THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, August 13, 2017
We all know the basics of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s a story that sticks in our minds, especially if we learned it early in our church training. It is a highly visual story and gives way easily to the imagination.
Often, however, we only visualize the roiling sea, the buffeted boat, and the eerie presence on the waters. We forget to take into account the opening scene. Jesus has sent the disciples on their way to cross the lake. He then retreats into the surrounding hills to be alone for prayer.
Jae Won Lee, a New Testament professor at McCormick Seminary in Chicago, says that this episode is parallel to the preceding one when Jesus fed the 5,000. The feeding happened in a isolated and deserted place. The mountain prayer retreat of Jesus is also an isolated place. According to Lee, Jesus’ isolation on a mountain makes for an alternative to the rampant unbelief in his homeland and to the brutal imperial world of Herod Antipas who held sway over the Galilean region.(1) The air of the day was as rife with anxiety as our local air is heavy with humidity.
The contrast and the tension is quickly evident in the way the passage is put together. Jesus is alone on the mountain. At the same time, the disciples are in a boat on rough waters, separated from Jesus. Jesus comes to them walking on the lake’s surface. Jesus’ sea-walking leads to the question of Jesus’ identity, which then prompts Peter’s unsuccessful attempt to walk on the water. This necessitates Peter’s rescue by Jesus to save him. This is followed by an exhortation by Jesus to trust. The storm abates, the sea becomes calm, and the other disciples, perhaps Peter, too, declare that Jesus must be God’s Son.
When Jesus sent the disciples out in the boat, did he know that the storm was going to come up and cause them great distress? We can’t say for sure. But we can make some general assumptions, which are: storms happen; storms happen when we least expect them; storms always cause anxiety.
As is so often quipped, life is what happens when we are busy making other plans. Can’t you hear the conversation that the disciples might have been having as they started sailing across the lake. They were thinking of a home-cooked breakfast, a chance to catch some shut-eye, and perhaps a lull in the nearly relentless ministry which Jesus had led them on. They wanted a different kind of calm than what Jesus was experiencing in the emptiness of the isolated hills. They want relaxation, entertainment, and no responsibilities. They thought that if Jesus stayed away a while, they could fall back into the carefree groove of their former lives. At least the attending anxieties were familiar.
Then something happened. That nasty storm came up. The headwinds were driving them if not backward, then certainly far from the port they had intended to put into. Storms happen. When we least want or need them.
The curious thing about this story is that it isn’t the storm which scares the disciples. Some of them were seasoned sailors. What scares the disciples, what causes them to scream, is Jesus. The presence of Jesus heightens their anxiety.
We live in an anxious world. Our blood pressure goes up with each succeeding newscast. Or when the doctor’s office calls after routine tests. Or when a family member calls on an unexpected day. Or when we see the list on BVTV of a new admission to the Bristol Health Center or a new death.
We want the calm we have known in times past. We don’t want the weight of life on our shoulders. We want safe harbor. We don’t want more anxiety. But we got it. Last January one very calm portion of our lives went on storm watch, and as the days pass by the storm gets closer and closer. Our anxiety grows because the solid sailing of our life as a congregation started becoming unmoored. Pastor Rick is leaving and taking the boat with him.
The lake of congregational life is day by day getting more and more roiled with anxiety:
• Who is going to preach?
• Who is going to do my memorial service?
• Who is going to unlock and lock the building?
• Who is going to know who to call when the air conditioning goes out?
• Who is going to explain how the copier works?
• Who is going to have the nifty ideas of how to celebrate Advent?
• Who is going to know what to do if we make a mistake with the accounting system?
And on and on and on.
Together we have lived on the boat of the ministry of one individual for many years. It’s been a solid boat for the most part, nothing that an occasional week in dry dock couldn’t help, a pat on gunwale, or a new oar every now and then. We never expected the kind of storm we got when the boat decided to stop sailing altogether.
Cliff Kirkpatrick, former stated clerk of the General Assembly, tells of attending an ecumenical gathering at which Ernest Campbell, then the pastor of Riverside Church in New York, addressed a group of pastors on the crisis in churches. Campbell asserted that the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it. Kirkpatrick thought Campbell was right. The key to faith and fullness of life in Christ is to follow Peter’s example and be willing to step out of the comfort and security of the boat and head into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy, and justice of God that we find in Jesus Christ. Being a disciple is a risky and exciting business, but that is exactly what God calls us to do and to be, and God assures us that if we get out of the boat, we can count on the accompaniment of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.(2)
Who prompts Peter to get of the boat in the midst of the storm? Jesus. Jesus says, “Come.”
Where do we see Jesus in the midst of the storm?
We don’t see Jesus in the throes of our anxiety. Nor do we see Jesus by denying that we are anxious.
We don’t see Jesus in the dream that the next pastor will be the magic bullet for Waverly First Presbyterian Church, a super-pastor who will be all things to all people and who will bring in the masses (who will be just like us, of course).
We don’t see Jesus in desiring a new boat that is the exact replica of the one we have had.
We don’t see Jesus in focusing inward and thinking only of ourselves and our personal needs.
We don’t see Jesus in thinking that if we could only turn the clock back to 1980, 1974, 1963, to the good old days when nothing went wrong. Only those weren’t good days. 1980 – Iran hostage crisis; 1974 – President Nixon’s resignation; 1963 – President Kennedy’s assassination.
Where do we see Jesus in the midst of our roiling life together?
We see Jesus at prayer. The gospel doesn’t tell us what Jesus was praying for in the mountain retreat. It doesn’t need to. As Jae Won Lee pointed out, Jesus was praying for belief by those whom God had called to be his in the midst of cultural and institutional unbelief. The boat doesn’t matter. The lake doesn’t matter. Jesus matters.
The disciples screamed when they saw Jesus. Were they afraid of Jesus? Were they scared of Jesus? Were they ashamed of Jesus? Were they like children who were caught with their
hands in the cookie jar? Did they suspect that Jesus knew that their belief was weak? William H. Willimon, Duke Divinity School theologian and United Methodist Church bishop, may have put it best in a sermon entitled, “How Will You Know If It’s Jesus?”:
If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.(3)
Getting out of the boat with Jesus is the most risky, most exciting, and most fulfilling way to live life to the fullest. The storm you are dreading will be a wonderful opportunity to get out of the boat and into faith. Pray before the storm.