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Stay in the Boat

The Reverend Dr. Alan Krummenacher

April 22, 2018
Matthew 14:22-33

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew

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

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

So, this is one of these Biblical stories that we think we know better than we do. I want to put this story in context for you. Matthew places this little aquatic episode in his Gospel right after the feeding of the 5,000 and the beheading of John the Baptist, two very important events in Jesus’ ministry, some would–d say, the high and the low of his ministry. Jesus is becoming a more well-known and recognized public figure. There are some who are certain that he is Elijah, they are certain that has come to restore the Davidic kingdom, that he is the long awaited Messiah, and they are ready to throw down their lives for him. There are others who are convinced that he is just a rabble rouser, and he is nothing but trouble, come to lead people astray, a blasphemer, and full of sedition against Rome to boot. There are those in the crowd who love him and are ready to crown him king, and there are those who are ready to crown him upside the head.

And so in this increasingly confusing, anxious, polarizing, stress filled time, Jesus says, “Time out.” Jesus says, “Okay, guys, get in the boat. I’m gonna meet you there. And then Jesus does what the Gospels tells us Jesus often does, he goes up into the mountains to commune with God and pray. Everything is going according to plan, Jesus is up on the mountain praying, the disciples are all in the boat. Everything’s good, until an unexpected storm rolls in across the lake.

Any of y’all ever been on a big body of water, maybe Lake Travis, when a storm rolls in across the water? It’s scary, especially if it’s happening in the middle of the night. And think about this: they were not in one of those big old pontoon boats that you can’t swamp. This was a dinghy, a little fishing boat. My guess is that it was hard to maneuver even under the best of circumstances. And now, here they are, in the middle of the night, with the wind whipping them around, with the waves crashing into them, and they’re trying to bail out this boat.

On top of this, remember back in the day, nobody knew how to swim. Parents did not take their children to the Y for swimming lessons. And that’s partially why being a fisherman was a very perilous task. Because if you fell out of the boat, you sank.

So now, here they are in the boat, in the middle of the storm, in the middle of the night, it’s dark, the wind whipping around them, the waves crashing, they’re bailing as fast as they can. Peter and the other fisherman realize what a perilous situation they’re in. They are scared. And in the midst of all this panic and all this panic and all this anxiety, someone sees that there’s something out there that’s not supposed to be there, and it’s coming towards them.

And they don’t know what that thing is. As it gets closer, someone says, “It’s a ghost!” And then someone else says, “Well, wait a minute! That’s Jesus!” And sure enough, there in the midst of this tumultuous storm, Jesus is standing outside the boat.

Now, Peter gets a bright idea, and he says, “Lord, if that’s you, let me come to you.” Thinking, he’d rather be with Jesus out there than here in this boat that is certainly going down. And Jesus, as if to say, “All right, come and learn your lesson,” says, “Come on.” And what does Peter do? He climbs out of the boat.

Now, I contend that even if Matthew didn’t tell us it was Peter that climbed out of the boat, we could have guessed. Peter was the impetuous one, right? Peter, while he truly loved Jesus, and was willing to lay down his life and all that he had in order to follow Jesus, Peter was the guy who in high school, they said he was the guy most likely to leap before looking. That would have been Peter, right? He gives his all, but he’s not the brightest bulb in the pack.

And so there is Peter, jumping out of the boat, and going across the water a step or two toward Jesus, and then what happens? He starts to sink. Now, reading between the lines, we can be pretty certain that at that very moment, Peter is the only one who was surprised that he was sinking. All the guys in the boat just went, “Well duh. What’d you think was gonna happen?”

And now what does Jesus do? Jesus reaches down, grabs Peter and . . .puts him back in the boat. Right?

Now, I’m sure that you have heard a lot of sermons, probably some Sunday school lessons, maybe even have read some books that talk about this passage. And they try to sell you on the fact that what this is really about is that if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat, or just keep your eyes on Jesus, and everything will be fine.

But I wonder, is that really the lesson that this story is teaching us . . . just stay focused and everything will be fine?

I have three children. Well, they’re all young adults, all in their mid- to late twenties, I guess my oldest son’s thirty now. My middle child, Andrew, was a runner, ran cross-country, and track, ran the long distance, maybe the 880 in track. It’s a long way to run. I have to say, that as a parent, those cross country races are the worst, aren’t they? As a parent, you want to support your child, but there at the starting line, the gun goes off, and they run into the woods. You don’t see them for 30 minutes, and then they come back and you stand up and cheer at the end, right?

But I noticed something when my son started running in middle school, that middle school athletics are inherently unjust. Some of these kids, particularly the boys, are just chubby little cherubs, and they haven’t gone through puberty, they haven’t had their growth spurt. And somehow they’re supposed to compete with other boys who have gone through puberty and they look like men. Somehow, especially in track and field they’re supposed to run against each other? It just doesn’t seem fair, but that’s middle school athletics, right?

So, my son was a fairly good runner. He was not one of the guys who were long and lean, and had the fancy running shoes, and were just like cheetahs—whoosh—down the track. And then there was everyone else, with my son usually in the middle of the pack. And then you had the chubby cherubs who would bring up the rear, always doing their best to get down the track.

I remember this one event, it was a track event so at least they didn’t go out into the woods, it was something like eight or 10 laps around the track. We’re all cheering, the gun goes off, they start, and we all sit down in the bleachers to watch. Well, there’s lap one, and there’s lap two, and there’s lap three. When it gets to be about the second to last lap, all the get up, we go to the chain link fence, and we start cheering again, right here at the last lap. We’re cheering, and—fssst—there go the cheetahs, then the rest of the pack and my son’s in there.

And I look over and almost an entire lap behind is this one young man. He is a bright red tomato, and he is huffing, and puffing, and sweat is pouring off his brow. I just say a little prayer, “Lord, please don’t let him pass out right there on the track.” He looks like he is about to go down.

As this young man is doing his best to just put one foot in front of the other, suddenly from the top of the bleachers, this crazy woman comes running down, right past me and she runs to the fence, and yells, “Faster, Johnny, run faster, Johnny!”

And if you could have seen little Johnny’s face when he looked up into the stands, as if to say, “Really, Mom? You think I just forgot to run faster?”

Have you ever felt like little Johnny? Things aren’t going well. It’s been a tough week. Maybe it’s been a tough couple of weeks. Maybe the last several years haven’t gone your way. You’re doing your best to contend with the storms of life. You’re doing your best to keep your head above water. You are trying your best to put one foot after the next and get down that track of life. And then you come to church on Sunday morning and some preacher has the audacity to say, “Just stay focused. Run faster, dig deeper, give more.”

Well, not today. Friends, that is not the message I want you to take away this morning. That is not the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach his disciples, that is not the message that inspired Matthew to include this story in his Gospel. This is not about working harder, trying harder, running faster, staying focused. This is a story about staying in the boat.

Think about it. What did Jesus tell his disciples to do? He said, “I’m gonna go pray. I want you to get in the boat, go to the other side, and I’ll meet you there.” That’s the plan. And when the storms come brewing and whipping in, when things don’t go according to plan, when the way gets difficult, and the disciples are filled with fear and panic and anxiety, Peter comes up with a better plan.

“Oh, I know Jesus said, ‘Get in the boat,’ but I’ve got a better plan. I’m gonna get out of the boat.” We know how that worked out, right? What did Jesus do? He put him back in the boat. I’m pretty clear the lesson here is, stay in the boat. Trust Jesus to get you through the storms.

Let’s put this in context. Matthew wrote his Gospel and it was being distributed 30-50 years after Jesus. It was not an easy time to be a believer. It was not an easy time for the church. There was persecution. Now, it wasn’t always Christians being fed to the lions in Rome. There were a lot of much more subtle ways that Christians were persecuted and ostracized. People would find out that you’re part of that crazy sect, and they would suddenly stop shopping in your market. They wouldn’t do business with you. Or, perhaps they would just not let their children play with your children anymore. Or, you wouldn’t get invited to bridge club. There were all these subtle ways that you were being set aside. Life was becoming difficult, and on top of that, where’s Jesus? And the only church was expecting Jesus to come back within a generation or two, and here they are, facing hard times, things are not going to plan. Jesus hasn’t returned. Where is Jesus? In the midst of all these storms of our lives, what’s going on?

And then, this small band of the church, they read this story about a small group of disciples who are out on the sea during the midst of a storm, and suddenly, in the midst of the storm, Jesus comes to them and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. I’m here. Be at peace.”

Do you remember, things were so bad in the early church, that they often had to use signs and symbols to communicate with one another, so others wouldn’t find out they were Christians? We all know the symbol of the fish, right? Another very common sign was a boat, and it looked like a bowl, with a very simple sailing mast that looked a lot like a cross. And they would often draw that boat in the dirt or with mud, put it on the doorpost to signify, the church is meeting here today.

So here they are, the church, reading a story about disciples in a boat, wondering where is Jesus when they were in trouble, and the lesson is, Jesus is right there with you. Jesus never asks his disciples to do crazy, super human things like walking on water. What he does asks us is to be faithful, to trust him, that we stick together, and that when times get hard, stay in the boat.

When that company that you have worked for your entire life decides to down size and you’re left holding a pink slip, friends, stay in the boat. When your marriage of 15, 20, 325 years hits a rough patch, friends, stay in the boat. When those beautiful, darling little children that you adore suddenly become snarling, pierced, strange haired teenagers, strangers you hardly recognize in your own home, friends, don’t give up. Stay in the boat. When that cancer that you thought was in remission comes back with a vengeance, don’t give up. Stay in the boat. When your friends say to you, “Oh, you don’t need to go to church on Sunday, come on out to the lake with us.” Friends, stay in the boat.

No matter what storms you are facing, no matter what difficulties or struggles you have in your life, know this: Jesus is there, with you and for you. Don’t give up on him, because he will never give up on you. No matter how bad the storms out there are—say it with me—stay in the boat.