“Unraveled: Stepping in It” – Week 2 of “Unraveled” series
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
21 June, 2020

Matthew 14:22-33

As most of you are aware, across the past program year, we focused on a variety of Holy Habits.  We finished up our focus on the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching on Pentecost, three Sundays ago.  I was wondering what sort of theme might appropriately guide our summer reflections—especially given we’re launching into a summer quite unlike any summer we’ve ever had before, which is just building on the COVID spring that was unlike any other.  I knew that I wanted to explore themes related to growing in our relationships with God and one another in unexpected, unprecedented, and unpredictable times.  So, when a colleague mentioned on Monday that her church has been working with a reflection series entitled, “UNRAVELED: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart”, I knew I needed to check it out.

Turns out, the 12-week series starts with the Bible story we looked at last week in Genesis 18—the one where the elderly, barren Sarah laughs at God’s promise that even in her old age, she would have a child within the year.  Sarah’s life, like any person’s life, was a complicated swirl of relationships and emotions and experiences—with elements that are common to other lives, and elements that manifest differently for each one.

Although timing and way it presents is different for each of us, one common human experience is the feeling that life is unraveling—things are getting a bit frayed at the edges, if not completely out of control.  And the experience of our plans, our expectations, or our routines falling apart can be profoundly disorienting.  It can challenge our faith, send us searching for God in desperate ways.

Today’s scripture lesson is another story about people of faith feeling out of control, uncertain of their ability to survive or trust the instructions they’ve been given, despite having experienced God’s faithful provision for them in the past.

As we heard in the Introduction to the Theme, prior to following Jesus’ instructions to get into the boat and head across to the other side of the lake, the disciples had faced the challenge of feeding 5,000 people.  Many in that mass assembly were probably disciples of John the Baptist, who had just been assassinated at the whim of Herod’s wife and daughter.  Quite possibly with a sense that the government authorities were out of control, surely grieving the loss of a man they loved, the crowds had followed the one whom John himself had declared was a greater man than he.  Matthew reports that Jesus, who was surely also grieving, saw the crowds and “had compassion on them and cured their sick.”[1]

All day long, Jesus ministered to the sick, the grieving, and the traumatized, until the disciples commented to Jesus that no one had food and he should encourage them to go get some.  To which Jesus suggested that they should give them something to eat.  We all know how that ended: five loaves and two fish are blessed, broken, and shared.  Everyone had enough, plus twelve baskets of left-overs.  Maybe the words spoken to Sarah and Abraham echoed in the minds of the disciples just then: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”[2]  It’s easy to forget that our God delights in working wonders, and pulling off the apparently impossible, even for people who lack the faith or confidence to believe.

After an eventful day and satisfying evening, then, Jesus packs the disciples into their boat and sends them back across the lake, where he says he’ll meet them later, after he’s had some time to pray by himself.  They comply, but as the night gets deeper, the skies grow darker, the waters start churning, and suddenly they’re all fearing for their lives.  As the artist Lisle Gwynn Garrity pointed out in our Introduction to the Theme, “If you’ve ever been in open water during a storm or even high winds, you know the shockwave of fear that pulses through your veins.”  All night long, they battled the waves until the sun began to rise and they spotted an apparition on the horizon, walking toward them.

How many of you can walk on water?  Give me a thumbs up if you’re one of the unicorns who can.  I understand it was something the Search Committee discussed putting into the job description before I was a candidate; they obviously decided against it.

I wonder which would be more fear-inducing: battling the waves in a boat threatening to capsize, or seeing someone walking across the top of those waves?  But here came Jesus, responding to their terrified cries with the words, “Take heart, don’t be afraid!  It is I, Jesus!”  Peter, as usual, moves his mouth before fully engaging his brain, calling out, “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come on,” says Jesus.

We know the rest: Peter started walking on the water.  But then he noticed the wind, and the water making his clothes heavy, and he became frightened.  And that’s when he began to sink.  “Lord, save me!” he cried.  Immediately Jesus reached for Peter and, catching him, said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Fear is a powerful sinker.

You know what else is a downer?  The suggestion that the solution to our faith crises is simply to have more faith.  Depending on how you read this passage, you could walk away with the idea that that’s the intended moral of the story.  Which would be discouraging, even demoralizing—to me, at least.  Because in my experience, faith isn’t something I can just manufacture more of in moments of crisis.  Faith is not a commodity that’s supplied on-demand.

But faith is something that’s nurtured and strengthened in community.  As much as it’s reinforced by our personal devotional practices, faith is shored up by others who share examples of where they’ve seen God’s presence and faithfulness in the world and their lives.  Faith grows as we hear in countless different ways the gospel Story that has claimed us.  Rachel Held Evans calls it the Story you’re willing to risk being wrong about.  It’s the story you’re willing to wrestle with for the rest of your life, the one you know others will help to interpret, especially in those moments when you don’t have it all figured out (because, how many of us ever do?).  Faith, she suggested, is the willingness to risk getting it wrong.  And, as Peter demonstrated (and Old Testament Sarah last week), faith waxes and wanes for most of us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, best-selling author and founding pastor of the House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, quipped to her congregation a few years ago: “In the end, I just don’t know how helpful is to say ‘get faith, sinner.’  It doesn’t work.  But the weird thing is, here you all are. Gathered again around this story of the man who walks on water.  Some of you are new to the story of Christ, and for some of you it formed who you are from the cradle.  I could be wrong but I think maybe we aren’t all here because some preacher exhorted us to “have more faith.”  I think we are here because at some point we heard the Story and the story claimed us.  At some point, someone told you the story about this God who created the universe, who spoke through prophets, who came to us in Jesus, who ate with sinners and scoffed at the powerful, who suffered and died and rose again and calls us out of our of own graves to new life.  And here’s the thing about stories…  they tell us who we are. Sometimes a story can tell us what to do, but when we hear who we are/ we then know what to do.  And God’s story found in the Bible does this more than any other story can.

            And I guess this particular story of Jesus walking on water can be reduced to a moral about having more faith.  But, like so much of the Bible, it can also be a way to see who we are and see who God is for us.

            See if you recognize yourself in this story: Because maybe some of us are like the ones in the boat who are afraid.  Maybe you are so caught up in the fear of making the wrong decision that you can’t make any decision at all.  Or maybe you are like the one experiencing the thrill of stepping into the unknown – a new relationship, or a new job, or you’ve recently moved, leaving behind the familiar – and maybe the first few steps are ok but then it gets scary.  Or maybe you are the one who is sinking in debt or depression, or maybe you feel like you’re sinking because what you could handle last month you just can’t handle now.  Or maybe you’re the one who knows you’re doomed, knows that all your own efforts have failed and you are crying out to God to save you and you’re the one who Jesus has reached down to catch and you’re clinging on to the sweet hand of Jesus with all you’ve got. 

            Or maybe you’re the one in the boat looking in wonder at all you’ve just seen… you’re the one who bears witness to the miracle and danger of it all and how the hand of God reaches down and pulls us up and you see it and can’t help but say, “Truly this is God!” At some point or other I know I have been all of the above.[3]

Too often, I think, this story is told as though the point was for Peter to have more faith so that he could keep walking toward Jesus on top of the water.  But, that’s not how the story goes.  Read it again, and you’ll see that, even before Peter steps out of the boat, Jesus was coming toward them.  The disciples were afraid, completely overwhelmed, in need of saving, wondering how they were going to survive, when Jesus approached them and said, “Take heart; do not be afraid.  It is I; I’m coming to you.”  And then he was with them, and the wind and the waters and the chaos were quieted.

Friends, we are living through tumultuous times.  Even if our personal lives aren’t unraveling, the world around us sure seems to be.  Even before COVID-19, the waters of our society were churning—and now, there are some almighty reckonings going on.  Some people call moments like these “Come to Jesus moments.”  And indeed, there is a real need for us to come to Jesus—in all sorts of ways!

But the good news is this: Even before we start making our way to him, Jesus is coming toward us.  In our fear and confusion, when life feels out of control and threatens to overwhelm us, Jesus is already coming for us, saying, “Take heart, don’t be afraid.  It is I; I’m coming to you.”  When we cry out in alarm, the hand of Christ will be there to catch us – it may look surprisingly like the outreach of a neighbor or a stranger or a loved one…but when we call, God will answer.  Christ will accompany us back to whatever precarious vessel or situation we currently occupy.  And as we recognize Who it is that is with us, we will notice the storms of our life growing still.  We may even discover that the raging storm gives rise to a significant moment of growth in our faith.

I offered an artist’s reflections as the Introduction to the Theme, and I’m going to allow her to frame the closing thoughts as well.  The final paragraphs of her reflection on the painting say:

            What I find in Peter’s response is not a challenge or a profession of doubt, but a willingness to step into the swell, like a trust fall into the unknown. Perhaps in seasons when our sense of certainty and security unravels, our desperation is more likely to convert into courage. Is there something about unraveling that makes us a bit less risk-averse, a bit more willing to try what we wouldn’t have dared when everything felt predictable and sure?

            Imagine this same scene with no storm, no raging seas, no ghostly glimpse of Jesus skimming the surface. Would Peter have stepped in then? Would he have expanded his definition of what’s possible? Would he have experienced the divine so surprisingly, so surely? Would you step in?                   Amen.

[1] Matthew 14:14

[2] Genesis 18:14

[3] Nadia Bolz-Weber, [find sermon link]

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