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Sunday August 8, 1999 ~ Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 14:22-33
I Kings 19:9-18  *   Romans 10:5-15   *  Psalm 85:8-13

"If You Want To Walk On Water....
         You Gotta Get Out Of the Boat!"

"If you're are going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks."

That was one line in a sermon I delivered a number of years ago.  It was the only line one young man in our parish heard that day.  It was probably the only line this man should not have heard.  He never seemed to be able to hold a job and his family suffered the consequences of his lackadaisical attitude toward work.

The following Sunday, this fellow came up to me and said excitedly, "Pastor, I took your advice!"

"Oh, oh," I thought to myself, but replied, "What advice is that."

"About taking risks.  You said last week that you have to take risks to gain anything."

I responded with that tentative, "waiting for the other shoe to drop " sense...  "Yes???"

"Well..."  (he's beaming), "I got a check this week for some work I did a couple of months ago and I took it as a sign from the Lord.  I put the whole check toward lottery tickets -- the jackpot rolled over last night and it's already up to $25 million!  I promised God that when I win, I'm going to tithe the winnings to the church!"

[We were sending this family to the local food pantry!]

Still -- the principle is a good one. 

"If you're are going to make any gains, you will have to take some risks."

If you don't risk heartbreak, you will never know love.  If you do not risk failure, you will never know success.  If you don't risk loss, you will never experience gain.  If you don't risk an answer when the teacher asks a question, you may save the embarrassment of a wrong answer, but you will also miss the joy of the encouragement that builds healthy self-worth.

Simon peter was a risk taker.  He was first with an answer when Jesus asked, "Who do people say that I am."   Peter's response, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" was a stoke of brilliance that Jesus himself said came right from God!  And he paid the price of a risk taker when he presumed to correct Jesus' announcement of the rejection and death that awaited him.  "Get thee behind me Satan!" Jesus said to the same Peter.

Two of the most quoted lines in all of the New Testament.  "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"  -- and -- Get thee behind me Satan!"

Thank God for Peter the "Risk-Taker" who leads us into such rich spiritual nourishment through his daring.  Today's gospel reading may be the high point of Peter's risk-taking life.  It is the most wonderful story of God's presence in the midst of storms, of faith overcoming fear, and of encouragement to experience the life of faith without limits!  We will explore this drama by looking at its movement through four easy to remember phases. [The Fear, The Friend, The Faith, The Foundation]

The Fear

Jesus' disciples find themselves in a boat in the middle of the sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night battling a headwind that kept them from shore. If you've ever been caught in a squall out on a lake you know the sense of anxiety that can set in. And we're not talking "land lubbers" here.   Many of these people are professional fishermen who have spent years on this body of water.  Yet, after hours of fighting the unrelenting wind and waves, someone looks up and Jesus is walking toward them on the water!

It has been a long and scary night.  This they didn't need! What could it be other than a ghost -- perhaps an evil spirit!   Terrified, they cry out in fear.

The core of the story here is that in the midst of the most difficult and even life threatening times of our life, we might encounter the Awesome God of the universe!

A young executive in a congregation I served years ago experienced this in the midst of a dangerous battle with meningitis.  His physician, in fact, told me to stay in close touch with the family because he did not expect the man to recover.  But he did recover -- literally came back from the threshold of death.  And he had a story to tell.  A rather startling one.

While he was unconscious and the whole church was praying, there was much more going on within him than his still, feverish, outside body revealed. He was transformed from a casual church goer to a "standing at the door waiting" every time there was a service kind of guy through the experience he shared with me.

"While I was in the coma, it was one long scene as though I was watching a movie.  I was sitting in the back of the church on a hot summer day.  I was fanning myself with the bulletin, sweating and wishing for a glass of ice water. Everything was kind of cloudy -- shimmering.  There was a phone booth in the middle isle and people were lined up waiting to talk.  They would go in and talk to someone and come out again.  I got in line and was waiting my turn.   It seemed to take forever. Finally my turn came and when I went into the booth, I looked up.  I couldn't see the top.  The phone booth went up through the roof of the church... up through the clouds and into the heavens.  I couldn't see where.   I picked up the phone to talk and then looked up again.

I can not describe what I saw.  It was simply awesome.  It was as though I was seeing God, but I really couldn't see.   I get goose bumps thinking about it.  I shook inside and out.  Then I hung up the phone and went back to my seat.  I just sat there with this sense of astonishment and wonder.  Finally it got cool.  There was a nice breeze and it wasn't so hot anymore.

Then I woke up and Gretchen (his wife) and you were standing there."

The doctors had predicted his death or at least a severely limited physical existence for him.  When discharged from the hospital, he was diagnosed with a 5% hearing loss in one ear.  That was it!  He (and many of the people who prayed for him (lined up at the telephone booth?) are still awestruck at his outcome.  His neurologist said simply, "It's one of those things we can't explain."  The rest of us were filled with amazement and fear in the finest biblical sense.  Something came to him in the midst of his life and death struggle.

The Friend

That something turned out to be a friend.   In the midst of our greatest fears, there is a friend who will come to us if we are open to his presence. "Don't be afraid, it's me," Jesus said to his frightened disciples.

When bad things happen to people, one of the first reactions many have is to say something like, "I must have done something wrong" --or-- "Maybe God is punishing me."   It is not unlike the disciples who were frightened when Jesus came to them in their stormy experience. There is a false spiritual notion out there that terrible times are omens of some bad force that is "against us".

One of the basic and essential teachings of the Christian faith is that Christ wants to embrace us and restore the sense of fellowship and intimacy with God that we were created for.  Paul said, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" [Rom.8:31]  Jesus said, "I have called you friends." [John 15:15]

In the midst of our storms, the One who comes to us is Christ who says, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

The Faith

Peter (God bless his bold -- if somewhat impulsive faith) reacts to Jesus' words with a strong affirmation of faith.  He trusts that Jesus is able to give him this ability to walk on water.  Not only can faith overcome the storm, it can conquer it -- put it under foot!

Have you not had some time or another when you wanted to look disaster in the eye and declare, "God, I believe in you!  I believe you can get me through this! "  Sometimes the Spirit, like the wind, will blow in just the right direction and fill the sails of our heart.  We are in Paul's words again, "...persuaded that nothing can separate us from the love of God..." [Rom.8:39]

But...  the time comes when faith must become action.  You and I can only imagine what it must have been like for Peter to hear that single word, "Come!"  Personally, I wonder if Peter wasn't hoping for something like, "That's okay Peter, don't worry about it, I'll be right there."

But Jesus says, "Come!"

Imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for Peter to slip up onto the side of that boat and begin to take that first step.   Take a moment...    The wind is howling, the waves are crashing on the hull and Peter possibly wonders what in the world he has done with his big mouth!    Then it happens.  His foot touches the surface and he puts that first bit of weight on the water.

And it holds!

He reaches out to Jesus.  Takes a few steps.  Awesome!

Faith must turn into action.  If you want to walk on water, you gotta get out of the boat!  When we meet together to worship -- and worship we must.  There comes a time to turn the praying into practice, the singing into service and the hearing into helping!

And you must keep your eyes on the Master!   Peter begins to look around at the wind and the waves.  He loses focus and begins to sink.  "Lord save me!"  What a gracious God we have.  Jesus, immediately reached out Matthew says.  He didn't let Peter go down once or twice or delay helping in the expectation that Peter would learn a lesson.  He immediately reached out.

That's good news for all of us.  God honors our faith and trust, no matter how tentative we are.  When we reach out, Jesus reaches back.  The faith that reaches out, gives it a try, gets out of the boat... is the faith that saves!

The Foundation

The bottom line of this whole story is the last phrase.  "Truly you are the Son of God!"

The one who says, "Come!" to Peter is indeed able to give him the strength to walk on water, overcome the storm, turn faith into action. Without this foundational truth, Peter sinks, the boat is dashed to bits on the rocky shoreline and the disciples are deluded.

This story is the prelude to the high point of Peter's years of training with Jesus.  Soon, this stormy day will have passed and the disciples will be gathered together with Jesus for the final push to Jerusalem and to consummation of the ministry of Christ.

It is Peter who will answer the question of Jesus.  "Who do you say that I am?"  Peter will answer with the foundation of Christianity.

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!"  [Mt. 16:15-16]

With this truth as your foundation, keep this action principle of faith at the center of your spirit. "If you want to walk on water...  you gotta get out of the boat!"

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The twin themes of the lectionary readings for today might be called, "The Storm" and "The Message."   The disciples in the gospel and Elijah in 1 Kings find themselves in the midst of a storm where they finally encounter the Lord.  The epistle and psalm, on the other hand, have to do with the message of righteousness.  Although it is a bit of a stretch, there is the possibility of applying all of this in a theme along the lines of, "A Message for these Stormy Times."

1 Kings and Romans do connect in that both speak of the messenger of God.  1 Kings speaks of a messenger who has been rejected, Romans speaks of the need for a messenger and the Psalm is a celebration of the righteousness that results from God's effectual word of peace.

Matthew 14:22-33
(Hope you will indulge some personal reflections on a topic that affects many or most of us in parish ministry)

Besides our full text sermon for this scripture, there is another important theme in this scripture.  This is now the second time in Matt. 14 that Jesus withdraws for prayer and renewal.  The last time, crowds met him before he had the opportunity to be alone.  In this text, he finds that solitude for a time. The public crisis in Jesus' ministry is mounting and conflict grows.  Growing crowds seek his ministry and growing numbers of religious officials are seeking to entrap him.

Yet, there is this constant theme in the gospels of Jesus going off by himself for prayer.  The lesson for leaders is clear.  Busy and harried lives is the reason for prayer and renewal -- not the rationale for neglecting it!  [Having said that, I cringe a bit.  If I am honest with myself and allow my Daytimer to "give witness" -- I am all too vulnerable to cheating my prayer life when there are so many disciples out there on the windy sea.  It's that old trap... "Too busy for God to spend time with God!"]

Once again, I open myself up to the message of this text and ask it to address the sometimes oppressive myth that we parish clergy must have a policy of 100% availability.  I occasionally wonder if cell phones and pagers are not instruments of the Devil.

Some years ago, I tried an experiment.  I asked my secretary one morning to tell those who called, "He's busy praying right now.  May I have him call you back?"  The response was a real learning experience. A few callers sat in stunned silence and one fellow became agitated and said, "What?  Put me through, he can pray anytime!"   The extent to which we buy that is the extent to which we cheat on our inner life with an external lover of increasing demands.  Can you imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, "I'm going to be alone to pray this evening, but here's my mobile phone number in case something serious comes up.  If you don't get me there, here's my pager number!"

This passage presents a great opportunity to share something of your commitment to care for yourself spiritually as a God given responsibility!  "If I don't take care of me -- I can't take care of you!" 

I Kings 19:9-18
The text comes at a point where Elijah had fled for his life from the threats of Jezebel. Just prior to our pericope, Elijah was feeling particularly sorry for himself as he sat under a broom tree wishing he could simply die. When God comes to him in the cave, he bemoans the fact that he alone is faithful and serving God -- and what does he get for it? Persecution and rejection. His whining is a thinly veiled complaint directed at God.

Many can relate here! "I serve the Lord all these years -- and what does it get me?" There are folks who expect serving God or living a good life deserves some kind of recompense.

The Lord does not respond to Elijah's moaning, but instead asks him to stand of of the cave where he would encounter the presence of the Lord. "...the Lord is about to pass by." Perhaps in the spectacular presence of God, Elijah would find his reward.

But it doesn't happened that way. God is neither in the mountain-smashing winds, nor the earthquake, or consuming fire -- all the phenomenon you would expect God to appear in. In Moses' first encounter with God, it was a burning bush, at the Red Sea it was the wind that divided the waters, at Sinai it was thunder and lightning. There is none of this. God chooses to come to Elijah in a way that has given us one of the key spiritual thoughts people quote today. "The still, small voice of God." In other words, God does not always (or maybe even usually) become manifest in the spectacular and the miraculous, but in the ordinary and everyday experiences of our living.

Finally, God sets the record straight. Though apostasy may be rampant and Israel a near lost-cause, there will be 7000 who have not given themselves to Baal. Whether Elijah or ourselves, it is unwise to ever think (much less say) -- "I alone am serving the Lord."

Romans 10:5-15

Paul begins by citing the Levitical injunction (Lev. 18:5) to keep the commandments of God in order to live.   In contrast, he points out, there is a righteousness that comes from faith.   Again he turns to an Old Testament source. In Moses' last instructions to the People of Israel, (Deut. 30:14) he notes that the saving word is, "...very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."

Righteousness is "by faith" in the word / message and salvation is accomplished by "confession."  Thus, Jew, Greek and "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."  

Paul's essential message is that the entire biblical drama and its invitation to life has always been intended for all persons.   He concludes with a classic affirmation of the honor and joy of being called to the office of "God's Messenger!"

As the gospel lesson speaks to the inner life of the messenger of God, Romans speaks to the honor due the office of the messenger of God.

Psalm 85:8-13

What does it look like when all hearts are surrendered to God and the reign of God is accomplished?  The Psalm today is a "snapshot in song" of that reality.

Worship Helps

A Call to Worship   (Based on Psalm )

Leader:  Come to us today O Lord,
People: And calm the troubled waters of our living.
Leader:  Speak peace to our fear-filled hearts,
People: And call us to come to you for rest.
Leader:  O come to us and enter our living,
People: For you are truly the Son of God,
               Our Redeemer, Master and Friend!  Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

In the quiet of these moments of worship, we pray that your still,
small voice would speak to our hearts.  Accept the gifts we bring
and shape in our hearts a new joy in loving and serving you.  Amen.

A Pastoral Prayer

O Living Lord of all that is, we come to you this morning seeking your
presence in our lives.  Not just on the surface, but deep within where the
currents are strong and the shadows are dark.  We pray for the inner peace
only you can give.

We live in stormy times and like Elijah of old, we sometimes feel like
hiding in a cave or retreating from all the outward turmoil.  We search
for answers, for meaning and for understanding in all kinds of places --
but we can not find you in all these outward things. Speak to us, Lord...
with your still small voice within us.  Help us to make room within for
the work of your Holy Spirit so that we can tell the difference between
worldly glitter and divine glory.

Come to us Lord Jesus, when the troubled waters of our living are
against us and the courage of our faith is threatened.  Help us to know
that you are near and that by faith we can overcome life's tempests.
Because you bring calm to the storms and peace to the turmoil, we are
strengthened in faith and worship flows from our hearts.   Amen.