, all of us who are in this boat together worship him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God”. Amen.
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