Reaching out and catching us

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on June 14, 2020

•Matthew 14:22-33•

I thought we could start with a question today. How many of us have opened our mouths and spoken, before fully considering what was actually coming out? Raise your hand if you have ever done this. It’s OK, chances are those who are around you right now already know your answer. And my bet is that everyone, no matter where they are listening from has their hand up. It is something we have all done and this morning we see Peter’s experience front and center.

You have Jesus walking on the water toward the disciples. We are told they are terrified, and rightfully so, there is a man walking on water in front of them. The disciples figure it is a ghost and they are crying out in fear. But then Jesus calls to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered this statement with: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I really don’t get this line of thinking. I don’t get the impulse. I don’t understand how this idea jumps into his head. I imagine the rest of the disciples saying what Magreta says every time I speak, “What you say?”

For real, what made Peter think he could walk upon the water too? The truth is he didn’t think. He just spoke and he is left with this conundrum — If it is Jesus, Peter now has to attempt to walk on water. And if it isn’t Jesus, if it is someone else… then what Peter — you just drown? This is why it seems like a clear example of speaking before thinking.

But it is Jesus and he says to come and Peter does. Peter steps out of the boat and inexplicably begins walking on the water. Of course at some point for all of us our mind catches up with our mouths and we hear what we said and Peter is no different.

When it happens, Peter immediately becomes distracted. He loses concentration. His trust is shaken. His faith wavers and he begins to sink down, down, down.

So what do we do with this story? Is the point that we shouldn’t do what Peter did. Don’t get distracted. Don’t notice things around us. Just keep our eyes on Jesus. Don’t be like Peter — focus on the Lord. That the more we are challenged — the more we step out — the more our circumstances are in flux — the more important it is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Is that what we are supposed to take from this story? If so, good luck with that…

I have heard plenty of people take this story that way. But here is the deal, my problem isn’t that I don’t know I should trust Jesus. That’s been drilled into me since I was a little boy. I know that is what I should do.

The thing is no matter how hard I try, I can’t do it all the time. I still get distracted. I get worried and even overwhelmed by the strong wind and waves that crash around me. And it is especially true right now. COVID-19, systemic racism, economic challenges, political turmoil, physical distancing, loved ones facing medical issues, and the list goes on — I have no shortage of things grabbing my attention, and while I know I should just trust Jesus, it isn’t that simple.

I know the platitude “let go and let God” works for some, but I have never felt freedom in it. Rather framing this story in this way, simply feels like good advice, rather than the promise that frees. And while the guidance is good: we should keep our eyes on Jesus — it is just that: guidance. And guidance, like the law, like a set of shoulds, is not the gospel. The good advice is never going to free us.

And so I fear we have started in the wrong place. And so what if we go back and instead of starting and emphasizing Peter’s response, we actually looked at Jesus. It’s not a joke. It’s not a play. What if we looked at what Jesus actually does when Peter takes his eyes off him and begins to sink, down, down, down. What we would see is that “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”

This past week I was playing with my two-year old nephew. I was holding him and we are playing around when he told me he wanted to be put down. So I asked him if I could drop him and he said yes. So I dropped him and caught him before he hit the ground. He laughed and asked me to do it again. And so we did a few more times, and then my three year-old asked me to do the same thing to her. Because there is a thrill in the fall, but it is pale in comparison to the amazing feeling of being caught. The feeling of being caught and held is simply one of the best feelings in the world.

And I have to imagine that is what it felt like for Peter. Now there was probably little thrill in his sinking. That I imagine is more fear-filled, but being caught, I imagine that was something else entirely. And here is the thing, when Peter was caught, he no longer needed the advice of being told where to look. Because when you are caught where else do your eyes go, but on the one who is holding you.

And therein is the power of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t tell us to do something, rather it makes the something possible. It creates the experience. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”

In the end, Jesus isn’t simply our guide. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual. God isn’t providing good advice. Should Peter have kept his eyes on Jesus? Sure. Peter should have trusted the one who called him out of the boat. Peter should have kept walking. Peter should not have been distracted by all the circumstances around him… and the truth is so should we.

But we won’t. It is not a question of if, but when. We will falter, we will fail, we will sink down, down, down — and so isn’t it freeing to know that Jesus will immediately reach out his hand and catch us. That Jesus will lift us up. Jesus will support us. Jesus will set us up for another try.

That is the promise and thank God for it. Because the wind is only gathering power around us. The waves are only growing in strength. And we are being called out of the boat to care for our neighbor. To stand up for and with the marginalized and underrepresented. To work toward the inclusion and equality of all. Work we are only able to do, because Jesus has promised to reach out his hand and catch us when we fail.

For such is the work of one who has come to save. One who has come to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. For the Lord who walks atop of the sea — not only directs the wind and the waves, but life and death itself. And Jesus wants more than to hold our attention — Jesus wants to save God’s entire creation through us — and that is exactly what Jesus promises to do.

So come all you people. Come and praise the most high. Amen.     

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