First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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Drawing Outside of the . . . Boat
October 29, 2000
Matthew 14:22-33           The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder

Introduction to the Scripture:

There are two stories in the Gospels involving Jesus, the disciples, a boat and a storm. Once Jesus was in the boat with the twelve on the Sea of Galilee, when a great storm came up. While the disciples fought wind and rain, Jesus was asleep - until, of course, they awoke him, pleading for their lives. Jesus calms the storm, and all is well. In the second story - the one we are about to hear - Jesus is not with his friends in the boat. While he prays on land, they are battered by waves all night, until they have this strange and eerie experience of seeing Jesus coming to them, apparently walking on the water. And then we have Peter, and his brief but glorious venturing forth onto the water himself. It is a story awash with symbolism, and chuning with both challenge and comfort. Let us hear now the story of Peter and Jesus, followed by our stewardship verses for this year, a great benediction - words of promise and blessing upon us.
          Matthew 14:22-33

          I bring you fond greetings from Bob and Nancy Spalding with whom I had dinner last Saturday evening near their home on Cape Cod. Bob, for those of you who may not know, was the pastor here from 1977-87, with a very fine, healing ministry to this church. It was good to see the Spaldings, as they remember with great affection their many friends in Oshkosh. Bob, by the way, has just begun a new ministry as an interim pastor, guiding a church on the Cape through a time of transition, and no doubt doing an excellent job at it.

          Carol and I last week enjoyed some beautiful weather on the Cape, with the leaves of New England just barely past their peak. It was a first-time visit to that area for me, and so the first time that I had been to the birthplace of our country, and of the Congregational Way in this country, namely, Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was onto Plymouth Rock that that sturdy band of pilgrims as they are known today stepped, on a cold November day in 1620, after sixty-six days on board the Mayflower. We toured Plimoth Plantation - a reconstruction of the first settlement, with its very small and simple one-room homes, surrounded by gardens upon which they depended for survival, and we talked to some of the residents - actors playing the parts of some of the first Pilgrim settlers.

          And we saw too the rock - or what is left of Plymouth Rock these days. Over the last 380 years since the landing, the rock has been used and abused, and venerated, and even moved about, until now it is but a shadow of its former self. As much as we enjoyed seeing the rock, we enjoyed more learning of its history, especially the story of how in 1910 or so the Plymouth town fathers decided to move their famous rock to the town square. A good idea, it seemed, but In the process, unfortunately, they dropped it, and broke it in two! Cant you just see the crowd standing around at that Homer Simpson moment, having just broken the one and only Plymouth rock? The Pilgrim fathers and mothers, I fancy, would think it a fine work of Providence to thus stifle such foolish pomp and ritual as they might call it, venerating a thing so clearly of this world and not of heaven!

          And we saw too the rock - or what is left of Plymouth Rock these days. Over the last 380 years since the landing, the rock has been used and abused, and venerated, and even moved about, until now it is but a shadow of its former self. As much as we enjoyed seeing the rock, we enjoyed more learning of its history, especially the story of how in 1910 or so the Plymouth town fathers decided to move their famous rock to the town square. A good idea, it seemed, but In the process, unfortunately, they dropped it, and broke it in two! Cant you just see the crowd standing around at that Homer Simpson moment, having just broken the one and only Plymouth rock? The Pilgrim fathers and mothers, I fancy, would think it a fine work of Providence to thus stifle such foolish pomp and ritual as they might call it, venerating a thing so clearly of this world and not of heaven!

          As did our friend Peter in the story for today. Now Peter was no fool. He had lived around water all his life, and before following Jesus he had followed the sea, or at least, that lake known to us as the Sea of Galilee. He knew that it took a degree of faith just to get into a boat on that lake no bigger that Lake Winnebago. The act of stepping from the dock onto any boat, be it small or large, requires a letting go and trusting in. We let go of the stability of the earth, and cast our fate to a ship on an ever- changing, moving, unknown sea. Martin Luther, in fact, often likened faith to boarding a ship. He said that the person who doesnt have faith is like someone who has to cross the sea but is so frightened that he does not trust the ship, and so stays where he is . . . [Aqua Church, page 90] Peter by experience knew just how treacherous his sea could be: a lake that could in a very short time go from placid to ferocious. Storms could come up very quickly, on that Sea of Galilee, and even seasoned fishermen could get into trouble.

          And so they did. Far from the shore, battered by the waves, Peter and his friends are afraid. But not afraid enough - yet - to abandon ship. Small as it was, it still offered them a bit of shelter and hope - surely being in the boat is safer than being outside just now. But their fears of the storm are soon multiplied by fears of another sort: its not even Halloween yet, and what do they see but something like a ghost out there in the pre-dawn light, looking for everything in the world like, well, like Jesus, walking it seemed on the water. Its a ghost! they cry out as one. And the ghost answers them, Take heart, it is I; dont be afraid.

          Note that the wind is still blowing, the storm is still raging. This figure that sure looks like Jesus has not yet done anything about the circumstances, as dire as they seem. The message is only, Take heart . . . dont be afraid. A message that - sometimes - is all we need to hear. Peter, though, is not satisfied with that, and he isnt really sure who ghost out there is, although hes got a good idea. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

          Now, Im not so sure I would have said that! How about, Lord, if it is you, calm this storm! Or maybe, If thats really you, Jesus, get into this boat with us! No, Peter is a risk-taker. And Jesus, I think, likes that. He invites Peter to get out into the storm, to overcome the storm, and to join him in the midst of the frightening chaos of the churning sea.

          You know the rest of the story, how Peter takes the second, greater step of faith that night. The first step was just getting on board. The second is getting off board, stepping onto the waves to follow his Lord. And he did just fine - for a while - didnt he? The text is wonderfully understated here: when he noticed the strong wind, as though he hadnt noticed the storm around him! He became frightened, and began to sink. But no matter. Jesus is there to pick him up, immediately, says the text, to reassure the reader that at no point was Peter forsaken, left alone to his fate.

          Well now: what does this little story of Peter - his part is only three verses long - have to tell us today? As I mentioned in the introduction, it is a story that cries out to be understood symbolically, and that is exactly what Christians have done over the centuries. The Scriptures, beginning in Genesis, link the sea, the ocean - any large body of water - with chaos, and fear. One scholar says that the sea represents all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of the created order. [NIB, page 327] Oceans are large and dark and moving, filled with unknown creatures and dangers. And so the stormy sea represents a scary world - and it is; a world in which bad things happen - and they do. Life, like the sea cannot be tamed, as much as we would love to do that. It cannot be predicted, as much as we wish we could know what will happen next. The stormy sea stands for the world, with all of its unknowns, with all of its fears.

          And the disciples boat, tossed about, battered by the waves: the boat peopled as it is with the twelve disciples, many have said it is the community of faith, the church. As Matthew wrote his gospel the church of his day was experiencing persecution and trial. He wanted his readers to take heart, that the little ship of faith could weather the storm. And he wanted them to know that Jesus while no longer physically on board with them was still not far off, indeed, he would come to them in the storm to still the winds, if they would only trust and obey him. That image over the centuries has brought great comfort to the church in time of trouble.

          As writer Leonard Sweet points out, In the Scriptures Jesus is pictured sometimes in the boat with his disciples, even sleeping inside the boat. But at other times [in the story today] Jesus stood out of the boat, calling his disciples to join him [on the sea], not to abandon the boat but to rock the boat. Jesus, he says, was a master at making people think outside the box, and getting people to climb out of the boat. [Aqua Church, page 96]

          The phrase thinking outside the box has been so overused now that it itself is inside the box! And so, with Peter and Jesus in mind, let us think outside the boat. That is, let us learn to be risk-takers; let us learn how to take that step outside of the usual definitions of our church, to imagine much greater things for us. Let us learn that the living Christ - the Holy Ghost, to use a word from the story - is not only to be found in the boat, but out there, beckoning us to join him in the world where wind and wave are the norm, where change and challenge are not to be feared, but expected and overcome. For, truth be told, even if we cling stubbornly to the safety of our little boat we still will not escape the storms of our world, will we!

          Leonard Sweet, whom I just mentioned, has written a book called Aqua Church in which he talks about what churches need to do to survive and thrive in these times of radical societal change, in these Postmodern days. One thing churches will need to do is to take risks - take that step over the side of the boat, into the sea. Sometimes the risk will lead to new life, and other times the risk will cost a great price. There are no guarantees in this church business, except the guarantee that unless we are willing to experiment and change, reaching out in new ways, risking what we are and have for what we might yet become, then we will in the end lose even that which we have and thought would have forever. There is no safety in faith, except the safety that God will go with us through the days ahead, as we are willing to venture forth into - onto - the deep.

          One of faiths demands that always includes risk is the need to give of ourselves. For faith must ever and always be about giving - not only time and talent and finances, but the giving of our selves for the world. And giving always includes risking.

          Some eighty years ago the great preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick used an analogy from the Holy Land to illustrate what I mean. He pointed to the two great bodies of water in Palestine, the Sea of Galilee that weve already heard about, and the great Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is in the north, surrounded by fertile fields and forest. Out of it flows the river Jordan, south, down to the Dead Sea. Now the Dead Sea is quite literally dead because its salt content is so high. It is surrounded by salt flats and desert. Fosdick writes,

The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from the heights of Mount Hermon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of [this water], for it has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain. But the Dead Sea with the same water makes [instead of beauty] horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep. [The Meaning of Service, page 67]

          To have faith is to give, and to give is to risk - whether we are talking about emotional giving, or the giving of physical help, or spiritual support of another, or financial giving. All faith must give, and all giving carries a risk. But here is the principle of faith that must be heard: without the giving, there is no life. If we only receive, and never give, if there is no outlet, there in the end will only be death.

          Giving means risking, and giving more means risking more. But risking more also means gaining more - not in financial return, but in the joy of knowing that we have made a difference, we have walked the storm with our Lord, we have dared to step out into the world, to encounter its dangers but also to encounter there the living Christ.

          Next Sunday we gather to take a step into our future, as we make our commitments of financial support to one another for the year ahead. It is a risk, this business of pledging money we - really - may or may not have to give. For who knows what the year holds for us? Truly only God knows. But God promises to be there with us. And so let us with Peter take the step faith as individuals and as a church together. Let us be in some small way at least like our Pilgrim forebears who cast their common lot together, seeking to obey their Lord and ours, taking the risk to be faithful. Let us dare to think, and to act outside the boat. Amen.


Rev. Jack Seville - Interim Pastor - Contact FCC OR Contact Staff
URL: http://www.folklib.net/fcc/sermons/2000/fcc_20001029.shtml
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