Sermon for September 1, 2019
Texts: Romans 9:1-5/Matthew 14:22-33
Title: “Grace and Gravity”
This morning’s lesson takes up just after one of Jesus’ most impressive miracles, the converting of five loaves and two fish into a meal that fed a gathering of five thousand people. After doing so Matthew tells us that Jesus, undoubtedly in need of some down time, “went up the mountain by himself to pray,” but not before, Matthew tells us, “he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the [opposite] side [of the lake from where they were].”
Not long into their passage a sudden storm descended on them. Bucking a headwind, the boat was making little progress toward its destination. Matthew doesn’t number the occupants of the boat, Peter being the only disciple identified.
An experienced seaman, Peter was undoubtedly accustomed to the sudden onset of foul weather. Presumably he was not the only disciple in the boat who might have been accustomed to the sea’s whims, after all, as many as one half of Jesus’ disciples made their living from the sea.
Having lived near the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water I have witnessed the devastating potential of storms. There is no way I would want to be on the water at such a time, particularly during the hours of darkness when Matthew reports the disciples were traveling.
It was the middle of the night and the boat was being battered by the wind. Picture the scene, utter darkness, wind, and to complete the threatening trifecta, a ghost appeared, or at least that was the disciples thought.
The mind is capable of conjuring up all sorts of images when under stress. But wait just a minute, this “ghost” had a voice and was speaking to them. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” It was Jesus.
I’ll tell you what, Jesus, or no Jesus, I’m still hanging on to the side of the boat. Peter, who built his reputation on impetuous, if not rash actions, was not so reserved. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” We are given no clue as to what prompted that impulsive request.
Now things looked promising at first, but then the wind and waves reminded Peter that he was performing a feat he wasn’t created to perform.
Gravity would only be mocked for so long before he began to sink, and Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”
There is a moral to this story. If Jesus ever invites you out of the boat, be prepared to deal with the wind. If you can’t do that you better stay in the boat.
It is no small achievement to deal with the wind. I have spent a good bit of time fighting the wind on a bicycle. I can assure you that even a modest headwind can turn enjoyment into drudgery. Speed decreases as heart rate increases giving the rider the sensation that the pavement is secreting glue. Fact of the matter is, however, that it is through those repeated encounters with the wind that a rider achieves greater endurance, and reaches levels of fitness unattainable, if that rider rode exclusively in favorable conditions.
What lessons Peter’s encounter with the wind taught we are not given to know, but you better believe that his experience on the water gave him insight into himself as both a man and as a disciple of Jesus that was denied those who remained in the boat.
There is a special place in God’s heart for those who get out of the boat, for people who are willing to risk. As short lived as Peter’s performance on the water might have been, you better believe that Jesus loved him for it. Peter failed this time, but so what? Jesus certainly knows what it takes to buck the wind.
How we deal with the winds of life often determines the satisfaction we derive from living. No person is privileged to live a life where wind, in some guise or another, doesn’t make an appearance. We may erect all the buffers we want. We might be ultra prudent and thoughtful in establishing a master plan for our lives. We might earn our diploma with honors, land a great job, find the perfect mate, and become a pillar of the community, but the winds of life will find us. The wind will find us, it always does.
The wind found Peter. We have learned to regard him as first among equals, Jesus’ chief of staff. He wasn’t a perfect human being, none of us is. Scripture, however, reveals Peter to be as good and upstanding person as any of us are likely to become. Let the record show that the wind humbled Peter out there on the Sea of Galilee, an episode to be repeated, of course, on that fateful night when Jesus was arrested. Not just once, but Peter denied the Lord on three separate occasions in the space of an hour or two.
The wind found Peter. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Witnessing Peter’s distress on the sea and the his rescue each of the occupants of the boat undoubtedly saw his education take a full stride forward in matters pertaining to faith and doubt. But you better believe that Peter, Peter, gasping to catch his breath as Jesus helped him get back in the boat, was forced to acknowledge personal weaknesses of which he was previously unaware.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” How often those words must have replayed in Peter’s mind over the course of his lifetime. No, Peter could not ignore his personal failings, but to his credit he learned from them. God helped Peter use his past to build a stronger and more resilient faith.
The wind found Peter. The wind also taught Peter.
Her name is Dawn, a resident of Springfield, Illinois. Experiencing what she regarded as a midlife crisis, though at age thirty-five many us of might want to set the qualifying age for a such a crisis at least a decade older, [experiencing that midlife crisis] Dawn decided that it was time to step out of her comfort zone and experience the wind by stepping out onto unfamiliar ground.
Experiencing the wind in her case meant accepting a friend’s challenge to run a marathon. Running a marathon was nothing she had ever conceived of doing. She was a runner, but a runner of the two to three mile variety. Something in her friends challenge, however, prompted her to push her limits.
She met formidable resistance, physically, but also mentally. Was a marathon really something she wanted to do? The question scrolled through her mind as she extended her mileage week by week. Nagged by self-doubt, her doubts were confirmed when excessive training forced her body to temporarily shut down.
There were many off ramps that Dawn might have taken to avoid the punishment that training levied, but she soldiered through to the day that she took place on the start line.
You will not find her name in the marathon record books, but there is a medal she proudly displays signifying that she is a marathon finisher.
To run the 26.2 miles course is not a feat comparable to that of Daniel who stared down a pack of hungry lions in the lion’s den, but who is to say that the feat Dawn accomplished is not a victory worthy of the warrior of this modern age?
The wind finds us all. But if we asked Dawn she would likely tell us that there are times when we do well to find the wind, to go out and risk doing something that tests our limits.
Elton Trueblood one of a past generation’s most thoughtful teachers and lecturers on the Christian faith once said that “the unexamined faith isn’t worth having.” The unexamined faith is a faith that has never ventured into the wind, a faith that to quote a Christian contemporary of Trueblood’s is less a reality than an “inference.” An inference is a conjecture or an assumption, it has no mass or substance that one might grasp and hold on to.
Having never been a parent, I can make inferences about what parenting might be like by watching others, and hearing their stories, but my notion of parenting will never become the up all hours of the night, change the diapers reality the new parent experiences.
The inferences, assumptions, and conjectures we often make in life can, but rarely do, negatively impact us. Such is not the case when our religious faith exists merely as an inference, assumption or a conjecture. Those who have never attempted to step out of the boat into the wind deprive themselves of self-knowledge. They will never really know what is contained in that “faith” compartment of their lives. What they know of faith has come to them second hand, not through personal encounter.
At a church I formally served one of our members used a prop, her mystery box, when she did a children’s sermon. She invariably took the box in her hands, gave it a good shake or two, and asked the children to guess what was in there. Many of us carry our own mystery box around with us, a mystery box filled with inferences, conjectures, and assumptions concerning our personal faith. Now what that box needs is a really good shake, enough motion to generate a strong circulating wind. It is through such means that we acquire self-knowledge.
Peter carried his mystery box labeled faith with him onto the sea, and the wind proceeded to give it a good shake. Through that experience he learned an important lesson, an essential lesson, he learned that there was very little in that box that could help him withstand the gravity of the sea. The faith he could claim as his own expired when felt the strong wind. He began to sink.
Impetuous Peter was done in by the wind, and he was going down. But what Peter didn’t realize was that there is a special place in God’s heart for those who get out of the boat, for people who are willing to risk. It was because he was willing to risk that he would experience the powerful arm of grace to save him, yes, save him not despite his doubt, but because of his doubt. Peter doubted, and Jesus was there to save him. Jesus proved to Peter and his companions disciples in the boat that neither the gravity of doubt, nor the gravitational pull of the earth itself, are a match for the grace he is ready to impart.
To step into the wind is always challenging. Dawn looked upon the marathon as a mountain to be scaled. What must have been going through Peter’s mind when he lifted his legs over the side of the boat? It is challenging to be vulnerable and defenseless, to expose ourselves, doubts and all, before God. Better to stay in the boat and hold on rather than see those pet inferences on faith, our assumptions and conjectures of ours challenged.
A strong and resilient faith emerges, not through humble acceptance of what others believe, or what the church believes, but through the kind of risk taking that Peter did. It is through stepping into the wind and forcing God to answer for himself that our faith is won.
“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why not challenge God to explain himself, why not doubt, if through those means God is forced to declare himself? For every challenge for every doubt we can mount to God’s existence and sovereignty, God can offer a plentitude of grace to meet those challenges, and to expose those doubts. Risk the wind, there is no telling where it might take you. AMEN
O God, in whose presence each hour of our lives is lived, we gather as children of Abraham through whom you founded a nation, Israel, and through that nation gave the world your Son, Jesus, who is both our Savior and our brother.
Our names inscribed on a roll of the baptized, we hold membership in one church universal over which Jesus reigns as founder and head.
O Christ, our brother, who prays with us and for us, grant us courage that we might face the winds of life with resilience and courage. Prone to neglect our formation in the faith, the prayer, the study, and the service to neighbor and world through which the faith is nurtured and strengthened, we exist as plants with undeveloped roots. Form in us, O Christ, the daily habits through which a root system is established. Where the ground is hard and unreceptive to growth, there be, O Christ, with a special measure of grace to nurture it to abundant life.
Lord, we pray for children who have no chance to develop their special gifts, throw away children in the eyes of the people by whom they were conceived, children to be fondled as toys until the newness wears off, children who will receive no moral grounding, children who, being abused, will turn to abuse as a means of self-expression. We pray for children whom violence will mold and shape, violence that will ultimately see its offspring killed.
O God, have mercy on us for tolerating the intolerable, for our failures as citizens to insist that all people have access to affordable medical care, for tolerating a system where money is exchanged for favoritism, for tolerating policies that are destroying habitat for our nation’s wildlife. Have mercy on us for our waste of the land’s irreplaceable resources. Grant us wisdom, O God, wisdom to think right, live right, and do right.
To you, O God, we lift our prayers in gratitude for your grace that upholds us amid all the winds of life, even as we pray for those with special needs. We pray for…