Sink or Swim: Just Get Out of the Boat
By Matt Landry
Can you think of a time where you did something really scary? Something that made you ask the question why am I doing this? Maybe for you it is white water rafting, skiing, skydiving, or taking homiletics with Steve Harsh. Well I can think of a time when I was on a family vacation where this happened to me. I was in Las Vegas, where they have the Stratosphere Tower and the roller coaster on top of the tower. I decided to ride this roller coaster, not knowing what to expect, but that didn't stop me. My dad decided to ride this with me and as we were standing in line around the top of this tower, with helicopters flying by and the lights of Vegas shining all around us, the hesitation and nerves set in.
This was not an everyday experience for us. I don’t think that you fully understand the depth of our fear looking at this roller coaster. This roller coaster is on top of a tower and you are strapped into this seat, with bars that come over your head and the ride shoots the rider into the sky attached to a smaller tower that is the ride. The tower itself is 1200 feet tall and the ride is 100 feet tall.
I became more and more nervous as we came closer to the ride itself and finally, my dad and I were strapped into the highest roller coaster in the world. The worker counted down to lift off and the hydraulics were full, everyone was ready, and the ride shot 100 feet into the Vegas sky, more than 1200 feet off of the ground. The platform on top of the tower goes from this big to non existence as it is just you and the western sky for a brief moment. I remember looking over and my dad simply had his head straight up, eyes closed, and praying I believe.
This was quite the experience for us both. There was a feeling of nervous excitement, not really knowing what to expect. It was uncomfortable; it was out of the ordinary for us both to take on such excitement. Similarly, in today's Gospel lesson, Peter and the other disciples find themselves in an out of the ordinary experience.
As Jesus was dismissing the crowd, he told the disciples to get into the boat and leave, without him. So the disciples do just that and end up in the middle of a storm on the lake. Jesus comes to the disciples in a unique way, by walking on the water. When the disciples notice this figure on the lake they cry out in fear and yell out it’s a ghost, but as we know and as they soon found out, it was Jesus coming to them in the middle of this lake during a storm. Why does Jesus walk on the water to the disciples? Does he know the trouble they are about to find themselves in due to the storm winds? Does he want to know the depth of their faith towards him? Or is Jesus simply showing off? Regardless, Jesus brings them words of comfort saying to the disciples, "Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid."
The inquisitive Peter decides to try this walking on water act and asks Jesus to tell him to come onto the water. But let’s look again at Peter; his question is not simply a question of action (can I do this), but a question of identity (if you are this). Peter asks, "Lord, if it's you." Is Peter asking Jesus this to really see if this Jesus or not, does he believe that it could be someone else? Could Peter be asking this to try and see if Jesus really is the Messiah as Jesus says he is? Maybe Peter really had a desire to experience a supernatural state?
Jesus does call Peter simply saying, "Come." Jesus does not hesitate or wait to discuss this first; Jesus simply calls Peter to get out of the boat. Just as Peter asked to be called for what could be several reasons, we too ask to be called. We sometimes initiate the call, even if we don't know what we are getting ourselves into. We tell God in prayer, use me Lord, use me. Lord, you are leading me, guide me and I will go, but sometimes we put stipulations to that calling that may sound like, Lord use me, but please don't make me look like a fool. Lord use me, but please allow my mission site to have indoor plumbing. But how often do we really mean what we pray, praying, “Lord use me.” Peter also follows Christ, probably not fully knowing whether he would walk on the water or not.
As Peter climbs out of the boat he feels the wind and becomes afraid and starts to sink. He loses his focus on Christ. Often in our lives we experience a similar distress when responding to our call. We can question our calling and lose our focus on the ultimate goal of serving Christ. Peter is following the will of his Rabbi and teacher, and when things get difficult, maybe Peter started to question his own ability to follow Jesus? As we have experienced in following God, things can get difficult during this journey. Think for a moment about when responding to God’s voice was difficult. Did you feel that you weren’t good enough? Did you feel that you were able to fulfill what you God had called you to do? Were you worried about what others might think or what you might have to go through, such as give up a job and come to seminary?
Sometimes the most important idea in our journey of faith and responding to our call is trust. It can be easy to doubt our own ability to serve, but it can also be easy to doubt if the calling or response is correct. Sometimes we will attempt to follow God’s call and end up in trouble, similar to the experience the disciples had. They followed Jesus’ command to head to the other side of the lake and they end up in the middle of the storm. Peter follows Jesus out of the boat and nearly drowns. Have you felt like you were responding to God’s call and you only find yourself in trouble?
I am reminded of a pastor who attempted to follow God’s will and ended up in a difficult situation.
“This happened when he was young — still a student (just like us) — serving a small rural church in the northeast corner of Kansas. It was a harsh winter night – in the middle of a roaring blizzard – but he went out to visit a family who had come to church a time or two – and he desperately wanted them to join his small congregation. He felt proud of himself for being out on such a night doing his pastoral work.
The disciples were scared of the storm and of Jesus, when they didn’t know it was him. They were simply doing what Jesus asked them to do. And in that response, they feared death and it took some time to realize that Jesus was there. I’m sure that it also took Peter time to realize that Jesus wouldn’t let him drown. Like children learning how to swim. A child first has to establish trust between him/herself and the teacher. Then there has to be a trust in the child’s own ability to swim. Imagine a child swimming to their teacher when another child jumps into the pool and makes a huge splash and multiple waves, the child swimming towards the teacher loses focus and starts to sink. Peter also loses focus for a brief moment. This moment is enough to cause him to sink.
I remember the pastor who was mentoring me through the process of discernment in the United Methodist ordination process, who told me that whether I continue through the ordination process or not, I am still saying yes to God right now. Whether I am ordained or not was not the point, the point was that, whether I would sink or swim when I jumped off that boat, I was still jumping. I didn’t know what would happen, or what to expect, I simply said God here I am and I jumped.
The point is to jump. Jump off the boat for God. We have all jumped off that boat at least once in our life. We have felt some sense of calling and we came to seminary for a multitude of reasons and we have all jumped for God. We made leaps that at times probably felt scary, uncomfortable, or even painful. But we are called everyday to make jumps for God. Sometimes we have to conquer the fear of putting ourselves out there, even if it is the unpopular thing to do, we still have to jump.
We may be called to stand up against persecution, war, violence, or poverty, not knowing what the outcome may bring. A man who knew much about standing up against unpopular causes was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” King was not afraid to get out of the boat for the sake of the Gospel, to the point of pain, discomfort, and ultimately his life, he stood up for what he believed was right.
While we make the choice to move towards Christ, there is still the possibility that we might just sink. We might step out of the boat and start to sink just as Peter did. But in those times, when we say yes to God, but our fear and troubles get into the way, Jesus is always there. Remember what Peter did for Peter, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” Do not be afraid of the consequences of following Jesus, just follow him. There is a quote by author Jack Cranfield which I would like to share with you that states:
“If it is a result of obedience to Christ’s command
No matter how scary the situation may be, do not fear. Whether it’s riding the world’s tallest roller coaster to accepting and responding to God’s call, which sometimes feel like it is the same thing, do not fear. Rely on Jesus. Let us push ourselves a little more for the sake of the Gospel and initiate that call, expecting to be challenged, not knowing where we will end up, but knowing that we have been called into a ministry that is ever changing. Jesus will always be there to guide, comfort, and catch us if we start to sink. But whether we sink, swim, or walk on water, just get out of the boat.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.