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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Believe

Matthew 14:22-33

Believe

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

June 5, 2016

Pilgrim Church Harwich Port

 

            Before I begin this sermon, I want to thank the Search Committee.  Since the beginning of our conversation I have been impressed by the way they worked, the way they took their mission seriously while still showing a remarkable sense of humor. Mostly what I appreciated was their kindness at every point along the way.  So, you should be proud of them because they represented you well.   I also want to thank so many of you this morning, for your faith in this process, for your patience, for your many words of personal support and enthusiasm when you heard that I was the candidate to be your next pastor. I am very grateful. 

            Today I have chosen as my text for this sermon the story in Matthew’s gospel of the time when Jesus walked on the water. I was drawn to this story because it is depicted in the stained glass window over the altar. I learned that this window was gift from the Monbleau family in memory of Dr. Monbleau’s parents so they are an important part of the history of this church. I noticed that you use this picture in your publicity, on your website, and the cover of the church directory. So I believe that this picture of Jesus on the water is an important symbol for this church.  

            It makes sense that Jesus walking on the water would be central to Pilgrim Church because the water is important to you. Set just a block from the ocean, the water is never far from mind. Whenever you turn down Pilgrim Rd. on your way to the parking lot you catch a glimpse of the sea at the end of the road. Many people choose to live here because they love the water. Whether you have come here your whole life or discovered this place somewhere along the way you like the small of the salt air, the feel of the wind on your face when you go out sailing, waves on your shoulders when you swimming, the lap of the water on your boat when kayaking. You like to comb the beach for shells or just think by the sea because the water speaks to you. All of us here on the Cape have that in common with the first disciples. We have a unique perspective on Christ’s stories told about the Sea of Galilee. Surrounded by water, it is our element too.  

            Like many of you, I have been coming to Cape Cod all my life. As a child, we drove from the Middle West every summer to rent a cottage in Brewster. As a girl one of my favorite activities was to hike out to the sandbar on the bay side, at low tide. It seemed such an adventure to walk so far out, but I will always have a healthy respect for how fast the tide can turn. Several times when I lingered too long I had to rush back across the sand sometimes carrying a younger sibling on my back to beat a path home. Over the years swimming on the Cape I have gained respect for these waters, and how hard it is to make progress when you are trying to swim against the current or navigating in choppy surf. Anybody who lives near the water knows that things can turn tricky fast. 

            That is what happened to the disciples in our story today. The followers of Jesus got into the boat when the sea was placid. As they set sail they headed out into deeper water, but before they knew it, the winds picked up.  They were a long way from shore when the boat was battered by bigger and bigger waves.  So they worked all night to steer the boat, bale water, and simply stay afloat. 

            Just before morning they saw what appeared to be an apparition and started to scream in terror. Jesus cried out to his followers, identifying himself and urging them to stay calm. Still wary, Peter challenged Christ, “If it is really you, then tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come on”, Jesus said. So Peter got out of the boat and began to walk across the water when he saw how strong the wind was. Suddenly he grew frightened and started to sink. Christ grabbed him saying, “Why did you doubt?”  

            What do we make of this story? Was this a miracle or a magic trick? Did the laws of modern physics not apply to people 2000 years ago? Do human beings really have the ability to walk on water?  There are times when we read the Bible and it does not make much sense to us because we expect it to be a literal document, when it may be holding wisdom which is not necessarily literally true. Biblical scholar, John Shelby Spong, says that the Israelites were no more gullible than we are today, but they loved a good story. When the Bible says something that could not possibly be true you are not supposed to take it literally. There is wisdom here but the story is dealing in symbols.  There is plenty of meaning here but you have to dig a little to discover it. Let’s take a closer look and see what this story might mean for our lives today?         

In the first place the story of Jesus walking on the water tells you to believe in yourself.  

            When Jesus calls out to Peter and he responds by walking across the water to his rabbi suddenly Peter and Jesus are up on top of the waves in an amazing display of faith. But then something changes quickly. Either the wind picks up, or Peter realizes what he is doing, or starts to questions, but then he begins to sink. In a panic, he shouts to Jesus to rescue him. Jesus reaches out to catch him saying “Where is your faith?  Why did you have doubts?” 

            I always think it seems a little unfair to chastise someone who has just walked on water for his lack of faith. It looks to me like Peter has the ultimate faith in Jesus, to take such a risk in the first place. But I think Jesus is challenging Peter to have more faith in himself.  He is not rebuking him for his lack of faith in God but talking to him like a life coach. “You had it. You were walking on the water, but suddenly you lost your focus. You let the wind distract you and you lost your concentration.”

            How many of you have been near a toddler when he or she takes those first steps?  It is a delicate moment. She has cruised around the living room holding on to a table or the couch and then comes a day when something catches her eye, a toy or pet, and suddenly he heads out across the ocean of floor walking on their own. Maybe you stand there like Jesus with open arms, hoping that he will keep walking because you know he is ready to take these steps on his own. Most kids do fine until they realize what they are doing and then they sink like a stone. It takes time to believe in yourself. Sometimes that is the biggest hurdle in life.

            How often after you do one audacious thing, you stop and tremble at your audacity?  But Jesus says, “press on”.

            Two weeks ago there was an article in the Boston Globe Magazine  (“True Stories” by Zachary Jason, May 22, 2016, p. 34- 37) about James Parker. Parker is a contributing editor and columnist for the well-respected literary journal, The Atlantic but he also teaches a writing seminar to homeless people at a church on the Boston Common. Every week he meets with people in transitional housing, folks from shelters or from the street who come together to write short stories, essays, poems and even plays about their lives. Together they produce a literary magazine that they distribute to subscribers and local bookstores. The magazine is called The Pilgrim. For some of these folks becoming a published author may be as big a miracle as walking on water was for Peter. Parker’s gift to them is to encourage them to get out of the boat of self-pity or defeat, to shake off the expectations of what a homeless person can do. Before long they start to see their own potential and to believe in themselves. 

The story says there are times to get out of your comfort zone, your boat of choice. Jesus comes to all of us and encourages us to try new things - explore our edge, experiment with some challenge that has your name on it.

In the second place, the story says believe in miracles.  It is easy to hear this story and miss the fact that it is full of miracles. We all realize that Jesus walked on the water and assume that is the only miracle. But Peter walked on the water too; he did not get as far as he might have but he succeeded. It is also a miracle that the disciples survived the storm all night, not something to overlook. When the boat tipped precariously, the disciples had to work as one, no small miracle I am sure. When the wind shifted they needed every ounce of combined strength, collective sailing expertise, and all the luck they could find. Their survival depended on many miracles that night. Who is to say that it is not a miracle whenever someone gets out of his boat of regret and walks on the waters of hope? Who’s to say that it isn’t a miracle whenever someone leaves her boat of deep resentment and walks on the waters of forgiveness?

Miracles happen all the time in our lives. Many of them go unnoticed, or under-appreciated. We have all seen them. 

            I imagine that there were times during this interim process when you could identify with those disciples in that boat. Some of you may have wondered why it was taking so long. Some of you worried about where the church was headed. Some of you may have questioned the purpose of writing a vision statement. But you stepped up as a team of disciples, in ways that were remarkable if not miraculous. You confronted the deficit and made a plan to decrease it. You started a thrift store and put solar panels on the roof of the church. You respected your interim and used the time to grow in faith and hope. You healed old wounds. You built new lines of communication and you deepened your trust for one another. Without a settled pastor to blame or rely on you learned to pull together because like those disciples in the boat you knew that this mission depended on you. This was on your watch and the church’s success and  survival depended on it. Many people don’t believe in miracles, but I see them all around, and this congregation is one of the best examples I know.  

            Finally the story of Jesus walking on the water tells us to believe in God. 

 At the beginning of this story Jesus decides to go up on the mountain to pray alone beside the Sea of Galilee while his disciples go out in the boat. Jesus saw the seas churn and he knew the disciples were in trouble; that is why he went out to them in the morning.

            Now when you are fighting through the night it is easy to wonder where God is. Drifting far from shore, it is easy to assume that God has lost track of you. But the story says that Jesus was watching all along. He was reading the winds and gauging the waves himself. He could see their struggles because he never left them. He had his eye on them the whole time. 

            I don’t know what storms you face. I don’t know what winds of change torment you and push you far from the shores where you feel most comfortable. I don’t know yet what fears keep you up all night, and what troubles threaten to drown your hopes and dreams. But I do believe that Jesus has come to help us all.

            There is a great story in Numbers about the Hebrews in the wilderness. They spent 40 years wandering and the trip could have been accomplished in a year as the crow flies. But the Bible says that at the beginning of the trip God led them to the border of their new home Canaan. Joshua sent scouts out to take a look and they reported that this place was incredible with its lush and plentiful harvests. But they also second-guessed their success- and reported that they found giants living there. They thought it would be impossible to move into the land. I don’t know if there were real giants but the Hebrews psyched themselves out of the victory that God had put before them. Lost in the confusion of self-doubt they went back into the wilderness for over 30 years. They forgot that God would be with them.  The same God who had parted the sea, given them water from a rock and sent manna every morning would never abandon them. They did not believe in themselves and they did not believe in miracles because they forgot how much God believed in them. 

            This is what this window tells us each week, Jesus is reaching out to us. He comes to say the same things he said to Peter on that long ago morning. Don’t be afraid. Take heart. I have seen your struggles.  I know your valiant efforts. I have seen your hopes and fears. I have seen how tired you are after battling the storms you face. I know you thought you were alone in that storm but I never left you.  I was never very far. All you needed to do was look up because I was watching.

            New chapters are always hard but the Bible tells us we don’t go alone. We can believe in ourselves because God first believed in us.

Posted: Sunday June 5, 2016

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