Think Outside the Boat

Jesus Walks On Water – Matthew 14: 22 – 33

Sermon by Roy Falk

We are blessed to have such a wise and discerning priest.  When Daniel asked if I would consider preaching, said yes without hesitation.  Then he told me he had selected the Sunday that we read Matthew’s gospel story of Jesus walking on water.  Now some might call this “type casting” because I have been passionately involved with water sports and boating all of my life.

I completely relate to the story in Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”  where Mole and Rat are rowing up the canal in Rat’s boat. They are discussing nautical things and life in general when Rat is heard to utter, Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

There are many reasons that I am drawn to Jesus, not the least of which is His involvement with boats.  Jesus is my kind’a guy.  I counted more than 25 occasions in the gospels in which Jesus is either in a boat or involved with a boat in some way.

As a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxillary, I first reflected upon this story from the point of view of physics and water safety.  And I have thus concluded:

  1. Humans cannot walk on water, they simply cannot do it They can swim, snorkel, SCUBA dive, water ski, sail, motorboat, kayak and paddle-board, but they can’t walk on it.
  2. The United States Coast Guard frowns upon our attempts to walk on water, unless we are wearing, at a minimum, a life jacket.
  3. If you are trying to walk on water towards a “boat, battered by waves, that was far from the land, in a strong wind, at 3 o’clock in the morning, as the story says, the Coast Guard would insist that you wear a life jacket or a full-flotation, high-visibility immersion suit.
  4. And it would be a good idea to have a utility vest that carries: a strobe light, a personal locater beacon, a waterproof marine radio and a hand bearing compass. (This gear will be available to look at after the service)

But, because we are humans, physics and water safety are not too helpful in understanding what is going on in this story.

And now from the wacky side of our limited human understanding: The National Geographic Society reports: “A team of U.S. and Israeli scientists say that a freak cold spell had covered parts of a lake with ice and this could explain hoe Jesus walked on water”.  Other brilliant scholars have  suggested that He walked on a sandbar. Really???  Again, not too helpful.

Okay, so, let’s look a little more closely at the story as it’s written in Matthew’s gospel.   (By the way, the Sea of Galilee is a spring-fed, fresh water lake about 13 mile long and 8 miles wide.  And it’s the source of the Jordan River which flows south to the Dead Sea.  The Sea of Galilee today supplies about 10% if Israel’s drinking water).

Just prior to our walking on water event, Herod, who is on a mission to eradicate all threats to his sovereignty, has John the Baptist arrested. Then at Herod’s birthday party, his naughty, dancing daughter, Salomé, encouraged by her mother, asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And so it was done.   (I love Henri Rey-gnolt’s painting of Salomé – have a look after the service)

Upon hearing this, Jesus, understandably concerned, got in a boat and sailed away to a deserted place in the countryside.  But the crowds heard about it and followed him.  When Jesus came ashore he was met by a big crowd. He walked among them and had compassion for the people, and healed those who were sick.

As the day drew on, his disciples pointed out that there was not enough food in this deserted place for all these people.  You all know the rest of the story. Jesus said, Don’t worry, they don’t have to leave. He took a couple fish and some loaves of bread, blessed it, and fed every man, woman and child.  Plus there were leftovers!

Immediately thereafter Jesus dismissed the crowd and told the disciples to get onboard the boat. He told them to head on over to the other side of the sea.  I think it’s safe to say there were no life jackets in this boat.  (Here’s a replica of the boat they were using)

Jesus, in the meantime, went up alone onto the hillside to pray.  This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Jesus sought solitude in nature.

This miraculous of Jesus walking on water appears not only in Matthew, but also in Mark and John.  In John’s gospel we learn that the boat was about four miles, offshore and was being rowed, probably to keep the bow into the waves.  They probably had sails on board, the wind was much too strong to use them safely.  The boat was being battered by waves and the wind was howling.

It was the fourth watch, which is about three o’clock in the morning.  And here comes Jesus  walking towards the boat – 4 miles offshore, in a strong wind, against big waves.  These are some serious conditions folks, more than a small craft advisory, more like a gale warning.

So our intrepid yachtsmen, the disciples, see Jesus walking towards them on the sea they were scared out of there wits  and they say “It’s a ghost!”   (Eye-va-zo-sky’s 19th century painting really captures this moment)

The  17th century poet and anglican priest George Herbert says, “He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea”.

Jesus, now within shouting distance, says, “Get ahold of yourselves, it’s me; don’t be afraid.”

We don’t really know, but the disciples may have said to themselves something like this: “This guy is too much.  He’s not bound by the laws of nature. He turns water into wine, heals the sick and now this!

So Peter, a former Galilean fisherman and an experienced mariner, says “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water”.  This part of the story is really important and I’ll come back around to it in a few minutes.

So Jesus said “Come on” and Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards Jesus.  Imagine walking on the water!  A mere mortal, human being – like you and I – defying all that we know about water!  It’s one thing for the Son of God to not be bound by physics, but this is Peter, just an ordinary guy.

But, alas, Peter got frightened.  He suddenly remembered that they were in the midst of a gale with high winds and big waves.  He suddenly remembered he was a man, and men can’t walk on water.  Peter started to sink, he began to slip beneath the waves and he hollered, “Help. Save me! Man overboard”

Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter.  And what does he say? “You of little faith, why did you doubt me?”

As soon as they got back in the boat, the wind died down.  The disciples, having watched the whole thing, worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are God’s Son”.

Now what might all this mean for us here, today in Glenwood, San Rafael, California, USA?  I think there are some profoundly important lessons for us here:

  1. Jesus goes alone to a deserted place to pray and gain strength. Maybe we could make times in our lives to follow Jesus by seeking out solitude, in nature, and take some prayerful, meditative walks alone or together. Marin County has thousands of open space acres and hundreds of miles of  wilderness trails.  Would any of you be interested in taking a Sunday afternoon walk with me on a gentle trail?
  2. Jesus does not bid Peter to “Come” until first Peter asks Jesus to do so. What are we asking Jesus to do? What in our circumstances seems to defy the laws of nature and current affairs? Isn’t it seemingly impossible that our church might have dozens of new, young families worshiping with us?  That children might again fill our church with laughter and joy?  That our neighbors would recognize us as a sanctuary of peace where they want to be with right here with us in prayer and worship?  Have we directly, explicitly asked Jesus to help us do this? The utterly absurd is completely reasonable when Jesus is the one who is calling.  But first, the key ingredient is we must ask – “Call me Jesus to come to You”.
  3. Peter gets out of the boat. The boat is safe.  The Coast Guard recommends you never leave the boat, even if it is sinking.  Stay with the boat. Don’t rock the boat. But we’re going to have to get out of the boat if we truly want to fulfill our dream of a lively, sustainable church.  The world says, Churches are declining.  Churches are not relevant to people’s lives. We’ll never attract young families, they’re too busy. (We can’t walk on water!)  The question is: are we going to ask for Jesus to help?  Then, if we do, are we willing to think outside the box?  Are we ready to  make unconventional, perhaps non-traditional (even non-Episcopalian) choices?  and are we ready to get out of the boat?  What would that look like?  Could we unbolt the pews so that our space would be flexible enough to house the homeless on stormy nights?  Could we get a van that would provide transportation to church for the homeless and our neighbors in the Canal District?  Could we learn to worship in Spanish?  Can we plant an park-like urban forest around the labyrinth?  I think these kind of things would get us out of the boat, but only if we ask Jesus to call us.
  4. Notice that Peter doesn’t start sinking and then become fearful.   He first becomes fearful and only then starts sinking.  If we call upon Jesus and we begin to do the seemingly impossible, can we keep our eye on Jesus and remain fearless?

There’s an old sailor’s blessing says, “May you have fair winds and a following sea”.  As lovely as that is, our Redeemer, Jesus says,

  • Ask me to help,
  • Disregard the storm that surrounds you, and
  • Get out of the boat!

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