Thursday, August 14, 2014

When High Hopes Get All Wet

Jonah 2:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 14:22-33

Between Pentecost and the season of Advent, we find ourselves in ordinary time, not ordinary as in plain, old ordinary; but ordinary, from the word “ordinal,” meaning “numbered.”  The lectionary readings between Advent and Pentecost are based on the life of Jesus and the Sundays are often named after the major events in his life.  The readings during the other half of the year, after Pentecost and before the next Advent, speak to the Church about its life and they are numbered—like the hairs on your head are numbered, each important, but part of a whole.  The liturgical color is green symbolizing the Vine and branches, the Tree of Life, the Church—Christ alive in the world.  The gospel stories that we read are not so much about Jesus, as they are about us and how we live out our faith.

Today’s story has to do with stormy times in our journey, when it looks like the forces that are around us will swamp us and we’ll die.  In all reality, this is one of those times for the Church with a capital C.  Church attendance has plummeted in every denomination.  Every year struggling churches make the sad and painful decision to close.  I don’t remember the last Annual Conference when we didn’t pray over at least one church that was no longer viable.  At our last Council on Ministries meeting I listened to the lament around the table that this church is different than it used to be.  The list of what we don’t do any more, camping trips, youth group, etc. was long.  The hopes of starting a new youth program was raised.  We have some money from the Carr bequest—maybe we could hire someone. . . . Several times over the past couple of years, we’ve had a family visit for a number of weeks.  We stepped up our ministry to meet their needs, spending money on our nursery, providing a child care provider, only to have the family find a church with more children or a different worship style—or both.  Sometimes I feel like Peter climbing out of the boat, full of confidence, only to get doused.  So I tell you what, I need to hear this story.  I think, as a church, we need to hear this story, and maybe there’s something in your life that resonates with Peter’s experience.

What is most striking is the recognition that this extraordinary request has no validity apart from the command of Jesus.  Peter does not so much ask for supernatural powers as he asks to recognize that whatever Jesus commands, Jesus makes possible. The commands of Jesus, taken seriously, create miracles; they open an incredible reservoir of divine resources. Apart from such commands, not much unusual is going to happen.  There’s a huge difference between saying “I wish we had” or “we ought to do” than hearing a command:  “You give them something to eat,” “Feed my sheep,” “Love one another.”  There’s a difference between the pastor or the nominating committee calling to ask you to serve on a board and hearing Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me.”  When we hear Jesus speak directly to us with a clear directive—and we act—miracles happen.  
    Second, when the command is spoken, Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic analysis of Peter’s response is worth pondering.  
Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord.  If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith . . . . The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.

Bonhoeffer goes on to draw the theological paradox that emerges from this scene: only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes. “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”  Had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.

Third, it is possible to step out of the boat on faith, and then to notice the storm under your feet; to begin to sink in the turbulent waves.  That’s how I’ve felt when we have prepared a beautiful nursery and hired wonderful Maya, only to see the nursery go unused; to see so many children here at Vacation Bible School year after year and know that in spite of all of our efforts, they will not become a part of our church.  It is so easy to get discouraged—to feel all wet.  When have you stepped out of the boat and found yourself sinking?  When have your highest hopes gotten all wet?  

The alternative is to stay in the boat like the other disciples.  Apparently Jesus was going to reach the boat and the disciples would have been safe, arriving on shore in the morning.  That’s the part of the story no one writes about.  What if Peter hadn’t stepped out of the boat, trying to do what Jesus was doing that was really pretty miraculous.  A lot of our churches have done just that—stayed in the boat, afraid of the storm, hoping Jesus would find them step.  Or we can ask Jesus to command us to step out on the water, and onto a sea in the middle of a storm, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the command.

We don’t need to be afraid of not being successful.  Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, said about his failure to invent the light bulb, “We have only found 586 ways that won't work and won't have to be tried again.  Soon, we will find one that does.”  He later claimed, “If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

I am encouraged by the part of the story where Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter’s hand and pulls him up and into the boat saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Well I’ll tell you why we doubt!  We see the waves and feel the power of the storm instead of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and feeling the power of his command.

What is God calling this church to be and do right now?  A few weeks ago I asked how you thought God was calling us to be in ministry, or where your passion for ministry is.  Your overwhelming responses were to seniors and to children.  But nothing will happen until God speaks a command into our hearts and we make a ministry our own by our obedience to that command.  We cannot hire it out.  It is ours to do, or it will fail.

So I ask you to pray about these questions:
  • What happens when we become afraid of the storms around us?
  • Where is our hope?  
  • Do we believe that Jesus makes possible what he has commanded?
Let us be obedient and may our obedience lead us to ever greater faith!

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