Every morning I come into my office, about the first thing I do is to turn on my computer and open my email account. Still today, I continue to be amazed by how the computer, the internet, and email have changed my life and work. It is all such a great source of information and communication…and, of course, jokes. Recently a friend sent me an email with the subject heading, “What do you think?” Below was a bold faced title that read “Religions of the World.” Underneath that title was a column listing 16 major and minor world religions. Next to each religion was a terse explanation of why, according to that particular religion, “bad things” happen. The “explanations” were funny and often vaguely true, but also generally irreverent and anything but politically correct. In fact, it didn’t actually say “bad things.” What it actually said was more graphic and earthy.
A couple of examples: Next to Roman Catholicism it said something like, “If bad things happen, I must deserve it.” Next to Buddhism it sort of said, “When bad things happen, are they really bad things?” Next to Jehovah’s Witnesses, it said, “Knock, knock, bad things happen.” For Judaism, it said, “Why do bad things always happen to us?” Protestantism was near the bottom of the list. That line read something like this, “Protestantism: Bad things won’t happen if I work hard enough.”
For us Protestants, that’s a little funny because there’s a little truth to it. It plays off of the famous and infamous Protestant work ethic. This ethic gave rise to a tradition of hard work, entrepreneurialism, volunteerism, and individual responsibility. On the other hand though, the Protestant ethic can tempt people like you and me to believe and act as if “I and my effort” can really help us control what happens in our lives, or as the email explanation went, “Bad things won’t happen if I work harder.”
Hard as we may work though, try as we might, bad things still happen because there are things outside of our control. The stock market heads downward and we worry about the kid’s college fund. A friend betrays a confidence and you become the subject of gossip. The doctor’s office calls and leaves a voicemail that we need to come back in because there is a question about one of the tests. Put it another way, you find yourself in the middle of one of those storms of life in which you have no control.
Every now and then we are given reminders that we are not in control. And when it happens the questions come: Where can I turn? Who can I trust? Who will anchor me in this storm? Who will be with me?
One time late into the night the disciples found themselves in such a situation. Here is the scene: Jesus has gone off to pray while the disciples have gotten into a boat to row across to the western side of the Sea of Galilee. A storm comes up. (Not unlike the severe thunderstorm this last Monday evening.) The wind blows hard, creating waves that batter against the disciple’s boat. They struggle to turn the boat into the wind, pulling hard on the oars to gain some measure of control. Heaving and straining they fight against the elements, but the boat is rocking and starts to take on water. Some of the men begin to bail as the boat is in danger of foundering. Wordlessly the disciples sit anxiously with their fears. Everything feels out of control. There is danger in the water.
In ancient times, the sea was known as a place of uncontrollable forces. It was believed that demonic forces lived beneath the surface. The great beast of the sea, the Leviathan, a symbol of evil, was said to be lurking there. Today we still believe there is danger in the water. That’s why we are required by law to build fences around backyard swimming pools. Why we have life jackets in our boats. Why we teach our children to swim at an early age.
The disciples are nearing exhaustion battling the storm. It is somewhere between three and six o’clock in the morning when they see what appears to be a figure of someone coming toward the boat – walking on the water! “It’s ghost,” one of them cries out in fear.
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor was told by some sailors familiar with the sea that during the fourth watch, that hour just before the dawn, they had experienced and seen some pretty weird things. “Your mind begins to play tricks on you,” they told her. “You stare out at the waves long enough and you begin to think you see land, or worse, you think you see rocks rising up in front of you, or phantom ships, or a sea monster.” (Lectionary Homiletics (July 2000): p. 42)
Were the disciples hallucinating like those sailors on the fourth watch? Or is it possible Jesus really strolled across the stormy sea? Or is this iconic image of Jesus meant more as a metaphor than a reported fact? Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says “Many things in the gospels stretch our sense of what is possible, often beyond the breaking point…To the students in my religion classes, I suggest whenever a debate arises about whether a spectacular event like Jesus walking on water is factually true or not, “Believe whatever you want about whether it really happened that way; now let’s talk about what the story means.” (The Meaning of Jesus, p.249)
As he nears the bobbing boat, Jesus calls out to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter quickly answers, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus answers, “Come.”
Peter swings both legs over the side of the boat, stands up unsteadily, and steps on the water. He takes a couple small tentative steps and another. Then almost as it he suddenly realizes he is defying the law of gravity, Peter the “Rock” sinks down like a stone.
Is the meaning of this story an illustration of failure? I have heard those sermons that say the problem is that Peter took his eyes off of Jesus – all we have to do is keep our eyes on Jesus and everything will be OK. I am not so sure the meaning of this story is that simple or obvious. What about the fact that Peter got out of the boat in the first place. Out of faith he took a risk. And though he didn’t get far, at least he waded in the water.
A story is told about a young boy growing up on a farm. One summer’s day he walked down to the river with some older boys. There he sat on the bank and watched as the other boys took hold of a long rope tied to the branch of a tree and swung themselves out over the moving water. He watched them as they arched across the sky and then let go of the rope, falling down and disappearing into dark water under the current. A little ways downstream their heads would break the surface and they would swim back to shore, and egg him on, urging him to take a turn. He was afraid, but decided to give it a try. He grasped the rope, got a running start, and swung far out over the river. At the height of his ride he willed his hands to let go of the rope, but they would not – it was so far down, the water was moving so fast. He had watched how the other boys did it, but he just hung there, dangling between sky and the river, until two of the boys hauled him back onto the bank. After three unsuccessful tries, he decided to give it one last go. He remembers, “I took hold of the rope. Without being sure what would happen, I ran and jumped out, sailing into the air. But this time I opened my hands and let go. I hit the water, went down and came back up. ‘I did it!’ I yelled.”
Here’s a question: “What if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat with perfect confidence, landed with both feet flat on the water and smiled across the waves at Jesus, gliding toward him without a moment’s hesitation. What if the other disciples had followed suit, piling out of the boat after him and all of them, with perfect faith, had romped on the water? What if? Well, “it would be a different story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be about [people like you and me].” (The Seeds of Heaven, p.37)
Which brings us back to the basic question Marcus Borg asked his students: What does this story mean for us?
Over the years, many have read this story as saying Peter’s failed attempt meant that he did not have enough faith. Possibly that is what Matthew may have had in mind. Looking at it from a different angle however, it is also possible to say that Peter had enough faith…enough faith to get out of the boat to meet Jesus.
Ah-ah-ah you say, “When Jesus pulled Peter out of the sea didn’t he say, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ That sure sounds like a direct criticism of his faith.” I suppose so. But what if we hear Jesus saying those words more as encouragement: “Peter, come on, have some faith. Trust in me.”
Either way, the meaning of this story is that we can trust in Jesus to be there when we feel ourselves sinking and going under. There are times that the waves just roll over us. This story encourages us to have faith enough to trust in God when bad things happen and we lose all our illusions of control.
Henri Nouwen, the late Roman Catholic spiritual writer, eloquently illustrated this kind of trust, using the example of the “Flying Rodleighs,” a troop of trapeze artists who performed with a famous German circus.
“When the circus came to Freiburg two years ago,” he wrote, “my friends…invited me and my father to see the show. I will never forget how enraptured I became when I first saw the Rodleighs move through the air, flying and catching, as elegant as dancers. The next day, I returned to the circus to see them again and introduced myself to them as one of their greatest fans. They invited me to attend their practice sessions, gave me free tickets, asked me to dinner, and suggested that I travel with them for a week in the near future. I did, and we became good friends.
“One day I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troop, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, ‘As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am a great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.
“‘How does it work?’” Nouwen asked. ‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me to safety…’
“‘You do nothing!” said Nouwen surprised. ‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing a flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe, it’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.” (Our Greatest Gift, p. 66-67)
The closing hymn we will sing is a lovely Korean hymn called “Lonely the Boat.” It powerfully describes the fear and loneliness of those tossed about by a stormy sea. The final stanza makes a strong statement of trust in God, even when bad things happen.
Storms in our lives, cruel and cold,
Surely will arise again.
Threatening lives, threatening
us on Life’s wild sea.
Powerful and great, God’s hand is
there, firmly in control.
O Lord, calm peace comes from You,
peace comes to my lone soul.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen