Sermon Text: Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
Hymns for the Day: Many Gifts, One Spirit; You Are Mine; Here I am, Lord
Some mornings I feel very inadequate standing up here. It’s not that I’m unprepared, or unqualified in the worldly sense… it’s that I’m unprepared and unqualified in the godly sense. Who really is ready for the awesome feat of proclaiming the word of God? Most Sunday mornings I have reached a place where I’m able to focus not on my words that I have printed before me, but I can just let it go and let the Spirit take those words and do whatever God wants to with them.
This was a busy week for me and so for many reasons, I feel more inadequate than ever. I got up at 5 am this morning to go back over what I had written, to read some of my colleagues sermons and thoughts, and to clear my head and let some things go.
But then I remembered that it was precisely in that dark hour – during the fourth watch of the night, or sometime between 3 and 6 in the morning, that Jesus came walking on the water towards Peter.
I’ve shared with many of you my morning routine – how I like to get up and sit in the early morning sunrise with a cup of tea. Well, there was no sunrise this morning – only dark. I had to turn the lights on to see. I practically stumbled into the kitchen and with my eyes half shut began to make a pot of tea.
This morning, I felt like a disciple in a boat. Sent by Jesus to head off and get ready for some new ministry venture, but kept awake by all the stuff going on outside of the boat and just wishing that Jesus was there. Hoping and praying that by some miracle, Jesus shows up sometime before worship this morning.
The truth of the matter is, we are all disciples in that boat. We are all here because at some point in our lives we responded to the call of Jesus Christ on our lives and so we showed up. And we got into the boat, knowing who was steering the ship, but not knowing where we would end up.
You may think I’m talking about some symbolic and imaginary boat. You might picture yourselves floating down the Iowa River or in a little john boat on Lake Iowa. I’m not talking about something imaginary here. We have all – literally – gotten into the boat this morning!
In Nashville, I worked at a church who liked to use the fancy names for all of the parts of the sanctuary. For example: This place where I am standing is called the chancel area. It’s called the “chancel” because it describes the screen that used to separate the rest of the church from the altar area. Especially in older Catholic or Anglican churches, you can still see the dividing screen or intricate ornamentation that used to hide the altar and sacraments from the people. The communion rail here is the closest we have to that sort of a dividing line today.
This place out here is called the “nave” – and it’s why all of you have gotten into the boat. You see, the word comes from the Latin navis which means a boat or a ship. There are many churches that you can visit today in which the architecture actually makes that apparaent. In some of these places, the entire nave area is built to look like an upside down boat. Look up the next time you are visiting another church and see if there are rafters are curved to resemble the frame of a boat. The chapel at Simpson College is one of those churches.
So we are all in the boat this morning. We are all in this boat called the church doing our best to be faithful and to follow Jesus. The problem is, as we hear from this morning’s scripture: Jesus isn’t always in the boat!
Today, Matthew tells us about how Jesus sent his disciples out by boat to go to the other side of the lake. He does so because he needs some quiet time to pray and to think after all that miracle working (after all, he has just healed and fed 5000+ people!) and so he sends the disciples out with a task. Head out, and meet me on the other side.
And so the disciples get in the boat. But you know what… I think that the disciples, like most of us in the church, really wanted Jesus to come with them, to be with them, so they tried as hard as they could to stay near the shore and to wait for Jesus to return. They didn’t really want to venture out into the world without Jesus by their side, so they tried to wait. They tried to hold on.
Oh, how many churches in the world today are treading water, anchored in one place, doing their best to just stay afloat and waiting for Jesus to come back. It’s easy to do. It’s what happens when we don’t trust that God has sent us out and given us gifts and expects us to do something with them!
I truly think that if the disciples had had it their way, they would have been sitting in that boat, right by the shoreline, all night long, waiting for Jesus. But, as the scriptures tell us, the wind was against them and the waves were against them and try as they might, the boat kept drifting farther and farther from where they wanted to be – from where it was safe and comfortable.
In some ways, I think that is where our church is right now. We are still in the boat that has kept us safe and we have stayed afloat after many years of struggle. You’ve been trying your best to keep your head above water and you have succeeded. But the winds of the spirit have been blowing and have been moving among us, and I think that in many ways, we are now finding ourselves in uncharted waters – we are just a little ways from the shoreline that we are used to.
And trust me, I understand that feeling. It can be scary and disorienting to be led by the Spirit of God. I remember the this sense of absolute terror I had when Jim Hanke called me up when I was still in Nashville and told me that he had a church in mind. I had no idea what the future would bring, what you all would be like, whether or not it would be a good fit… all I could do was hope and pray that the Spirit truly was working through the process. And I had to trust that no matter where the Spirit of God took me, Jesus would be there
I think that is the mistake that boatful of disciples made. You see, they tried so hard to stay by the shoreline and wait for Jesus, that finally being driven out to the middle of the lake they got to a place where they thought Jesus couldn’t possibly be. On those stormy waters, in that unfamiliar territory, they felt overwhelmed by the chaos of it all.
Those overwhelmed disciples were so terrified of the wind and the waves around them that they didn’t even recognize Christ when he came to them. At least not at first. They were so surprised that they could possibly be met out there by Jesus that they thought of all things that he was a ghost – some apparition – and not their Lord and Savior.
Why on earth would Jesus be out there? Outside of the boat? Out in those scary unfamiliar waters? Because that is precisely where Jesus is needed.
In college, I was one of the student leaders for the Religious Life Council at Simpson, and there I stumbled upon some poetry and reflections by the late Eddie Askew. I can’t remember today which book this is from or even what the title is, but it makes me think about what the disciples must have been thinking to themselves when they saw Jesus standing out there.
And, suddenly, I notice with unease, you standing with them, outside the boundary wire of my concern. Not asking that they be admitted to my world, but offering me the chance to leave my warm cocoon, thermostatically controlled by selfishness, and take my place with them, and you. At risk in real relationships, where love not law, defines what I should do.
Ever since I read that poem, I have been looking for Jesus. It’s not that I don’t believe Christ comes into our midst each week in worship. It’s not that I don’t believe that where two or three are gathered, Christ is there. But it’s that I also know Christ shows up where I least expect him, in the lives of people I’m not paying attention to, in the words of a stranger.
So as we find ourselves moving and growing and changing as a church – as we find ourselves in this boat of faith being led by the Spirit – we need to keep our eyes open for Jesus to show up in unlikely places.
Last week, the Ministry Action Team for Iowa County met and we talked about ministry to young adults in our communities. Eric Guy, the Leadership Development Minister for Young Adult and Generational Ministry shared with us a few stories from scripture and how they represent different ways of reaching out to young people. In the first story – that well known story of the prodigal son – Eric said that often the church thinks of itself as home, as the place that the younger brother gave up and left when he fell away to big city living…. And the church is therefore the place that the younger brother has to come back to in order to be whole.
If we translate into boat language this morning – the church as the boat is the only safe place to be. It is the only “good” place to be. And so our goal as disciples is to float around and get other people into the boat. We sit there in the boat, high and dry, and send out invitations and put ads in the newspaper and say to the world – COME! Come to us, get in, and we’ll have a nice drive.
And we thought that sounded okay… Until Eric shared with us another story. Another story of someone who left home – Jacob. You see, Jacob also had a brother and he also left to start a new life, but the thing about the Jacob story, is that he found God out there. God came to him in visions and in dreams, God was with him as he worked for nearly a decade in order to marry the love of his life, and God was with him on his journey back to home.
Eric challenged us to think about ministry to young people in this way, and I think this can translate to all people who are outside of the church today. Instead of seeing them as fallen away and in need of saving, we instead should think of them on their own journey. Out there, they are experiencing God, have questions of faith, and are looking for answers. But they might not be ready to come back to the church… at least not yet.
Translated into boat language. The church is a boat in the midst of stormy waters and the people we are called to be in ministry to are out there. Just like in Eddie Askew’s poem, Jesus is standing in the waters with them.
The question is, do we see Jesus out there? And do we have the courage to step outside of these four walls and go to them?
Out of all the disciples in that boat, Peter is the one who speaks up. He shouts out into the wind at the dark figure… Lord – if that is really you – tell me to come to you!
And Jesus says, “Come.” Come out into the waters. Come out into the lives of these people. Love them. Care for them. Share your story with them. Don’t be afraid to leave that boat, because I am with you!