The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

STAY IN THE BOAT!

Delivered 8/8/99
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Familiar story. Mark Twain refers to it in one of his books. He recalls a visit to the Holy Land and a stay in Capernaum. It was a moonlit night, so he decided to take his wife on a romantic boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Twain asked a man in a rowboat how much he would charge to take them out on the water. The man saw Twain's white suit, white shoes and white hat and supposed he was a rich Texan. So he said the cost would be twenty-five dollars. Twain walked away as he said, "Now I know why Jesus walked."

Yes, a familiar story. But a strange one too. It has Jesus doing something that smacks more of a magic trick than a miracle. Perhaps that is why there are old jokes about pious folks trying to walk on water but sinking like a stone until being told where the rocks and roots are just under the surface. In the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar the character who plays the buffoonish King Herod sings,

So if you are the Christ
Yes, the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you're no fool
Walk across my swimming pool.(1)

And the audience laughs uproariously.

Even the church jokes about this one. Recently there have been a number of variations on the theme of women ministers. One has a congregation calling its first female pastor and immediately running into a concern from two elders (who happened to have been dead against calling a woman to their pulpit) who are used to an annual fishing trip with the preacher. What should they do? Invite HER! To their chagrin, she accepted. The fateful day arrived, they hopped in the boat, and headed out. When they had gotten a way from the shore, they realized they had forgotten their bait. The pastor jumped up, said she would get it, stepped out of the boat and walked across the water to shore. "I told everybody all along this whole thing was a mistake, this calling a woman," said one of the men, "she can't even swim!"

I have no idea how many ads in church publications I have seen from congregations searching for new pastors who either say with a grin that they are looking for someone who can "walk on water" or who insist seriously that this is one thing they do NOT expect. About the only thing we have consensus on is that "walking on water" is REALLY special.

Look again at the story. Matthew places it just after the murder of John the Baptist and the feeding of the 5000, an uncomfortable time in Jesus' life as there were those who were ready to crown him king while others were equally ready to simply "crown" him. The political situation was becoming volatile. The Twelve were no special help because they too still thought of Jesus in terms of earthly power. This was a wonderful time for Jesus to break off from them for a bit and seek the solace of a mountaintop retreat. "Go fishing, guys. I'll join you later."

The night wore on into the hours before dawn. Jesus had spent the time in prayer while the disciples had spent their time trying to survive. One of those sudden squalls for which the Sea of Galilee is notorious had come up. The text says the boat was being "battered by the waves." They were rowing for all they were worth but with little effect - the wind was too hard against them. Then we read, "Early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea." Jesus had seen their struggle and now was coming to help. Caught the sailors off guard, of course - they had no more idea what to make of someone walking on water than we do. A ghost? Add to their dread of drowning the panic at the presence of a poltergeist. Then Jesus spoke: "Take heart, it is I; don't be afraid."

Now, up to this point, we have similar stories in the gospel accounts of both Mark and John.(2) Even though we have already noted how very special walking on water is, the church has no problem (or at least not MUCH problem) with Jesus doing it - we believe that Jesus is God in human flesh and something like suspending the law of gravity for a few minutes to accomplish a rescue mission is not beyond our plausibility threshold. In fact, the church from the beginning and through the centuries has rather liked the lesson gleaned from the story, the promise of Christ's presence even in the midst of life's stormiest seas. Medieval art often pictured the church as a wind-and-wave-battered boat, symbolic of the church's often turbulent trip through history. We even borrowed a nautical term for this space in which a congregation gathers for worship, a NAVE - navis in Latin means SHIP. The logo of the World Council of Churches is the drawing of a ship. The Lord is with us in the midst of the storms and we will not sink. TAKE HEART! Good lesson.

But Matthew does not leave it at that. He adds this incident about Peter. Peter sees Jesus, as do all the rest. A ghost? No. "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."

Now it is Peter's turn. And if the account had not identified him, we could have figured which one of the Twelve would have pulled this stunt. After all, Peter was always the impetuous one, the one to leap before he looked. True, he occasionally made a fool of himself, as he did on this occasion, but no one could ever doubt the depth of his commitment and love for Jesus. When it comes right down to it, Peter was a man of incredible faith. Of all those in the boat, he was the only one who had enough confidence in his Lord to think that, simply at Jesus' say-so, a man could walk on water. That is faith!

Peter yells across the waves, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus agrees. Peter steps over the side (no doubt to the horrified looks of his compatriots), waves crashing against the side of the boat, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes, and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. Suddenly, our big fisherman realizes what he is doing, looks around at the storm going on, and starts to sink like a stone. "A-H-H-H!!! Lord, save me!" And, as we all know, the Lord does while giving that mild admonition, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"

Wait a minute. We have already noted that Peter was a man of INCREDIBLE faith. How was he demonstrating "little faith?" I will tell you: Peter got out of the boat. Did you hear that? Peter got out of the boat. One more time. Peter got out of the boat.

Now, I know you have heard dozens of sermons and uncounted Sunday School lessons on this famous story. I have too. Yesterday I logged on to the Internet to a site called Sermoncentral.com which claims to have links to 22,000 messages and outlines (and I have no reason to doubt the number - they even have links to almost 200 of mine), all indexed according to scripture text. For this passage there are titles such as "How to Walk on Water," "Get Out Of The Boat," "Stepping Out, Taking The Risk," "Look Up!," one called "How NOT to Walk on Water," plus a number of others. Without having read through them all, I would venture to guess that many would take the tack of celebrating the supernatural power of Jesus in being able to walk on water, how foolish Peter was to take his eyes off Jesus, to waver in his faith, and then challenge us never to lose sight of the Lord if we hope to keep from sinking under the winds and waves of life.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus;
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.(3)


Is that what you need to hear this morning? Just keep focused, and everything will be all right? I wonder.

Mike Yaconelli, who used to edit the theological satire magazine called "The Wittenberg Door," wrote an insightful editorial a few years ago.(4) Listen:

One of the most interesting things about kid's sporting events is the parents' reaction to their children. Recently, I attended my daughter's track meet. On the fourth and final lap of the boys' mile run everyone was clumped together except for the two front-runners who were leading the pack by a few yards. As the runners came toward the finish line, the crowd began to cheer wildly. Just then I happened to look about three quarters of a lap back, and there, hopelessly last, was a short portly kid who never should have WALKED a mile, let alone run one. His entire body was wobbling towards the finish line and his bright red face was twisted in the kind of pain that made me wonder if death was near. Suddenly, I was brushed by a frantic parent who was leaping down the bleachers to the rail surrounding the track. It was obviously the boy's mother. She yelled at the top of her lungs. 'JOHNNY, RUN FASTER!'

I will never forget the look of hopelessness on Johnny's face. He had to be thinking, "Run faster? Run faster? What am I? An idiot? What do you think is the problem here - I just FORGOT to run faster??? I'm running as fast as I can!"

Have you ever felt like Johnny? Here you are at worship on Sunday, weary from a week of contending with the storms of life, and what does the sermon say? RUN FASTER! Or KEEP FOCUSED!

No. Not today. That is not the message I want you to hear from this text, and I do not believe it is the message that Matthew wanted you to hear. As we have noted in other settings, Matthew's gospel was put together some fifty years after Christ's earthly ministry. It was a difficult time in the life of the new church. There was persecution from both political and religious establishments. Some apparently were feeling abandoned. Now, they hear a story of the faithful few in a little boat and a wild ride on a stormy sea with Jesus nowhere in sight...off somewhere, on a mountain. Suddenly, the Lord IS there saying, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid." Only Peter has a problem with that - he gets out of the boat, and that gets him in trouble.

The point is simply this: there is safety in this boat...the church. It gets dangerous when you leave. I wish I could assure you that you will never be tempted, but that is not the case. For some folks, the storms of life make their faith stronger; for others, the storms cause them to abandon ship - I have seen both. Matthew's message is STAY IN THE BOAT. After all, it is IN THE BOAT that we hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."

  • Stay in the boat when you learn that the plant is downsizing and the livelihood you counted on is now uncertain. In the boat you hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."
  • Stay in the boat when the marriage hits some terrible times and begins to come apart. In the boat you hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."
  • Stay in the boat when the children who once were a such blessing now seem like a neon-haired curse. In the boat you hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."
  • Stay in the boat when the doctor says the cancer you thought was gone is now back with a vengeance. In the boat you hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."
  • Stay in the boat when it seems as if life is tumbling in on you like a tidal wave. In the boat you hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."


What got Peter in trouble? He got out of the boat. STAY IN THE BOAT!

Our friend Will Willimon, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke, tells of a visit he made one afternoon to the office of a lawyer in his congregation. It was just a drop-in. Will says he did not know the man that well - his wife seemed to bear the church interest for the family. Listen to the story in Will's own words:

"It was at the end of the day. I entered the outer office of his law firm. Everyone had left. All was dark, except for a light coming from the inner office. He called to me. Invited me to come back to his office.

"'Didn't expect to see you here, preacher,' he said in a voice that sounded tired. 'Come on in, I was just about to fix myself a drink. Can I interest you in one?'

"'Sure,' I said, 'if it's caffeine free, diet.'

"He poured out the drinks, offered me a seat, reared himself back in his chair, feet on the disordered desk before him.

"'What sort of day have you had?' I asked.

"'A typical day,' he said, again sounding tired. 'Misery.'

"'Oh, I'm sorry. What was miserable about it?' I asked.

"'My day began with my assisting a couple evict their aging father from his house so they could take everything he has while he's in the nursing home. All legal. Not particularly moral, but legal. Then, by lunchtime I was helping a client evade his workers' insurance payments. It's legal! This afternoon, I have been enabling a woman to ruin her husband's life forever with the sweetest divorce you ever saw. That's my day.'

"What could I say?

"'Which,' he continued, 'helps explain why I'm in your church on a Sunday morning.'

"'I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed,' I said, 'thinking what on earth I have to say in a sermon which might be helpful to you on a Sunday.'

"'It's not the sermon that I come for, preacher,' he said, fixing his gaze upon me. 'It's the music. I go a whole week sometimes with nothing beautiful, little good, until Sunday. Sometimes, when that choir sings, it is for me the difference between life and death.'"(5)

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.(6)

Why are YOU here? You do not have to answer. The fact that you ARE here is enough. You NEED this ship. We all do. Stay in the boat. Because it is here we hear, "Take heart. It is I; don't be afraid."

Amen!


1. "King Herod's Song" from Jesus Christ Superstar, lyrics by Tim Rice ; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

2. Mark 6:45-52, John 6:15-21

3. Helen H. Lemmel

4. Posted to Ecunet by Howard Chapman, "Sermonshop 1996 08 11," #24, 8/7/96

5. Will Willimon, "The Gothic Spirit," http://www.chapel.duke.edu/sermons/090896.htm

6. Psalm 139:7-10

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