Get Out of the Boat

Matthew 14:25-33     

I once went for a whale watch on the Pacific Ocean. It was In Monterey, CA, and though the word “pacific” means calm, the ocean wasn’t. It didn’t look bad from the shore, and we read that the waves were five to eight feet. Didn’t seem like a big deal. But as soon as the boat got beyond the harbor, we were riding the waves. It felt like we were on a roller coaster—up one side of the wave, down the other. And the waves kept coming. Pretty soon my son and I were at the back of boat, emptying our stomachs into the sea, while my daughter clung to my husband for dear life. My husband, who has recurring nightmares about huge waves, gripped the side of the boat in abject fear.

Ever since then, it’s been easy for me to identify with the disciples in today’s gospel lesson. The sea was an uncontrollable force—a source of livelihood, but also a cause of death. As fishermen and people who lived near the sea, the disciples understood its power. So when the storm blew up, the disciples knew what they had to do—get the boat to shore. But the boat was so buffeted by the wind that they were stuck out at sea in the midst of the storm.

Jesus had sent them on ahead, so the disciples were alone in the boat. Nonetheless the disciples were handling it. In fact, they handled it all night. But in the early morning they saw a figure walking toward them on the sea. They totally lost it. As if battling the storm weren’t bad enough, now a ghost was coming for them! But then Jesus called to them: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Both Mark and Luke tell this part of the story. Only Matthew goes on to tell the next part. Peter called to Jesus: “If it is you, command me to walk to you on the water!”

Jesus said: “Come.” So Peter stepped out of the boat and walked on the water. His steps were steady at first, but as soon as he noticed the wind, he began to sink.

“Help me Lord!” he cried.

Jesus’ hand held him fast, and he calmed the storm.

Why did Matthew add this part of the story? I think it might have to do with Matthew’s context. His people were Jewish Christians whose faith in Jesus was not accepted by others; they had been kicked out of their synagogues and disowned from their families.

And so they retreated to the safety of their own little community, their little boat. Matthew eloquently describes what it must have felt like “out there,” outside the protection of their little group, like a storm that was way beyond their control. Yet he tells this story about Peter stepping out in faith, imitating Jesus and walking on the water, despite the wind and waves. “Be like Jesus,” Matthew seems to say.  Do the impossible and walk on the water. Be like Peter and get out of the boat.

The symbolism of this story worked its way into the Christian mindset , and boats became a symbol of the church. In fact, the word for the central part of the church, “the nave,” comes from the Latin word navis that means “boat.” It’s where we also get the word “navy.” So when Jesus commands Peter to come to him on the water, the message seems to be to step outside the safety and familiarity of the church, to come to Jesus in midst of the storm.

It seems a relevant message today. You could characterize many aspects of the storm “out there,” but one part is that as much as 29% of the US population report they claim no particular religion. But this doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in spiritual things.

Just like you and I, these people are hungry for mystery, for a safe place from the chaos of an anxious world, and a community of warmth and acceptance. Parents want a place to teach their children values and a place to make a difference. Since these folks have never been inside a church, they aren’t likely to simply appear here. We have to get out of the boat, the church itself, to make connections and invitations, to build relationships of care and trust and share the riches of our tradition so that people can know Jesus.

The Austin Campus was, in fact, designed to be an outreach ministry when it was built over a decade ago. I think it is worth revisiting the original aims of Austin in this new era.

How might Austin campus, with its fields, courts, and facility in the south end of town, help us connect with people who might never have set foot into a church? Can Austin be a halfway place between the secular world and the spiritual one? Can we offer a place where people can build relationships, feel comfortable to explore their questions and longings? Can we retool our ministry so that we don’t expect people to already be familiar with the Christian faith, but instead train children and adults from the ground up?

Now is a great time to consider where Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. Our strategic planning process is launching this fall, and your input is needed. Where do we need to step out in faith? What storm are we called to wade into? How are we called to walk on water, and trust Jesus to lead us In doing what seems unfamiliar or even impossible?

Jesus encouraged Peter to boldly step outside the usual way of doing things—to do, in fact, the impossible. Growing our church, connecting with spiritual but not religious people, may seem like an impossible task. But it didn’t stop Jesus, or Peter, and it need not stop us.

Fair warning: not all our attempts to step outside our comfort zone will be successful.

We, like Peter after taking some courageous steps, might sink a bit. When Jesus takes Peter by the hand, he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The word “doubt” here connotes not skepticism, but vacillation. Peter’s faith waivers when he notices the gale in his face. It is worth noting that Peter does have some faith, and some courage too—it is his idea, after all, to get out of the boat. But like the rest of us, left to our own resources, it simply is not enough.

Or is it? In the midst of our wavering faith Jesus reaches out a hand. The point of Matthew’s story is that we do not leave the boat alone. We may not feel equal to a miraculous task—we can’t walk on water, but Jesus can. And together we ride out the waves. With Jesus we find our true safety and purpose—not away from the wind, but with our hand in his, stepping out in faith, into his calling and his plans for us.

One Response to “Get Out of the Boat”

  1. Kathryn Whited says:

    Nice post!

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