8/13/17: Never Mind the Wind, Matthew 14:22-33
Never Mind the Wind
First in the series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 85:8-13
Second Lesson: Matthew 14:22-33
Rev. Scott Dickison
Over these next several weeks we’ll be taking a look at these middle chapters in Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus travels throughout the Galilean countryside with this disciples—healing the sick, feeding the hungry and teaching about this Kingdom of God he claims is already breaking loose in the world.
And as we do, we’ll pay special attention to how Jesus speaks of this Kingdom. What images he uses to describe it, what things, what stuff he lifts up to show it. And so you’re not waiting in suspense, as we’ll see, the words and things and places he shows them—all of these things were, for them, home. They were utterly familiar—what they knew, what they loved and perhaps thought they had seen all of. And yet it’s right there under their noses, that Jesus reveals the holy. The Kingdom of God, we learn, is not to be found in some exotic location, and somewhat disappointed to tell you. It’s right here, before you. As close as your next breath or the people you love, the people you’re struggling to love or even understand. But as you may have learned and I’m still learning, it’s the things and the people who are closest to us that are often the most difficult to truly see.
There are several of these “crossing” scenes in the Gospel of Matthew. The gospel is funny that way: they’re always on the move, taking a path that doesn’t seem to make sense; always traveling from here to there and back again; crossing the Sea of Galilee only to go back again. And so these crossings seem to have a deeper meaning. A challenging situation often awaits them on the other side—a test of some kind. And on at least two occasions, the challenge comes on the journey itself, when the disciples find themselves out on the water. Out there on those familiar waters—remember, these are fisherman. They have grown up on these same waters. They played in the Sea of Galilee as children. As adults they’d worked it and fished in it just as their fathers had done, and their fathers before them. Yet it’s on these familiar waters that Christ reveals something new.
You may remember the scene earlier in the Gospel, when disciples found themselves out at sea during a storm, only then Jesus was down in the boat asleep. At the hight of their fear Jesus emerges and tells the wind and the waves, Peace, be still, and they were. Here, the situation seems a bit more bleak. Jesus is not in the boat with them, but back on the shore. The disciples are out there, they feel, on their own—utterly vulnerable to the wind and the waves.
You could say there are two scenes in this passage, each with their own test. We’re drawn to the second one, where Peter attempts on water—which we’ll get to in a moment—but it seems to me that we’ve missed something important if we don’t acknowledge that first scene of them out on the water, and Jesus, who was thought to be back up on the mountain, suddenly and mysteriously appears there with them. Jesus shouldn’t be there—they thought they’d left him on the shore, or really, it was he who had left them out on the sea, and yet there he is, early in the morning—your translation may say “during the fourth watch of night,” which is the time between 3am and 6am—the darkest time of the night—it’s then and there that Jesus reveals himself to them, saying, It’s me. It’s me. Don’t be afraid. The fourth of seven times Jesus says these words to the disciples in the Matthew’s gospel. It must have been something they needed to hear; maybe something they couldn’t hear enough—but would soon, much sooner than they knew, need to remember: Jesus is with them, even when he can’t possibly be. Perhaps this was the first test of faith that day: Will they remember that I’m with them when they’re out their on the water? Will they remember that I called them from these very shores? Would they think that now, in their time of need, I would abandon them?
It’s me, he tells them. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.
Scene 2: the attention moves to Peter. Peter, the chief disciple—the one who speaks when the rest of them won’t. The one who routinely puts his foot in his mouth, loses his temper, and his nerve. The one who will betray and then abandon, but also the one who will be redeemed; the one upon whom Jesus will build the church—Peter, who in the end, is us. This Peter cries out to Jesus, Lord if it is you, call me out to meet you on the water. Jesus says, Come, and Peter does. And so he gets out of the boat, gingerly, I would imagine, and steps down onto the water where his foot holds. He locks eyes on Jesus and begins to walk on the water to him. The eyes of the others, and all of nature, it feels are locked in on him in that moment, amazed, bewildered at the sight, and yet, the storm is still present.
As he’s walking out to meet Jesus in the eater, we’re told Peter “notices” the wind. The same wind we’re told earlier was “against” the disciples in their boat. Perhaps a gust blows over him, and in that split second, even on reflex, he looks down to balance himself, turning his eyes from Jesus, it occurs to him where he is, standing out on the water, and he begins to sink. He begins to sink and cries out to Jesus, Lord, save me! And we’re told that Jesus, who must have been close enough to do so, reaches out, takes him by the hand, steadies him, and says, You of little faith, why did you doubt? You of little faith, it could read, why did you hesitate?
Why did you hesitate?—Isn’t it clear! He’s out there in the middle of the sea, walking on water. The waves are still churning, the wind is still blowing. And it’s true this is a path Peter chose for himself. He’s the one who asked Jesus to lead him out there. He knew the risks involved, and was able to make it so close, but at the last moment, he saw the wind…
You know this wind.
You’ve felt it pushing against you, breaking your focus just long enough for doubt to seize you and prevent you from committing fully. The wind that keeps you from doing what your heart knows needs to be done, of saying what needs to be said. And so you hesitate. We hesitate. The church through the generations—starting with Peter and on up through every generation since—we have known this wind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lifted this scene up as the great image of discipleship: this tension of Peter responding to the call of Jesus to come out into the storm, of taking that risk of faith—but coming up short. He said Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of [God]. If Peter hadn’t taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…
Faith, for Bonhoeffer, is accepting the call of Jesus to step out into the water. Of “risking something big for something good,” as it’s been said. And with this risk comes the other important part of faith, which learning our own weakness. Learning our limits, what it feels like to fail, to come up short, reminding ourselves that we can’t do it all and we certainly can’t do it all by ourselves. And then learning how it feels to be taken into the outstretched arms of the one who called us out into the storm in the first place.
I heard a story once about the late Donald Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Church of England, who was traveling by train through the English countryside, when a young Anglican seminarian noticed him across the aisle. The young student was thrilled, introduced herself, and began to engage the Archbishop in conversation. They spoke for the length of the trip about life and ministry, as the student sought to soak up as much as she could. When the train reached the station, they prepared to part. They exchanged the usual pleasantries: “Dr. Coggan, she said to him, “this was such a thrill. Take care.” She turned to leave, and felt his hand catch her arm. “My dear,” he said, “Not take care. Take risk.”
Not take care. Take risk. The call to discipleship is not to take care. It’s to take risk. To step off the boat, out into the waters. To answer the call of Jesus to join him in the storm. The church, through the generations, as been pretty good about taking care. We’ve almost baptized this impulse to hesitate when the wind starts to blow; we call it “tradition.” The church has taken care through the years, but I wonder some times when we’ve taken risk? When have we stepped out into the storm—finding our footing amidst the wind and the waves our eyes locked in on Jesus?
I’ll confess that I didn’t get around to reading about the terrible scene that unfolded in Charlottesville Friday night and into the say Saturday until last night after we put the boys to bed. I’m sure you’ve seen the images by now too. Hundreds of white supremacists from all over the country gathered for a demonstration they called “Unite the Right,” to “take back America,” as they put it, carrying torches and Confederate flags right alongside Nazi flags. Things got violent on Saturday, culminating in someone driving a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, backing up, then driving into them again. It was a shocking scene, to see those torches and those flags. But maybe the most shocking part of it all was most of these demonstrators were young men, white of course, in their 20s and 30s. And they didn’t have shaved heads and certainly weren’t wearing white hoods. They had on polo shirts and khaki pants. To be honest, they looked a lot like me. It turns out hell, like the kingdom of God, isn’t in some far-off location. It’s right under our noses.
And I wondered, as I sat alone in a dark house last night after everyone else was in bed and watched these images, what this current storm demands of the followers of Jesus? This storm of racism where so many would feel empowered to flaunt such hate so publicly. I wondered what it would look like for the church not to take care in this moment, but to take risk?
And I know we’ve talked about these things a good bit over the past year as we’ve deepened our relationship with our brothers and sisters at First Baptist on New St., and we’ve asked uncomfortable questions about our church’s history with racism and slavery. And this has been good and important and I’m so proud that you have done this. But I wonder, all the same, how much we’ve risked along the way. We’ve received praise for what we’ve done—news cameras and AP stories, and they’ve been beautiful and I think have helped us to focus and follow through. We’ve taken good care over the past year to do these things with integrity and sincerity, and I’m so glad we have. But I wonder if we’ve taken risk? And I wonder what this would look like for our church, but also for the church, to step out of the boat and into the waves, keeping our eyes locked on Jesus—never minding the wind. Never minding the wind. Amen.
 M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreter’s Commentary, 328
 Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, from the Belief commentary series, 196
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 66
 Many thanks to my dear friend, Alan Sherouse, for sharing this story with me.