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Pentecost 10, 08/13/2017

Sermon on Mattew 14:22-23, by David Zersen


Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)


In preparing to move to another State recently, I discovered the boxes with thousands of 35 mm slides that I had promised myself I would someday place on DVDs. The overwhelming task took me a week and I realized why I had stalled on the project for years. Some of the slides were so old that I was surprised to remember not only that such photo technology went back over 50 years, but that the color and clarity on good slides was undiminished. One delightful experience occurred when I called the local Walgreens and asked if they converted slides into DVDS. “What are slides?” the girl in the photo department asked. I realized then I was dealing with some ancient history. As I perused the slides I found some of my best photography as well as family pictures that I had long forgotten. One jumped out at me because it provided a memorable experience for a young father who was also a young pastor at the time.

Our family was staying overnight at a motel on our way from Illinois to visit the grandparents in Missouri. The motel had a pool and the 35 mm slide that I rediscovered, taken by my wife, placed me in the pool with our two children. What happened before the picture was taken was an experience somewhat like the one described in today’s Gospel lesson and which I have never forgotten. The incident involved me dogpaddling in the water and catching our six year-old daughter as she repeatedly jumped from the diving board into the water and into my waiting arms. Meanwhile, our 4 year-old son sat watching on the other side of the pool. At some point, he must have decided, like Peter in our text, that the water was not all that challenging and that he could get over to where we were. Fortunately, I turned around to check on him, only to discover that he was lying face down in the water. I swam faster that Michael Phelps and grabbed him up and out of the water. After spitting some water out of his mouth, he said, “I knew you were coming, dad.”


Trusting Peter’s God and Mine

I have never forgotten that terrifying moment in which I learned at least two profound lessons. One, a parent should always use the eyes in the back of his/her head. The other, a child’s dependence and trust in his parents is one of the most endearing spiritual insights we humans can experience.

Those lessons were reinforced recently in a movie, “First Do No Harm,” that my wife and I watched at home. On the one hand, a young child who became epileptic trusted his mother, played by Meryl Streep, implicitly, even when the doctors has no cure for his condition. On the other hand, another child trusted the father unconditionally when the father promised that if the son got good grades, they would all go to Hawaii. Keeping his part of the bargain, the son got an A in grammar. He trusted that his father would keep his part of the bargain even though he learned there was no money because the health insurance had been cancelled and the father had lost his job. The son knew, however, that a father’s promise simply had to be kept. A child trusts a parent unconditionally. This can be challenging.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Peter learns yet another lesson about trust. This little story has given the phrase “walking on water” an important place in the English language. At some point we learn that liquids do not typically buoy up physical weight and that walking on water is a symbol for the impossible becoming possible. When minority groups want to succeed academically or financially, it has been suggested that walking on water might be easier. And if disabled soldiers returning from military skirmishes want to carry on normally again, naysayers may tell them that it would be easier to walk on water. However, when Jesus invited Peter to climb out of the boat and join him, Peter knew something about trust that allowed him to do the impossible. Critics who can’t accept a literal meaning for this story insist that either Jesus was standing in shallow water or that Peter had fallen asleep and was dreaming. Peter had come to know, however, that in trusting Jesus he was trusting God. He had come to understand that no matter the seemingly insurmountable odds that might present themselves in life, God could bring about a positive ending or solution. For a moment, Peter faltered, and began to go under as do we all at times when the going gets rough. However, Jesus reached out to him and said, “Why did you doubt? Where is your trust?” And Peter could have responded, as did our son, Rolf, “Thanks for the outstretched hand. I knew you were coming.”

Learning How to Accept the Future

This is not really a story about walking on water or trying to venture the impossible. There are many options and challenges open to us that encourage dangerous activity or senseless experimentation. I’m not sure why some people are fascinated with skydiving or free-solo climbing or bull running. In some sense, those who feel challenged to go where others have never been are relying on self-confidence that can lead to discovery or insight. I’m not challenging that here-- because our society’s strengths are created by those who have their own definitions for walking on water. When we endanger our lives or those of others unnecessarily, however, he can’t expect God to be offering an outstretched hand. Jesus criticizes foolish temptations when they were offered to him during his forty days in the wilderness.

On the other hand, there are many opportunities that are given to us as we consider the future, and if we reject all of them because we are afraid or because we have no trust in God, then we need to appreciate the outstretched which summons us to trust and let God be our provider and friend. Sometimes we are offered a job, a friendship, a gift, a cure, a promise, and we don’t accept because we are uncertain about the implications such things may have for our future. All of us can look back on opportunities that were given to us which we rejected. In hindsight, we may have considered the opportunity well and felt that it was in our best interests to reject it. At other times, we may have rejected an opportunity because we were afraid of the consequences. One of Martin Luther’s famous sayings is very meaningful in this regard, and some have criticized the fact that he said it, because they don’t understand its meaning. Luther said, “Sin boldly, that grace may the more abound.” Those misunderstanding him thought that he was cheapening grace by inviting people to sin because God was so forgiving. However, the meaning is far more profound than that. Sometimes, in life, there are choices to be made and it’s very difficult to know which decision to make. Luther advises that we pray about it, consider the alternatives, and then, don’t just stall and flounder, but rather act. And if one did the best job that he/she could in choosing how to step into the future, then the decision was correct given the context and the understanding that one had. And the God whom we love and trust and whose hand is always outstretched to us, will love and accept us just as we are with our sins and failures. That God whom we know in Jesus, our loving Savior and friend, will always be there for us when we are worried and feeling lost or abandoned. That Lord will say to us, “Why were you afraid?” And, with Peter, at times lost in the waves or feeling at the end of our rope, we can respond, “I knew you were coming.”

This coming week, you and I have a number of choices to make. And there are others in our circle of friends, colleagues and family members who are also faced with decisions that trouble them. We and they, all of us, can simply stay in the boat and hope that things will turn out for the best. Or, we can accept the invitation of Jesus, whom I can paraphrase in saying, “Don’t worry about a thing. I’m here for you. In my death and resurrection, the future was opened for you. I’m on my way. Don’t be afraid.”

And we can respond, because that’s what faith is about, “I knew you were coming.”

President Emeritus, Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen
Austin Texas
E-Mail: djzersen@gmail.com