Matthew 14: 22-33
Poor Pete. I mean, you got to feel for the guy, right? All the wonderful things he did, being the rock on which Jesus built his church – and yet he’d forever be remembered for his two failures: denying Jesus three times, and this:
There he is, in a small boat with his friends in the middle of a large lake – so large you can’t see from one side to the other; so large that the water’s movements feel more like the deep sea. Now Peter is a seasoned fisherman, but on this evening the winds are strong. So strong, in fact, that, despite their best efforts, they are pushed further and further out from land, out into the dark night. There is nothing more terrifying for a fisherman than not being able to control his boat on windy waters.
Morning arrives, and the winds have grown much worse. And it is at the height of their anxiety that Peter looks out over the chaotic waters and notices….. something. Someone. Someone out on the water, just standing there. And now that someone is walking towards them. Walking on water. Peter is terrified but he can’t not look. And as the figure draws closer, just a few feet away now, Peter sees: it’s Jesus. It’s Jesus walking to them on the windy waters. It’s Jesus saying to them, Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.
The other disciples keep cowered in their corners. But not our Peter. No, no, no, no! Never one to hold back! Never one to think before leaping. Which is why he now takes a leap right out of that boat onto the sea. He lays one foot down on the water’s surface and somehow – somehow – it stays there! He brings the second foot around and it, too, finds solid footing. Peter looks at Jesus, and Jesus is holding out his hand, telling him to come to him. On the water. And Peter does. One, two, three, four steps! He’s almost there. Almost to Jesus!
Until……until a particularly strong gust whips up and startles him, and reminds him of what he’s doing. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks down, just for a second, but that’s all it takes. The joy he felt seconds earlier has now been replaced with panic. He grabs frantically at Jesus – his arms, his feet, his cloak, anything – as he begins to sink in the swirl. And just before his whole body is consumed, he is lifted up by Jesus, who takes him back to the boat. He sets Peter inside, back with his brothers in the faith; he looks at him and says, You of little faith – why did you doubt?
Poor Pete! I mean, an epic fail, right? It almost would’ve been better if he had just stayed in the boat, never gotten out in the first place. A point seemingly underscored by Jesus, who offers up this little stinger at the end: You of little faith, why did you doubt?
How would Peter ever be able to show his face to those disciples again? How would he ever show his face to Jesus?
This past week, US swimmer Ryan Lochte, coming off a pretty epic fail of his own, was interviewed by Matt Lauer. It was not hard questions asked of him. Questions like “why did you do it” and “why did you lie about it” and “why did you exaggerate it?” Questions he still could not answer in full, because there really are no answers for his behavior that early Sunday morning in Rio.
But one thing was crystal clear watching that interview: Lochte was ashamed. As a famous Avett Brothers song goes, “boatloads of shame.” Which seems somewhat appropriate given our scripture today. Lochte knew he had let his friends down, his teammates down, his country down. More than anything, he was ashamed.
Noted author and speaker Brene Brown describes shame this way: “that intensely painful feeling of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” To undergird her point, Brown surveyed a random group of people and asked them to finish this statement, “Shame is….” Here are some of the responses she got:
- Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
- Shame is hiding the fact that I’m in recovery.
- Shame is having someone ask, “When are you due?” when you’re not pregnant.
- Shame is what you later feel when you’re the one who asked that question.
- Shame is my DUI.
- Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
Lochte might say, “Shame is causing an international incident and lying about it.” How would you finish that statement, I wonder? How do you experience shame?
I’ll tell you what Peter might’ve said: “Shame is being this close to grabbing Jesus’ hand, and missing it.”
I mean, that’s how we typically view Peter’s legacy, right? Great guy, but pretty big failure when it comes to getting out of the boat.
Or was he?
I mean, it’s interesting, isn’t it, how we look at this story. How we almost instinctively focus on the way it ends, and those words Jesus says to Peter as he rolls him back in the boat: You of little faith, why did you doubt? Little faith. A doubter. Boatloads of shame.
But is that really what Jesus is saying? I wonder. I wonder because the Greek word for “doubt” here doesn’t mean “the absence of belief,” as much as it suggests “ a wavering of opinion.” Which makes a better rendering of this verse, perhaps, what we find in The Message translation: Faint-heart, what got into you? You see? Not as judgmental. Softer. Empathetic, even.
I wonder how different our understanding of Peter’s story would be if we chose to focus not on the fact that Peter started sinking, but on what I think is the most important part of the whole story: that Peter got out of the boat in the first place! Right?! I mean, we almost forget that. But really – what kind of person does something like that? Who besides a Peter would’ve risked everything to do the one thing that mattered to him most: getting to Jesus?
It’s an entirely different story when we look at it that way. Not failure, but success! Not doubt and disbelief, but the greatest faith of all! And not shame of nearly drowning in the surf, but hope that led him to step out of the boat in the first place.
That is our Peter. And it’s also you and me. It is who we are called to be – making ourselves vulnerable and taking risks in our lives, in our communities, in our churches. Getting out of the boat, even when everything both inside and outside tells us to stay put; getting out so we can get to Jesus.
How do you and I get out of the boat in our lives? We get out of the boat when we reach out to someone we’ve been alienated from for too long. We get out of the boat when we walk through the church doors for the first time in years, not sure how we’ll be be received. We get out of the boat when we decide to go back to school for our degree, even though the thought of taking an exam or writing a research paper terrifies us. We get out of the boat when we subject ourselves to yet another job interview. We get out of the boat when we love someone with no guarantees that they’ll love us back.
And what about the church? How does the church get out of the boat? Well, that’s a little harder, isn’t it? Because we in the institutional church have been predispositioned to what I’d call “in-the-boat” Christianity. Following Jesus when it’s easy, where it’s expected, when the risk is low. So, you know, church a couple of Sunday mornings a month. Worship on Christmas and Easter for sure. An occasional Bible study and mission project; an occasional disbursement of time and talent and treasure.
The problem, though, is that “in-the-boat” Christianity doesn’t do a whole lot for the church or for those in it. You know by now that mainline congregations are experiencing declining numbers and increasing empty pew space on Sunday mornings. Now, lots of well-meaning folks have offered up reasons, everything from doctrinal disagreements to cultural clashes. Lots have offered concepts and strategies to turn the tide – most to no avail.
But Thom Ranier, an author and church consultant, offers up what I think may be the best and simplest way of encapsulating it. He claims there’s is a common thread that runs through every congregation experiencing various levels of decline. “Stated simply,” he says:
The most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.
An inward focus. What does he mean by an “inward focus?” He explains it this way: In an inward-focused church, the ministries are only for the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get their way. Pretty much everything in the life of the church revolves around the needs and desires of only the members.
That’s what an in-the-boat church looks like. And it’s tempting, isn’t it? Because it’s safe in the boat. Because it’s risky getting out of the boat. Because getting out of the boat and taking risks very well might lead to failure. Very well might lead to shame.
My friends, my Trinity family, you’ve heard me say time and time again how our church needs to embrace change, be an outward-focused church, why we need to get out of the boat. This is not some new message from this pulpit. I’ve offered up statistics, I’ve quoted scripture, I’ve shared stories.
But you know something? I think Peter’s story here represents perhaps the most compelling reason of them all, and it is this: if our goal in this Christian life is to be with Jesus where he is – and I think we can all agree that’s our goal, right? – if our goal is to be with Jesus, we’re not going to find him in the boat. Because that’s not where Jesus is. Jesus is out of the boat. He’s out on those windy waters, in the swirling chaos of the tide, holding out his hand and calling us to come to him there.
So we don’t get to be with Jesus by staying in the boat. We have to get out of the boat.
Which means we have to do what Peter did: make ourselves vulnerable and take chances and risks; and most of all, most of all, not be afraid to fail.
This is what I believe God is calling the church today to do. It’s what I believe God is calling this church to do. And it’s what I believe our neighborhood, and the city of Charlotte, and the greater world desperately needs us to do: to be a church that gets out of the boat. A church that does everything it can to get to Jesus, even if it means trying to walk on water, even if it means sinking a little while trying.
We’ve got to get out of the boat.
And here’s the thing: while we can and should strive to do more, I think in some ways we’re already doing it.
I think launching a capital campaign nearly four years ago during an interim ministry, and then taking steps to transform the heart of our campus as we’re doing this fall (and as you’ll learn about at the information sharing session today after worship) – I think that’s a perfect example of getting out of the boat.
I think incorporating new initiatives into worship like this music space or the new hymnals you’ll find in your pews in two weeks or empowering our children and youth to help lead worship, all while holding onto core elements of worship that have defined this congregation for over a half-century – I think that’s getting out of the boat.
I think creating a new mission initiative called the “Day of Discipleship” after worship on October 2 that will empower members of all ages to actively make a difference for Christ in our neighborhood and larger community – I think that’s getting out of the boat.
I think considering and hopefully approving a new initiative at our September congregational meeting to add a youth elder to our session beginning January 2018, thereby more fully embracing the importance of youth leadership in the life of this church – I think that’s getting out of the boat.
I think incorporating a new curriculum for our children’s Sunday school and Christian Formation ministry is getting out of the boat.
I think fostering new relationships with Smallwood Presbyterian Church in the West End and M2M, a PCUSA new worshipping community meeting in NoDa – I think that’s getting out of the boat.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. It’s what Peter was showing us when he held on to the side of the boat and brought that second foot down on the water: that being the church is not about filling pews or counting membership numbers or maintaining an institution, or either “reliving the good old days” or being all “cutting edge.” None of those are ways we as the church get out of the boat.
No, we get out of the boat and make ourselves vulnerable and leave behind our shame and refuse to be afraid of failure for the exact same reason Peter did it all those years ago: because he was here and Jesus was there. And the only thing Peter wanted to do, the only thing that mattered, was getting to Jesus.
Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid. He’s calling to us. He’s holding out his hand. What are we waiting for? I mean, seriously – what are we waiting for? Let’s take that first step together, shall we?
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 69-70.
 http://www.lifeway.com/pastors/2016/08/16/the-most-common-factor-in-declining-churches/, visited on 8.23.2016.