Sunday, August 10, 2008

Take Heart!

I had the honor and privilege of leading worship and preaching at North Decatur Presbyterian Church today, and thought I'd post my sermon text. I'd love any comments that readers feel inclined to leave!

"Take heart. Do not be afraid!"

Preached at N. Decatur Presbyterian Church on August 10, 2008

I spent a great deal of time at our neighborhood pool this summer. We’ve always been fortunate enough to have a place to swim in the summers, from the time our boys were tiny until now. And one of my favorite things to watch is the dance that parents do with toddlers as they try to get the comfortable in the water.

Some of them are like Adam, our oldest was. Eager to get in, but cautious. Cautious, but very trusting of Joel or me. He would stand on the edge of the water and we would hold our hands out and he would jump. Just like that. He knew he couldn’t do it alone, but he was confident that we wouldn’t let anything happen to him. He trusted us.

Some of the toddlers that I’ve watched over the years are more like our middle child, Daniel. Daniel is much more of a land creature than a water creature. As a toddler, he was always happier playing around the water, or at most, in the baby pool, than he was in the overwhelming expanse of the big pool.

He needed to feel the pool bottom under his feet while his head was still above water. Daniel was less confident in his own ability to stay afloat, and less trusting that we would keep him from going underwater when we were with him in the “big pool.” His trust in us was, I suspect, overshadowed by his own insecurity in the water.

And then there are those kids who are more like Michael, our youngest. Michael is, I am quite certain, part fish. From the time he could walk, I could not keep him away from the water. The summer before he turned two, he was forever wandering away to the big pool, leaving me frantically chasing after him, abandoning his brothers, then 3 and 5, who were happily playing in the kiddie pool.

We finally had to get one of those bathing suits with the floaties built IN so that I could manage them all around the water by myself on those hot summer days at our neighborhood pool in Greenville, SC. I realized he could swim one summer at the beach when he jumped into the water before we had a chance to get his suit on. Splash…brief moment of parental panic…wait & see.....Hey! He’s doing it!

He was so comfortable in the water that he didn’t even need to trust us. He just reveled in the refreshing freedom of being in the water.

We all have our own different comfort levels with the water, don’t we? It’s an amazing thing. Too much of water can lead to fear, uncertainty, even tragedy. Not enough water can lead to thirst, desperation, even death.

Todays’ text takes us to the water…to the rough water of the Sea of Galilee.

Matthew 14:22-33
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

28Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, " You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

The story of Jesus calming a storm is a familiar gospel story, found in some form in all four gospels. And if you follow the larger denominational news, you are aware that this “boat” analogy has been used several times over the past few years as various people attempt to speak to those of us in the pews.

Former moderator Rick Ufford-Chase told us, in 2004: "We are invited to get in the (water) with Jesus, like those disciples.” He continued by adding, "I want to be part of a church that says 'Yes' and gets into that (water) with Jesus."

In a recent open letter to congregations after the actions of the 218th General Assembly, stated clerk Gradye Parsons told us: “Get into the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die."

For many, the story IS a familiar one. Perhaps even a bit overused. But Jesus calming a storm is in all four of the gospels in some form, so there must be something to it!

Three of the versions of this story—John’s, Mark’s, and here in Matthew-- acknowledge the power of Jesus to transcend the physical by walking on the water. And all four gospels tell of Jesus’ ability to direct the forces of nature by calming the storm. Likewise, all four storm accounts place Jesus in the water with his disciples, reminding us that Christ, the ultimate storm-calmer, is indeed in our midst—in the water with US.

But the account of Peter stepping out into the water found in today’s narrative is characteristic only of Matthew. So that’s what I was drawn to look at today. What is it that we can glean from Matthew’s version of this story for our lives in this time and place?

Peter and the disciples find themselves adrift in a boat, amidst rough waters.
It is nighttime.
There are waves crashing around them.
They have drifted away from the shore.
They had gotten in the boat as Jesus had commanded them in v. 22, and then he had left them.
Left them alone to go pray, of all things.

The disciples see a figure walking toward them, seemingly on the water. Jesus senses their fear and says to them, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Now, Peter, uncertain that the ghost-like figure walking toward them on the water is, in fact, Jesus, speaks up: “Lord, IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

IF it is you. IF. If suggests disbelief, uncertainty. Peter’s not sure that it’s really Jesus out there. But he’s willing to consider that it might be.

Peter has enough faith to know, at least initially, that if Jesus commands him to, he can walk on water.

Jesus commands him, “Come!” So Peter steps out in faith and begins to walk toward him.

But, like all disciple, Peter got distracted. He got distracted by the rough water around him, and doubt crept in.

As the doubt overcame him, he began to sink. And as sank, he called out in faith to Jesus, who caught him and got into the boat with him.

Now…we know that Peter has been marked as one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter has devoted his life to following Jesus.

Peter got INTO the boat because Jesus told him to. Peter stepped OUT on the water because Jesus told him to. In so doing, Peter is simultaneously reminded of both his own weakness, as well as God’s almighty power.

For me, at least, Peter “becomes a mirror in which (we) disciples, ancient and modern, are able to see (our)selves and take heart.” Faith requires stepping out, taking risks, yes.

But we will, from time to time, get distracted by the storm, become frightened, and begin to sink. Matthew reminds us that when that happens, God in Christ is there to catch us and remind us. To remind us who we are—doubters of little faith—and to remind us who HE is--truly the Son of God.

Matthew’s inclusion of Peter in this story provides an understanding for us of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, caught in the gap between faith and doubt. Matthew reassures us that the cycle of faith and doubt is part of what it means to be in the waters with Jesus.

Like Peter, we, too, have been marked as disciples of Christ.
We, too, have been called into the water with Jesus.
We, too, have been marked as God’s own in the waters of baptism.

In this water, we are reminded that Christ is in the midst of us. In this water, we are called to keep our sights, our focus, on Jesus Christ, the Living Word, amidst the storm of life.

In this water of baptism, we are called to trust. We are equipped with all we need to take the risks that come with stepping out in faith.

But like Peter, we doubt. We may take a few tentative steps out of the boat, in faith, but life overwhelms us. Doubt creeps in, and our faith wavers. We call out to Christ for help. And he does. He catches us and calms the storm.

And we profess our faith and our belief once again…until the storm rages again.
And we step out in faith…again.
And we doubt…again.
And we call out…again.
And Christ comes…again.
And we profess…again.

But just how comfortable are we, really, with this cycle of faith and doubt? How comfortable are we, really, with this water—the water of our baptism?

Just as toddlers do with water at the pool in the summertime, so we too react differently to this water—the water of our baptism.

Some of us are cautious but trusting. Some of us are more comfortable relying on our own devices rather than placing our trust elsewhere. And some of us revel in the refreshing freedom that we find in our baptism.

Just how comfortable are we being in the water with Jesus? How comfortable are we stepping OUT in faith, trusting that Christ is in our midst? How comfortable are we in the midst of the storm with our focus honed on Jesus the Christ?

Wherever you find yourself this morning, remember that Christ is present.

Christ is present here in this denomination as we struggle with living into who God is calling us to be, and how God might make us One in Christ.

Christ is present here in this church family amidst the storms of transition and uncertainty.

Christ is present with each of us as we weather the various storms of life—transitions, disappointments, worries, fears, joys, sorrows, losses, illnesses… Christ is here, in the boat with us.

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God WITH us is here in the water with us.

Christ is with us in the water, and promises to deliver us safely to our destination.

We are in water with Jesus.
We will reach our destination.
There will be a storm.
We will not die.

And he says to us, “Take heart. Do not be afraid!”

Thanks be to GOD for the waters of our baptism that mark us as belonging to God and call us to faith in God and God alone.

As we move forward from this place today, we go knowing that storms may come. But we also go knowing that our confidence and trust is in the one who both calms the storms and leads us into God’s future with hope.