Immediately he made the disciples get into a 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 toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, 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.”Matthew 14:22-32 (NRSVUE)
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 toward 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.”
This Sunday, Jim Fennell led worship while Pastor Kelly was on vacation.
In the book of Genesis, when Moses was nervous about going to Egypt and speaking to Pharaoh, the Lord spoke from the burning bush and said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
Oh, wait. I was a little nervous this morning, and those are my notes of encouragement to help myself overcome my fears of preaching this morning! Here it is, here’s the sermon…
How many of you are old enough, like me, to remember a time when we didn’t walk around with little supercomputers in our pockets? Does anyone remember what a different world that was? Remember driving somewhere you weren’t familiar with, not knowing how to get where you wanted to go, WITHOUT having a GPS telling you when and where to turn? How did we ever get anywhere? Well, for those of you who aren’t that old, we used to have these things called “road maps” that you could get from a big rack at a gas station. It was a huge piece of paper that was folded, and folded, and folded in some magical way that once you unfolded it to use it, you could never quite get it folded back up the right way. Does anyone remember that?
What if you were a delivery driver or a salesperson back then? Did anyone have that experience? Remember the big books of street maps we had for all different neighborhoods? You had to look up your address in the back, and it would tell you the page to turn to and a letter and number that told you the grid square on the map where your destination could be found.
Getting around in an unfamiliar area could be quite a challenge. But after a little while, with a little practice and experience, you could learn your way around, and then it became a lot easier.
Sometimes in life, we feel a little lost, just like being lost on the road. Maybe we don’t know where it is we want to go or what we want to do. Or maybe we do know those things, but we have no idea of how to get there and how to make it happen. It’s helpful to have some sort of map or a guide that we can rely on in other aspects of life to remind us of the things that are really important and how best to make them happen, to remind us of the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish with each step.
Often in church, we hear about “missions.” Sometimes, it’s in the context of a “missions trip” where people travel somewhere to help others in need. Other times, church missions efforts are closer to home. In fact, after worship today, our missions ministry will be meeting to discuss many of the projects we’re doing to reach out and help those in need in right here our community. If you’d like to find out more, you’re welcome to join the meeting or talk with Cindi Barkley or other folks in our missions ministry.
But although “missions” is a church word that gets thrown around a lot, it has meaning outside the church as well. Those of us who are old enough to remember roadmaps may remember a television show called “Mission: Impossible” that existed long before the Tom Cruise movies, or you might remember various “missions to the moon” that NASA undertook. (I know; now I’m really dating myself!) Missions are the things we do: our goals and our objectives. They include the “what” we want to do and the “how” we plan to accomplish it. Having a clearly defined mission is important because, as my father used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing, how will you know when you get there or when you’re done?”
And just as important as the “what we do” and the “how we do it” is the “why” we do the things we do. A good way to tie missions together is to have a “vision,” a common thread that runs through everything we do and speaks to why we do it. It helps determine what our missions should be, keeps us focused on the things that matter, and gives us guidance when questions arise. A good vision also helps us accomplish even bigger things by making sure our missions are all moving us in the same direction and that it’s a direction that we want to go.
So, how do we develop a vision that we can rely on? What things can we look to that can give us direction? These days, it can be difficult to find things we can rely on with certainty. There are a lot of voices vying for our attention these days. Some folks turn to social media, or politics, or television, or the latest YouTube or TikTok influencer. But so often, those voices have their own agendas, and they do nothing other than confuse us or tear us and others down. Heck, we can’t even rely on photographs or audio and video recordings anymore. They’ve all become so easy to fake, and the fakes look so authentic that they’re impossible to distinguish from the “real thing.”
We need a firm foundation in our lives, an anchor, something we can easily recall that reminds us who we are and why we do what we do, and helps us to avoid drifting away in unanticipated and possibly undesirable directions. I know from personal experience that losing touch with who you are – the truths that make you “you” and drive the “why” of what you do – can lead you down roads you never intended into places you never thought you’d be, having no idea of how you got so far from where you thought you were, and wondering how you can possibly get out and get back.
Well, let’s turn back to today’s scripture lesson and see what it has to teach us. The “walking on water” story appears in three of the four gospels, and in all three, it happens right after the “feeding of the five thousand” story we heard last week. After picking up those famous basketfuls of miraculous leftovers, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead to their next destination while he stays behind. The disciples set out by boat, but out on the water, a storm blows up, and the disciples struggle against the wind and waves to get where they want to go. Then, they look up, and they see Jesus coming right towards them, walking on the water! In all three stories, when Jesus gets to their boat, the winds and the waves calm, and they reach their destination safely.
But in Matthew’s gospel, which we heard earlier, there’s a part of the story that only Matthew tells. Peter, perhaps inspired or reminded by the arrival of Jesus, says, “Jesus, tell me to come to you.” And then, with Jesus’ help, Peter steps out of the boat and stands with Jesus on the surface of the water.
Peter had his mission. Remember, Jesus had changed his name from Simon to Peter because he was to be the rock on which Jesus would build His church. He was to be the leader, the example, the one for others to look to. It must have been amazing to see Peter standing there on the water. But Peter was probably freaking out a little bit, standing there on top of the water. At that moment, the wind picks up, and the waves rise around him. The storm re-asserts itself in Peter’s mind, and Peter gets distracted. He takes his eyes off Jesus and focuses more on his fears and challenges. And as his vision shifts from faith to fear, he begins to sink.
Friends, when we allow our fears to drive us more than our faith, we all begin to sink, and that’s also an important part of the story. Jesus could have ensured that the disciples had smooth sailing for their trip, but he didn’t. He allowed the storm to rise. And when Peter stepped out of the boat, Jesus could have allowed Peter to dance a jig on the water without even getting so much as a toe wet. But he didn’t.
As the cliche goes, we sometimes wonder why Jesus allows bad things to happen to good people. As scripture tells us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Jesus takes the adversity in our lives and turns it into something helpful. In this case, it’s a teaching moment. Jesus shows Peter, the disciples, and us how to vanquish our fears.
Peter began to sink when his vision turned away from Jesus, and he focused more on his fears. And fortunately, in that instant, he turned his eyes back to Jesus and cried out for Jesus to save him. And when he remembered and reset his vision, he was saved.
We all have challenges in our lives when our fears rise up and sometimes become all that we can see. It’s been a little while since I’ve led worship here in Oldtown, but I’ve done it before. And yet, every time, my fears and insecurities can get the best of me. I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying that I haven’t done enough, that I won’t be ready. Or maybe I’ll preach too long, and people will tune out or fall asleep or get up and leave. My thoughts become a runaway train and soon I’ve got myself convinced I’m no good at anything.
Stories like that burning bush story I mentioned earlier also speak to what we can do when our fears threaten to overcome our faith. Remember, God had just given Moses a pretty big mission: to return to Egypt and persuade the mighty Pharaoh to release God’s people from slavery. God was asking Moses–a shepherd hiding out in the wilderness from the shame of his past–to become a victorious liberator of people, opposing the strongest empire of the day. And Moses’s fears had him questioning and doubting himself. Even just the public speaking part was enough for Moses to ask, “Wait. Who? Me?”
But this was a burning bush! It burned right through Moses’ fear that he wasn’t strong enough or gifted enough for such a mission. It burned right through Moses’ fear of whether the Israelites would believe him when he said he had actually spoken with God and that God had sent him. And when all Moses had to fall back on was his self-doubt, that all-too-easy fear that strikes each and every one of us and tells us that we’re not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, good-looking enough, skinny enough, this enough, that enough, enough, enough, enough!! When all Moses could say was, “I’ve never really been good at speaking,” God’s answer was, “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” God said, “Turn your eyes back to me, and I will show you the way.” He sent Moses’ brother Aaron with him, to show that we were made for community and that there is strength when we work together God was with them the whole way and the whole time, and they were able to accomplish that mission and fulfill the vision of freeing the people of God from slavery in Egypt.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, when the winds begin to blow and the waves of fear begin to rise, know that God is bigger than all our fears. Turning our eyes away from those fears to our faith in Jesus can be difficult, but one way to make it easier is to build the relationship that Jesus wants with all of us. The Bible tells us to write the word on our doorframes, to teach it to our children, to consume it fully as if it were sweet honey, and to hide it away in our hearts. Because when the Word is truly hidden away in your heart, it’s always there with you, just as God is always there with you. And it’s easy to remember it in times of trouble, to lean on it, and to know that as long as our mission and our vision is aligned with God, we will get where we are going.
You know, in that story of Moses, the bible never speaks of the burning bush going out. It burns to this day for you, for me, and for all of us. Let the word of God burn down all your fears and light a fire in your soul. Step out of the boat and get your feet a little wet, and when you turn your eyes to Jesus, you just might be a part of a miracle or two in your own life!
My brothers and sisters, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.