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August 9, 2011

“Grits” Matthew 14:22-33 Ordinary 19A © 8/7/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey as Bruce and Morgan Freeman as God are talking as they stand on water in the middle of a lake. When their conversation is finished, God walks away, while Bruce, now endowed with divine abilities, sloshes toward the shore, but still without sinking.

The film assumes we know the gospel story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a divine thing to do or at least something we might expect from a superhero or a person in command of incredible technology. Even my first college roommate Charles, who was not a believer by any stretch of the imagination, knew the claim about Jesus. He denied it, though, thinking that the text must have been corrupted. Instead of Jesus walking on the sea, it really said he walked by the sea.

I would guess that those who know the story of Jesus walking on water also know that Peter got out of the boat and hydro-ambulated for a little while himself. His experience has become a favorite metaphor in classic evangelical Christianity. The chaotic sea becomes sin that threatens to suck us down to death. The wind and the waves are the troubles of life that distract us from gazing steadily at Jesus. Our Lord reaches out his hand to rescue us from the dark waves, in our fear and distress, and all is suddenly well. Peter becomes an example of the believer in his willingness to risk having nothing solid under his feet if it means he can be with Jesus and attempt great things in his name. There’s even a Christian self-help book title: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg, 2001). For the author, water-walking is “a picture of doing with God’s help what I could never do on my own.” Get out there, do mission, focus on Jesus, and he will take care of you!

There’s just one problem: Jesus doesn’t commend Peter.

Yes, our Lord bids the disciple come to him on the waves. And he rescues him when he begins to sink. But remember why Peter wanted to get out of the boat in the first place.

He didn’t believe he was seeing Jesus walking on water.

I’m not saying Peter isn’t an example of faith. He is. The apostle went against all his natural instincts and his experience as a fisherman and sailor when he stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm without any means of flotation. He believed that if Jesus called him to come, then that same Jesus would sustain him no matter what.

So it’s true that God invites us sometimes to get out of our comfort zones and do something that to others may seem even a little crazy. We step out into the waves without a life preserver and change careers because this one is not fulfilling. We undertake some project that looks impossible, and we have no idea where the resources will come from. We attempt to do something we never imagined doing. We make a commitment, while our friends and family think we should simply be committed. All because we believe this is what God wants us to do. With such assurance, we climb over the gunwale and put our feet on the fluid surface of the future, not knowing whether we will sink or saunter.

But Peter’s call and experience are extraordinary, not the everyday model of faithful living. We wish it were otherwise. I suspect we’re thrilled and inspired by Peter’s heroic and gutsy take-charge attitude, his readiness for adventure, and his focused devotion. And this little vignette tracks well with the I-come-to-the-garden-alone, victory-in-Jesus individualistic spirituality that dominates American Christianity these days. It’s what retired seminary professor Kathleen O’Connor calls a “Jesus-and-me duo” (Vantage, Summer 2011: 9). We like to think we’re saved by ourselves, for ourselves, and it’s just Jesus and us on a happy journey to heaven, rescued from the cares of the world and from Hell later as we stare lovingly into his eyes. “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.”

But again the problem. Jesus wasn’t going to let Peter drown, but when he was plucked from the waves, he got a talking to. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (The Greek is singular, addressed only to him.) In other words, why did you get out of the boat in the first place? Why did you create this situation? Why did you leave the others to row while you went adventuring?

It’s not Peter who is an example of everyday faith, but the disciples who stayed in the boat. They are all afraid, but they find comfort and courage in the word of Jesus. They keep on with their hard task of keeping the boat afloat knowing that their Lord is near. Indeed, Jesus speaks to them two key phrases that still sustain his followers in any day.

One is “It is I.” In the Greek of the text, that is literally “I am.” You may recall that “I am” is the name of God from the Old Testament. In two little words, Jesus claims for himself power over wind and wave and worry. He reassures them as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. He is no ghost, but he is a mystery in flesh.

The other is “do not be afraid.” That is the key message of the gospel. It’s the gift and the command of Jesus to us all. “Do not be afraid” spoken immediately on their expression of fear. “Do not be afraid” as he assures them of his real presence. “Do not be afraid” as circumstances threaten to overwhelm them. “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

I’ve said it before: any message claiming to be a gospel word that is based on fear is not from God. Our Lord is the one who gives assurance and calm and blessing. He brings people together in a community of trust and care. He brings the peace of God, so that the raging tempest ceases, and God is given glory.

No doubt the church needs bold leaders who take risks and get out of the boat. But mainly our Lord works through faithful people who keep on rowing and bailing and conquering their fear to do what needs to be done. He values those who take him at his word and know that he is indeed here and coming. It is not those kinds of people he chides for little faith and for their doubt, but the ones like Peter who insist on following him all by themselves, going it alone on their own private pilgrimages, leaving others behind.

There’s an old story about a guy from the north who came down here for a business meeting. This was back in the day before hotels offered free breakfasts, so he went to the local diner nearby. When his eggs, toast, and sausage came, there was a dollop of buttered white stuff on his plate as well. “What’s this?” he asked the server. “Grits,” she said.” “What’s a grit?” said the man. “Honey,” the waitress replied, telling him what we all know, “grits don’t come by themselves” (see Martin Thielen, “Marketing Plan,” ).

The church is a pot of grits. We don’t come by ourselves. We belong in community, we serve in community, we are saved in and for community.

Peter was a hero, and sometimes we need people to step out boldly as he did. But mostly we need folks who stay in the boat, wait for Jesus, and trust him to still the storm.


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