ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 10, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Anniversary Sunday
WATERWALKERS Romans 11: 1 – 5; Matthew 14: 22- 33 Life is full of risks: Voting. Dating. Work. Home Repairs. Driving. Often our response to risk is to attempt to control it: We put up signs. We do risk assessments. We put in cameras. But there’s something about avoiding risks that doesn’t quite make sense. Ironically, in a changing world, playing it safe is one of the riskiest things you can do. And we don’t often consider that risk. Most people, including Christians, prefer to avoid taking risks. We value the comfort of the familiar. We cling to our traditional rituals, our buildings, our ways of doing things, our financial resources and even to our self-perceived identity. The vision of a thriving congregation, growing in faith, reaching out in mission and increasing in numbers is exciting, but only if we can be the same, stay out of debt and don’t get too many new people too quickly, especially ones we won’t like. Change is risky. Growth is chancy. Vision is uncertain. So we reason its better to play it safe, doing what we’ve always done. Better to do nothing and be secure. Better to linger in a drawn out and agonizing but safe death than take a chance and fail. Better to have a congregation that suits our needs now than create a legacy for the future. In the language of “sacred architecture” the space you’re sitting in – the space between the narthex (foyer) and the chancel (area at the front) – is called The Nave. The term “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis” meaning boat or ship. A boat was one of the earliest symbols for the Church. Boats are made to travel through water. Yet more often than not the Church plays it safe by staying tied to the dock. We believe that boats never sink while moored to the pier or, better yet, when stored in dry-dock. As well, we tend to think of our buildings as a refuge. We even call use the term “sanctuary”. So not only do we have the ship tightly tied to the wharf, but we, the crew, are huddled together in the safest place – an inside cabin, midship on the lowest level. We tell ourselves Jesus is good with this; that he died so we could be safe and maintain our comfort and the status quo. Today’s reading is a story about risk. As the narrative begins we’re told of an evening when Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds” (Matthew 14: 22). Notice this. Jesus sent the disciples alone onto a windy lake at nightfall. He stayed behind. Interesting. Many Christians would say when Jesus calls us to do something, he goes ahead of us. He prepares the way. Remembering this, faith for the future comes rather easily. Others would say Jesus is along side of us, walking with us step by step, guiding our path so we can’t get lost, even carrying us through tough times so we can be sure everything will turn out lovely. This passage tells us something frightening. Sometimes when Jesus calls us to go, he stays behind. Perhaps he even puts us in harms way. To be clear, the Spirit of Christ never leaves us but sometimes it’s not readily discernable. And even in those times we are called to go ahead. Faith is much harder, scarier and more dangerous when we’re told by Christ to venture out ahead of him. As St. Stephen’s looks into the future, I need to ask: are we ready to take that risk? Are we willing to push off into unknown seas where Jesus is telling us to go? Are we prepared to come up out of our safe sanctuary and launch our boat into the wind-blown water and the dark night sky? The story continues. For 9 hours the disciples wrestle against the wind and swelling waves to keep their boat on course. I wonder what that was like. A few of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and knew their way around a boat. Were the others huddled in a corner, terrified? Did they work together? Did they argue? Did the experienced people take the lead and the others follow? Did Matthew, the tax collector, tell the fishermen a better way to sail? Did they encourage one another or blame? Did they notice how hard another was working and offer support, or did they nit pick and criticize? While some wrestled with the waves, were James and John thinking about how they could get to the place of honour in heaven? Were they a team or were there power struggles? Did they remember that Jesus had set them on this journey and come together to glorify him or did they forget the purpose of their mission? What’s the dynamic on our boat? The account continues. In the dark hours before dawn with the wind whipping around them, the water churning beneath them and the waves cresting and dropping, the disciples see a figure walking through the pouring rain towards them. They’re sure it’s a ghost, an omen of death. The situation’s not redeemable and the grim reaper has come to finish them off. Can we relate to that or what? We also see calamity around us and disaster ahead. Churches are aging, shrinking, closing. We worry that we’re too old, too small, too poor to take a risk. On top of this, the world is disinterested in our faith or even hostile to Christians. There’s turmoil both around and within us. We’re trying to hold the boat steady and but we fear it’s a losing cause. Death is coming to get us. We relate to Elijah who looked at the people of God and in his negativity, saw nothing but hopelessness, doom and gloom. But could it be, that despite appearances, its not death at all but a light of hope shining in the darkness? It’s not ghosts of our past come to show us our failures and finish us off, but salvation that is at hand? Could it be Jesus? Could Christ be walking across the water, coming to join us in the boat and still the sea? In the case of the disciples it was indeed Jesus. Not a vision of their death but a sign of new life. Jesus identified himself saying, “Do not be afraid, it is I” (vs. 27). Next thing we know Peter’s asking, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (vs. 28). What was that about? Was it an act of faith or doubt? Was he a thrill seeker? Impetuous? Was he showing off to impress Jesus or outdo his buddies? I suggest that what Peter was seeking was truth. When Jesus said, “It is I” it was the same expression God used when he spoke to Moses from the burning bush – “I am”. So Peter is asking for proof. If you truly are “I am”, allow me, an insignificant, powerless, person of shaky faith to know this for myself. Peter wanted to be with Jesus, in all his fullness. And what of the rest of the disciples? They’re still in the boat. A few years ago, John Ortberg wrote a book entitled, If you want to walk on water, you got to get out of the boat. What about us? Where would we be in this scenario? What would you be doing? If we want to be with Jesus, in the fullness of all Jesus is; if we want to know for certain he is “The Great I am” then we need to come to him across the water; across the lake of our own doubts; across the turbulent waves of our fears; through the winds that threaten to overturn our dreams and visions and through the pouring rain which could push us under or could wash us clean to give us a fresh start. To make these discoveries, we need to get out of the boat. We’re human. As much as we know we should concentrate on Christ, the storm around us is powerful and frightening and it draws us back into it’s darkness and danger. So Peter looked away from Jesus at the wind and started to sink. Rather than chide Peter for his lack of faith or focus, and chide ourselves for following in his sinking footsteps, it’s more helpful to remember that Peter cried out to Jesus to save him and Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. Will he do less for his Church, for us, when we obey his command and step out in faith, or when we cry out to him for help? When Elijah cried out to God because all was lost, God told him “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (Romans 11: 4). It is not easy being the Church today. It’s challenging to set out into a vision for the future when so much tells us to dry-dock the boat and call it a day. Just as God kept for himself a small group of faithful people in Elijah’s time, “So too at the present time, there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (vs. 5). We are that remnant. St. Stephen’s is part of that remnant. We’ve not been “chosen by grace” to sit in a boat and play it safe. Today, on this anniversary Sunday, with a vision for the future before us, can we hear and absorb the message of this account? There are those who dismiss this story because it claims Jesus walked on water. But tis that so unbelievable? Jesus walked across time and eternity; through the muck and mire of human sin; through the closed doors of our hardened hearts and the crumbling walls of many a church. He walked through the soul crushing torment of Gethsemane, through the agony of Golgotha and beyond the closed and barred doors of death. I’d say its not that incredible for Jesus to walk on water. The miraculous part of the story is this: so can we. We are called to be water walkers. Let’s get out of the boat and walk on water.