Holy God, Lord of all creation, we thank you for the world you have made. We confess that we grow fearful in the midst of storms. We thank you for your continuing presence with us…Thank you for your disciple Simon Peter who shows us that we, too, may be faithful disciples, in spite of our flaws. Guide and bless us…Help us to remember you are always with us through the storms we face. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSON Matthew 14:22-34, CEB
22 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.
33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
34 When they had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret.
SERMON Simon Peter: Storms
As I started working on Simon Peter the fisherman last week, I remembered that Ethan Fish, whose graduation we celebrated last year, is also a commercial fisherman here on the Mississippi. With some help from Grandparents, Ethan and I connected on Facebook Messenger this week, so I could ask him about fishing today.
Ethan and his uncle work together using hoop nets set out along the river for 3 – 4 days. These nets have a series of 6 hoops, 13 inches apart with two narrowed “throats” the fish can enter but not exit. When it’s time to collect their catch, Uncle Jeff drives the boat near the net, and Ethan pulls it out of the water. They have to be in sync to shake the fish out of the net; then they both sort and measure the catch keeping catfish over 15 inches. He said that’s the most typical commercial fishing method on the river these days. When he fishes for fun, Ethan prefers pole and line sitting and waiting for the fish to bite bait and hook. He loves “the peacefulness of being outdoors and taking in what nature gives us.” He also appreciates sharing the catch to feed family or friends.
I asked Ethan what was most important for a fisherman, thinking that would give us some insights into Simon Peter’s character. Let me quote him directly: “No matter the type of fishing it is very important to understand how the fish work due to different factors such as water temperature, water levels, and what could be under the water like structure or sandbars. I’m sure it seems like a lot but once you start to understand it just comes naturally to you. Once you are able to understand all of this you have really become a very good fisherman because you understand how you will be able to hopefully catch fish on any given day.”
I want to apply that answer in a couple of ways. As I mentioned on Pentecost, there were those who looked down on Peter and the other fishermen as being uneducated and ignorant Galileans. To some extent I read that as white-collar snobbery toward blue-collar workers as well as regional bias in Judah against those from Galilee. Sadly such prejudices are prevalent in our world. But Ethan’s comments about what a fisherman needs to know about the fish, the water, the weather, etc. reminds me that it is a detailed industry requiring a great deal of knowledge and intelligence put to practical use. In the same way, Peter had to know the boats, the weather, the fish and waters of Lake Gennesaret as well as the vendors and market on shore. Fishing requires brains as well as brawn. Those who looked down on Peter showed their own ignorance, not his.
But let’s also apply this toward the new endeavor to which Jesus called Peter and still calls us, fishing for people. The same principles apply. You have to understand people and their individual differences. You have to understand the environment in which people live, the culture not only of region but also generation and lifestyle. A fisherman has to know which method and bait will work best depending on the fish they want to catch in a particular location. As we reach out to people in the name of Christ, we have to understand both their environment and their needs and preferences if we want to make our appeal in a way that will be heard and considered. Jesus was a master at this, and we have much to learn from him.
Finally, I asked Ethan about the dangers of fishing on the Mississippi, because today I would be talking about the storms on the Sea of Galilee. He said the strong currents were the biggest thing here, as well as trees, logs, and such that have fallen in the water. The undertow can even drag these hidden objects, especially in the main channel. These things can puncture your boat, or if you fall in you are subject to both the strong current and anything you might hit underwater. It is always dangerous on the Mississippi.
It was equally dangerous on the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberius and Lake Gennesaret. Four of the disciples – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John – all knew these dangers well, because they had fished that body of water most of their lives.
Jesus had just heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed at Herod’s command. He wanted time apart to grieve in private, but the crowds followed him. With great compassion, Jesus cared for them. After a day of healing the sick and preaching to a crowd of thousands on the hillside next to the lake, then feeding them with a few loaves of bread and fish, Jesus sent the disciples across the lake by boat while he dismissed the crowds and went up the mountain alone to pray.
But a storm blew up that night. The disciples struggled against the wind and the waves. As well as the four fishermen knew those waters, this storm overwhelmed them, and everyone in the boat was terrified. We’ve all been through physical storms. I’ve never been caught in a boat, but the storms I’ve experienced while camping are enough to imagine how much scarier that might be. Even in the house, we’ve had some nasty storms recently. One a few weeks ago that included hail was particularly intense. So, imagine yourself in that kind of squall while on a boat in the middle of a lake miles from shore. You’ve taken down the sail, so it won’t be torn to shreds. Four men rowing seems meaningless against wind and waves this fierce. You are soaked with rain, freezing in the wind, and the water is no place to be when lightening strikes.
Now add to that the new thing I learned about the Sea of Galilee from Adam Hamilton’s book, Simon Peter. This water is so deep, that the lines dropped to measure depth in those days weren’t long enough to touch the bottom. So to them, it was unfathomable, and this led to the legend that the sea went all the way down to the place of the dead. It’s kind of like what those of Columbus’ day imagined about sailing off the edge of the world. With this legend nagging at the back of their minds, caught in a horrendous storm, the disciple’s fears included being tossed overboard and dragged down to their death in the abyss.
Jesus had been deep in prayer on one of the surrounding mountains. He was aware of the storm and knew the struggles his disciples were facing. He did not leave them to face the storm alone. He came to them, across the water, at about 3 in the morning. If the disciples had been in their right minds, they would have recognized him. But seized with fear and remembering the legends of this sea leading to the underworld, their irrational minds jumped to the conclusion that this was a ghost.
Before you critique the disciples, think about the times when you were overwhelmed by the storms of this life. How rational were you through the experience? I’m guessing there were moments, if not hours, that your mind played with worst case scenarios. There are classic scenes for this: You get called to the office of your boss, the principle, or your doctor. You are stopped by the police. You get a phone call from the relative who never calls you. You get a letter from the government or a lawyer’s office, or an envelope you didn’t expect from the bank. Some of us assume the worst and are afraid to respond.
Sometimes it’s just that you have so much on your calendar or your “to do” list, and anxiety takes over creating a storm in your mind. Thursday night was like that for me. I reached the point that I couldn’t function, but I couldn’t sleep well either. I prayed often overnight that God would take over on Friday and help me do the things I knew I had to do and help me fix what seemed to be broken. Friday, I was productive in the morning, exhausted in the afternoon, and a nervous wreck by 3:00, even though I knew Mike and Abagail were coming to help me with some things. However, by the time they left, many things had been resolved, leaving me the energy and peace of mind to tackle the next things on my list. I slept much better Friday night and looked forward to having Saturday to pull everything together for this message.
Life is like that. The minor details can drag us down into depression and despair. How much more so the big storms of life! But here’s the thing we need to remember from our Gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t leave us to face the storms alone. Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storm and says to us as he said to the disciples, “Don’t be afraid…Take courage. I am here!” (Matthew 14:27, NLT) Adam Hamilton writes, “This is intended to be a picture of what Jesus still does in the lives of believers when we’re sailing through our own storms in the darkness…he continues to come to us in the storms of life, climbs into our boat, and rides out the storm with us.” (Hamilton, Simon Peter, p. 47,49)
I particularly like William Barclay’s comment on this:
There are times we are up against it, and life is a desperate struggle with ourselves, with our circumstances, with our temptations, with our sorrows, with our decisions. At such a time no [one] need struggle alone, for Jesus comes…across the storms of life with hand stretched out to save, and with his calm, clear voice bidding us take heart and have no fear. (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 in the Daily Study Bible Series, p. 106)
It would be a valuable lesson even if it ended here. John’s Gospel simply says that once Jesus identified himself, the disciples wanted to bring him on board, and suddenly they arrived at the shore.
Luke doesn’t include Jesus walking to them on water. In another story of a storm at sea, Jesus is asleep in the boat, and as “Gale-force winds swept down on the lake. The boat was filling up with water and they were in danger.” (Luke 8:23) Terrified they might drown the disciples woke Jesus up. He calmed the winds and the waves with a word leaving the disciples wondering yet again just who Jesus truly was.
In Mark we read,
50 Seeing him was terrifying to all of them. Just then he spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” 51 He got into the boat, and the wind settled down. His disciples were so baffled they were beside themselves. 52 That’s because they hadn’t understood about the loaves. Their minds had been closed so that they resisted God’s ways. (Mark 6:50-52)
The wind calmed down and with it I expect so did the waves but not the disciples in Mark’s version. They were still confused and upset. They didn’t understand either Jesus feeding thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread, nor did they understand how Jesus came across the water to help them. I find it particularly curious when Mark writes, “Their minds had been closed so that they resisted God’s ways.” (v.52) I think it is a significant reminder to us that if we are not open to God’s plans, whatever they may be, then we will not be likely to cooperate with God’s will. But when we resist God, we don’t receive the blessings God intended for us.
In Matthew’s telling there is more to the story. While eleven disciples still cower in the boat, perhaps as confused and upset as Mark describes, Simon Peter has one of his bursts of deeper insight and faith. Jesus said, “Have courage,” and for the moment Peter does. Peter looked to Jesus and said, “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come to you on the water.” (v.28) Please notice that Peter didn’t just stand up and step out of the boat. That would be foolish! Peter asked Jesus to command him. If Jesus said no, Peter would have stayed in the boat.
This is an important part of the discernment process. When you are trying to decide what to do next, in your own life or as we are beginning to discuss for the church, wouldn’t it be foolish to charge ahead in whatever direction without first asking Jesus, “What do you want us to do? Lord, If you command me to come out of the boat, to change direction, to move ahead, to try something new, then I will come to you. But if you tell me to stay for now, I will stay.” I’ve asked Jesus that. There were times a couple decades ago that I asked God if I could leave pastoral ministry. He always said “no,” so I stayed, until a particular October day in 2004 when God said “yes, now you can leave.” I took leave of absence in the summer of 2005, which meant I was free to visit this church, and by Fall to join your staff. That was a significant water-walking experience for me. So, note the lesson. Before making a significant change, ask Jesus if this is within God’s will at this time.
Do you see why this was important? Peter didn’t believe he could walk on water himself, but he trusted that if Jesus told him to walk on water, he would be able to do it. (Hamilton, p. 50) Simon Peter put his faith not in himself, but in Jesus. If we are wise, we will do the same. Hamilton is honest about this, “Walking out in faith doesn’t mean we know in advance how everything will work out. It means we come to trust enough to push the “yes” button in spite of our fears.” (p. 51) Those fears are real and understandable. God wired our brains to produce a healthy fear reaction in dangerous situations. It puts in place the adrenalin and fight or flight response we may need for survival. But many humans also live with unhealthy overactive fears that leave them trapped in their homes or in a bad relationship, living in the past or with inappropriate prejudice, stuck in a job or a routine that limits opportunities. These fears keep us from living life to it’s potential.
Eleven disciples stayed in the boat with their fears. Even knowing they might die, they just couldn’t move. I know what that feels like. Maybe you do, too. So, let’s not be too hard on them, but’s let’s also consider moving with God beyond our fears. Adam Hamilton refers to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat. I’ve wanted to read it anyway, so this week I bought it. First, let’s just consider the title. Eleven disciples chose to stay in the boat. That boat represents our comfort zone, our security blankets, our perceived safety net. I feel compelled to point out, however, that without Jesus, the boat in the storm was not comfortable, safe, or secure. The winds did not calm down until Jesus got in the boat with them.
Simon Peter, on the other hand, chose with Jesus’ permission, to try water walking. In his first chapter, John Ortberg identifies several characteristics of water-walkers.
- “Water walkers recognize God’s presence.” (p. 13) He points out that Jesus comes when we least expect him, so if you aren’t consistently looking for Jesus, you might miss the opportunity for what Ortberg calls, “spiritual adventure and growth.” (p, 14) If you believe as I do that God is everywhere, then shouldn’t we expect to see God everywhere we look?
- “Water walkers discern between faith and foolishness.” (p.14) Courage and a willingness to take risks is only half of the story. Wisdom, discernment, and obedience are also absolutely necessary. This goes to Peter asking Jesus first.
- “Water walkers get out of the boat.” (p. 14) Well, duh! That’s the title of the book. But we’re talking again about those fears that bind us too tight to move. Ortberg reminds us, “You were made for something more than avoiding failure.” (p. 15) It’s at this point he asks, “What’s your boat?” and follows it up with “What are you afraid of?” Those are significant questions to ask ourselves, especially when we are facing any kind of change. (And aren’t we always facing change?)
- “Water walkers expect problems.” (p. 19) A risk to follow Jesus is still a risk. There will be problems whether you stay in the boat or get out. That’s just the reality of life. No one is immune from difficulties.
- “Water walkers accept fear as the price of growth.” (p. 21) Ortberg quotes Susan Jeffers, “The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.” (Ortberg, p. 21) You can cower and hide in fear or grow from it.
- “Water walkers master failure management.” (p. 22) My favorite take-away from Jessika’s years at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School is their acronym for FAIL. It stands for either First or Further Attempts In Learning. Ortberg shares the story of Jonas Salk whose first 200 attempts at a polio vaccine were unsuccessful. When asked how it felt to fail 200 times he replied, “I was taught not to use the word ‘failure.’ I just discovered two hundred ways how not to make a vaccine for polio.” (Ortberg, p. 22)
- “Water walkers see failure as an opportunity to grow.” (p. 24) Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t climb Everest on his first try. After one failed attempt he shook his fist at the mountain and said, “I’ll defeat you yet, …because you’re as big as you’re going to get--but I’m still growing.” (Ortberg, p. 24) Ortberg says, “Failure does not shape you; the way you respond to failure shapes you.” (p. 24)
- “Water walkers learn to wait on the Lord.” I immediately thought of Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” To wait on the Lord means accepting our vulnerability and trusting God’s timing in spite of human impatience.
- “Water walking brings a deeper connection with God.” If the water is deep, we want our faith relationship with God to be deeper. When you lean into that relationship, it will grow.
Simon Peter bravely got out of the boat when Jesus called him. It was a more precarious situation than when he walked away from his boat to follow Jesus the first time, but both required great courage and trust. Peter was fine as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, but as soon as he noticed the wind and the waves he began to sink. It was his First Attempt in Learning to walk on water, but he was wise enough to call out to Jesus for help. That’s something we need to remember, but here’s the important part, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.” (v. 31) Jesus didn’t let Peter flounder around and go under a few times. Jesus grabbed him as soon as Peter asked. Then Jesus didn’t rebuke Peter harshly, but gently and privately Jesus pointed out an area that needed future growth. “Peter, why did you have so little faith?”
Peter had faith, but he let the circumstances around him distract him from focusing on the object of his faith. I want you to remember that when we are talking later today. We have to be honest about the realities of our situation:
- I am going to retire next year.
- The building and congregation are both aging.
- The building will always need maintenance and repairs. Every building does.
- We are approaching 2020 and can’t expect church to be like it was in the 1950s. Times have changed, and so do we.
- Like many congregations in our community and elsewhere, we don’t have the membership, attendance, or finances we once did. But we are not the only ones facing that circumstance.
The disciples could have wished that the sea was calm, and the storm had not come, but that would be unrealistic. The storm was there full force and could not be denied. We cannot deny our reality either. But neither does that mean we are going to sink. Jesus is right here with us. If we focus on Christ, we can walk with him into our future. If we become too focused on the storm, we will either be stuck in an unstable boat or begin to sink in the water. But Jesus is right here with us and will guide us if we ask.
Session and I have been praying for today’s conversation and this congregation’s future. We gathered in the study to pray together this morning before worship began. We encourage you to continue to pray for God’s guidance and that we might grow through the challenges that face us.
Here’s my faith: In 2017 God provided the means for me to buy a new car when the old one needed a tow truck on a monthly basis. In 2018 God provided a way for me to buy and furnish a house when I physically couldn’t cope with the apartment anymore. I don’t want to even consider what my life would be like if I had stayed in that van or in that apartment! So, if God can buy this woman with very limited resources a car and a house for my future blessing, I have zero doubts that God can provide and guide this congregation into a blessed future as well. No, I don’t know what it will look like exactly. I know there are multiple possibilities. Today’s conversation is one of many that will be part of the process of discerning God’s will for First United Presbyterian Church of Clinton, IA. I want you to go into that conversation focused on Jesus.
While I was writing today’s message, there was a meme on Twitter that I have to share with you. The image was of Jesus reaching out to a little girl who was tightly hugging her small teddy bear. What she couldn’t see was the much larger teddy bear Jesus was holding behind him with his other hand. The caption read, “Trust me. I have something much better for you.” Are you willing to trust that Jesus has something for you? For us?
Thinking about Peter calling out to Jesus for help, Adam Hamilton shared the story of Thomas Dorsey who wrote our next hymn after his wife, Nettie, died in childbirth. It is #404 Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Like Peter, this hymn was Dorsey crying out to Jesus for help. Let it be your prayer as well.